I froze, not sure how to respond. What did he mean?
"I-I did what-the clues... here, look!" I grabbed my backpack, rifled through it to find the notes he'd left me; and the diary pages with the other clues, from the book and the cave. I tugged them all out and handed them to him, noticing distractedly that odd silver after-gleam he left on anything he touched as his fingers met the paper.
He was utterly silent as he read my scruffy writing, and his expression remained grave. In that oppressive quiet, I looked around, to resist the urge to start babbling out explanations and questions. By the faint light he gave off, I could see a small way around us. Not that there was anything to see. Just darkness. At a loss, I looked at the ground, certain that it, at least, would be illuminated.
We were sitting in a void. That's how it appeared – I couldn't make out any detail about what we were supported by. Okay, maybe Epsilon didn't need the support of a ground, but I did, and I couldn't see anything that remotely resembled a solid surface. It was just black. Like a night sky devoid of the moon, stars or planets.
All the warmth in my body left me; all the stability. I felt that if I stood up now, I'd only collapse on useless legs. I couldn't keep quiet any more. I had to know.
"Where are we?" My voice came out softer than I'd anticipated; almost giving way. Epsilon didn't respond; his eyes didn't even flicker from the page.
Suddenly, my panic was flooding up my throat, and my voice was louder. Shrill. Terrified.
"Epsilon, tell me where we are!" I was shaking, I realised, huddled in on myself to try and draw some scant comfort, since my surroundings had none to offer.
He looked up from the papers, and it seemed to take him a moment to realise why I'd shouted. For the first time in a long time I was reminded – truly reminded – that Epsilon wasn't human, wasn't subject to our laws, our physics, or our emotions. He felt, certainly, but maybe not to the same extent as us. For that moment, I could see he just didn't understand my fear. His eyes were blank. Then they cleared and softened in sympathy, though he didn't lose that air of quiet despair.
"We are both everywhere and nowhere. It's endless, but also a singularity. It can be a place of confinement, as it is for us, or it can be a place for freedom and thought. This place isn't of your world, Jess." As ever, Epsilon was being cryptic, yet this time I felt it was the only way to describe this place we were in.
"Is it of your world, then?" I asked, my voice dropping back to a dismal whisper. He offered up a small shake of his head in return.
"Not mine. The Dark Beings', perhaps."
I got the feeling he was trying not to push me over the edge into hysteria – he was keeping his voice subdued but, somehow, comforting. It helped, if only a little.
I took another shaky breath and held it, steeling myself. I spoke as I released it to the nothingness beyond us.
"What did I do wrong?"
Epsilon returned his crystalline eyes back to the wood pulp and ink in his hand for a moment, as if collecting sombre thoughts, then began to speak, still addressing the paper.
"Did you read the notes I left you, Jess?" I thought back, then shook my head mutely. I'd gotten too caught up in the 'at lyrics start and lyrics end' clue – forgotten about the few pages of notes from his desk entirely.
He nodded, as if this affirmed his suspicions. "The only other of these 'clues' that I left you was that which led to the book of songs. But it was not a clue, Jess. It was a warning."
I stared at him, my brain a great buzzing blank, then spoke before my mind had caught up with my mouth.
"A warning...? Of what? And– but... what were those other clues then? The one carved into the wall in the cave? Your note told me to go down the well; to find it! I-" I stopped short. He'd held up a hand for quiet, his eyes sharp with understanding, but still not losing that calming gentleness. The man was a paradox.
"A warning to prevent you from acting exactly how you did. Do you remember when I told you that I am not the only one who can see you?" I gave another nod, and with it felt the rapid onset of apprehension – and the slow dawning of comprehension. "These messages you received were left by a follower of Cimul; to make you do the opposite of what you should have done. They were intended to deceive, and erode the trust you had in them. And they possibly had another purpose, one I have not yet discerned." He held up my diary pages. He was already half way through them, even though I'd left him to read them for only a few scarce minutes.
Catching the implication, I nodded and vowed myself to silence until he had finished reading.
It didn't take him long. He looked up after another minute, the edges of the last page shimmering with the tell-tale gleam of his touch. He looked, for the first time, tired. The beaten cast has crept back into his expression.
