Here it is; the alternate 'explanation' scene/final chapter...which actually ended up being more than twice the length of the original, and I do quite like this one a lot. So I'll leave it up to you, readers, to decide for yourselves which you consider the 'real' end and which you think is the 'alternate' end. Now, you'll probably notice that the chapter starts and ends exactly like the original (so don't worry; I've not posted the same chapter twice!) - but it's the middle that changes and has been edited and added to etc. As a result, once you hit the first change, you might want to read the whole thing through just to catch the changes - some of which are in the original paragraphs that are featured in both versions of this chapter.
Oh, and can I say - I actually worked out what year Sebastian and the twins were born in, as well as when in the year Sebastian was born (any time after July; when he was keeping his diary). All for a tiny detail. I must have been mad XD Speaking of little Seb, I've got a one-shot in mind that revolves around him, if you're interested. If not, I'll probably write it anyway at some point, but interest will probably motivate me to write it sooner (this isn't a bribe, just a fact of my own procrastination XD).
Anyway, I'll be quiet now (other than the upcoming disclaimer) and let you read the alternate/real conclusion to this year and a half long effort XD As always, feedback is greatly appreciated. Thanks again, all of my lovely readers/reviewers/lurkers, for reading and (I hope!) enjoying this fic!
Disclaimer: All characters and settings belong to the brilliant Christine Morton-Shaw.
Perhaps it's a good thing that there are no guys my age here on Lume, and that my chances of getting married before I'm forty are practically non-existent.
No, I'm not suddenly swearing off guys. But I wouldn't half feel sorry for one being introduced to my family and walking into the scene that awaited me when I made my way downstairs.
The three of them (plus Domino lying under the table) were waiting in the kitchen, looking tired and worried. Well, my parents did. Mrs. Shilling was bustling about, cleaning the kitchen counters and sniffing in disapproval at Domino whenever he gazed up at her, hopefully, his tail thudding on the floor in anticipation of a treat.
Mum and Dad looked up when I appeared in the doorway, summoning up smiles and blatantly trying to hide the fact that they'd just been moping into their cups of tea as they thought about how best to interrogate me. Domino turned his canine grin on me and squirmed out from underneath the breakfast table where he'd wedged himself, trotting over and licking my hands, his tail beating a dent in the doorframe. To buy myself some time, I knelt down and gave his ears a good scratch as Avril passed me to sit down.
I kept my head down, babying my dog whilst my brain whirled until Dad called my attention back to the matter at hand – namely, how I'd nearly drowned.
I hadn't told them that I had drowned – I saw no point in worrying them further. As far as anyone other than me and Epsilon knew, I'd fallen into the lake and been pulled out, exhausted and shaken, but alive.
With a heavy, reluctant sigh I sat down as Mum stood up, pouring me a glass of orange juice. Once we were all seated again (sans Mrs. Shilling, still cleaning, and Domino, who lay next to the back door and watched us), Dad reached across the table and covered my hand with his, clearly concerned.
"What happened, kitten? What were you doing out there in the first place?" With an uncomfortable shift in my chair, I looked down at the table, pretending to gather my thoughts.
'I really hate lying to Dad,' I thought wretchedly as I took a sip of juice, still procrastinating.
"Don't lie on my account, Jess,"
My parents and Avril swivelled in their seats to look at the back door while my head snapped up and I choked on my drink, orange juice spraying out of my mouth and nose.
While I coughed and choked and groaned at my burning sinuses, Epsilon stood, semi-corporeal, in the doorway, Domino sat underneath his hand quite happily, a look of amusement on his face. Epsilon's, I mean, not the dog's.
"I- you- who are you? And how did you get in here?" Dad demanded once he'd pulled himself together enough to stop gawping at our friendly intruder. Mum was just staring, her gaze flicking between me (slowly starting to recover now, thank you for your concern, anybody), and Epsilon. Avril was gaping at Epsilon with eyes as wide as Domino's when he's seen a roast chicken.
A dry sniff from behind us drew everyone's attention as Mrs. Shilling turned from her cleaning and sent Epsilon a critical look, before turning on Dad.
"Oh, leave him be, Richard! He's hardly going to steal anything," She snapped, though she levelled a glare at Epsilon that said she dared him to try with her in the house. He just met her red-rimmed stare evenly and nodded his thanks. With another, possibly approving sniff, she turned on Avril – who hadn't blinked the entire time, as far as I'm aware.
"Well, hooligan, what are you doing, sat there gawping like a fish for? Make yourself useful and make everyone tea," Avril turned to face her, mouth still open, this time in incredulity.
Mrs. Shilling tolerated all of two seconds of Avril's wordless sputtering and pointing at Epsilon as if to say 'don't you see the semi-transparent man in the corner?' before marching over and swatting her with the dishcloth she still held.
Avril finally yelped and found her voice in time to yell as she covered her head.
"What are you doing, you mad old hag?"
Red flag to a bull. Mrs. Shilling smacked her with the towel again until she'd herded my unfortunate friend out of her seat and towards the kettle.
Once Avril was meekly making cups of tea (with frequent glares at Mrs. Shilling's back, and glances at Epsilon, who was failing to smother a grin at all of this, as though he usually hung out in our kitchen causing havoc), Mrs. Shilling sighed and sat down in Avril's vacated chair and turned her beady glare on my staring parents.
"Is what that one's got catching?" She asked pointedly with a brief nod towards Avril, and my parents swiftly looked anywhere but her. Then – oh god – she turned to me and sniffed. "Well, speak up girl! I'm sure he's not come to talk to any of us,"
I blinked, then fished my tongue out of my stomach and turned to Epsilon, who just gave me an amused smile as he idly scratched Domino's ears. The silly hound was in heaven. Lucky him.
"What are you doing here, Epsilon?" I finally managed, picking up on what my great-aunt had implied.
Before I could get an answer, however, Dad risked Mrs. Shilling's wrath and interrupted.
