I'd had enough presence of mind to draw a last breath before slamming into the water, but that vital lungful of air was nearly punched out of me by the force of hitting the water.
I was deaf with the pressure of the water on my ears, blind with the dark water, numb from the cold, all sense of smell and taste eradicated as I held my breath and locked my teeth and lips together against the encompassing water that wanted to kill me. All I could feel was fear; and the prison of the Lord of Inversion's grasp.
Mindlessly, I kicked; trying to attain the surface that was rapidly receding from me. The grip of granite around my waist and chest stopped me; Cimul trapped me against his stone body, one rough forearm pressed against my sternum as his talon-tipped hand tightened around my throat. Drowning me wasn't enough. He wanted to crush the life out of me himself.
My thrashing legs smacked against his; bone cracking against stone.
Gasps of air rushed through my clenched teeth as I fought not to scream in pain; only partially succeeding. My hands scrabbled uselessly at his wrist; I forced them to stop and tried to claw us both towards air; my backpack weighing down my thrashing right arm. I didn't even slow our descent.
The agony in my chest built inexorably; a carpet of searing needles coating the insides of my starved lungs. My body's every instinct screamed at me to just breathe as grey dots started to bloom at the edges of my vision, followed by an inescapable wave of darkness that narrowed my vision to a dim, blurred circle.
'Epsilon, help me!' I thought what I couldn't scream as my body bucked against its lack of air. I could feel pinpricks of pain on my throat where Cimul's talons punctured my skin. The pain was drowned out by the suffocating pressure in my chest.
'Epsilon, Agapetos... help.'
Far above, the refracting light of the moon on the water shattered; ripples fleeing outwards as a storm of bubbles surrounded the diving figure.
The moonlight followed it down; lighting the figure's silhouette from within. Epsilon.
Desperation overrode my survival instinct, drove my locked jaws apart; water rushed to fill my lungs.
I writhed in unimaginable agony, and felt the iron grip around me ease as Cimul freed himself from my deadweight in order to counter Epsilon.
As I submerged beneath the black waves around my vision, wanting only relief from the acid burning my lungs, I saw a strong, flesh-and-blood hand reaching for me, its fading shape shot through with silver.
Death stopped the pain.
My throat felt full.
No, my throat was full.
I choked, my unseeing eyes rolling open as I shook with the effort of trying to clear my throat of a lungful of water and vomit, even though I couldn't feel my body to roll over and let gravity help me.
Then the shadows in my eyes moved, and I'd been pulled onto my side, my head flopping brokenly and letting the obstruction in my throat spill out onto the grassy shore; enough strength to support myself rushing back into my body as I gulped air in between retches.
There was an arm wrapped securely around my middle, holding me steady, its opposing hand scraping my hair away from my face. Dimly, I could hear someone murmuring reassuring encouragements.
Shaking, with my heaves slowly abating to pitiful groans and exhausted gasps, I turned my head groggily to the side to see who had pulled me from the lake.
The man was utterly drenched, as you might expect. Young, I guess. Unremarkable, apart from the fact that he'd dove into the lake to save a drowning girl from a vicious stone monster and apparently knew CPR. Something marrow-deep in me knew that I had been dead. When I'd blacked out in the lake, I had been maybe thirty feet from the surface. It would have taken time for this guy to get down to that depth, then swim back up with me in tow. I'd have stopped breathing, I knew.
Remembering the lake, I realised that there was no sign of Epsilon or, thank God, Cimul.
My searching eyes skipped back to the young man, who was peering at me in concern. Behind me, I could hear voices calling. I couldn't focus on them properly, but his eyes flickered to them briefly before going back to me.
"Are you alright? You had me a bit scared there for a minute," he gave a nervous little laugh, which made me think that 'a bit scared' was 'a bit' of an understatement.
I nodded, rasping in my scoured throat.
"Was there anyone else there with me?"
The young man shook his head, and I nodded. I doubted Epsilon could drown anyway. I just hoped Cimul hadn't gotten to him.
"Should there have been?" The man didn't seem too concerned that someone else may have drowned, more like he was whimsically curious than anything else. I looked at him closely, but then the voices approaching cut into my foggy mind and registered as familiar.
I turned just as my Mum skidded to a stop next to me on her knees, grabbing me in a terrified, relieved hug.
