I couldn't get out of the house straight away. I had to wait for Mum to wake up (she's the early bird, always up first unless I'm terrorised by demons and tranquilized the night before, so I wake up at ridiculous o'clock in the morning), then she was fussing over me, getting me breakfast (I didn't tell her I'd already ate – at that point, I just wanted to be coddled for a bit).
Thing is, she started asking questions. As far as she was concerned, I'd gone missing for a few hours, only to come sprinting out of the woods in a state of acute terror and practically attack the doctor when he came to check up on me. Of course, Mum doesn't trust Doctor Parker anymore than I do, but usually we tolerate his visits when they're necessary then politely, metaphorically kick him out.
Needless to say, I had some explaining to do. But... I didn't want to get her caught up in this again. It was bad enough for me, but mum seems more, I dunno, susceptible, to this stuff. So, I should probably rephrase what happened next. I had a lot of lying to do, and do well.
Too bad Mum's such a good liar herself – she found me out easily.
Right after me spinning some story about scaring myself silly in the woods – the result of the lengthening shadows and an overactive imagination – she just looked at me.
"If that's the case, why did I see you running as if all the hounds in hell were at your heels, past the house and into the woods yesterday afternoon, then not come out until we were all out searching for you?" she asked simply, and I knew I was busted. She wouldn't fall for anything other than the truth.
Or, something close to the truth.
I could tell her an edited version of the truth – one that wouldn't worry her. But I hit a snag right away – I wouldn't be able to lie my way around the state I was in last night, and the hours I'd been missing, without letting her know things were serious.
If it weren't for that, I could have bluffed her – and she would have fallen for it. But as things stood, I'd have to spill everything.
I still toned down the worst parts, but there was no disguising the bare bones of the truth. Things looked bad.
"So I'm going to the Ouroborus Stone on our land first, then to the Well of L'Ume, see if I can find anything. Not that I know what I'm looking for, but there's got to be something otherwise Epsilon wouldn't send me there." I finally fell silent, but Mum didn't say anything, just sat staring at something in her own mind. Not that wistful, vacant look though – if that started again I might just leave home and go to live in Mrs Shilling's old house – it was more like she was deciding something.
Still, the silence was awkward, and I started to chatter to break it.
"Well, the stone thing is covered in brambles and thorns, so I'm gonna have to borrow a knife from the kitchen to cut my way through. It shouldn't take too long; I'll take my diary so I can write down what I find, then I'll walk to the well and do the same. I should be back in a few hours, so-"
"I'm coming with you."
The thoughtful look had gone out of Mum's eyes, she met mine, looking a little bit scared but determined nonetheless. I gaped at her, speechless, then closed my mouth before kicking my brain into gear to answer her.
"No, you're not. Mum, you don't get it-"
"I understand perfectly, Jessica," she interrupted me, her stern voice coming back with a startling familiarity. "I understand that my little girl is getting dragged into something dangerous again, and I will not stand by and let you go into it alone."
I groaned. Partly at the 'little girl', but mainly at her stubbornness.
Patiently, I tried to explain to her.
"Mum, listen – the last time all this was happening, you were in la-la land for most of it, you had no idea what was happening to me. Yes, you were scared by what was happening to you, but you were just seeing visions, right up until the Greet anyway. That was nothing compared to what I was going through. Look," I tried again, when she looked ready to cut across me for the second time – I was going to have to tell her everything at this rate, she wouldn't be convinced to stay behind any other way, "when I told you about two years ago, I left out most of the details – I didn't want to freak you out, and I wanted to put it behind me. My point is you don't get how scary this is; how much it plays with your mind. And I've got a feeling that things are gonna be worse this time – while Epsilon was still here, one of the first things he told me was that my house wasn't a fortress. So if he was doing his spooky predicting the future thing, that tells me that weird things might start happening here too."
She looked alarmed at that, but I was on a roll - I leaned forward and gripped her hand over the breakfast table, shaking it. I had to make her understand.