"Wait just a second! Jessica, you know him?" He was looking rapidly between me and Epsilon again, utter bemusement written on his face.
"Um..." Oh, what the hell. If Epsilon was standing – now solid, which had thankfully improved everyone's ability to think clearly again – in my kitchen, that was a pretty good indicator that my keeping him a secret was over. "Yes. He sort of lives on our land. Has done for ages. Literally, ages," I added with a pointed glance at the man in question, who just nodded amicably. The bloody Bright Being was going to let me answer all the questions, I could just tell.
Dad was impersonating a basking shark again. I swear I could see his tonsils from across the table.
"He-he what? Where?" He was blatantly staring at Epsilon now, though I think he was still talking to me. I just hope he wasn't thinking of trying to evict our otherworldly lodger.
I sighed. May as well tell them everything at once. Even Mum was looking wide-eyed at this latest development – I'd never told her exactly where Epsilon lived; I'd wanted to keep my sanctuary to myself for a while. Avril was shaking her head in disbelief as she ferried tea cups across to the table. And you didn't believe me when I told you any of this. Hah!
"Alright! Everyone, shut up if you want to know what's going on." No one was actually talking, but my order made me centre of attention and effectively silenced everyone until I had finished speaking.
I couldn't help making a last jab at Avril as she pulled out another chair and sat down before explaining, however.
"I don't know why you're so surprised by all this, you know. I told you almost all of this as it was happening – you were the one who laughed it off as an Enid Blyton spin-off!" That snapped her out of her dazed look of shock and summoned up one of her customary scowls.
"Oh, shut up and get on with it," She muttered. I raised an eyebrow at her.
"Isn't that a bit contradictory?" I think Epsilon's irritating demeanour is rubbing off on me. Regardless, Avril fumed wordlessly, unable to come up with a suitable retort, and resorted to kicking me under the table.
A sharp reprimand from Dad brought me back to the topic at hand.
My last delay was a sharp look at Epsilon and a stern 'you're helping me with this', before going back to my stroppy fourteen-year-old self and the conversation with Avril that 'V' had gate crashed, then my shovel theft that led me to the cottage. Epsilon, true to his word, chipped in to help me explain the finer points, and laughed when I sheepishly recounted my early theories that he was either a teenage hacker or a ghost. I'm not sure which he found more entertaining. We told them about Sebastian, turning mainly to Mrs. Shilling during these parts of the story. I could tell from her rare smile that she enjoyed these glimpses into her father's life, as odd as they were, and I decided to give her Sebastian's diary pages to read. She positively cackled (Avril leaned away from her muttering 'witch') when I, hoping to get Epsilon in trouble, told her about his random appearances that used to make Sebastian jump. Unfortunately, she seemed as tolerant of Epsilon's 'accidental' pranks as she was of mine.
They were all deathly silent when I, a faint frown of unease creasing my forehead, told my side of Mum's increasing oddity that summer, my encounter with the swan – Dad looked horrified that the bird he'd been photographing was so wrapped up in the madness – and the days leading up to the Greet. I didn't spare myself or Epsilon; I told them all how uncertain I'd been, of him and of Sebastian and my own capability. Mum looked faint when I told them about the night of the Greet, and just how close things had come. I think seeing Martha in that cavern helped drive home just how much danger we'd all been in. The only one of them who looked comparatively undisturbed when, in a hushed tone, I'd described Cimul, was Mrs. Shilling. When Mum added her account of her dazed awakening and her realisation of how Martha had died, it was our aunt who covered Mum's had with her own, her bony knuckles white with the grip. But when we all looked up at her, it wasn't sympathy or horror in Mrs. Shilling's eyes. It was fury for what had been done to her grandmother, and for the lost life her father had led because of it.
Hers was one of the few interruptions; she turned to me with anger still glinting in her black eyes and asked me one question.
"I've already guessed the answer, girl, but confirm it for me. Did you destroy that monster?"
I took a second to really think over the answer, looking to Epsilon for any clues on how to respond. He straightened from where he'd been resting against the door, subtly drawing attention to himself.
"Cimul was defeated last night, and Jess and I will, once she has recovered, ensure that he can never harm anyone again. Jess will tell you the details, but I can assure you, Bridie, that Cimul is trapped as Martha once was, and will remain that way," While I wondered when the two had come to be on first name terms, Mrs. Shilling nodded, her eyes still severe, but losing that furious cast. The idea that Cimul was suffering the way her grandmother had obviously appealed to my great-aunt. With another nod and a brusque 'well, carry on girl!' I completed the first part of my tale, my voice soft with wonder when I told them about Agapetos' appearance, then, with a tired sigh, began the second with another chat room conversation.
This half didn't take as long; I was surprised when I realised that everything had happened in a matter of five days, if I counted today as the day of the fight at the lake (which technically, since it was in the early hours of this morning, it was). Mum gave her disappointed 'oh, Jess' when she realised I'd not told her the whole truth in our little talks, and Avril looked suitably shell-shocked when she realised what her present really was. Both reactions I brushed off in favour of completing the tale. Night had fully fallen by the time I brought us up to the events of this morning, with Epsilon pulling me out of the lake and my current audience finding us on the lakeside.
When my parents realised I had actually drowned, Dad dropped his head into his hands and Mum covered her suddenly bloodless lips, her eyes huge. They both looked shaky, and I had to reach across and grip their hands to remind them that I was still alive and breathing. It was an awkward stretch to reach them both, but I didn't mind. After a few seconds, they managed to push away their terror of nearly losing me and held my hands on the table, letting me sit up a little straighter and turn to Epsilon, a half-joking question ready to distract everyone.
"Anyway, when did you learn CPR?" He stole my joking grin effortlessly, however, with an elegant shrug and a simple;
"You didn't require it." Okay, what?
My customary hesitation and frown of confusion drew everyone else's attention.