"When you followed the literal instructions in the warning I tried to give you, you triggered three events. The first, you caused Cimul's body to be wrought anew on the Ouroborus stone, the second, your blood was taken by Cimul – by what you would call his soul, if he can be said to have one – trapped in the stone of the Miradel. The third, you led him to an exit. If Cimul's soul, or spirit, can reach the physical body awaiting him above ground, your blood will act as a catalyst to bind soul to body. Cimul will be as real as he was during his mortal life as King L'Ume's beloved prince."
I stared, again, panic making my eyes round and hunching me forward, as if to reach out and shake him to make him understand.
"But, Epsilon, he's had a whole night and day to get there! He must have already-" I stopped again; Epsilon was waving me to silence.
"Though a spirit has no physical weight; a solid shell of stone does. When he fell, after you severed the rope, he could have damaged the shell; fractured it. He would need time to fix the pieces, and besides; he wouldn't dare traverse the island in daylight. Stone can be broken, and the villagers would not stand for something as monstrous as he to freely walk their land; not whilst they still have their own minds. He will wait until night, of that I am almost certain. He may yet be separated from his body."
I certainly hope so. But what difference does it make? The only people who could have done something to stop him were trapped here. Outside of me and Epsilon, only Mum knew what was going on – and only partially at that. Besides, I doubted she could do anything against Cimul – he terrified her, more than anyone else. Even if Cimul wasn't reunited with his body, he would be soon.
"We can't get out of here, can we?" I asked, subdued. I knew now why Epsilon seemed so beaten. He was. His weary nod only affirmed it.
"We would need some sort of physical link to Earth; to your time. Something not of your world, so that it would form a bridge, but nevertheless inhabiting it at the time we need arrive at."
"Wouldn't your notes do?" I asked, gesturing at his own pages of musings, now lying – or floating – next to him at the non-existent ground level.
He shook his head, however, with an oddly bitter smile.
"It is not that simple, Jess. Bright Being I may be, but paper and ink is just that, no matter who uses it."
I sighed in reluctant acceptance, gazing off into the space, unseeing even if we weren't blinded by the darkness. Something he'd said niggled at my mind though, wouldn't leave me alone.
Acting on this insistent instinct, I turned to my backpack and started rummaging through it, though with little hope. I'd not brought anything special with me. Torch, notes, batteries, knife. I didn't really need such a big bag, really. I sat back, discouraged, only to feel something digging into my leg. I shifted, just thinking it was an awkward fold in my jeans pocket – it was that small – but it didn't move.
Frowning, I dug my hand into my pocket.
And pulled out the Ouroborus charm.
I gaped at it, uncomprehending for a moment. I'd intended to throw it away on my way to the cottage, but I'd stuffed it in my pocket and forgotten all about it in my nerves.
Still, it was just a metal charm. Like paper and ink. Linked to Lume, but man-made. It was useless.
Disappointment of that magnitude is hard to stifle. I was torn between throwing the blasted thing into the darkness, where it belonged, and curling up into a ball and crying. I compromised, slumping and hiding my head in my hands, raking my fingers through my hair in sheer frustration. My hands slid down again, kneading my forehead. I opened the hand that held the charm so that I could press the heel of my hand into my brow – just an unconscious gesture of helpless, pointless thought.
My open hand pressed against my skull, the little ring of a charm digging into my forehead, the metal already warm from my hands.
I felt it move.
I jumped, jerking upright. Epsilon looked up at me from the pages he still held. I could only guess he was trying to puzzle out an escape for us from some remote writing of his. I ignored him, staring at the charm in my hand.
It was perfectly still, innocuous. A little ring, tiny on my palm, no bigger than my nose ring. Just as smooth, as blank.
I brought it up almost to my nose to examine it; turning it over in my hands. There was no Ouroborus, no markings whatsoever. It was a full circle now – complete and unblemished.
"E-Epsilon?" I stammered, clueless to what had just happened except that this ring was not normal.
He focused on the ring, comprehension sharpening his gaze. "Let me see it," he commanded, moving closer to look at the little ornament in my hand. I held it out mutely; he gently took the proffered ring, turning it over as I had. His fingers felt odd – as though sheathed in cool water. Insubstantial, but with a solid core that held him together.
"This is the Ouroborus ring you described in your diary?" he asked, though his tone told me he had already guessed the truth. I nodded. "What did you do to change it? What, exactly, did you do?" He was more animated than I'd seen him since the fight in the cottage – and this wasn't the deadly focus of a warrior. This was dangerously, daringly close to hope.
I took the ring back, bewildered. What had I done?