"But I think the less you know, the less involved you are, the less it affects you. Look at Dad; he had no clue about any of this, and Mrs Shilling only knew because of her dad. It didn't affect them directly. And now that the tooth is useless, I don't think you'll be involved either – the only reason you got pulled into everything was because you were the innocent Cimul needed. The way I see it, only I'm involved, and I'm the only one that needs to be involved. Maybe I'm the only one that can set things right, I don't know, but things will only get more complicated if you get tied up with this as well." I paused, judging her expression.
She looked hesitant, undecided. So I dropped my trump card, hoping it was enough. "Mum, I won't be able to solve this if I'm worrying about you too. So please, just let me do this. All I need from you is your understanding, and to try and keep Dad and Mrs Shilling from worrying too much. Please?" I very, very rarely beg for anything serious. Yes, I'll beg for a new phone unashamedly, but in things like this, I guess it shows how serious I am. Mum finally nodded slowly, but before I could thank her, she held a hand up to forestall me.
"On two conditions," she said.
Worrying slightly, I nodded for her to go ahead. I wouldn't agree to anything til I knew what she was proposing.
"You keep your phone with you, and turned on at all times, so I can call you or vice versa if you get into any trouble." She looked utterly serious. I didn't even consider disobeying her. "Second, though I hate to have to suggest this, take your dad's Stanley knife. He doesn't use it much; he won't notice it's missing. If something does happen, I want you to have something better than a spike of rock to defend yourself with." Solemnly, I nodded, shaking on it, though remembering the way Epsilon's cottage had looked after the fight, I doubted a knife would be much use. It would be good for getting through the thorns though.
"Third," Mum said unexpectedly, opening her arms wide before I could object to this extra condition. "I want a hug, and a promise you'll be careful." Her voice sounded shaky. My eyes felt hot suddenly, as I obliged and gave her a bear hug. She was scared for me.
God, I had been so stupid to waste those years fighting with her, saying I hated her. Both of them. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
"I promise I'll be careful. I'll take Domino with me; he'll bark if anything's up," I added. Domino may be a scaredy-cat, but he's the best noise-maker in the business if anything fishy happened.
Finally Mum let me go, and I left the kitchen to raid Dad's desk in the dark room – otherwise known as the garbage bin, since odds and ends have always found their way into it, be it his redundant Stanley knife, a roll of string, or a half-eaten tuna sandwich.
Insufficiently armed, I left through the kitchen, snagging Domino as I went. He went without a fight, quite happy to have yet another unscheduled walk. He seemed to get a lot of those.
The Ouroborus Stone, when we reached it after struggling through the initial thicket, was revealed to be utterly choked by the same thorn bush that made up the thicket. It seemed set on wringing blood out of the unmoving rock. Good luck with that, Mother Nature.
There was barely a square inch of stone visible beneath the marauding vegetation, but that wasn't going to last long. Leaving Domino to chase birds – the silly dog still hadn't quite grasped the fact that birds refused to be herded, and flew off when he tried – I turned the knife on the thorns. I'd had the foresight to take a pair of dad's gardening gloves with me; within the first thirty seconds I was glad I had. Those thorns were nasty.
It took me about half an hour of hot, tiring sawing and wrestling to clear the stone completely – I started at the base of the thing, hoping that I could cut each branch and pull it free. Unfortunately, the entire thing had become a twisted, fused mass of black thorns and green leaves, so I had to cut all the way around the base and then tug the whole thing off in one reluctant bundle.
As soon as I did, I felt that sense of foreboding that I now knew meant something bad was about to happen; it was a more intense strain of the same feeling that had told me not to let Doctor Parker see the base of the bucket. But, as ever, it was too late now.
Whatever was going to happen was going to happen.