"Oh, Jess! We saw you fall from the path! Are you alright?" She drew back, her hands fluttering over my face as through checking for injuries before she hugged me tightly again. Another layer of warmth and comfort enveloped me, as Dad hugged us both. I realised I was trembling with cold and, probably, shock. I could hear Avril just next to them, her warm hands holding one of mine tightly as she babbled in concern. I sent her a quick, reassuring smile through chattering teeth and squeezed her hand back with numb fingers, before shifting my gaze.
From the entanglement of my parents' arms, I looked at the young man. He just gave me a small smile and, for an instant, his pale blue eyes glimmered with silver, refracting from many facets. I smiled in relief and honest joy. Epsilon was alright.
Glancing around, I realised we were on the far bank of Lume Lake; to the right of the Crags. They must have seen me fall from the path leading up to the lake; that was why they had only reached us now.
Felt a wet, unusually warm nose nudging its owner into our group hug as Domino wriggled in for some attention and to lick my face. We all laughed and I hugged my dog, glad of his thick, warm fur and his tolerance of my choke hold.
I heard the sound of brisk footsteps approaching and looked up from my dog's fur as Mrs. Shilling caught up to us. She observed the little scene, her eyes lingering on Epsilon's deceptively normal disguise, then gave one of her disdainful sniffs.
"You could have gotten to the girl before she fell into the lake," she scolded. I gaped at her, trying to stutter apologies to Epsilon and explanations to Mrs. Shilling, but Epsilon just gave another of those shaky laughs and nodded his agreement.
"I saw her up on the Crags, but I didn't expect her to fall in. I would have ran faster if I had." He sounded perfectly apologetic, even as Mum and Dad exclaimed in agreement with him and generally tried to negate what Mrs. Shilling said, but I narrowed my eyes at Epsilon. Somehow, I got the impression that I was being reprimanded, even though his tone had been free of accusation. He just looked at me with that small smile and all-knowing expression of his and didn't comment.
Dad and Avril were asking me questions, wondering what the hell I'd been doing up there so late at night, didn't I know how risky that was, and perhaps I wasn't too old to be grounded after all. That last was my Dad, obviously. Mum just stared at me as though afraid I'd turn to mist and disappear again. My breathing hot water bottle had wormed his way free of me and proceeded to flop into Epsilon's lap quite happily, his tail beating in delight when Epsilon idly scratched behind my huge hound's ears.
With a fond smile, I cut off the interrogation with my own question.
"How did you all know I was here in the first place?"
Avril leapt in to explain.
"I woke up about an hour ago for the loo and realised you weren't in bed, but you weren't in the main bathroom when I went, and were still gone when I got back to the room. I was gonna go look around the house for you when Mrs. Shilling showed up outside the room asking why I was making such a racket at half three in the morning." Here Avril shot my great-aunt a glare that the old woman returned with such expertise that Avril swiftly glanced away and continued her story, silently chastised.
"Anyway, I said you weren't in bed so we both looked for you in the house. By that point your parents had woken up, so we put the lights on and started calling for you, in case we'd missed you." I dimly remembered seeing the lights on in the Big House's windows as Epsilon and I had ran past. I nodded to show I was listening.
"So once we'd finished looking around the house again, we got dressed and went outside. We were on the path towards the lake when your mum saw something or..." Avril trailed off, bemused. Mum took over the tale, seeming a tad mystified herself.
"I'm not sure what it was, but I just felt... something, like I needed to look towards the Crags. I saw a glimmer of light – like the moon reflecting off a mirror. I called your Dad and we started towards it, then we saw you fall." Mum looked pale at the memory, but that could have just been the night draining the colour out of our faces.
Silver. That feeling on my forehead before Cimul lunged for me. Agapetos, giving my family a nudge towards me?
"As we started running, we saw this young man dive in after you." Dad broke me out of my thoughts with a nod to Epsilon, who nodded back and scratched the back of his head, as though uncomfortable with the attention. Give the guy an Oscar, somebody.
"We lost sight of you as we ran around the lake, but he obviously saved you." Dad turned to Epsilon, looking utterly serious. "Thank you. Without your help, my little Jess might have died today." As I groaned in embarrassment – really, what sixteen-year-old wanted to be called little by their parents, no matter who they were talking to? – Epsilon just shook his head and waved a dismissive hand.
