To Riddle Alone

Chapter 6

My Diary

Remember when I wondered if Beings could be killed? Well, I know now. They can.

Because I am going to strangle Epsilon when I see him.

The rope didn't snap, luckily, but the well was pretty deep, and when I reached the bottom – nearly falling over the bucket, I might add – the water was still and stagnant and it stank. And cold. The walls were slimy with moss and old water. Obviously, my trainers and shins were soaked through – I was definitely throwing that pair of socks away when I got home – the water came up to almost my knees.

Though I'm complaining about it, it wasn't the water that caught my attention; at least once I'd looked up from my ruined trainers and stopped complaining at the ick all over them. The well was the junction between two tunnels. Southwest and North facing. From the faint sound of dripping, I'd guess that they were both very long.

I checked the walls of the well around me, to see if there was any indication of which path to take. Sure enough, next to the South-western tunnel, was the sign.

An arrow.

I promptly forget punishment by Mrs. Shilling. That was when I decided that Epsilon should be deprived of air (if he even breathed) for as long as my arms would stay outstretched without aching.

Okay. Calm down, Jess. You can strangle him later. For now, it's down the tunnel for me. I wish I'd brought a torch, but if I'm perfectly honest, I didn't expect to find a tunnel at the bottom of a well.

I really should just stitch a rucksack to my back, and stick every possible thing I could need into it. Torch, food, Stanley knife, chocolate, rope, clean jeans...the list could go on.

Hang on, I've just remembered – my phone's in my pocket. And I charged it this morning – I'll be able to use the light from the screen to see at least a few feet in front of me.

Wow. I didn't know that thing was so bright. I guess when you're in total darkness; even the slightest light seems powerful.

The tunnel was long. And cold. And boring. There was nothing on the walls, and just shin-deep icy cold water to wade through. After about twenty minutes of walking (I'd guess I was near – maybe even underneath – the Milton House) I finally got a change of scenery. I walked into a small cavern in the earth, with another tunnel leading off towards the West.

More water, but the edges of the cave rose up, so that the water pooled in the centre, giving me some dry ground to walk on. If anything, it made my legs feel colder, being in the chill air again.

Though this was far smaller, just a small hole in the ground about three quarters the size of my bedroom, the oppressing feeling of tonnes of earth above my head, the cold air and quiet whisper of water as it moved, all reminded me vividly of the cavern under the Miradel. The fact that the place was only half a mile away Northwards didn't help my inexplicable nerves.

I shook myself, forcefully pushing the memories aside. The last thing I needed was to start panicking, underground, with only a rope hanging in a well to escape with.

I looked around the walls again, searching for something significant, be it a riddle or another arrow, or a scrap of paper. Something.

I raised my phone, noting the still full battery (this thing could last for days, unless I got talking to Avril), to illuminate the walls. After sweeping the cavern, I spotted the telltale grooves of carved writing, in the left hand curve of the wall opposite me.

Glad of the dry ground – I didn't know how deep that pool went – I skirted around the edges of the cavern until I reached the few words – just a line, really. Translated, this is what they read:

'Reclaim the knowledge which was lost, that I am bound to.'

Oookaaay, that could refer to anything. Lost knowledge pertaining to Lume... again, it could be anything to do with the Island's history which has been forgotten by the locals. I don't remember coming across any 'missing chapters' of Lume's history, in all my researching the place at Epsilon's instruction. I'd check my box file, see if there was any-

Oh, I'm stupid. Of course. 'Reclaim' – that means it's been taken, which in a sense it has, since it's in the cottage, and the cottage was taken by some Dark Being. The 'knowledge' was obviously the information in the box file, and 'lost' because I can't reach it anymore, not with it still in the cottage. But this says I have to – I've got to get it back.

And 'bound to'? Epsilon wrote this, obviously – doing his freaky time jumps again – but how is he 'bound to' the information in the box file?

Okay, if you're bound to something, you're connected to it, and can't break that connection – you're chained to it, in a sense. So...Epsilon is bound to the box file? How? And why?

If I sigh anymore I'm going to fog up the cavern. Wondering how and why won't get me anywhere – but getting the box file back will. Looks like I'm going to have to go back to the cottage and face whatever power is in there. If I'm lucky it will have gotten bored by now and left.

Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, enough thinking. Time to go home – I need to reassert my belief in reality and sanity before I go running into any other Dark Being freaky things, even if they used to be a refuge for me.

I was about to turn back to the South-western – now the North-eastern – tunnel, but as I shifted I heard something from behind me. A soft, tiny clattering – like miniscule stones being dislodged and showering to the ground.

