Perhaps it's a good thing that there are no guys my age here on Lume, and that my chances of getting married before I'm forty are practically non-existent.
No, I'm not suddenly swearing off guys. But I wouldn't half feel sorry for one being introduced to my family and walking into the scene that awaited me when I made my way downstairs.
The three of them (plus Domino lying under the table) were waiting in the kitchen, looking tired and worried. Well, my parents did. Mrs. Shilling was bustling about, cleaning the kitchen counters and sniffing in disapproval at Domino whenever he gazed up at her, hopefully, his tail thudding on the floor in anticipation of a treat.
Mum and Dad looked up when I appeared in the doorway, summoning up smiles and blatantly trying to hide the fact that they'd just been moping into their cups of tea as they thought about how best to interrogate me. Domino turned his canine grin on me and squirmed out from underneath the breakfast table where he'd wedged himself, trotting over and licking my hands, his tail beating a dent in the doorframe. To buy myself some time, I knelt down and gave his ears a good scratch as Avril passed me to sit down.
I kept my head down, babying my dog whilst my brain whirled until Dad called my attention back to the matter at hand – namely, how I'd nearly drowned.
I hadn't told them that I had drowned – I saw no point in worrying them further. As far as anyone other than me and Epsilon knew, I'd fallen into the lake and been pulled out, exhausted and shaken, but alive.
With a heavy, reluctant sigh I sat down as Mum stood up, pouring me a glass of orange juice. Once we were all seated again (sans Mrs. Shilling, still cleaning, and Domino, who lay next to the back door and watched us), Dad reached across the table and covered my hand with his, clearly concerned.
"What happened, kitten? What were you doing out there in the first place?" With an uncomfortable shift in my chair, I looked down at the table, pretending to gather my thoughts. I really hated lying to Dad about this part of my life, as did Mum, but it was necessary. I'd decided that omitting as much knowledge as possible was the best course of action.
"I... I don't really know," I muttered, injecting the right amount of hesitancy into my voice. Dad, however, took it as me being difficult.
"Jess..." he warned, clearly not in the mood to put up with any hedging I might throw at him. I shook my head at him quickly, to show he had the wrong idea.
"I don't mean it like that, Dad. I mean I don't know – I don't remember. As far as I'm aware, I went to sleep, and woke up on the lake shore, throwing my guts up along with half of Lume Lake." I raised my free hand in a helpless gesture, letting it fall limply back into my lap. Dad was looking at me in bewilderment, then at Mum. Avril just stared.
"You're trying to tell me you were sleepwalking? You got dressed, walked half way across the island, and then off a cliff – all while you were asleep?" she asked, not afraid to be blunt when my parents were clearly trying to find a polite way of being disbelieving.
Well, there was no changing my story now. I just looked at her, shrugged miserably, and nodded.
"I guess so. That's the only explanation I've got, anyway." Since being frustrated used to be one of my constant states of existence, it was easy to fake now. Then, as if struck by a sudden revelation, I lifted my head and spoke to my parents, locking eyes with Mum to make sure she understood.
"Maybe it's like when you went through that funny stage after moving here – you sleepwalked all the way up to the tower one night! It could have been something like that, do you think?" By sounding eager to solve what had happened to me, I convinced them all that little bit more that I was telling the truth. Thank you, Mother, for being an expert liar and passing that on to me.
My parents were looking at each other, both worried and relieved to have a possible answer. Avril was glancing at me worriedly – I'd told her about Mum's late-night excursion when it happened. Combined with the result of my own 'sleepwalking', it was potentially scary news. There was also a scrap of doubt there, though. I raised an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged, then responded when I kept looking at her.
"It just seems like you'd wake up before you walked off a cliff, that's all," she muttered. For a slip-second I panicked, then memory struck.
"D'you remember that news story, a few years back? A woman was on holiday and sleepwalked off her apartment balcony because her mind was following the layout of her own home, not the flat she was in. I think I remember having some sort of dream before I woke up in the lake, but... I can't remember anything about it. Just a sensation of falling, then waking up as I hit the water." I must have sounded suitably disturbed, because Dad gripped my hand again and Avril gave me a one-armed hug as Mum patted my arm.