"Yes, I did, Epsilon. I definitely wasn't breathing when I was pulled out of the lake," I asserted, certain in my conviction. His slow smile confounded me, however.
"You did not. We reached the bank, and you began to breathe again," I started to silently question his sanity again, but remembered the last time that had happened, I'd been proven wrong.
"But I was dead, Epsilon. I'm pretty sure dead people don't just start breathing for themselves again," I felt both of my parents' hands twitch in mine when I said 'dead', and absently squeezed them both to reassure them, all the while locking eyes with Epsilon and trying to wring some sense out of him.
"If you weren't conscious, Jess, how do you know any of what you're saying is true?" Damn his common sense. I hesitated, trying to find something to counter that.
"Logic," I replied finally, my tone all too defensive to be confident. Epsilon was wearing that faintly smug, innocent smile that said he was going to tear apart any argument I could throw at him. I was familiar enough with it by now that I had little hope in besting him.
"I was, what, twenty or thirty feet down when I started to inhale water and blacked out. Cimul was still able to move at this point – he let go of me to deal with you. Even if you took care of him in a matter of seconds, it would have taken too long to get me to the surface before I stopped breathing and died," I surprised myself with how easily I found it to say 'I died' – it was fairly easy to stay detached from what I was actually saying unless I remembered the suffocating pressure of taking in water; of breathing but there being no air there. To keep myself calm, I purposely avoided thinking about what had happened. It worked to an extent.
Uh-oh. That smile again.
"So, supposing you had died and required CPR – which wouldn't cure death, regardless...where are the bruises; the fractured bones? Such a technique usually leaves its marks," And damn him, he was right. I was peppered with bruises already, from the events of the past five days. The most noticeable now were the bands of livid purple and red around my throat – a memento of Cimul's grip. If that had bruised me, then CPR definitely would have done. And, I now realised with a grimace, he was right about needing CPR too – if I'd died, it was practically useless.
It still didn't explain how I'd survived, though.
Epsilon must have seen the confusion and defeat in my face, and in the way my hand rose to gingerly brush my neck.
"I won't debate your condition, Jess. You were as weak as you say you were – but you could be called back, if not by your world's means," That got my attention, and earned Epsilon a rather inarticulate 'huh?'. He just gave that annoyingly knowing smile and said nothing.
So...I was saved by Epsilon using some sort of Being ability? That was...odd, but not utterly unexpected, I guess. It's strange how much you can think of as 'expected' when you've been around Epsilon for a while.
My family didn't seem to be as concerned with the means of my survival, so much as the fact that I had actually survived.
Dad was still sat, shocked that he'd been oblivious to the danger the rest of his family had been in over the past two years. Mum was holding his free hand with hers; they both still had hold of me, and I could feel Dad shaking slightly. A glance at his face showed that his eyes looked glassy.
On impulse, I let go of them and stood up, walking around the table to hug him tightly, and abruptly found myself sitting on his knee as though I were five again. For once I didn't complain, however, and just held my Dad until he'd stopped trembling.
"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you about this earlier," I said, my voice muffled by the shoulder of his jumper. He just nodded, his bony chin bumping into my collarbone, the motion releasing another wave of that sharp, chemical smell he had. When he let me go, he brusquely wiped his eyes and patted my back to make me stand up, muttering something about getting the brandy before disappearing into the old pantry.
With a long sigh, I sat back in my own seat and relaxed, idly noticing the new lightness that sat where my guilt about lying to Dad used to be. Mum looked as though she felt the same, a thoroughly exhausted but content smile on her face as she picked up the by now empty mugs and glass on the table and set the by the sink to be washed later, then dug out smaller, squat glasses for the brandy. Avril was eyeing the pantry door, obviously in need of a glass of alcohol herself. The only ones who looked unfazed by the evening's developments were Epsilon, Mrs. Shilling and Domino, who had lay down at Epsilon's feet and was snoring softly, barely twitching when Dad passed him both on the way into and out of the pantry.
I was surprised when Mum, with only a bit of nervous stuttering, offered Epsilon a glass. I gaped at him when he politely accepted.
He obviously caught my expression and raised an inquisitive eyebrow that shut my mouth before I answered him.
"I didn't know you drank," I muttered, trying not to sound accusatory. Epsilon just laughed.
"Of course I do. I drank at the Greet, if you remember,"
Oh yeah. Tipsy Mike in the red beret, sharing his drink with Mrs. Shilling. Though when I'd realised that was Epsilon, I'd just thought the weaving and slight slurring was an act.
Dad was shaking his head.
"I still can't believe you were Mike," He muttered as he doled out the alcohol, passing the glasses to Mum, who shared them out.
I just stared at Dad as Epsilon accepted his drink with a soft 'thank you'.
"You can't believe he was disguised as someone else – which normal humans can do as well – when he's just appeared out of thin air in your kitchen, and was semi-transparent for at least part of our conversation? Come on, Dad," I complained. Dad winced apologetically.
"I'm sorry, kitten. It's just...a lot to take in," He gave a shaky laugh and downed half of his drink in one. The burn seemed to steady him slightly as Mum pressed my own glass into my hand.
"Leave your Dad alone, Jess. He's not had long to adjust to all of this, and he found it all out at once," Oh, so now my parents were ganging up on me. Avril didn't help by gulping down her drink and sending a jokey 'yeah Jess!' my way before helping herself to a second glass. God help her liver, because she won't. Not that I can talk, anyway.
It was surreal, to say the least, to have Epsilon drinking with us all, especially once Mum had recovered enough to offer him a seat at the table. Any observer would have thought it a normal domestic scene; the family of four and their two guests, beginning to talk freely as the drink relaxed us all. The very thought was enough to make me giggle into my glass, though that might have been the brandy. Avril had three glasses before Mum caught on and kept the bottle away from her. It didn't stop Avril from laughing at everything and hanging around my neck as she talked, or eventually falling asleep with her head on the table. When she and Domino – now relocated between my seat and Epsilon's – started to snore in sync, I laughed myself silly until Mum took the brandy off me as well and told me to help her take Avril upstairs.