The stone was oddly coloured. It looked like a solid chunk of obsidian; black with splotches of red mixed in. It stood about ribcage-high on me, and was about six foot long by four foot wide. It was old, obviously, but despite its age it wasn't as worn as I'd expected. I could tell because there were carvings all over it - they looked smooth, but still very clear. Perhaps the shield of thorns had protected it from erosion and the wind?
The carvings were (surprise, surprise) many, many Ouroborus, inscribed over and over again, in an odd pattern. No matter how hard I looked at it, I couldn't make any sense of the odd spacing of the snakes. Also, around the base of it were carvings that looked familiar. Pictures that told the story of King L'Ume and Prince Cimul – the day L'Ume let his subjects choose who to follow. I remembered, briefly, that these images had been shown in the window of the cottage, when Epsilon was explaining how close Sebastian had gotten to solving everything. Only the carvings then had been fresh, sharp, not encrusted with dirt and smoothed out by the wind.
As I stared at the ancient pictures, a low scratching sound started. Curious, I looked all over the rock for the source, but couldn't find any stray branches that could be causing it. But then I looked at the top of the slab again, and my stomach turned over.
The stone was being carved.
An invisible knife was gouging out new lines between the Ouroborus rings, small, detailed, intricate lines that had me backing away slowly. Some of the disembodied knives were more like sledgehammers, breaking great chunks of the stone away as other sections of it rose up in small hills and ridges.
Domino was barking, snapping and snarling at the thing, but keeping a wary distance. Smart dog. I wished I could say the same for his owner.
It was quick; too quick for me to turn and run before I knew what it was.
Cimul was being carved out of the rock.
It was like one of those old tombs for rich kings, ones that had statues of the dead person on the lid. Only this wasn't a sarcophagus. Cimul was being reconstructed in front of my eyes, with every decisive strike of the ghostly blades. The Ouroborus on the stone wrapped around his arms and legs, his face was hacked out of the stone down to the peeling scales and malevolent eyes. The odd colour was explained; it was the colour of his skin. The shades of pools of dried blood.
What had my legs trembling was the look of utter glee on his face. I realised then that the song, or at least part of the song, had been a trick. A trap. Epsilon wouldn't have pointed me towards it if it couldn't help us. But it was a gamble. It must have been, because here, now, Cimul was being crafted a new body, and I'd made it happen.
I couldn't run though. I had to stay and see the result of my mistake. Call it morbid curiosity, suicidal tendency, whatever you like, but I couldn't move from that spot until I knew the outcome.
It only took a few seconds; fifteen at most. When the stone had stopped screaming during its reformation, everything lay still. Cimul lay on the stone slab, staring up at the sky in delight, and didn't move. I held perfectly still for thirty seconds, a minute, and nothing. Slowly, wretchedly, I crept forward. I had to know if this was just a perfectly crafted statue, or if he was about to spring to life at any moment.
I was shaking, and didn't want to touch him, both out of revulsion and the instinctive fear that the instant I got too close, he'd grab me. I couldn't deal with that.
Instead, I pulled out my dad's Stanley knife, edged just close enough so that, blade fully extended, my arm out, I could poke at the demon with the tip of the knife.
I hesitated for a second, then summoned up what courage I had left – having Domino growling like a chainsaw a few feet away certainly helped – and prodded Cimul's arm with the knife.
Tough scales resisted briefly, then gave way, denting slightly. I drew back swiftly, backing away a few steps for extra security. It told me all I needed to know – it was Cimul's body on the stone, and not just a cleverly crafted chunk of rock.
The only thing that kept me from running for the hills, screaming, was the fact that he still hadn't moved. Not a twitch. It was steadily becoming apparent that this was a case of the lights are on but nobody's home. This may have been Cimul's new body (definitely not an improvement on the last one) but Cimul wasn't in it. Hopefully he was still stuck in his old body, buried under the Miradel. Hopefully he stayed there, and didn't come to make use of his custom-made vessel that was apparently going to be snoozing here until something decisive happened.
Oh, god. This thing was on our land. I was not going to be able to sleep, knowing this vacant body was lying just a few miles away.