I spun, my nerves already on edge in this place that felt so similar to that secret tomb in the earth, and slipped. The rock ledge I'd been standing on wasn't wide enough to accommodate my sudden twist.

I fell into the pool. And kept on going. It wasn't shallow at all, not here. It was deep. And absolutely freezing.

The instant before I hit the water, that smell assailed my nose. The stench of rotting that rose up from the lake in Cimul's cavern. It was here too.

The instant before I hit the water, I caught a glimpse of the opposite side of the cave. There was an odd rock formation protruding out of the wall, but then I slammed into the pool and lost the details.

I felt my back scrape a rocky ledge, and the water suddenly plunged from freezing to glacial. I don't know how I knew – I still had my eyes closed – but I had the distinct impression of being in a larger space.

Then, oddly, my feet hit the ground, then slid off.

I found myself floating almost horizontally, my shins nudging an unnaturally straight, sharp edge.

I had to know where I was.

Underwater, I opened my eyes. I screamed, the sound oddly muffled in the water, even to my own ears, then clamped my mouth shut as the putrid water flooded my mouth.

I was eye to socket with a skull. A skeleton, lying on a stone slab. A solid sarcophagus, with the body lying in place of the statue.

I pushed back, my arms floundering, and increasingly aware of the limited air in my lungs. I couldn't rise all the way though – I was caught. Looking down, I nearly fell into hysteria there and then.

The skeleton's fingers were clenched in the hem of my T-shirt.

The skeleton seemed to nod, the movement of the water disturbing its skull. With its trademark smile, it seemed to be leering.

Screaming in the back of my throat, I thrashed, tugging at the slick bone and pushing away with my legs. Desperation was a powerful tool – with a muffled 'snap' the fragile connections between the bones of the arm broke, the hand falling to pieces in my own.

I kicked up, off the plinth, and dislodged a femur. Oh, god, don't be sick in the water. I'll drown. I pushed myself away from the gleaming corpse, but it made no move to follow me, except to turn its head fractionally in my direction – water movement again? I didn't pause to wonder. I turned and kicked for the surface.

The ledge I'd hit on my way down was a big hole in the ceiling of this larger room. It must have flooded at one time, and the water and risen up to puddle the floor of the tunnels above.

I dragged myself back through the gap, my chest heaving fruitlessly – I needed air, but I was still underwater.

I braced my feet against the edge of the hole and pushed off, propelling myself to the surface.

I broke it with a desperate gasp, and treaded water for a few moments, retching and spluttering.

Once I regained my wits fractionally, I struck out for the bank. I didn't think; didn't turn around to reach the nearest dry ground. I just set my sights on the ground in front of me and headed for it, I was that dazed and frightened.

I'd been right to avoid walking through the pool – there was no shallow – the entire thing was just a pitfall into the tomb. Thinking over it now, I guess I know who that skeleton was. Milton Parker. His descendant said that he was buried near the Miradel. Legend said it was under or in it, but as I'd seen, that was impossible. This, however, was close to the Miradel – but closer to his own home. If I'd estimated right, I was directly underneath Milton House.

I didn't think about any of that then though; I just dragged myself onto solid ground and crumpled there, shaking. With cold, with fear, with my slowly deteriorating sanity.

A sound registered dimly, the same as the one that had caused me to spin and fall into the pool. I barely reacted – I was too numb and shocked to do anything.

A feather light touch of my hair, however, caught my attention.

How many times can a person scream in genuine terror before their heart gives out? Because mine nearly did, that time.

It was a finger brushing my hair. An outstretched hand. An arm. A body. The wall. There was a body protruding out of the stone; a body made only of stone.

Cimul.

Even as I watched, more little stones fell away, and more of his body exited the wall.

His fingers moved, fractionally, and his nails scraped my cheek, drawing thin lines of blood.

That was when I screamed.

His face was the same as the empty body on the Ouroborus stone, the same as in the picture in the cottage. Gleeful. Victorious. Because I was trapped underground with the demon and I had almost no way out.

A high, electronic beeping dragged my attention away from his face. My phone, still clenched in my blue fingers, still working, was flashing its screen at me.

Low battery.

I stared at it, my heart pounding desperately, hollowly. It couldn't be. Water couldn't do that to a phone. It had been fully charged just minutes before, when I lifted it to read the line on the wall. But now the little green battery was empty, just a sliver of red left to show me how long I had light left to see by.

More gentle clattering. The foremost of Cimul's legs was starting to show. He was walking out of the wall. The wall closest to the Miradel.