Once we'd left her lying her on her stomach, snoring contentedly, and headed back downstairs, we heard Dad bidding the others a goodnight, only slurring slightly, and retreating to bed. When we were in view of the kitchen again, we found Mrs. Shilling and Epsilon talking like old friends catching up. I still don't know what they were talking about, because they stopped when we came back in, but I do know that they were the last up, after I'd started to doze at the table and been sent up after Avril. In my slightly inebriated state, I went round and hugged everyone goodnight – Epsilon included, which I wouldn't have done normally. I think I said something to the effect of;
"Thank god you're not all ghost-y, otherwise I'd have fallen right through you and that would have been very, very embarrassing," I stated with the careful, deliberate pronunciation of the drunk who knows they've had a bit too much and want to hide it. Epsilon had just laughed, agreed with me, and bid me goodnight without a trace of intoxication. Jerk.
When I asked Mum the next morning, she said that the two had still been talking, with or without the drink, when she had given up and gone to bed, asking Mrs. Shilling to lock up for her. My great aunt had waved her off with a terse 'oh, stop fussing and go to bed, Elizabeth. You're dead on your feet' and continued talking.
Most of us were fully recovered by the next morning, having slept deeply thanks to the brandy. Avril, however, stumbled out of bed at three in the afternoon – at least an hour and a half after me – moaning about her headache.
While she recovered in the kitchen with Domino resting a sympathetic head on her knee, I was sought out by Mrs. Shilling, who told me to get my coat.
"Why, where are we going?" I asked as I grabbed my jacket from the bottom of the banister post. It was still the middle of summer; and absolutely sweltering. I'd bake if I took my coat with me.
She just sniffed and glared as she shrugged on her ratty old coat.
"For a walk, girl, what else?" Apparently her friendly chat with Epsilon had done nothing to soften her innate irritation at everything I did.
So out we went, just the two of us, heading at a brisk walk towards the village.
I was mystified. Other than Doctor Parker, I couldn't see a reason for Mrs. Shilling to visit anyone here; and she knew how much I disliked the Doctor.
"Mrs. Shilling, who are we going to see?" I panted as we strode up the path to the village. She still walked surprisingly quickly for her age.
Such an odd little smile quirked her lips.
"Just an old friend, girl. Be patient!" Says the one moving ten times faster than we had to be.
But as we moved closer to the village, I realised we weren't heading for the houses.
We were going to the graveyard.
Slowly, a suspicion started to form, but I stayed quiet as Mrs. Shilling led me through the rows of headstones and plaques. Past the newer section of the graveyard, and into the old section. Some of the graves in here dated back to the sixteenth century, but we were here for someone a lot younger.
We stopped in front of a traditionally shaped headstone, but the material was as odd as its commissioner had been deemed. Volcanic rock, and into it was carved an all-too familiar name.
'Sebastian Edmond Wren
17th September 1879 – 12th April 1977'
There was no epitaph. In the end, no one had known or cared about the mad old man in the Big House enough to contribute one.
For some reason, that made a lump rise in my throat. I'd never known Sebastian except through his diary pages, but I still felt as close to him as I did to Avril. He was still family, and that he'd had no one to care about him when he died hurt me more than I thought it ever could.
Sniffling, I knelt down in front of the marker, Mrs. Shilling sitting next to me stiffly. We'd picked flowers as we walked, Mrs. Shilling seemingly idly at first, but I'd picked up on her pointed glares and joined in.
There were the skeletons of previous bouquets, withered on the grass, but one stood out as fresh. Small, white and yellow summer flowers, bound together by a tiny ring of dark wood. Epsilon.
With conspirator's smiles, we added our flowers and set about clearing away the dead ones and cleaning the place up as best as possible.
By the time we were finished, Sebastian's grave was free of the rampaging weeds, our three bright little bundles of flowers provided a stark contrast to the dark glass of his headstone, and Mrs. Shilling and I were covered in dirt and scraps of leaf. Neither of us had brought gloves, so our fingernails were caked with soil. We stared at each other's grubby faces for a second – I noticing a streak of mud brushed across her forehead, she critically noting the dandelion seeds that had trapped themselves in my hair – and burst out laughing. Well, I did. Mrs. Shilling was slightly more dignified than I was, but we were both gasping for breath by the time we'd calmed down enough to start meandering home.
On the way home, I remembered Seb's diary pages, and quickly hid a grin before turning to my great aunt, who was trying in vain to dust the dirt from her coat – I don't know what year that particular layer of dirt had settled there, but it must have been a few years ago. She'd been beating at the abused fabric since we left the graveyard, and still the odd plume of dust or shower of dirt would fall from the coat.
"I've got a surprise for you too, Mrs. Shilling," At that she stopped trying to reverse time and glared at me suspiciously. I just smiled and led the way, past the Big House (waving to Mum through the kitchen window as I went) and into the woods northeast of the house.
"Where in the blazes are we going, girl? Have you and that hoodlum been sneaking more brandy?" She groused as I wound my familiar way through the vegetation. Recalling the pitiful state Avril had been in this afternoon, I laughed and shook my head.
"Not today, Mrs. Shilling. We're almost there," I added, not quite answering her first question. Her disapproving sniff told me she noticed, but she didn't call me on it.
I don't know why I decided to show Mrs. Shilling the cottage first, instead of Mum or Avril. But I guess Mrs. Shilling was linked to this place more than they were, even though she never knew it existed. Like so many things had on this island, showing her first just felt right.
As we emerged into the clearing, her footsteps slowed in realisation as she figured out where we were.
I turned and grinned at her, letting her absorb it at her own pace before taking stock myself. I realised that the windows were all fixed, even the ones that had originally been broken.
