To Riddle Alone

Chapter 2

My Diary

Why is it, that when life has been complicated once, it stays complicated?

I'm getting ahead of myself – I'd better say what happened, to put my thoughts in order (seriously, the only solid thought I've got at the moment is that first line) and to make a note of this. Like last time.

First of all, and the most obvious thing: Epsilon's back.

I know, it's not like he left, really. But now he's actually back, on the chat rooms and things, not just floating about all invisible dropping Lumic notes like sweet wrappers.

Second: he says things are starting again. Why, I don't know, as there's no Cimul to give the relic to. Even though all it holds now is blessings. And has once again been nicked by a kleptomaniac porpoise.

I had to force myself to write his name then. Bad sign.

Third: I'm scared. Again. And still thankful that Mum and Dad usually leave me alone when I'm in my room. Usually.

Because I don't think I can act at the moment, pretend everything's ok. Dad would think I was ill, be all concerned. Mum would catch on though. Start with the questions. Usually I love our talks; it doesn't help me understand things any better, of course – getting my head around trigonometry is hard enough, never mind how meaningless time is! But today I don't think I could cope.

Mrs Shilling… she'd probably realise something odd was up. Something other than being sick.

I just wish I knew more; I might be less scared then. Or more scared, but more prepared too.

Epsilon says there's not much I can do right now, just keep an eye on Dr Parker, Ely and the others. The old followers of the Inverted Rule.

God, now I'm starting to sound like Epsilon!

Anyway, I talked to Epsilon this morning, a bit before eleven. That gave me plenty of time to go for a wander after an early lunch (Mum would kill me if I left without eating something).

So I went down into town, Domino in tow. He enjoyed the run out, I think. It's getting hotter again, more summer weather than spring and he's shedding everywhere.
I figured the best place to start was in the village, where most people live. I think there's only Dr Parker who lives outside the town, besides us of course, and he's usually in town making his rounds.

Since we moved here, I've obviously gotten to know the locals a bit better. This may be social, but when I'm trying to see if anything unusual's going on it's not very helpful.

Between chatting with people and avoiding being mobbed by the kids (okay, so it wasn't me they were mobbing, it was Domino, but me by association!) I tried to spot some of my targets...

Now I sound like James Bond.

Anyway, Jerry Cork was outside his house, whittling a piece of wood, with Agnes and little Judith sat nearby. Nothing unusual there. I tried to see what he was carving, but couldn't make out more than a chunk of wood yet. Probably a present for Judith, the way she was watching him.

Moving on before Agnes saw me - neither me nor Jerry C wanted that conversation - I passed his house and headed further into town, towards the shops where there were more houses.

The story was the same with the others: Luke Lively, Ely. Utterly normal. Ely, sat outside his house making a fishing net, Luke sat with him, looking half asleep in the warm sun and unwilling to move.

Doctor Parker, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Couldn't find him in town, and he wasn't at home, unless he was ignoring me when I called up. In any case, the only sign of life in Milton House was the cat I'd once mistaken for Mrs Shilling. I wasn't too keen on the idea of scouring the island for the absent Doctor, so I turned back.

Giving up for the day and by now craving more food than the measly sandwich I'd grabbed before leaving, I was more focused on getting home and to the fridge than what was going on around me.

So when I heard that first haunting, piercing note, it confused me. Epsilon? Here? No.

Then I worried. Had someone found the cottage; stolen the flute? How, I don't know, since Epsilon can keep anyone (me especially) from touching his stuff.

That left me spinning around looking for the old flute, maybe floating in mid-air drawing attention to itself.

Instead, my eyes landed on old Jerry Cork.

He'd finished his carving. A wooden flute, identical to Epsilon's.

Or, almost.

That first note, the one that seemed about to lead on to one of those ancient oriental-like tunes Epsilon was so fond of, instead changed to a lighter, more homely tune. Less eerie and otherworldly, more a riff you might hear in a folksong.

It was short, only lasted a few seconds. Then Judith and Agnes clapped and Jerry Cork lowered the flute, crouching down and handing it to Judith with a kind smile.

As he straightened, though, his eyes went straight to me. That smile turned, slightly, into something different. More sinister, secretive, yet without losing that kind cast.

It made a ribbon of ice shoot up my back.

Then little Judith saw me and Domino and came hurrying over, clamouring to play us a song.

Still dazed, I sat and listened to her wheezy attempt at a nursery rhyme tune. Then she gave it to me.

"Play me a song, Jess!"

I took the flute on autopilot, turned it over in my hands, examined it.

Yes, it was almost the twin of Epsilon's. With one difference.

Epsilon's had his signature on the mouthpiece, that thin little toppled half feather. This one had the Ouroborus.

I dropped the flute. Babbled apologies, excuses to Judith as she picked it up. Answered Agnes. Yes, I was alright. Stay for lunch? No, I've already ate, thank you though. Okay, see you later.

Take care.