My body stayed frozen on the ground, though I could feel my muscles tensing, crunching, ready to run, ordering me to. God, Jess, move! Move!

My phone beeped again, and I jumped. It freed my other muscles, it must have done, because I was suddenly up and turning blindly for the closest tunnel – the Western one.

I went to run, but jerked to a halt.

Something had hold of me.

I turned, hit my hand on solid rock as my arms waved. Cimul had grabbed hold of one of my belt loops as I turned. He'd stooped to reach my hair, but now he stood almost straight. Only his right leg was still trapped. There was a subtle shift in the arm holding me, and I suddenly felt an insistent pressure around my waist.

Cimul was pulling me backwards.

I don't know how I knew, some deep instinct or just pure hysteria, but I was absolutely certain that he intended to seal me in the rock; trap me there the way he had been trapped for the past two years.

I threw myself forwards, clawed at the air to drag myself forward, twisted, writhed, beat at his hand with my phone. His grip only got tighter. My feet skidded back a few inches. He was winning. I could see his other arm slowly rising to grab me; to keep me from moving. Something told me that if he did, I would die here.

I couldn't make him release me, but I could try to tear the belt loop. The stitching couldn't be that strong, surely? But no matter how much I threw myself around, trying to break the threads, they held firm.

Then, I remembered it. Dad's Stanley knife. Still in my pocket. Thank God.

I pulled it out, and heard a crunching of rock and nearly fell backwards as Cimul dragged me closer. The glimpse of his face as I looked behind me told me why – he wasn't smiling anymore. He'd seen the knife, and knew I was about to escape. His free hand was a few inches away from me.

Hurry, hurry, hurry.

I twisted, started to saw at the loop of denim. The knife wasn't the sharpest – unused, not very well maintained, but after a few seconds the fabric began to fray.

A sibilant whisper made me freeze, look up at that demonic face, eyes wide. Cimul was speaking. His mouth didn't move, but the words came easily, if softly.

'Drop it. Drop your blade, girl. Free yourself now, and your family will be the ones to pay.' As sinister as his words were, his tone was oddly compelling, as if he were giving me a concerned warning rather than a threat. He may have dispensed with deceit, but he hadn't lost his ability to manipulate. Bringing my family into this was the only thing that made me pause.

Don't stop, idiot! Get away and you can stop him from hurting anyone!

I snapped out of whatever was keeping my eyes fixed on him, and returned to slicing through the strip of denim, my face set. I wouldn't listen to anything else he said, I promised myself.

Evidently he realised this, and resorted to other tactics. He gave another tug that nearly pulled me off my feet, and for a moment that stone arm was the only thing suspending me. Instinctively, I straightened out and threw my arms forward to catch myself on the ground.

I felt the belt loop tear, not quite free.

I dropped my phone.

I let go of the knife.

I lunged at it, but couldn't catch it. Another tug pulled me away, and my shins scraped the ground as my balance was further thrown off. I twisted; just a few strands connected me to Cimul now.

Then, I realised something. I'd been focusing on Cimul's arms, had forgotten about the rest of him.

As I looked, he stepped fully out of the wall, and that stiffness of movement was lost.

He yanked me further back as his other arm darted forward to grab me. I threw my whole weight in the opposite direction, and with a snapping, ripping sound, the belt loop tore free.

I felt myself fall to the ground, felt Cimul's arm graze my hair, missing me. Then, I was scrabbling forward, ducking, running, scooping up the knife as I plunged past it.

The pool was in front of me.

The tunnel was across the pool from me.

My phone beeped once more.

The light went out.

I didn't think, this time. I just ran and dove into the water. Cimul was stone – if he followed me, he'd sink. I was a strong swimmer, and I didn't even have the full pool to cross.

Keeping the tunnel in front of me, I cleaved through the water, listening for the sound of Cimul's pursuit. The sounds were distorted; my own splashes were ricocheted off the walls, as were Cimul's running footsteps, clashing in mid air and confusing me.

The bank.

I pulled myself out and trusted to memory, Agapetos and luck. I ran, and felt the rock wall of the tunnel graze my left shoulder. I'd gone through, and Cimul was still behind me, running around the pool's edge. Now, though, I didn't know where this tunnel led; if it was a dead end, or a long cycle back around to the well. If it was either, I was dead. Cimul would catch me in that time – he was stronger and faster than I was.

But I had no choice, so I ran on, blindly, my ears straining for any sound, trying to filter out the pounding of my own footsteps and heart.

Then, the sound of stone hitting stone intensified, echoed up to meet me. Cimul had entered the tunnel.

There was another sound, though, louder, more powerful. Wilder.