But...something seemed off. Then I realised that these sheets of glass weren't the smooth panes I'd expected. The glass was warped; old, stained with age. I couldn't hold back my beaming grin. Epsilon had already started to work on repairing the cottage.
Slowly, Mrs. Shilling ventured forward, drawing my attention as she came level with me, then passed me. I followed just behind her, only stepping forward to shoulder the half-closed door fully open. Its change from the day before yesterday didn't worry me this time; Epsilon had been here since.
I'll admit; I was quite excited myself. I wanted to see the cottage's recovery as much as I wanted to surprise Mrs. Shilling.
Before entering, I turned to her to offer a quick warning.
"It might be in a bit of a mess – Epsilon's not very tidy at the best of times, and this place was trashed when I was here the other night-" She was waving off my forewarnings, however.
"Hush, girl. Just let me see," There was a soft expectation in her voice that surprised me. She sounded almost – God forbid – teary.
Hastily, I stepped aside and let her step into the cottage. I could tell the moment her eyes had adjusted because her whole face softened and her eyes lit up with wonder. Then I turned around and promptly did the same.
Light still flooded in through the windows, showing the repaired floor. Close inspection showed hairline cracks where the tiles had been pieced together and sealed. The ammonites were still in place, peeking out from under the two rugs spread across the floor, its dusty old stitching repaired. The bookcase was standing, the broken stalactite I'd grabbed as an impromptu knife placed along the top in its two halves. The shelves along the wall that had been splintered and torn down had been replaced, the fractured piece of lava sitting on its usual shelf, though it no longer froze on the cusp of falling. A lot of Epsilon's old knick-knacks were there, still broken but left as a reminder. A few were being replaced; mainly the little jars of incense that always seemed to be in a different place each time I came here. When I first found the cottage, they were upstairs, in the bedroom. But occasionally they would move around the room; from cupboard to windowsill to standing in little heaps on the floor. One day I walked in to find them downstairs; they'd stayed there since, but had continued their trend of moving around the room. It made me grin whenever I saw a pot somewhere daft – like on top of the doorframe, one day – or sat with the lid half-on, as though they'd just been used – though for what, I've no clue. It just reinforced that Epsilon did, in fact, live here; and obviously pottered about when I wasn't here being nosy. It was both an odd yet comforting thought; sometimes it was easy to forget that he existed at times other than when he was being convenient (or inconvenient) for me, and it was nice to be reminded that I was wrong.
As I browsed through the newly made little vials, I noticed that one stood apart from the rest, its jar painstakingly pieced back together and held in shape by – of all things – sellotape, with the roll lying next to it as though recently used. It must have been the same reel I'd brought down a few months ago; the corners of the box file had become worn and started to split, but I didn't want to shift everything to a new box. Instead, I'd mummified the box in tape to hold the corners together.
Stepping away from the door as Mrs. Shilling, struck dumb, wandered around the space, peering into every corner with a childlike amazement at everything; I made my way over to the bench. Carefully picking up the little jar, I couldn't help my broad smile at its new but worn label: SPICES OF THE ORIENT.
Gently setting it down, I glanced about the kitchen again, my eyes landing on the rocking chair in the corner that Mrs. Shilling was examining. This, like the bookcase and shelves, actually looked new. When I went over to investigate, I realised that it was still being made; there was a pattern being carved along the top of its back, only half finished, and the floor around it was cushioned with wood shavings. It looked like Epsilon had made them himself. A second look at the dark wood of the bookcase confirmed it – the same lazy pattern of wild climbing roses intertwined with vines was carved along the sides, mimicking the explosion of flowers that coated the cottage walls in summer.
Turning away, I faced one of the benches that usually held miscellaneous trinkets, but now was clear except for a heavy piece of wood, already partially shaped. Though it hadn't yet been hollowed through, the outline of the wooden 'O' was unmistakable.
Unable to suppress the laugh soaring in my throat, I spun to face Mrs. Shilling – who was currently putting the sellotaped pot down hastily, her nose wrinkled at the pungent aroma. She tried to glare at my snicker, but couldn't quite manage it. The look of wonder still hadn't left her ancient face.
"What do you think?" I couldn't help but ask. My great aunt stared around the room again once, as though assessing her own reaction, then granted me a cracked, watery smile.
"It's wonderful," She said, shaking her head as though in disbelief. I grinned back in reply.
"There's more, you know. This way," Eagerly, I led her up the stairs – now debris-free and fixed – past the unaltered pigeon's room (as I'd come to think of it), and into the main bedroom.
Immediately, my eyes went to the walls.
No scars. No symbols. No Cimul.
Just plain, blank walls, with the occasional picture. The star charts had been redone, the hammock mended (though I could see the knots where Epsilon had patched the slashes) the desk's wood smooth and unmarked, cluttered with its usual slew of papers and dried quills. Resting on it was a picture frame, square, but empty. Or...not empty, but with a picture in the reverse, so all I could see was the blank back of the parchment.
I'd had no clue what Epsilon meant by 'the picture' – until now. I remembered seeing my jeans in the wash basket, the picture still in its pocket. I'd retrieve it later – Mum always checked out pockets before putting things in the wash, just in case.
That frame still made me slightly uneasy, but I stubbornly ignored it as I headed to the desk, crouching to pull out the drawer that held my box file.
"This isn't all I brought you here to see," I said over my shoulder. Mrs. Shilling looked up from the star charts, watching as I hefted the heavy file out of the drawer and onto the desk. She approached quietly as I carefully rifled through the pages, pausing only at the worn, aged papers to pull them out and set them on the desk.
Once all of Sebastian's diary pages were sitting on the desk, I gathered them up and gently handed them to her. She looked at me sharply, then down at the rushed, fine lines of ink that formed my face. Her eyes went wide with shock, and she swiftly turned the page around, the black orbs running over the spindly writing. I saw the realisation dawn in her eyes as she read the first few words. Slowly, she backed towards the hammock, the way I had once done reading those same pages, and sank down amongst the cushions, heedless of the questionable stability of the hammock.