I made my way back to the Big House, sneaked back in through the back door, and grabbed a few chocolate bars. I wasn't hungry anymore. I just needed the comfort food.

And to stop the shaking. I felt like I was on a sugar crash. It took three bars just to start thinking straight.

Okay, so that was definitely something odd. Which was what Epsilon had told me to watch out for. So now to tell Epsilon.

Down to the cottage it is.


6 p.m.

Once it had accepted me, Epsilon's cottage always made me feel safe. (And yes, the cottage did accept me. Or Epsilon did. Either way, it stopped feeling like it wanted me OUT the way it did the first time I went.) I love sitting in the rocking chair or hammock upstairs, just relaxing.

It was good to go back. I think Epsilon realised that, because he gave me a few minutes to reacquaint myself with the place before appearing when I sat in the rocking chair.

As ever, it was just that hint of strange shadow that gave him away. Then again, I'm getting used to spotting him by now.

"Epsilon." I was glad my voice had steadied from my shock, but I think he already knew something was wrong. I hadn't taken as long to root about as I usually did, just a quick check of the desk. Sure enough, the flute was there, as old and untouched as it had seemed when I first saw it. Nothing was amiss; everything exactly as I had left it the last time I'd visited, and only my footprints in the dust.

Still, I picked up the flute gently and carried it with me to the chair, feeling oddly protective of the delicate little instrument with its beautiful, haunting music.

He didn't speak, as such, but the shadows moved, and I got the impression of wordless comfort. It relaxed me more than the cottage and the chocolate put together.

"You did as I asked." Not a question; but I'm sure I heard a pleased tone cradling his words.

I nodded, taking a moment to get my thoughts in order.

"I couldn't find Doctor Parker. But that's not what worried me. I passed old Jerry Cork's place on my way to Milton House, and he was carving something. On my way back, he'd finished it." I paused, gently running my index finger over the straggly symbol on the wood. "It was a flute, just like this, but with the 'Borus on it. He played it, and for a second it sounded like it was going to be the same tune you play. Then he just gave me a look. It was just so... so knowing. Whatever you think's going on, I think you're right."

We were both quiet for a while, until I looked up from my tracing fingers to Epsilon's shadow.

That dark, clear shimmer was muted, as if in deep thought. As I watched though, it cleared slightly, as if realising I had a question.

"Epsilon, what's happening? Why is all this starting up again? There's no reason to, is there? Unless those old men are into revenge and scaring the hell out of me, why start with all the creepy stuff again?" I stopped my barrage of questions, hoping Epsilon would be able to answer them, but doubting he could. If that was possible, I doubted we'd be worrying about them right now.

"I don't know." Hearing the words still made me feel tired though. Sixteen years old, yet for that moment I felt as old as Epsilon. However old he is.

"There is something more you should see, however. Go down to the lake when you can. You'll find it there."

At the thought, my legs cramped in protest. Lume Lake was in the middle of the island, near enough, and I'd already walked the length of the island twice today. Don't get me wrong; I was in far better shape than I was two years ago – Epsilon saw to that, making me march all over the island. Mum definitely couldn't complain about puppy fat anymore. But to get around Lume, you really needed a bike at least, if not a car. Unfortunately, Mum had banned me from using her bike since I came home with it with a buckled wheel, that day when I went down to the Lake to find Dad taking photos of the swan.

Wait.

"Epsilon, this thing I need to see, it's not a swan, is it?"

No reply. When I looked back up, he'd gone, but he'd forgotten to take the sudden sense of foreboding with him.

Panic steadily building in my chest, I stood, calling Domino as I headed for the door. My loyal hound bounded down the stairs, tail looking ready to fly off his body he was waving it so fast.

Taking comfort in his sturdiness, I left the cottage at a near run. The miles didn't matter anymore. I had to see that lake.

When I got there I scrambled up the tree, in the same place Dad and I had sat watching the swan show us her – his – back two years ago.

Panting for breath, I finally clambered in view of the lake.

Nothing. The water was utterly devoid of life.

The relief seemed to diffuse into my core, as if dragged in through my pores from the outside air. I sat down heavily and sighed, getting my breath back as I held my head in my hands for a moment.

Remembering what Epsilon had said, I looked up from my unfocused exam of the bark beneath me, to scan the smooth water for anything that could be what Epsilon-

There was a swan on the lake.

For a moment I froze, unable to move. From the ripples spreading out from underneath it, I guessed it had been diving when I first looked at the lake. I say I guessed; more it was a detail I filed away for later in some corner of my mind that wasn't screaming 'run.'

It was white, one small comfort, not that filthy black that I'd come to hate.

And then, just like with Jerry Cork, it turned from its preening to look at me. A single look, loaded with purpose. Then Domino saw it and barked, breaking the contact between my wide eyes and its beady black ones.

The swan rose up on the water, wings opening wide as it plowed through the surface of the lake, running into take off.

I ducked as it flew over my head, biting back a scream, but I didn't miss the glint of a silver snake eating its own tail, hanging around its neck.

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