And ahead of me.

Where am I? That suddenly seemed very important, and my adrenaline flooded mind had no problem recalling the map of Lume and pinpointing where I must be. The tunnel I was in now led Westwards – towards another well. But what if it wasn't pointing directly to the well? If it went between the well and the shore, and split into a T junction...one would lead to the well. The other would lead to a cave on the cliffs, and to the ocean.

That was the sound. Water. Vast, thrashing water.

That left me with an option – the ocean, where Cimul could not follow me, but where I stood a good chance of being killed on the rocks or dragged out to sea by the currents, or the well. The well may not have a rope, but if it did, Cimul could follow me.

But I had the knife. If I climbed the rope then cut it after me...

There was light ahead of me, showing what I'd anticipated. A dead end, straight ahead anyway. Light flooding in from the left, accompanied by the sound of waves crushing themselves on the cliffs. It illuminated the tunnel opposite it, which itself seemed to provide a faint, candle-like glow in comparison to the flaring flood of light from the cave entrance.

Decision time. Left or right.

My breath was catching in my throat now; ragged, exhausted. Cimul sounded just a few seconds behind me. I don't know if I can even climb the rope. I don't know if a rope will even be there.
Left or right.

I don't want to drown.

I don't want to be caught.

Don't want to die.

Left or right.

The wall is approaching fast.

I turn right, rebounding harshly off the wall and nearly smacking into the opposite one. I keep on running, though I can feel blood on my hands and arms; the former from the knife digging into my hand, the latter from the rough wall.

I can see the small opening in the rock, and the light filtering down from the well. I can see a rope, and a tunnel in my peripheral vision, leading North. To the well between the village and the Graveyard? Probably. This must be a huge underground system; from well to well. God knows who made it, or what function it serves.

I don't slow as I reach the rope, I just retract the knife and clamp it between my teeth, pirate-style, then jump at the cord.

I'm a few feet off the ground when I grab it, swinging wildly. I don't even wait for it to settle before hauling myself up. I discover in a few seconds, with my breath heaving out around the knife, that climbing up is a lot harder than climbing down.

I feel a sudden tension on the rope, but don't look for its source. I know, and it would only slow me down. Cimul must have reached the rope.

I'm about halfway up by now, but half of that was because I jumped. My arms are shaking, the muscles are burning. Each time I pull myself up, I think my arm will give way.

Come on, Jess. One more. One more. One more.

The wall! I nearly slip as I reach for it, but once I've got hold of it I don't let go; I haul myself up and over, grabbing handfuls of vines and thorns and ivy to pull myself out of the earth.

I tumble out, collapsing, but I force myself up again. Cimul is still on the rope.

Knife back in hand, I attack the rope just below the knot that has lasted who knows how many years, pulling below it to make sure it's taut. It cuts quite easily; the fibres are already heavily frayed, and the others don't take much persuasion to follow suit.

As the last few sever, I glance down. Cimul is only a foot away from the rim of the well.

The rope snaps.

Cimul lunges.

He misses the wall.

He misses me.

He falls.

I don't wait to hear the splash that tells me he's hit the ground. I'm staggering backwards, shaking with exhaustion. I trip over my own feet and fall on my backside. I stay sat for a second, thinking I should really get further away from the well, but too tired to move. Then my indecisive paralysis breaks and I slump backwards, collapsed in the grass on my back. Every muscle hurts, my cuts are stinging, and I'm still caught in that odd stage of shock, between hysterical sobbing, screaming and laughing.

I lose track of how long I lie there, but I think I doze off. When I climbed out of the well, the sun was low in the sky, but well above the horizon. When I next notice it, and make myself sit up and head to the Well of L'Ume to collect Domino, the sun is just touching the sea, turning it golden.

Domino actually meets me half way between the Well of L'Ume and what's left of the Miradel. Must have smelt me or something. All I can say is that I have never been more relieved to see him, and spent a good few minutes hugging and kissing him, even though from the dirt falling out of his coat he's been rolling around in a dust bath. He puts up with it for an unusually long time, then does his usual wriggle of complaint and worms his way free. It takes me at least an hour to trudge back home, by which time the sun is down and the last rays of red are fading from the sky.

Mum must have been watching for me, because as I walk up our drive, she comes running out of the front door to hug me and, upon seeing how white and bloodied I am, helps me inside. She looks as though her curiosity is killing her, but she doesn't ask questions. She simply slathers my cuts in antiseptic, bandages them up, makes me eat something, then lets me collapse in bed. I let her deal with Dad and Mrs. Shilling. I'm so tired I barely register my head touching the pillow.

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