This time, though, the emotion was genuine. The fall had been terrifying, and the knowledge that I was going to drown had driven almost all reason from me. Breathing in water instead of air had been agonizing. Anyone would be disturbed to recall that; to add Cimul – who frightened me even when he was standing still – to that, it was a wonder my heart hadn't given out earlier from sheer terror.
I gradually realised that my parents were talking, and listened without lifting my eyes from the table.
Dad thought they should call Doctor Parker, but Mum countered that – what could he do for sleepwalking, other than give medication that may or may not work?
"Besides," she said in a low murmur, as though wary of upsetting me, "look at how distressed she was the last time he was here! No, I think we can let Domino sleep upstairs for tonight-" Domino woofed and drummed his tail happily at this, "-and he'll wake up if she moves. We can lock the front door and put up some sort of barricade on the back – you need to fix that this weekend, Richard! – so that if she sleepwalks again, she can't get out of the house, at least. If it happens again, we'll start considering other options," she said firmly. Dad nodded after a minute, agreeing with the compromise. I just sat and hid a relieved sigh in my drink, blinking as though I'd just come out of a reverie.
The rest of the day was refreshingly normal. We had a late dinner, I had a shower (I couldn't have stomached a bath so soon after last night), and spent most of what was left of the day in clean pyjamas, watching tacky soap operas on the sofa with Avril, the pair of us berating the plot, characters, and anything else that came to mind until Mum chased us upstairs so she could watch her show in peace. We were going to stay up late, but even after my sleep-a-thon, I was tired by half past midnight and we called it a night, put the laptop away and talked about normal things until we fell asleep. Avril was sensitive enough not to bring up last night, though Mum had snagged me as I came out of the shower and asked to talk to me when Avril had left. No doubt she wanted the full story when there were no best friends to listen in.
The rest of Avril's stay passed in a lazy, dream-like haze. I didn't sleepwalk again (obviously), so Domino was relegated back to the kitchen at night. I could relax; I didn't have to be frightened of what I would see in town when we went shopping for trinkets for Avril's family.
On one of the days we went in, Ely, Luke and Dr. Parker were all sat outside Jerry Cork's house. Dr. Parker's car was outside, so I guessed he was doing his rounds and was stopping to tend to Jerry's hands. The four men were quiet though; sombre. When Avril and I passed, they glanced up. Luke looked away immediately, followed by a morose Jerry. Dr. Parker nodded and attempted a cheery hello, but sounded strained and bleak instead before turning away again, his head down. Ely stared at me the longest, saying nothing, but when he finally lowered his pale eyes, there was a weariness in the action that said more than Dr. Parker's blustering ever could.
These men were broken, defeated, and I couldn't help but pity them.
When Avril finally left, and we'd waved until her ferry was out of sight, I called Domino and told Dad I was going for a walk. Dad nodded and headed to the beach for some photos. I went straight to the cottage.
I'd had no clue what Epsilon meant by 'the picture' – until I'd taken my laundry downstairs and saw my jeans in the wash basket, about to be put in the machine. I'd quickly rescued the O picture; the other half of the Ouroborus picture I'd thrown out of the cottage window when it turned into Cimul. I'd carefully folded the picture in my pocket when I headed out with Domino, enjoying the luxury of being able to walk to the cottage instead of run. I was a little bit nervous about what I'd see there, obviously – I trusted Epsilon, but I also remembered that the last two times I'd been in his cottage, I'd either been driven out by Cimul, or pulled into the dimension or plane or whatever that the Dark Beings inhabited. Neither were good memories.
But when I reached the clearing, I realised the windows were all fixed, even the ones that had originally been broken.
Something still seemed off, until I realised that these sheets of glass weren't the smooth planes I expected. The glass was warped; old, stained with age. The door was closed again, but Epsilon had been here since, so it didn't worry me like it had the last time.
I still edged into the cottage, and gawped around at the change I saw as Domino rushed into the room to explore.
Light still flooded in through the windows, showing the repaired floor. Close inspection showed hairline cracks where the tiles had been pieced together and sealed. The ammonites were still in place, peeking out from under the two rugs spread across the floor, its dusty old stitching repaired.
The bookcase was standing, the broken stalactite I'd grabbed as an impromptu knife placed along the top in its two halves.
The shelves along the wall that had been splintered and torn down had been replaced, the fractured piece of lava sitting on its usual shelf, though it no longer froze on the cusp of falling.
