Darren snaps awake as if his consciousness has suddenly slinked back into his body from far away. He doesn’t immediately open his eyes, doesn’t move at all, but assesses his situation. He’s lying down, which means the chair has, at some point while he was unconscious, been moved from its initial position. He can no longer feel the leather bounds the acolytes had put on him before he passed out from whatever that damned potion had been. He’s free, again, or at least his body is.
His right side is freezing, while the left feels uncomfortably warm. They must have lit the fireplaces in the room, for what little good that did. His head doesn’t hurt, nor does it feel heavy. But there’s a soreness in his thighs, a dull ache in his abdomen and thighs that sends his heart into a frenzy. Desperately, he searches his memories, but there’s nothing there. He didn’t wake up during the procedures this time, there’s nothing that even he can recover. All that’s swimming in his head are images brought on by his own fear.
He briskly brushes those half thoughts aside before they can fully form. There’s no point to them, no way to find out if they’re fact. Focusing on his breathing, instead, he allows himself to imagine Vivien’s voice assessing the state of his body, clinically and dispassionately, as she always used to after his battles, mandated by the military even while he was a student, or his more personal fights. To find whether anything is broken or truly hurt, he will have to try to move, she says.
Darren opens his eyes slowly, turns his head to the side to see a maid standing close to the fireplace, blond hair and immaculate white and blue clothes, the silver thread making up the crosses patterns on it glistening in the firelight. The doll doesn’t waste any time asking how he feels.
“I will be escorting you to your chambers now, Lord Knight,” she says.
Darren doesn’t answer. He’s not in the mood to talk, anymore.
He sits up gingerly, testing his body for further aches and finding none. It’s free of any bruises, cuts or marks as well, but that has no meaning, either. After a slumber as deep as the one they put him under, the Archon would have had time to heal the few done to him during the fight with the demon, as well as anything they might have done now, provided it wasn’t major.
Darren looks around for his clothes, finds them on the usual table to the left of the chair. Also usual is the fact that the maid remains unmoving, doesn’t offer to help him dress, despite the intricacy of the uniform.
Calmly, Darren gets up. He doesn’t look in the direction of Vivien’s chair, but he perks his ears towards it, discerns the gentle rustle of fabric and bare feet slapping against the stone floor. She’s still there. He picks up his own garments and starts getting dressed, anxiety clawing at his ribcage like a beast wanting to get out.
It’s not often that he doesn’t wake during the tests, that he’s left with not even a sliver of information after being forced to endure them. He wonders if the dolls and automatons have somehow found his secret. He’s done his utmost to hide the fact that he can use a third kind of magic and access stored away memories. As a result of not using it much, in order not to draw attention to it, he doesn’t know how much more he can do, but even that one skill has been useful enough in piecing together the things their captors don’t want them to know. Yet, this time, when he could have passed something on to the others, he has nothing.
Darren stomps his foot on the floor, pretending to be testing his boot. In fact, he just wants to kick something out of sheer frustration. He slips the gloves over his hands, flexes his fingers to make them fit perfectly. Only when he is sure his clothes look to his tastes does he turn to the maid again. For anyone looking, he is the very embodiment of calm. Inside his chest, his heart is beating like the wings of a caged bird.
The maid waits a moment. Then, seeing him ready and silent, unmoving, she finally speaks.
“Your pills, Lord Knight,” she says.
Darren raises a brow at her, then looks back at the side table where his clothes were. Lying there, previously obscured by the garments, is a silver tray holding a crystal goblet and two pills, one red and one blue. His jaw clenches involuntarily as he sees them. Every instinct of his, from the most basic to the most rational, is whispering at him not to take them. But the only choice he’s being offered, much like with the potion, is whether he takes them willingly or whether the maid forces them down his throat. He chooses to conform, despite the warning bells going off in his head.
Grabbing the two pills, he drops them into his mouth, swallows them with all the water in the goblet before he can even taste them. As much as he hates not knowing what they contain, what they’ll do to him, they haven’t killed him before and they won’t, now, either. All he needs to do, right now, is be compliant and not make a fuss, not call any attention to himself. He has a plan to put into motion, after all.
The goblet tinkling against the tray as he sets it down marks the end of the maid’s patient wait. She turns and heads for the stairs, without looking back to see if he’s following her. Of course, he does.
At the entrance that leads to the narrow staircase, she stops as if waiting for something. The steps are engulfed in shadows, no light shines at the top. The door must be locked from the outside.
Darren throws a glance at Vivien out of the corner of his eye, sees her swallowing her pills as if she’s being forced to gulp down a pair of snakes. The scowl on her face makes him think she’s going to smash the goblet against the floor, but she sets it down gently before following her maid and falling in line next to him.
The uniform she’s wearing, much like his, covers her from head to toe in layers of lace and velvet. Even their hands are hidden away by gloves, their necks covered by high collars and chokers. He’s almost surprised they let them walk around with their faces uncovered and don’t force them to wear both veils and iron masks like the acolytes’ to conceal themselves on a daily basis. There’s no way to be subtle about what he’s going to do. He’ll have to trust that the dolls, facing directly forward as they are, won’t see anything out of the corner of their eyes.
Darren pulls out his glove. Then, letting out a soft moan, he stretches his back, then brings his arms up to their full length. He fakes a yawn, lets one hand fall to his face to cover his mouth, while the other strays on its path down. His knuckles barely brush Vivien’s jawline, but it’s enough. A myriad of sounds assault his mind and he’s almost overwhelmed.
Darren tries to find his footing in the whirlpool of sound passing him by. He recalls the noises of the chamber: the rustling of robes and the whirring of the mysterious machine, the pens scraping against the paper and the bubbling of the concoctions. And something comes. A fragment of a conversation, something about a cord, but no growth, on a brachial artery.
Without allowing the full thing to play out, Darren pulls away, the memory encased in a small glass marble in his mind for him to study later.
He’s back in his own mind not even a second later, his hand completing the arc to come to rest at his side, and he quickly pulls his glove back on. The maids haven’t moved. They haven’t suspected anything.
Darren suppresses the smirk trying to twist his lips but the feeling of triumph withers down in his chest when he sees Vivien’s face. Her eyes have filled with tears, her bottom lip is caught between her teeth to keep it from trembling. She’s biting down on it so hard he’s afraid she might draw blood. But, worst of all is the look of absolute hate she’s giving him.
Confused, trying to understand, Darren almost asks her what’s wrong. But he realizes what is before the words that would have doomed his efforts escape his lips. He has not only heard her memories, he has made her remember them, as well.
The door at the top of the stairs creaks open and, as if that’s her cue, his maid starts walking up the steps without a word. Darren wants to linger behind, to say or do something, to apologize, to comfort Vivien. But he can’t. Her suffering would have been for naught, then.
Silently, he follows the doll. His footsteps are rhythmic, unhurried, unfaltering as he climbs up from the guts of the college, yet he thinks he can hear his heart breaking with each one he takes.