Still, there was no way I was going to touch it to move it (I didn't even think I could lift it), so it was going to have to stay where it was, and I was going to have to toughen up.
Luckily, no casual passerby would see it – I'd only cut a small gap in the thicket and it wasn't visible from the footpath. They'd see the same wild thicket as they always did, and would have no clue that a comatose demon body was just a few metres away...
I really had to stop thinking about this thing.
Slowly, I backed out of the thicket, Domino right behind – or in front of – me. His fur was bristling, and he hadn't stopped growling. Once out of the cage of thorns, I knelt down and wrapped shaky arms around the warm bulk that was my dog. I'd discovered that Domino was a wonderful security blanket.
Gradually, Domino stopped growling, but he kept his eyes or ears pinned on the stone as we walked away, and didn't fully relax until we reached the village. Even then, he stayed close to me. Did I ever say how much I loved my loyal dog?
Suddenly, he sped off up the street, only to barrel into the group of children running to meet him. I take it back. Loyal, my foot.
I wasted a few minutes in town pretending to be polite to the kids and the inevitable parents that soon followed, hastening to catch up to their walking, talking crèche of future Houdinis. Though I wasn't in the best mood to be talking about the weather, it was a surprisingly welcome reality check that helped settle my nerves almost completely.
It took the best part of an hour after leaving the village to walk around Lume Lake until Crag Point, and then cut across open grassland until we reached the well.
It didn't look like anything special, to be honest. It was made of old, weathered stone, covered in moss and ivy like the rest of the wells on Lume.
Since I could see at a glance that there was nothing obviously unusual about the well, I went about clearing the ivy and moss, being struck by a strong sense of déjà vu as I did so. If I found another arrow, I was going to turn Epsilon over to Mrs. Shilling for a tongue lashing as soon as I found him. Then again, they'd seemed to get on quite well at the Greet, so that probably wasn't a reliable method of scolding.
Luckily for me (and Epsilon too, I guess) there wasn't an arrow under the foliage. In fact, there wasn't anything under the ivy. Well, the well was there, but that was it. There was nothing significant about it. At all. I looked over the whole thing. Just old grey stone, and a rotten pulley system.
I kicked a stray rock, ended up hopping around on one foot and swearing in agony – only the tip of it was visible, but the rest of it was buried into the ground and didn't budge an inch when I introduced my foot to it.
When I could stand on both legs again, I glared at the well, silently cursing Epsilon. Why had he sent me here? A hollow ring of stone in the ground, with stagnant water at the bottom, and not even a bucket to show that the previously ivy encrusted lump had been a well!
Of course, maybe people had brought their own buckets when this thing was last in use. But something niggled at me. The broken pulley system – sodden, ancient wood and rusted metal – still had a length of brown, water swollen rope hanging off it and dangling into the black depths of the well. Something about it was odd, though. I only realised what it was when a gust of wind – it had been picking up today, hopefully we'd get a summer storm to relieve this sticky heat! – rustled the long grass and whipped my hair almost vertical.
The rope didn't move. It barely creaked in the wind, even though the blast had been easily strong enough to buffet it against the wall of the well.
Anchored. The word just popped into my head – and epiphany if you will. Something was in the well, anchoring the rope.
A bucket? Or Epsilon's clue? Either way, it seemed I only had one option. I groaned, and Domino flicked me a curious look, before bounding over and nudging my hand with his cold nose.
I was going to have to go into the well.
I decided to write all this down before I went in, just in case something happens and I get amnesia down there and forget everything. Unlikely, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility. At least Mum knows where I am, so if I'm not back by nightfall, she knows where to send the search and rescue party. Domino won't be able to follow me, so if anything happens he'll probably run home for help anyway.
I don't believe I'm doing this. The things I do for spectral beings from another dimension/time/sanity. Okay, I'm procrastinating now. Just take a deep breath, Jess, and hope the rope holds.