The chorus of nuns begins to sing, a hymn for the heroes that set out to discover the world and were granted entrance into God’s own Garden. It’s all wrong. Their voices don’t crack or falter, their pitch and tempo are perfect, they hit every note flawlessly. But there’s no emotion behind the words being sung, no vulnerability to lend credit to the woes they tell off. Matthew’s fingers dig into the fabric of his pants, down to the flesh of his thighs. His head is ringing with the crystalline sound of the nuns’ voices, his vision swaying with the dance of light and shadows the candles cast on the cathedral’s walls.
He’s unwillingly caught in a ritual led by monsters.
Nausea rises to the pit of his stomach and he closes his eyes for a moment to gather himself, wishing his senses would just turn off like they so often do. But it’s not that simple. He can’t will it to happen, and they only seem to heighten with his eyes closed. He opens them again, casts his gaze down to his lap to at least shield it from the worst of the shifting light.
He’s short of breath, his lungs unable to pull in all the air he needs, when he notices movement to his sides. It’s followed by a swishing sound, as if a strong gust of wind has entered the cathedral and fluttered everyone’s clothes. It takes him a moment to realize what’s happening. The guests are moving to kneel and start praying. The chance he has been waiting for has come.
With a calm he doesn’t feel, he mimics the others’ actions, lowers himself down to the dark wood kneeler and pulls the small book of prayers out from the hymnal rack. The board beyond the rack, against which he’s supposed to lay the tome to read it, only hides him halfway up through his chest and he almost wishes he was as small as Kayla, who’s covered all the way up to her shoulders. But it still serves as coverage from the ones watching from below.
His next motion is swift and subtle. He pulls the notes he’s prepared from his corsage, passes them to his right and left under the guise of opening the book. He accepts the ones being handed to him without looking at the Brides by his sides, flips through the prayer filled tome to mask the movement of his arms. It’s all done in a few seconds, quietly and efficiently, not even a glance exchanged between the Scions that could alert the dolls and automatons as to what they’re doing.
As the cathedral fills once again with the sound of chanting, this time human mixed with inhuman, Matthew sifts through the small, precious papers he’s just been given.
The fact that he’s touching things his friends just did, that he’s indirectly touching them is enough to send his heart into a frenzy. Anger at how pathetic he’s been made by his captors blooms in his chest, is tempered down by embarrassment, and he uses the feelings to calm his excitement.
His hands now steady, he picks up Sarah’s first, eager to know if his efforts will yield the results they all most desire. His heart jumps up to his throat when he unfolds the note. There, neatly drawn and annotated in Sarah’s precise calligraphy is a complete seal, lacking only the words he has already uncovered. His eyes follow the shapes of it for a long moment, taking in the lines as much as the empty space. The space where the symbols he has written in his own note will need to fall upon.
It all aligns perfectly.
Either they both somehow have gotten it wrong, separately and without meddling with each other’s work, or they have finally found the spell they need to break locking seals. He knows which one is more likely.
Matthew’s heart is hammering in his chest, so hard he thinks it might just break his ribcage open and jump out. It takes all his willpower to keep his expression neutral, to slowly move on to the following notes when that feeling of elation is clouding his mind, making him light-headed.
Kayla and Joshua’s notes are similar. There’s no way they could have known what information the other would impart, so they both related their encounter with the demon and how it tried to flee underground. Kayla adds a vague note about how her research confirms that something lies underneath the city, something “familiar to them all”, but doesn’t go into details.
The hint is enough to hasten his breathing along with his heartbeat. It’s not uncommon for them to be brief. Their notes have to be small and, in case they’re caught, it's best if they don’t disclose any information that isn’t vital. Kayla most likely stole the books that support the research she mentions and going into further detail about them would only implicate her unnecessarily.
While not much for anyone else, her sparse words mean everything to him. The familiar place can only be where the expedition went, where the gate to the Otherworld and to Hell lie. It matches with the fact that there are locking seals in the manhole covers throughout the city. Why else would they go through such lengths, if there wasn’t anything down there?
No, things are starting to add up and their way out is becoming clearer.
Lastly, Matthew reads Darren and Vivien’s notes. Again, they’re similar, since they couldn’t confer with each other about what each one would be saying. They both talk about waking up during the tests, and hearing about a cord connected to their right brachial artery that had “no growth”. Vivien laments not having been able to confirm what this means, yet, asks for more time to run the experiments she needs.
A sigh works its way up from Matthew’s core and he lets it out silently through his nose. He thought their plan of action now would be relatively simple: to escape their towers and use the seal he and Sarah uncovered to escape the abbey. But Vivien’s information brings a new opportunity. They might be able to find out more about their condition as Scions, to gleam some advantage or learn of some weakness that they’re unaware of. They might even find out how and why they rose from their graves with their powers, when their seventh companion didn’t. Matthew doesn’t quite dare admit it to himself, doesn’t quite dare to hope, but a part of him whispers that they might find a way to bring them back.
But Vivien will need the abbey’s equipment for her experiments. They can’t leave, yet.
As indecision rakes through his mind, Matthew allows his attention to turn back to the ceremonies for a moment, to make sure he’s still doing what’s expected of him. A Vicar has taken to the altar, now, sided by two aides, and is giving a sermon on the courage of the Scions who will leave for the Pilgrimage. He can’t see them from where he’s kneeling, but he can imagine their faces, bright and glowing with pride as all the others that left before them. All the ones that never came back.
To Matthew’s right, Kayla is kneeling rigidly, her face caught in a lack of expression that could mean either complete disinterest or rapture upon hearing the words. By her side, Joshua has his arms crossed, head bent down, chin to chest, and appears to be sleeping. To Sarah’s left, the picture is much the same. Darren yawns loudly and openly every once in a while, stretches his arms and shifts positions while Vivien sits and listens serenely and politely. Sarah is rolling her eyes and turning her gaze away from the altar, showing derision for the whole celebration. All of their usual reactions. They know how to play their parts, even though doubt must be gnawing at them the same way it is at him.
The barest hint of movement to his right, so subtle that he almost misses it. Out of the corner of his eye, Matthew watches as Joshua uncrosses his arms, braces against the hymnal rack to adjust his position so he can ease the pressure on his aching knees. Yet, when his right hand comes back up, it’s holding a pencil.
Matthew’s breath catches in his chest. Never has any of them tried to communicate directly during the ceremonies. Passing notes is one thing, the movements can be easily hidden by the heavy wooden board, masked by pretending to thumb through the prayer book. But writing is something else, altogether. Yet, as he watches, the fear of getting caught spreading through his body, Joshua pretends to flip through the tome in front of him in disinterest, while his right hand puts down words in the back of one of the notes he was handed.
Joshua doesn’t even look at what he’s writing, doesn’t bother double checking for mistakes, and simply looks up with a sigh as if he didn’t find anything in the book that spoke to him. With a quick movement, he passes the note to Kayla.
The Bride doesn’t open it right away, knows better than to keep the string going in a set rhythm. When she does, she pretends to be rearranging her skirts, goes through it so quickly Matthew almost can’t believe she was able to read it, and passes it to him.
Despite the frenzied pace of his heartbeat, the fear that the ceremonies might end before the note is passed all the way down to Vivien, Matthew takes his time as well. When he finally looks at the words, he realizes why it took Kayla so little time to read them.
The instructions are short, clear and precise. Vivien has three days to run any tests and experiments she can on her lead. After that, whether she finds something or not, they are to stick to their original plan, the one they’ve been secretly concocting ever since they lost hope that they would be sent on the next Pilgrimage.
They will break out of their towers, meet and escape underground, together.