"I... I dunno what I did. I felt it digging me in the leg and thought it might get us out, but remembered what you'd said about the paper – I thought it'd be the same for this. I was just so frustrated and angry that we'd solved this and couldn't do a damn thing about it..." I trailed off; staring at the ring, took it back then reenacted what I'd done. It was remarkably hard to try and remember an inconsequential movement, even if you'd only made it seconds before, but I had more incentive than anybody to remember.
"It was... here. On my forehead. I felt it move, and when I looked at it, the Ouroborus was gone." I looked at Epsilon past my arm, still holding the ring to my brow. Under other circumstances, I would have felt like a right idiot sitting like that, but the thought just didn't enter my head.
Epsilon gently nudged my arm out of the way, stared at my forehead with disconcerting focus with his strange eyes. Then, slowly, as if wary of spooking a wild animal, he delicately touched the dead centre of my forehead with his cool fingers.
I nearly leapt a foot in the air – a silver-white flash had sparked from the point of contact, accompanied by the shadow of a memory of wild music.
All at once, I understood – and remembered with perfect clarity.
"Agapetos!" I blurted out, pointing wildly to my head, nearly jumping with excitement. We were both on our feet; the flash had made us both jump up. "Agapetos' blood! And the ring..." I trailed off, looked around frantically and spied the ring lying patiently next to my bag where I'd dropped it in my shock. I dove for it, snatching it up and looking at it with fresh eyes.
It could be a trap. It could easily be a trap, except for one thing. I just couldn't see a Dark Being tolerating the O, even if it was a disguise. Even Cimul, as Yolandë, had worn the Ouroborus rather than the O, even when trying to trick Mum. Yet Epsilon allowed the Ouroborus in his cottage, even though it was hidden. And besides, why shouldn't Agapetos, or another Bright Being, be able to plant the disguised ring for Avril to find? After all, if it has just been some plain ring, she wouldn't have taken any notice of it; wouldn't have thought of giving it to me. This way, the ring got to where it needed to be.
I was certain. This was no trap.
"Could this be it?" I demanded, holding it up so Epsilon could see it too. "Could this make our bridge home?" I wasn't scared anymore – adrenaline had chased it away. I felt like a living drum – my heart beat pounding through me, making me ready to move. We still had a chance – we had to have.
Epsilon was smiling, a quiet look of wonder lingering in his eyes. I realised that Epsilon didn't really know that much about the one he worked for – not enough to know everything he had planned. And maybe that was necessary – it was like Epsilon often said. We were only fed pieces of the puzzle, bit by bit, never getting the whole puzzle at once in case others were watching. Agapetos had to leave us to figure it out ourselves – but he never abandoned us; he never gave us an impossible task. Like Epsilon never gave me one.
"This is it," he confirmed, and then had to listen to my exuberant yelling as I jumped and punched the air, the ring safely clutched in my closed hand.
"Hurry, Jess!" Epsilon reminded me, and I shut up immediately, though I didn't calm down. From his single nod, I dove to gather my things, stuffing them haphazardly into bag or box. A last glance around told me I'd not forgotten anything. I slung my backpack on, picked the box up under one arm, holding the ring in my free hand.
"So, how does this work?" I asked as I handed the little circle of silver over.
Epsilon held it up at eye-level, a look of deep thought on his face.
"That is like asking how the universe truly began – unanswerable. Though you have a vague idea..." He carefully dropped his hand, leaving the ring suspended in the air before us. I gawped at it, stared at Epsilon's definitely empty hand, then back at the gravity-defying ring.
"What the...?" I attempted and failed to articulate my confusion. He just smiled, a look that matched the feeling of fondness I'd always felt when he, disembodied though he had been, laughed.
"...You could not really say for certain. As you do not understand the workings of your world, nor do I understand the workings of this one. I only know that it follows rules that I am accustomed to, though again I do not know exactly how the rules themselves work."
I paused, trying to make sense of what he'd just said.
"Well, thanks for clearing that up," I settled for eventually, giving in. No way was I going to wrap my head around his cryptic nonsense any time soon, especially when he so much as hinted at science.
He spared an amused glance in my direction.
"Though I know not what I do, be assured that I know how to do it." That made one of us. I just nodded to show I trusted him to get us out of here.
It was just as Epsilon reached out to the ring again, not quite touching it, taking a shallow breath as if to speak, that I heard something. Just a faint shuffling.