A lot of Epsilon's old knick-knacks were there, still broken but left as a reminder. A few were being replaced; mainly the little jars of incense, though one stood apart from the rest, its jar painstakingly pieced back together and held in shape by – of all things – sellotape, with the roll lying next to it as though recently used. It must have been the same reel I'd brought down a few months ago; the corners of the box file had become worn and started to split, but I didn't want to shift everything to a new box. Instead, I'd mummified the box in tape to hold the corners together.
Carefully picking up the little jar, I couldn't help my broad grin at its new yet worn label: SPICES OF THE ORIENT.
Gently setting it down, I glanced about the kitchen again, my eyes landing on the rocking chair in the corner. This, like the bookcase and shelves, actually looked new.
When I went over to investigate, I realised that it was still being made; there was a pattern being carved along the top of its back, only half finished, and the floor around it was cushioned with wood shavings. It looked like Epsilon had made them himself. A second look at the dark wood of the bookcase confirmed it – the same lazy pattern of wild climbing roses intertwined with vines was carved along the sides, mimicking the explosion of flowers that coated the cottage walls in summer.
Turning away, I faced one of the benches that usually held miscellaneous trinkets, but now was clear except for a heavy piece of wood, already partially shaped. Though it hadn't yet been hollowed through, the outline of the wooden 'O' was unmistakable.
By this point I was half beaming, half suppressing a euphoric laugh. Only this place could make me feel so giddy at seeing it repaired, but I pushed the urge to laugh aside in favour of rushing up the (now debris-free and fixed) stairs.
The pigeon's room (as I'd come to think of it) was the same as ever, but I only spared it a glance as I headed into the main bedroom.
Immediately, my eyes went to the walls.
No scars. No symbols. No Cimul.
Just plain, blank walls, with the occasional picture. The star charts had been redone, the hammock mended (though I could see the knots where Epsilon had patched the slashes) the desk's wood smooth and unmarked, cluttered with its usual slew of papers and dried quills. Resting on it was a picture frame, square, but empty. Or... not empty, but with a picture in the reverse, so all I could see was the blank back of the parchment.
I pulled the round picture out of my pocket, unfolding it carefully, but I hesitated to put it back in the frame. I didn't want to touch that thing after the face I'd seen in it.
"It's no longer there, Jess."
I turned at Epsilon's voice, smiled when I saw him standing in front of the mirror – the way he'd done before I first opened the silver boxes, scaring me half to death in the process.
This time, he didn't disappear when I blinked. Instead, he walked over and picked up the frame. I chewed on my lip, eyeing the frame nervously, but not for long. He turned the wood over briskly, showing the Ouroborus and its title. Black and gold. That was it. With a sigh, I let my breath out and nodded, carefully taking the frame Epsilon handed me and replacing the picture I'd torn from it. As soon as I did, a deep sense of relief and satisfaction spread through me. By the time Epsilon had replaced the frame on the wall, I was smiling. When he turned and smiled back, I laughed. It was good to feel safe again.
"I'm surprised at how much better this place looks – you've got a lot done in under two weeks," I said, waving an arm around at the cottage in general after boosting myself up into the hammock.
"I mean, I dunno how long it takes to make a bookcase or rocking chair, but I'd guess it'd take a while, especially with everything else to fix."
He seemed amused at that, if his grin was anything to go by.
"I've had plenty of time in which to repair the cottage," he replied innocently. I just raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yeah, plenty of time... fifty years in the future or past!" I pointed out. He just laughed and didn't deny anything.
Rolling my eyes at him, I rummaged through my backpack – a new one, since the old one had stank of mildew and old water, even after drying out – and pulled out the book of songs, leaving my swinging seat to hide it in the draw with the box file.
The action reminded me of the not-so-pleasant task awaiting us at the Ouroborus Stone. I grimaced as I stood up, glancing out of the window towards the Stone, though it wasn't visible from here.
"So, getting rid of Cimul's body I understand. But how are we going to stop the stone from being used again?" I asked. After all, even though the thicket had kept people out til then, all it had taken was me hacking away with a pocket knife to reach it and clear it. Anyone else could do the same, and bring him back.
"Your idea to bury the body in the ocean was a good one," he said, straightening from where he'd 'rested' against the wall, though his body was once again in that half-there, half-mist state. I just rolled my eyes at him again as he spoke – if anyone else had said that, I'd have known they'd read my diary. With Epsilon, it was just a given that he knew things. Hell, he might have seen me writing that entry. I had no way of knowing, so I didn't call him on it.
