I remember thinking that jumping out of the tree probably wasn't a good idea. Okay, there were far more expletives in that thought, but that was the gist.
I did it anyway.
I landed hard, jarred my leg, but didn't really notice it until later. I was too focused on the swan that was heading straight for our land.
Domino was barking, only now realising my urgency as we both left the footpath that laced the lake, favouring the open ground to run straight rather than following the path and taking longer. Into the forest to the left of the river. Past the bridge. Quick. Quick. Out of the trees. Find it!
It wasn't heading for the Big House at all.
It was heading for the cottage.
It was far ahead of me; its silhouette black against a slowly darkening sky as it started to descend. It was almost there.
Talon-like nails were clawing at my lungs, my legs. Ignore them. Run.
I sprinted across our land, heading for the next cloud of trees. Domino was panting beside me, his long legs carrying him in huge bounds across the grass. I fought to keep up, purely as a way to get faster. Remembering the words of my old dance teacher – aim higher than what you can get, then you'll surpass what you thought you could get.
Trees again. There's the stone seat. Turn right.
Even though I've been through here so many times the thorn bushes have a definite gap in them, when I dashed through the thorns tore at me, my clothes, my hair, my skin.
I only stopped when I realised Domino wasn't with me. He'd frozen, stiff-legged, growling and bristling at the top of the path, refusing to budge an inch.
No time. I turned back to the cottage, finally coming in view of it as Domino started barking; a panicked, frightened noise as he realised I was still moving forward.
The swan was there, metres away, a ghostly spectre that sped towards the cottage. The door was open from when I'd left, and the swan – now as insubstantial as Epsilon – swept in through the open door.
Which slammed shut as all the windows were engulfed in darkness.
I was screaming again, but this time not for me. I had no idea if Bright Beings could be truly hurt, but Epsilon had never been as, I don't know, strong? Powerful? There, as he had been before the tower fell. So I knew that, even if he couldn't actually be hurt, he could be damaged. As far as I knew, he still was.
I reached the door, tried to yank it open. It wouldn't move. It was like something was holding it shut on the other side of the door, something a lot stronger than me. I could feel it – a thick glut of greedy, pulsating power. Sickening. It obliterated everything.
Giving up on that, I turned to the windows – broken as long as I'd been here.
I couldn't see through them. There was plenty of light left – it was nearly summer – but none of that light penetrated the encompassing black inside the cottage. I craned my neck; look for some sign of light in the place. Some sign Epsilon was okay.
There! Almost out of sight, that silver shimmer, flickering rapidly now. I could hear the ghost of a sound; metal on metal. I remembered Epsilon's double-edged sword. A killing tool. But also a shield, a defence. A guardian's weapon.
Epsilon's clear shadow flickered again, the light beating as if in time to a rapid heartbeat. It should have lit up the entire house, it was bright enough, but its light reached an invisible boundary and was choked by the dark.
I knew that cottage back to front by now; could walk through it blindfolded. I remembered the bookcase, with all its odd objects; the solid lava, forever on the edge of spilling off the shelf. That steady, eternal O of wood.
The stalactite, on top of the book case. Sharp, I was sure.
I didn't give myself time to think; I boosted myself in through the window, the last few shards of glass raking my clothes. They were ruined anyway. The fact the clear shards drew blood didn't bother me. I was too full of adrenaline to notice.
Once inside, the blackness swallowed me completely.
Careful not to turn away from the window and become disorientated, I mapped out the room in front of me. Turned towards the bookshelf, made my way over, feeling the way with my outstretched hands.
There. That oddly rough, cold blob – the lava. Up, Jess – top of the case!
Found it. As my fingers wrapped around the slender security of the stalactite; my own weapon, there was a rush of air. The sound of something large being thrown.
Epsilon, shouting me. Telling me to duck; to get out.
I ducked. Not far enough.
The rocking chair smashed against the bookshelf, breaking both objects with the sheer force of the throw. Both fell on top of me.
I covered my head with my arms, still clinging onto the rapier of stone in my hand. Heavy, wooden things crashing all about me. One of Epsilon's pots smashed; my nose was assaulted by SPICES OF THE ORIENT.
I could feel the splintered remains of the rocking chair draped over me; what was left of its frame pressing into my back, but holding up the rest of the wreckage.
Swiping my arm in front of me, I cleared the floor and crawled out of the wooden cocoon. Stood. Looked for Epsilon.
There; illuminating the cupboard behind where the rocking chair used to be. The one his coat was hanging out of that first day he scared me out of the cottage and into finding the bucket. That wasn't what drew my attention though.