Just now I have dreamed of a girl. She was sleeping in my bedchamber, in my swan bed. Just as Epsilon had said...
I sat silently as she read, revisiting that first terrifying night with the resigned amusement of hindsight. I'd scared myself so much – as had Epsilon – that I'd made myself ill. Almost as though summoned by the memory, I thought I saw a shimmer of silver by the desk.
I narrowed my eyes accusatorily at it, and it shifted remorselessly in response. I pursed my lips and glowered in my best impersonation of the woman next to me, but remained silent so that I didn't disturb her. Mutually, the silver sheen shivered over to the window, as though looking out at the brilliant afternoon sky. Content, I turned back to my great aunt and silently followed the last few words with her as she mouthed them to herself.
As Agapetos is my witness, so signed by my hand, this fourteenth day of July, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and ninety-four. Sebastian Wren, aged thirteen years.
Reverently, she brushed a hand over his fingerprint; the closest she'd come to holding her father's hand again.
Quietly, I shifted to get her attention, touching the edges of the stacked pages in her lap as she looked at me with a mixture of joy and grief on her weathered old face.
"These are Sebastian's diary entries from the year his mother went missing. There aren't very many, but you're welcome to read them, and the rest of the file," I said gently, waving at the box on the desk.
I saw the understanding light in her eyes, and the gratitude as she turned back to me from glancing at the box.
"Thank you, Jessica," It was rare for Mrs. Shilling to use my name – usually it was just 'girl' – and it showed how much my showing her all this meant to her. She had another link to Sebastian; it may not have been a pleasant one – this was the year that changed her father's life and, arguably, destroyed him and his whole family. But it brought her closer to him, and that was what mattered most to her.
I just smiled at her and squeezed her hand when it patted mine. Then she seemed to recover herself slightly, her sharp eyes going straight to the window.
"And for goodness sake, will you stop hovering like an uncertain houseguest? Honestly," She grumbled as, laughing, Epsilon did his funny fade-in thing; taking on his half-solid form as the glaring sunlight filled the window, half filtering through him to form a hazy shadow.
"I apologise, but I have been scolded for appearing without warning before." Epsilon stated as he sketched out a contrite bow. Yes, that pointed glance was definitely directed at me. "Fortunately you seem to have sharper eyes than your great-niece,"
"Hey!" I protested. Mrs. Shilling just sniffed; her unimpressed demeanour firmly back in place.
"I said you were short-sighted, girl," She commented blandly before standing and carefully tucking the diary pages back into the file, leaving me to reorder them later since right then I was more concerned with fuming silently at the pair of them. They were ganging up on me!
Before I could think of a witty retort (let's face it, I'm against two experts here. My odds are poor at best) Mrs. Shilling turned away from the file, though her wrinkled hand rested on it, as though reluctant to part from it.
"I'll read the other pages another day. I can't risk taking them home and having that hooligan destroying them," She announced. Not that it would matter – I'm sure Epsilon could replace them with his weird little time-jumps if Avril were to somehow damage them, though I decided against voicing this. I'd probably get a lecture on abusing time travel or something if I did. Conniving, ancient gits, both of them.
I was pulled out of my less-than-complementary thoughts by Mrs. Shilling leading the way down the stairs, tutting in exasperation when she realised I was still staring into space.
"Well get a move on, girl! I'll give your food to that beast of a dog of yours if you're late to dinner because you're too busy flitting about with the fairies!" That got my legs moving, and when I half turned to glare at the muffled laughter behind me, Epsilon was gone.
The rest of Avril's stay passed in a lazy, dream-like haze. I spent a lot of my time being questioned constantly about Epsilon and everything related to him, usually by Dad or Avril. Mrs. Shilling would finish her self-assigned chores in record speed then vanished for hours at a time; no doubt down at the cottage, reading her father's life. Otherwise, Avril and I had a normal holiday; we danced, we played music too loudly, we spent far too much time on the internet, giggling over one thing or another.
In short, I could relax; I didn't have to be frightened of what I would see in town when we went shopping for trinkets for Avril's family. On one of the days we went in, Ely, Luke and Dr. Parker were all sat outside Jerry Cork's house. Dr. Parker's car was outside, so I guessed he was doing his rounds and was stopping to tend to Jerry's hands. The four men were quiet though; sombre. When Avril and I passed, they glanced up. Luke looked away immediately, followed by a morose Jerry. Dr. Parker nodded and attempted a cheery hello, but sounded strained and bleak instead before turning away again, his head down. Ely stared at me the longest, saying nothing, but when he finally lowered his pale eyes, there was a weariness in the action that said more than Dr. Parker's blustering ever could.
These men were broken, defeated, and I couldn't help but pity them.
When Avril finally left, and we'd waved until her ferry was out of sight, I called Domino and told Dad I was going for a walk. Dad nodded and headed to the beach for some photos. I went straight to the cottage.
The cottage looked in better repair than I'd ever seen it. It still looked ancient from the outside; the roses already starting to choke the windows and block out the light, and the roof over the pigeon's room was still riddled with holes and missing tiles, but inside it looked brilliant. Still old, still quirky and foreign and slightly ramshackle, with an air of harmless chaos about the place, but fresher than it was. No broken tiles, bright sunlight gleaming in through the tops of the windows, where the glass was cleaner and not obscured by rampaging flora. The sawdust and wood shavings had been swept outside, with just the odd curl of bark and the sharp, warm scent of crafted timber left to show they had been there. The furniture was complete; the patterns carved and wood smoothed down until it reflected the light without any gloss paint or finish to make it shine.