"But?" I prompted, catching the drawn-out tone that typically precluded the word. Epsilon smiled at my perceptiveness and continued.
"But not the one we will use. As for the Ouroborus Stone, it should be destroyed. That way, it cannot be used again. The body can be dealt with at the same time."
Well, that was simple. Not.
"I don't know about you, Epsilon, but without a sledgehammer and more muscle than I've got, I can't break that thing apart. Never mind smashing up stone, have you seen the size of that thing? It's practically a table!" But he was holding up a hand to quiet me, which I reluctantly complied with.
"I don't expect you to destroy it, Jess." Though he looked very entertained by the mental image of me waving a sledgehammer about, I'm sure. He was holding back a grin, anyway. "And sledgehammers won't be necessary," he added. Well, good for him. Maybe we were going to blow it up or something. I wouldn't put it past him, at any rate.
Epsilon waved me out of my thoughts on pyrotechnics and out of the cottage, Domino following us when we found him in the kitchen, sneezing at the wood shavings.
It was strange, going anywhere with Epsilon. Usually, he'd drive me up the wall for ten minutes, finally give me a clue I could understand, then send me packing (i.e. running all over the island). If he needed to talk to me again, he'd either tell me to come back to the cottage, or make his presence known wherever I was. This walk across our land, and the mad run towards the village last night, had been the only times I'd actually traveled with Epsilon (I don't count trailing a drunk Mike-in-the-red-beret along the beach on the night of the Greet, since I didn't know it was Epsilon at the time). I guess I'm trying to wrap my mind around walking anywhere with someone who can randomly appear and disappear at will.
We didn't talk on the way to the Ouroborus Stone; both of us content to leave the other to their thoughts and laugh at Domino blinking in confusion at a particularly swift rabbit that seemed to vanish into its bolt hole, leaving my dog staring at empty ground, bemused.
As I started to recognise the forest around the stone, the nerves that I'd kept at bay until then finally broke out of their cage and started beating against my insides like startled bats. It may be Cimul, and it may be a brain-dead Cimul, but it was still a body. One we were going to dispose of.
At the thought, I grimaced in distaste. Both for what we had to do; and that I sounded like a rather bad crime novel.
As we approached the clearing, I kept my eye on Domino; watching for any sign of distress or disgust – he had a sharp nose, and the body had been there for three days now. I had no idea if Cimul's body worked the same way a human one did, but if it was dead when it was made or crafted or whatever, then by now, especially in the middle of a baking summer, it would have started to decompose.
The thought of looking at a rotting corpse made the bats in my stomach make a bid for freedom up my throat; bringing bile with them.
But Domino was rooting about, sniffing at everything calmly as usual, so I pushed my nausea down. If he didn't smell anything... bad, then chances are the body would just lie there, unchanging, until it was occupied.
Despite my reassurances, when we reached the clearing I still hung back until Epsilon had gone in first, fidgeting nervously as Domino woofed and followed, bounding after our guide. I'm a coward, I know. But with both Epsilon and Domino heading into the clearing with no fear, I had no choice but to follow.
Epsilon was waiting, and offered up a sympathetic smile when I shuffled into sight.
Biting my tongue to distract myself from the gruesome images my imagination was firing at me, I finally turned to look at the Ouroborus Stone, and Cimul.
Motionless. Shedding, obsidian skin. Rows of snakes lining his arms and legs. Open, sightless eyes.
His monster's face contorted in fury.
Gone was the manic glee; even this empty husk reflected Cimul's defeat, and his rage.
I turned away with a shudder, repulsed. I knew we'd won, but this hollow demon still terrified me.
Behind me, I heard a low rustle. Glad of the distraction, I turned to see Epsilon pulling at the net of thorns I'd cut away from the stone. The snarled mass fell apart under his hands; even faster when Domino, spying a new game, jumped on it, protected from the thorns by his thick fur and tough paw pads.
We both laughed, and I went over to help pull the tangle apart.
"This should make good kindling," Epsilon explained, but I frowned.
"If people see smoke, they're going to come running. A fire could wipe out the whole forest, it's so dry," I said, worried. The last thing I wanted was to accidentally set the woods on fire.
Epsilon grinned, however.