"It was nothing, sir. Anyone else would have done the same. I'm just glad she's alright." He shrugged uncomfortably, but with his old, fond smile on his face. Dad didn't seem to notice the familiarity, instead shaking Epsilon's hand (weird, I know. I can't wrap my head around the fact that Dad was quite cheerfully shaking the hand of someone from another dimension or whatever) and starting to cluck over me like his beloved hens, muttering about getting me home.
Unobtrusively, Epsilon nudged Domino off his legs and rose, as though to leave.
"Wait! Uh, sir, wait!" That was Dad, looking flustered as though realising he'd been unintentionally rude. I looked at him, confused, as Epsilon turned; a look of polite enquiry on his face.
"Who are you?" Dad asked as he and mum helped me to stand. Avril paused in offering me a half-joking piggyback in order to eavesdrop. She was the opposite of subtle, I tell you.
Even I quietened, wondering what he'd say. Probably not 'I'm-Epsilon-who-lives-in-the-cottage-on-your-land-that-you-don't-even-know-about-and-who-helps-your-daughter-when-Dark-Beings-are-after-her', but he'd surprised me before.
However, Epsilon just gave one of his enigmatic looks.
"A friend," he said, then turned and faded into the shadows of very early morning. Dad stared after him in bemusement, then started muttering about how the man must have been cold after pulling me out of the lake. Mum looked at me with a delicately raised eyebrow, at which I rolled my eyes and nodded. She understood, as did Mrs. Shilling, from her smug, cat-got-the-canary smile.
Dad had tugged his jacket off and settled it around my shoulders, zipping it up to my chin. Despite the warm summer air, I was still freezing and the thin but warm jacket was welcome.
I fell asleep on our way back to the Big House after vetoing a visit from Doctor Parker. Avril had carried out her threat of a piggyback, with Mum and Dad walking either side of her to make sure I didn't fall off, Dad holding my sodden backpack which Epsilon had dumped next to me after hauling me out of the lake. Domino bounded ahead, happy to have everyone together no doubt. Mrs. Shilling took the lead, ignoring Domino when he veered sharply away from her when he accidentally ran upwind of her.
Amongst much fuss on Mum's part and complaining on mine, I was bundled into a warm bath despite the late – or early – hour, then parcelled into my pyjamas and folded into bed beside Avril. She had strict orders not to let me out of bed unless I needed the bathroom until noon at least. It was mutually agreed that questions and explanations would wait until tomorrow – later today, I mean.
I did better than sleep til noon. I slept non-stop for thirteen hours, waking up wonderfully refreshed, if a bit sore and cotton-mouthed at something past six in the evening.
I blinked slowly, luxuriating in just being able to rest, then rolled over to monopolize my huge (by now empty) bed...
And saw Epsilon standing at the foot of it, looking heartily amused.
I think I screamed. Or tried to – all my raw throat produced was a pathetic squeak that definitely didn't travel out of my room and down the stairs to the ears of my family and friend.
Half-sat up, one hand over my heart, I glared weakly at the grinning Being.
"You little-" I was all set to cuss him a blue streak when he laughed, and the simple joy in the sound cut me short. I tried to hold onto my grumpiness, but it quickly evaporated. After a very short battle, I let it and smiled at him instead.
"Please try and give me some warning next time?" I asked plaintively, "I'm going to go prematurely gray otherwise. That'll be another thing Avril can tease me about." God knows, her list was long enough already.
With apparent effort, Epsilon's laughter subsided and he gave me a small bow of acknowledgement.
"I will try, but I cannot promise anything," he said wryly. I narrowed my eyes at him jokingly.
"And why not?" I asked pompously, crossing my arms and lifting my chin.
"Startling you is too amusing an opportunity to forgo, of course." Damn him and his innocent look. It didn't stop me from throwing my pillow at him.
It toppled straight through him in a shimmer of silver.
"Cheat!" I complained. He just laughed again, thoroughly enjoying his advantage.
Bloody Bright Beings. (Hey, alliteration! I'm not hopeless at English after all!)
"So, why are you giving me a heart attack first thing in the morn-er...the second I've woken up?" I corrected myself mid-sentence, noticing the glaring sunshine coming in through my window, and the low sun providing it.
Epsilon's smile was gentler than his teasing grin. It was a look of relief, and pride.
"Cimul is gone, Jess," He said softly, as though he didn't want to shock me. I think my mouth fell open regardless.