I could actually see him – the way he'd looked the night of the Greet, in the cavern. Dressed in gold and scarlet. The noble warrior, right now fighting the impenetrable blackness that surrounded us.
Only watching him then did I realise that I had no idea what I was doing. Running in, grabbing the stalactite, fighting had seemed like a good idea, but I didn't know how to fight, other than running in, waving my makeshift sword and hoping to hit something.
I was whispering – whimpering, almost – under my breath. At first I thought I was saying 'Oh, god.' Then I listened to myself and recognised the single word I was uttering like a last plea for help.
'Agapetos, Agapetos, Agapetos.' Nothing else. Just that. Just His name, in the instinctual hope it would help.
The darkness heard me. What had once been a swan, now an unrecognisable mass of something primal and ugly, seemed to rise up, coalesce even more.
It lunged for me; expanding to keep control of the space it vacated.
I screamed, lashed out blindly with the stalactite. It passed straight through, just as the blackness washed through me.
No physical injury. Just an overwhelming tiredness and an odd chill that seeped into my core. No wonder, really, the way I'd been running up and down the island all day. I was so tired – but the rocking chair was gone. I couldn't even see the rocking chair. All I could see was Epsilon. Oh, well. I didn't need to sit down to sleep. Just stay standing, or lie on the ground...
As I slowly sank to the floor, I could hear Epsilon yelling, as if from far away. Something about sleep. Dark. Wake up? Why; if I was tired I should sleep, shouldn't I?
My head touched the floor, the ammonite floor soothingly cool against my cheek.
Something bothered me though; stopped me from drifting off. An overpowering smell; if it weren't so strong, it'd be nice. I'd smelt it before, one of Epsilon's little pots of incense.
It kept me awake, cleared my mind. Epsilon suddenly made sense. A Dark sleep.
It didn't take physical injuries to kill, after all.
That, and the spice still invading my nose, roused me, coughing the rich smell out of my lungs.
Turning my head to the one source of light in the cottage, I saw that the time the darkness had taken to take me down had given Epsilon a slight reprieve. The light was stronger now, building up for a final assault.
The blackness roiled in response; and for a moment in its depths I saw a demonic face, contorted into an animalistic snarl.
Still on the ground, barely holding myself up on my hands and knees, I could only watch as the two forces collided.
The darkness, far larger, swarmed over Epsilon, now nearly eclipsed by the light he was emitting, swallowing him whole.
The light was gone.
Blind, for the first time completely and utterly blind, with only the afterimages scored into my eyes to focus on, I felt a thrill of fear and started to scramble forwards, towards where the light had been.
Then it exploded in my eyes, blinding me in the completely opposite way. Blinding me with light.
The sounds radiating from that white light terrified me. The sound of claws on wood, metal, tearing, destructive sounds. It could feel vicious swipes falling around me, I was so close, but none touched me. They tried, came within an inch of me, but then stopped, unable to go further.
The light and dark were entwined now, splintering each other.
The sounds grew louder, deafening, an unearthly crescendo of violence as the contents of the cottage were whirled about in a frenzy.
Then, something changed. I don't know what. Someone made a mistake, or got a sudden burst of strength, because the darkness convulsed, draped itself around Epsilon a second time, and imploded. Collapsed before my eyes, the whole thing.
At first, I thought it had robbed me of my senses as well, because I couldn't see anything, hear anything.
But then I started to make things out; vague shapes. The strong scent of spices. A light touch against my hand.
I picked it up, examined it by touch. Paper. I couldn't see much because it was dark; a natural darkness. Night time.
Shakily, I stood, and went to find the candles and matches amongst the odds and ends scattered in one of Epsilon's drawers.
In the small, brave candle light, I stared about the cottage in disbelief.
No gale nor hurricane could have destroyed things as thoroughly as this. Everything was smashed, torn. The rocking chair, a broken skeleton of what it was. The charts on the wall, ripped to shreds. The bookcase, shattered, the quartz rock split into fragments. The lava snapped.
The wooden O, so sturdy and heavy, clawed apart and pounded as if by hammers into splinters.
I felt sick.
Suddenly distraught, I spun around, my candle flickering rapidly in a way not unlike Epsilon's fluctuating light.
Chaining the tears that wanted to pour out of me to the rock lodged in my throat, urging me to cry, I ran upstairs and was met with a similar sight. Hammock in shreds, the round picture in the square frame torn, but still hanging, upstairs window now smashed.
The desk hadn't escaped the carnage either; deep claw marks ravaging the wood.
They were odd, though; some pieces of paper still resolutely lying on its surface, the gouges in the wood skipping over them completely, as if they were sheets of metal rather than paper.