"Pet Domino," he ordered suddenly. I blinked at him, confused. He just smiled and repeated himself. Slowly, I bent to obey, calling my dog to me. His tail waved and he trotted over, always ready for a good scratch.
I went to brush his back, and frowned. Tried again.
I couldn't touch him.
Then, it all clicked – sort of.
I turned back to Epsilon, and suddenly Domino bumped against my hands, able to be touched again.
"You can control who touches something..." I said slowly, as though sounding out my half-formed revelation. "...so can you control who sees something, too?" I asked, recalling the glimpses of the past Epsilon had once given me – and the times I'd spoken to him, but not seen him. Epsilon nodded serenely, as though it were perfectly normal. I gawped at him for a second, then shook off my surprise and shut my mouth. At least I didn't have to worry about the fire getting out of hand – the flames wouldn't touch anything they weren't meant to.
"A fire will take care of the body, but what about the stone? And won't..." My queasy stomach interfered with my throat for a moment, strangling my voice until I cleared it. "Won't it stink? The body, I mean." Ugh. I did not want to be here when Cimul's body started cooking.
Epsilon nodded, but it looked more thoughtful than affirmative.
"Don't concern yourself with the former, and we will be gone before the latter becomes a problem," he said soothingly, though I still struggled to push away my worries.
Epsilon straightened from dismantling the soon-to-be-kindling, idly dusting leaves and thorns from his dark coat as I stretched the knots out of my back and eyed the stone unhappily. Still, when he gathered up an armful of thorns, I followed suit – glad of my long sleeves – and we slowly transferred the spiky mass to the stone, then headed out to the surrounding trees to gather more dry foliage.
When we were done, Cimul was surrounded and covered by greenery, heaped high to keep the fire going. Larger, sturdy braches were propped against the stone, forming the base of the bonfire.
Epsilon approached, brushing the dirt from his hands and looking solemn. I wondered if he had a pack of matches or something with him, but he just stepped forward, resting a hand lightly on the edge of the kindling. He breathed a word or two, too softly for me to hear, and a tiny tongue of flame danced from his fingers, latching onto the dry grass as he withdrew his hand. We both stepped back, Domino padding over to sit at my feet as we watched the flames grow higher.
Instead of watching the body, I focused on the stone, watching for any signs of it being destroyed. I didn't notice it, at first. I'd started thinking we'd need the sledgehammers after all when I noticed the flames.
The writhing pillars were a gleaming orange, nothing unusual there. But the base of the flames, those licking the sturdy branches around the stone, they were changing. Darkening, turning purple, then blue – like a gas flame. Getting lighter; fading to the colour of a summer sky, then to that of the first light of dawn. Lighter still; a distilled watercolour, fading, slowly, to white. All the while, it was burning hotter. It reached white, and grew brighter, sparks leaping from the rock that had started to glow a dull, cherry red.
White on red, white on orange, white on white.
With a resounding crack; the sound of an avalanche starting, the stone collapsed. The Ouroborus Stone crumpled, Cimul vanishing utterly in the rubble.
I turned to look at Epsilon, and saw him open his eyes, as though from deep concentration. When I glanced back at the fire, the flames were utterly normal; their heart a dull blue, no longer searing white.
Without a word, we turned and left the clearing, the sparks from the fire leaping free, only to sizzle out harmlessly against the grass.
The walk back to the Big House was quiet, solemn. Even Domino walked sedately, sending us quizzical glances as he picked up on our contemplative silence.
I felt like I should be relieved – now that, finally, I was free of Cimul for life, as were the I-don't-know-how-many generations after me. But it would feel... I dunno, wrong, somehow, to be celebrating after a cremation. That's what Cimul's pyre had been, after all. He might have been an enemy; dangerous, heartless, and were the situation reversed – had Cimul beaten us; killed us, he wouldn't have afforded anyone the respect we'd just shown him. But I didn't feel glad that he was, essentially, dead. Relieved, yes. But not as though I should celebrate. And maybe that was right – because I would have been as heartless as Cimul if I felt any differently.
As we stepped out of the forest, the path back to the Big House a few metres away, I turned to look at Epsilon, and stopped.
He wasn't there.
But, very faintly, mingling with the loud birdsong and the distant crash of the waves against the cliff; was the serene sound of a flute. With a smile, I turned and called for Domino, and together we headed back to the Big House. Back home.
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