The decorations were repaired or replaced as well; the wooden O was finished and stood silent vigil on its restored shelf; the jars of incense were scattered about in their usual harebrained manner – I spied a couple hiding behind the bristles of a broom that was so choked with dust that I doubted it had been used since the cottage was built. Whenever that was. I wondered if Epsilon had heard me talking to Mrs. Shilling and was purposefully living up to his messy reputation. Then again, I guess he could afford to be this disorganised – if I had forever to look for something I'd misplaced, I wouldn't be too concerned about leaving things lying around in odd places.
Smiling fondly at his quirks, I shook my head at my currently-absent host and made my way upstairs, my humour fading away as I recalled the picture folded up in my jeans pocket, rescued from the washing machine. It wasn't the picture that bothered me; on the contrary, I liked it. It was its twin that unnerved me; or rather what its twin had become.
The frame was still lying on the desk where Epsilon had left it; the metal slightly dented and scratched after its fall out of the window.
I pulled the round picture out of my pocket, unfolding it carefully, but I hesitated to put it back in the frame. I didn't want to touch that thing after the face I'd seen in it.
"It's no longer there, Jess."
I turned at Epsilon's voice, smiled when I saw him standing in front of the mirror – the way he'd done before I first opened the silver boxes, scaring me half to death in the process.
This time, he didn't disappear when I blinked. Instead, he walked over and picked up the frame. I chewed on my lip, eyeing the frame nervously, but not for long. He turned the wood over briskly, showing the Ouroborus and its title. Black and gold. That was it. With a sigh, I let my breath out and nodded, carefully taking the frame Epsilon handed me and replacing the picture I'd torn from it. As soon as I did, a deep sense of relief and satisfaction spread through me. By the time Epsilon had replaced the frame on the wall, I was smiling. When he turned and smiled back, I laughed. It was good to feel safe again.
"I'm surprised at how much better this place looks – you've got a lot done in under two weeks," I said, waving an arm around at the cottage in general after boosting myself up into the hammock.
"I mean, I dunno how long it takes to make a bookcase or rocking chair, but I'd guess it'd take a while, especially with everything else to fix – but you made those in just a couple of days!"
He seemed amused at that, if his grin was anything to go by.
"I've had plenty of time in which to repair the cottage," He replied innocently. I just raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yeah, plenty of time...fifty years in the future or past!" I pointed out. He just laughed and didn't deny anything.
Rolling my eyes at him, I rummaged through my backpack – a new one, since the old one had stank of mildew and old water, even after drying out – and pulled out the book of songs, leaving my swinging seat to hide it in the draw with the box file.
The action reminded me of the not-so-pleasant task awaiting us at the Ouroborus Stone. I grimaced as I stood up, glancing out of the window towards the Stone, though it wasn't visible from here.
"So, getting rid of Cimul's body I understand. But how are we going to stop the stone from being used again?" I asked. After all, even though the thicket had kept people out til then, all it had taken was me hacking away with a pocket knife to reach it and clear it. Anyone else could do the same, and bring him back.
"Your idea to bury the body in the ocean was a good one," He said, straightening from where he'd 'rested' against the wall, though his body was once again in that half-there, half-mist state. I just rolled my eyes at him again as he spoke – if anyone else had said that, I'd have known they'd read my diary. With Epsilon, it was just a given that he knew things. Hell, he might have seen me writing that entry. I had no way of knowing, so I didn't call him on it.
"But?" I prompted, catching the drawn-out tone that typically precluded the word. Epsilon smiled at my perceptiveness and continued.
"But not the one we will use. As for the Ouroborus Stone, it should be destroyed. That way, it cannot be used again. The body can be dealt with at the same time,"
Well, that was simple. Not.
"I don't know about you, Epsilon, but without a sledgehammer and more muscle than I've got, I can't break that thing apart. Never mind smashing up stone, have you seen the size of that thing? It's practically a table!" But he was holding up a hand to quiet me, which I reluctantly complied with.
"I don't expect you to destroy it, Jess," Though he looked very entertained by the mental image of me waving a sledgehammer about, I'm sure. He was holding back a grin, anyway. "And sledgehammers won't be necessary," He added. Well, good for him. Maybe we were going to blow it up or something. I wouldn't put it past him, at any rate.
Epsilon waved me out of my thoughts on pyrotechnics and out of the cottage, Domino following us when we found him in the kitchen, sneezing at the wood shavings.
It was strange, going anywhere with Epsilon. Usually, he'd drive me up the wall for ten minutes, finally give me a clue I could understand, then send me packing (i.e. running all over the island). If he needed to talk to me again, he'd either tell me to come back to the cottage, or make his presence known wherever I was. This walk across our land, and the mad run towards the village last night, had been the only times I'd actually travelled with Epsilon (I don't count trailing a drunk Mike-in-the-red-beret along the beach, on the night of the Greet, since I didn't know it was Epsilon at the time). I guess I'm trying to wrap my mind around walking anywhere with someone who can randomly appear and disappear at will.
We didn't talk on the way to the Ouroborus Stone; both of us content to leave the other to their thoughts and laugh at Domino blinking in confusion at a particularly swift rabbit that seemed to vanish into its bolt hole, leaving my dog staring at empty ground, bemused.
As I started to recognise the forest around the stone, the nerves that I'd kept at bay until then finally broke out of their cage and started beating against my insides like startled bats. It may be Cimul, and it may be a brain-dead Cimul, but it was still a body. One we were going to dispose of.
At the thought, I grimaced in distaste. Both for what we had to do; and that I sounded like a rather bad crime novel.
As we approached the clearing, I kept my eye on Domino; watching for any sign of distress or disgust – he had a sharp nose, and the body had been there for three days now. I had no idea if Cimul's body worked the same way a human one did, but if it was dead when it was made or crafted or whatever, then by now, especially in the middle of a baking summer, it would have started to decompose.
The thought of looking at a rotting corpse made the bats in my stomach make a bid for freedom up my throat; bringing bile with them.