We both froze.
I rolled my eyes around my whole field of vision, but saw nothing. Epsilon didn't even move that much – I don't know if he was listening for something or what, but not one muscle – if he has real muscles – twitched in those few tense seconds.
Another soft rustle, almost like fabric, but even softer. Like fur brushing fur. Or feathers.
Epsilon moved, just a flicker of his eyes, at my deep breath in. There was no surprise in his eyes; he must have already figured it out. We had wardens in this blank prison of ours.
A sudden, sibilant hiss from right behind us sent a ripple of shock across my scalp and down my spine, raising every hair.
Epsilon spun, a sword already drawn and slitting the air.
There was an outraged shriek as I whirled to follow the action, but our jailer had retreated beyond the reach of Epsilon's light.
"Did you hit it?" I asked, hearing panic stretching my voice taut. He gave a single shake of his head, once again utterly focused. We stood like that for maybe thirty seconds, with nothing happening. Slowly, not relaxing, Epsilon once again reached out to the ring. Another warning hiss sounded out. Behind me, facing Epsilon. He made a slight gesture, a tiny twitch of his fingers to move behind him.
I was tempted to do what he said; run behind him and hide. But we could do that forever and never get out.
I tilted my head, twice. First one side, then the other. No. Epsilon fixed me with his cold eyes, a silent order to move. I set my jaw and stayed put.
Stalemate. The swan – what else? – wouldn't attack unless we attempted to use the ring. Epsilon wouldn't antagonise it whilst I was in the way. I wouldn't move out of the way.
Knowing I would probably regret it, I bit my tongue and forced the game onwards.
I reached my hand out and touched the ring.
The swan hissed like a hot coal meeting water, and I heard a rush of wings.
I could see Epsilon lunging, trying to get around me before the beast hit. My body knew he wouldn't make it before my mind had registered what it planned to do next.
My pack was only resting on one shoulder. I grabbed the strap and swung, whirling it off my shoulder and around like a throwing hammer.
My bag didn't have much in it, but it was still big enough to knock the swan off-course, and right into Epsilon's range. Faster than a pouncing cat, he leapt forward and met white feathers with sharp metal. The swan screeched and dissipated into the darkness, now a part of its own black world.
I looked up from the ground (I'd fallen on my backside after my wild swing) and met Epsilon's eyes with the worry I'd not shown before. He didn't say anything, just looked at me, unblinking.
"Sorry," I mumbled, starting to get up. I heard a quiet sigh, slightly impatient, and then his hand was under my elbow, helping me up.
"Reckless," he chided. I think he meant it to sound biting, but there was a definite veil of relief cast over that one word. I was just happy that a) we were alive, and b) that was all the scolding I would get. Hopefully.
"There'd better not be any more of those swans about," I muttered nervously, sending wary glances around us into the surrounding darkness. Of course, I couldn't see anything.
"You still have your bag, do you not? If there are, surely you can use it again. It was rather effective." Oh, he had to rib me about it, didn't he? I glared at him, my bag half on my shoulder.
"I'll swing it at you in a minute," I muttered under my breath. I shouldn't have bothered – he heard me anyway.
"In this place, a 'minute' does not exist. Not as you understand it, anyway."
Did he have to have a comeback for everything?
Since I couldn't argue my way out of that one, I shook my bag at him, bluffing. He just smiled and reached for the ring again. This time, no swans came flapping out of the dark to stop him.
I don't know why we felt comfortable enough to be joking, of all things, in this situation. I felt giddy. I think it was from the adrenaline of the encounter with the swan, along with the almost unbearable impatience to get back home. Maybe we both knew that this would be the last moment of calm we would have until this was over. I don't know. I just know that it kept me calm; kept me sane.
As before, his fingertips stopped millimetres shy of the metal. He spoke softly, in a strange language that I couldn't quite make out; as if my ears were suddenly fuzzy. I frowned and strained to make out the words, before I realised that this was no human language. I'm no expert on languages, obviously, but there was something completely... alien about it. It held no resemblance to any language on Earth, of that I was somehow utterly certain.
Could this be spoken Lumic? It occurred to me that I had never heard it before; I'd only seen it in writing.
Then the quiet murmurings came to an end, and it was like touching the ink symbol, only inverted. I was aware of passing out, but it was like slowly drifting away, not a sudden unconsciousness. And instead of fading to black, when I closed my eyes, all I saw was light.