And me. Other than the wounds I'd given myself on the thorns and glass, which only now were starting to hurt, I was untouched. I only had one conclusion. The magic that Epsilon applied to his papers, the things he didn't want people to touch, he'd put on me, too.
Tentatively, I stretched my hand out, the stalactite long forgotten on the floor downstairs, chopped in half. My fingertips brushed paper. I could touch it.
Picking them up, I turned them over to see Lumic script, in handwriting I recognised from all over the cottage. Epsilon's handwriting. Remembering the piece of paper in my hand, I looked at it properly for the first time. More Lumic, from Epsilon, scrawled very fast. And at the bottom of the page, his signature, the little half-feather on its side.
I started crying and couldn't stop, this time. Because now I could feel it. The loss; not just of Epsilon, but the cottage. It wasn't safe anymore. My den, my sanctuary, was gone.
When I finally calmed down enough, I stood from where I'd curled up against the wall, and looked around again. The picture on the wall drew my eye, again. That golden O, broken now.
Slowly, something built up in my chest, cleansing the grief from it.
Anger. Absolute burning, boiling fury.
If that side of the picture was ruined, then the other side would be bloody destroyed.
Striding over with a limp from my jarred leg, I lifted the picture from the wall, taking a moment to try and gently smooth the picture together again, but the curled edges disobeyed me. I shook my head; deciding to fix it later. I still had too much fire in my veins right now to do anything but tear that snake, the Ouroborus, apart.
My expression dark, I turned the frame over, ready to rip the picture with my bare hands.
The photo landed on the floor with a clatter as I dropped it from hands that felt scalded.
There was no snake there. Instead, the gruesome, leering face of Cimul, screaming out at me from the gold background, his scaly face falling apart as his skin shedded, the hole where his canine should be a harrowing gap. His eyes, as awful as they had been in the cavern, made worse by the wild delight in their depths. The victory.
A sound, from behind me. I whirled, half mindless with fear, some small clench of hope that maybe Epsilon was here, maybe he hadn't left...
The wall was being gouged by an invisible knife, carving symbols into the wall. I watched in growing horror as the five symbols making up Cimul's name became embedded in the wood.
Sobbing with fear, I started towards the door, but saw the picture again. I couldn't let that thing stay in here.
But I couldn't bring myself to touch it.
Moaning with fear, I crept back towards it, kicked it over so that I could see the ripped O.
Picking it up by the frame, I kept the O towards me at all times, tearing at the image on the other side.
I couldn't get a grip on it.
Gasping, just wanting to run, I instead tugged out the O, then threw the frame, and horrific picture, out of the broken window as hard as I could.
Then I ran, down the stairs, over the cracked kitchen floor, out the door, stuffing the papers and picture in my hand into my pocket so I could run flat out.
Domino was gone, leaving me to fight my way out of the thorns alone, then sprint home, choking on tears.
I heard them before I saw them, people shouting my name. People with flashlights.
Terror took hold of me again for a moment, but then left. This wasn't a horde of dark beings after me; it was a search party. And there was Mum and Dad, with Domino whining at them, trying to lead them through the trees.
I crashed towards them, saw their flashlights swing in my direction, Domino shooting to meet me.
I was bowled over by my dog as he covered my face in anxious licks, me not caring as I held him in a tight hug and sobbed into his black fur.
Then Mum and Dad were there, helping me up, dragging a whining Domino off me before he could suffocate me. Right then, I wouldn't have minded.
Then my parents were leading me, half carrying me back to the house as exhaustion kicked in. It was only when we got back to the house and they called Doctor Parker to look at my wounds did they see the full extent of my panic.
I screamed at him, kicked, punched. Threw things. Wouldn't let him near me. They were saying something about a sedative, but I had my back against the dance barre of my room, armed with homework books, guitar sheets, CD cases, my fists.
Eventually I ran out of things to throw, but it took Dad, the Doctor and another two men from the village to fully restrain me so that Doctor Parker could administer the sedative. Even then I screeched at him, nearly incoherent, but he knew. I could see. There was a look in his eyes, past the false concern, that was so similar to the eyes of the Cimul picture that it started a new round of hysteria that lasted until the sedative worked.
Eventually, people left, until it was just me, Mum, Dad, Mrs Shilling and Domino. I was in bed, dozy, with my family nearby.
After a while, Dad went to bed and took Domino out with him, looking haggard from the long night. Mrs Shilling went next, though I could tell she knew something had happened. Mum stayed the longest. I don't remember her leaving, just her hand stroking my face soothingly, brushing my hair out of my eyes, talking in a comforting hush. The last thing I noticed before I sank into sleep was a burning in my forehead, in the exact spot that a drop of Agapetos' blood had landed there, two years ago.