But Domino was rooting about, sniffing at everything calmly as usual, so I pushed my nausea down. If he didn't smell anything...bad, then chances are the body would just lie there, unchanging, until it was occupied.
Despite my reassurances, when we reached the clearing I still hung back until Epsilon had gone in first, fidgeting nervously as Domino woofed and followed, bounding after our guide. I'm a coward, I know. But with both Epsilon and Domino heading into the clearing with no fear, I had no choice but to follow.
Epsilon was waiting, and offered up a sympathetic smile when I shuffled into sight.
Biting my tongue to distract myself from the gruesome images my imagination was firing at me, I finally turned to look at the Ouroborus Stone, and Cimul.
Motionless. Shedding, obsidian skin. Rows of snakes lining his arms and legs. Open, sightless eyes.
His monster's face contorted in fury.
Gone was the manic glee; even this empty husk reflected Cimul's defeat, and his rage.
I turned away with a shudder, repulsed. I knew we'd won, but this hollow demon still terrified me.
Behind me, I heard a low rustle. Glad of the distraction, I turned to see Epsilon pulling at the net of thorns I'd cut away from the stone. The snarled mass fell apart under his hands; even faster when Domino, spying a new game, jumped on it, protected from the thorns by his thick fur and tough paw pads.
We both laughed, and I went over to help pull the tangle apart.
"This should make good kindling," Epsilon explained, but I frowned.
"If people see smoke, they're going to come running. A fire could wipe out the whole forest, it's so dry," I said, worried. The last thing I wanted was to accidentally set the woods on fire.
Epsilon grinned, however.
"Pet Domino," He ordered suddenly. I blinked at him, confused. He just smiled and repeated himself. Slowly, I bent to obey, calling my dog to me. His tail waved and he trotted over, always ready for a good scratch.
I went to brush his back, and frowned. Tried again.
I couldn't touch him.
Then, it all clicked – sort of.
I turned back to Epsilon, and suddenly Domino bumped against my hands, able to be touched again.
"You can control who – or what – touches something..." I said slowly, as though sounding out my half-formed revelation. "...so can you control who sees something, too?" I asked, recalling the glimpses of the past Epsilon had once given me – and the times I'd spoken to him, but not seen him. Epsilon nodded serenely, as though it were perfectly normal. I gawped at him for a second, then shook off my surprise and shut my mouth. At least I didn't have to worry about the fire getting out of hand – the flames wouldn't touch anything they weren't meant to.
"A fire will take care of the body, but what about the stone? And won't..." My queasy stomach interfered with my throat for a moment, strangling my voice until I cleared it. "Won't it stink? The body, I mean," Ugh. I did not want to be here when Cimul's body started cooking.
Epsilon nodded, but it looked more thoughtful than affirmative.
"Don't concern yourself with the former, and we will be gone before the latter becomes a problem," He said soothingly, though I still struggled to push away my worries.
Epsilon straightened from dismantling the soon-to-be-kindling, idly dusting leaves and thorns from his dark coat as I stretched the knots out of my back and eyed the stone unhappily. Still, when he gathered up an armful of thorns, I followed suit – glad of my long sleeves – and we slowly transferred the spiky mass to the stone, then headed out to the surrounding trees to gather more dry foliage.
When we were done, Cimul was surrounded and covered by greenery, heaped high to keep the fire going. Larger, sturdy braches were propped against the stone, forming the base of the bonfire.
Epsilon approached, brushing the dirt from his hands and looking solemn. I wondered if he had a pack of matches or something with him, but he just stepped forward, resting a hand lightly on the edge of the kindling. He breathed a word or two, too softly for me to hear, and a tiny tongue of flame danced from his fingers, latching onto the dry grass as he withdrew his hand. We both stepped back, Domino padding over to sit at my feet as we watched the flames grow higher.
Instead of watching the body, I focussed on the stone, watching for any signs of it being destroyed. I didn't notice it, at first. I'd started thinking we'd need the sledgehammers after all when I noticed the flames.
The writhing pillars were a gleaming orange, nothing unusual there. But the base of the flames, those licking the sturdy branches around the stone, they were changing. Darkening, turning purple, then blue – like a gas flame. Getting lighter; fading to the colour of a summer sky, then to that of the first light of dawn. Lighter still; a distilled watercolour, fading, slowly, to white. All the while, it was burning hotter. It reached white, and grew brighter, sparks leaping from the rock that had started to glow a dull, cherry red.
White on red, white on orange, white on white.
With a resounding crack; the sound of an avalanche starting, the stone collapsed. The Ouroborus Stone crumpled, Cimul vanishing utterly in the rubble.
I turned to look at Epsilon, and saw him open his eyes, as though from deep concentration. When I glanced back at the fire, the flames were utterly normal; their heart a dull blue, no longer searing white.
Without a word, we turned and left the clearing, the sparks from the fire leaping free, only to sizzle out harmlessly against the grass.
The walk back to the Big House was quiet, solemn. Even Domino walked sedately, sending us quizzical glances as he picked up on our contemplative silence.
I felt like I should be relieved – now that, finally, I was free of Cimul for life, as were the I-don't-know-how-many generations after me. But it would feel...I dunno, wrong, somehow, to be celebrating after a cremation. That's what Cimul's pyre had been, after all. He might have been an enemy; dangerous, heartless, and were the situation reversed – had Cimul beaten us; killed us, he wouldn't have afforded anyone the respect we'd just shown him. But I didn't feel glad that he was, essentially, dead. Relieved, yes. But not as though I should celebrate. And maybe that was right – because I would have been as heartless as Cimul if I felt any differently.
As we stepped out of the forest, the path back to the Big House a few metres away, I turned to look at Epsilon, and stopped.
He wasn't there.
But, very faintly, mingling with the loud birdsong and the distant crash of the waves against the cliff; was the serene sound of a flute. With a smile, I turned and called for Domino, and together we headed back to the Big House. Back home.