"For good?" I finally stammered, hardly daring to believe it. I'd believed it two summers ago. Not now. I needed confirmation.
Epsilon paused, as though thinking over his answer.
"For now," he finally said, then quickly explained when he saw my doubtful, concerned face. "He is trapped in the Lake; unable to move. Unable to leave. He may break free eventually – when the lake bed has built up enough to engulf him. Then he will be able to move the way he did when you were in the cavern; through the earth and rock. But as you saw, his progress as such is extremely slow. It will be centuries, maybe even millennia before he can reach the surface again. You're safe," he said soothingly, and slowly, I felt a grin spread across my face. Safe from Cimul. Safe for life. That sounded unbelievably good.
With a laugh and a sigh, I relaxed back against the headboard of my bed, my eyes closed peacefully for a moment. When I opened them, I saw the old, warm smile on Epsilon's face. He seemed more content than I'd ever seen him.
"Does this mean I can relax and get to sleep in now? And stop throwing up when I'm not ill?" I asked hopefully. He chuckled.
"Don't get complacent, Jess. We still have work to do," he chided, making me sit up straighter and look quizzically at him. More work?
He evidently read the question on my face.
"The way Cimul could have been revived needs to be destroyed, so that even if he does free himself, far into the future, he can never regain his living body." He explained, and with a start I remembered that we had quite a clean-up job on our hands. There was the empty body on the Ouroborus Stone, for starters. That needed to be moved or something. Thrown into the sea, perhaps. We couldn't bury it – that would only put Cimul closer to reviving himself, not further away.
The notes – like 'At lyrics start and lyrics end' I'd leave in the box file, with the rest of my notes and diaries.
The message in the underground well system could stay – that had been left for me, as a trap. It wouldn't even make sense to anyone else, let alone affect them.
The song in the book...again, that had been written centuries ago. To anyone else, it was just a song. I'd take it from the library anyway, just in case, and hide it in the cottage-
"Oh!" Epsilon looked up at my exclamation, curious. "What about your cottage? It was wrecked after that fight, and..." With a prickle of remembered anger, I recalled the scarred walls. "Is it okay, I guess is what I mean." I mumbled, feeling slightly self-conscious about asking if a house was 'okay', but that cottage really was like a person. Alive. Protective when it liked you; almost threatening when it didn't.
Epsilon smiled as though he understood and glanced out of the window, towards his home.
"Come by when your friend has left. I'm sure we can patch it up," he said.
I raised a doubtful eyebrow. The cottage would require more than 'patching up' after being torn apart the way it had. Epsilon just grinned.
"Trust me, ye of little faith," he teased. I mock-frowned and raised my other pillow threateningly, ineffective as it was. He just laughed and held his hands up for peace, then turned his head towards the door as though he'd heard something.
"Don't forget the picture," he added absently as the sound of footsteps clattering up the stairs reached me.
"What picture?" I asked, but he was fading out of sight, his laughing eyes the last to go.
"The picture," his voice whispered, before the silver facets blinked and vanished.
Growling, I threw the pillow at the place he'd just occupied right as Avril walked in.
She looked at me oddly, as though evaluating just how much I took after my Grandma Libby.
Damn that Epsilon.
I'm writing this after having a much-needed full English breakfast. Avril's on my laptop (which has migrated back to my room), talking to Baz on our chat room. I've got permission from Epsilon (and orders from Mum) to just relax for the rest of the summer. I will, for the rest of Avril's visit. After that, I'm off to Epsilon's cottage to begin the restoration job.
Huh. It's odd to think that I found that place whilst escaping restoring a house. Now I'm going back, and looking forward to fixing the old thing. How I've changed.
I feel... good, I guess. At a bit of a loss, now that there's no deadly threat around – not that I want one hanging over me! But now that I've got nothing definitive to do, I'm a bit... lost. Kinda like when you've had exams – you spend so much time before them revising, however reluctantly, then you find yourself utterly and completely free in the summer... you kinda feel like there's something you should be doing, even when there isn't. I'll get used to it, anyway.
Hang on, Dad's knocking at the door.
Oh, God. I'd forgotten about that.
He's said we're going to meet him, Mum and Mrs. Shilling downstairs in five minutes. Interrogation time for yesterday.
On reflection, this would be the perfect time for Cimul to pop up again...