I took the oath. Sworn to secrecy.
I vowed that I’d do what I’d need to do, and grant myself a great many favours by doing it. Too many questions, too much exposure, too great a chance to miss. I swore on it, took the bottle with the fizzing mixture of bold, dangerous swirls of colour, and left to go back to my home and city, mind abuzz with wonder and twisted questions on what the week had shown and taught me. One month, seven hundred and thirty hours - an immeasurable duration in the infinite stream of time.
“I haven’t seen you in ages! How’ve you been? You haven’t changed a bit, you know.”
I gave her a fleeting smile, standing aside to let her in my house before shutting the door. Maybe she was right. Maybe I haven’t changed, and all that course did was open parts of me up that was just hidden away for safekeeping - my true character. She’d certainly had changed since the last time I’d seen her, months and months ago, a little under a year. New hair, new clothes, and a new way of talking. A new personality to replace the other. Fake, most likely. She should’ve come with me.
“It’s certainly been a while,” I agreed, as she kicked off her shoes and dumped her jacket on the table. “I’ve been good, thanks.”
She nodded in understanding, though I could see the slight uncertainty in her expression as she entered the kitchen and sat down at the table, shaking back her bleached locks and looking around the room as if it were her first time seeing it. “Kinda dark, isn’t it?”
I looked around, noticing the half-drawn curtains and the unlit candles, only the dim azure blue of the sky providing faint light. I pulled them open a little further and couldn’t help wincing. She noticed and frowned slightly in curiosity.
“So what was it like? The course... what’s it called again? What did you do there?”
“The Arcanus Degree,” I responded, going behind the bar to get out a couple of glasses and carefully pour some juice in each. “It was a great experience. Very... revealing.”
“Arcanus?” She repeated, taking her glass. “Is that Latin or something?”
“So, a degree on what?”
“Lots of things, really. It’s hard to explain in simple terms. But it lets you see things in different ways, or just things you could never imagine actually seeing.”
“Sounds odd,” she commented, sipping her drink. “Did it cost much?”
“Depends on what you mean by that,” I answered. “Not in money, no. They usually take something you own, like an heirloom or an inherited piece of jewellery - but if all goes well, they give it back. I got mine back on the first day.”
“And... and who was running it?”
“Only a few people. Some were middle-aged, some older than that. It was hard to tell - they all wore cloaks with hoods throughout the whole course. Didn’t speak much unless they needed to explain something.”
“Weird,” she said in interest and slight apprehension. “That seems kind of... kind of dark, to be honest. But as long as you enjoyed it.”
“Well, it might not be for everyone,” I said, “but yes, I did enjoy it.”
“It... it helped?”
I paused, meeting her gaze directly. She looked to the side almost immediately.
“You know... with everything that’s happened recently. Sorry for bringing it up.”
“It’s okay. No one gets out of life alive. Family members included.”
She shot me a sympathetic glance that made me hold back a glare of aggravation. “Yeah, I guess. Has your therapist been any help?”
“Talking doesn’t always do it for me.”
“I’m always here,” she says suddenly with a smile. “You know that, right?”
I know a lot of things about her, and about talking, amongst other things. I was already cautious of all the enquiries and pulled out the cupcakes from the oven, setting them down on the surface while her eyes lit up.
“Oh, awesome! You’re baking’s just the best, you know. I mean, what’s your secret? Secret ingredient, right?”
I smiled then, shrugging. “If I knew, it wouldn’t be one.”
Her smile wavered in confusion, but then she remembered the previous conversation, and continued. “I won’t lie, but as an old friend, I have been kind of worried about you-”
“You don’t need to be,” I told her instantly, pushing down the nerves and exhaling deeply through my nose. Second try. “I’m fine, truly. But thanks for your concern.”
“Seriously,” she persisted, and my jaw clenched, “what’s been going on. I’m all ears. You don’t seem as sad as you were, but... well, there is something, isn’t there? You seem a little different. I don’t know.”
“I’m okay. It might not seem like it, I understand, but it’s been a while. Don’t worry about me. How’ve you been?”
She shook her head. “No, come on.”
That was it. No more attempts left. I sighed, then smiled warmly.
“Alright then. Just let me finish these cakes off, and I’ll be with you.”
“Sure,” she responded, returning the smile in approval. “I’m gonna use the toilets if that’s okay.”
I nodded, and as soon as she left the room, I ran upstairs to my room, opening my mum’s jewellery box and taking out the bottle, still fizzing with dark energy, small bubbles popping and spattering crimson and silver droplets on the glass, before slipping down behind the brown label with curly black lettering.
I went back downstairs again, taking one of the cupcakes and opening it up at the side just a little with the tip of a knife. I delicately took out the cork from the top of the bottle and tilted the bottle to the side, letting a couple of drops land inside the cake and ooze over its warm sponge before covering the puncture with leftover sponge. Then I quickly replaced the cork and stuffed the bottle into my hoodie pocket, just before she came back into the room. I handed her the cake with a half-smile, which she gladly accepted.
“It’s great that you feel like you can talk to me,” she started, as I sat next to her and took an original cupcake. “I know I’m not a therapist or anything, but it does help to talk. Don’t you think?”
I nodded slowly. “I suppose.”
“And maybe we don’t get out of life alive,” she continued, as she took a bite out of her cupcake, and I bit back a smirk from the irony, “but we’ve got each other. Maybe you need to see a-”
She stopped speaking abruptly, almost choking on her words, and I raised a brow slightly in questioning.
She shook her head, face screwed up in distaste and pain, her breathing uneven and hitching. “Wh-what... what... did you do?”
“Added the secret ingredient, like you said,” I replied, as if it were obvious. “It’s known to stop unwanted spills of... well, secrets. Distraction the enquirer from enquiring. A parting gift I was given from my Arcanus master. You know, for emergencies. I’d say this counts.”
She tried to speak again, but regretted it almost instantly, letting out a strangled groan and spitting out a mouthful of blood.
“I’ve got a lot of secrets, you know,” I murmured, gently placing a bleach blonde strand of hair out of her face and studying her twisted expression. “But when I find out what they are, they aren’t secret anymore. Do you get it?”
She didn’t respond, hands trembling as she looked up at me slowly with bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils. The label never lies; fatal is quite the understatement.
“Maybe I’m more than what the questioners think I am. I could be,” I said with a nod, and she wretched. “Don’t be like that, I’m serious. They thought so, in Arcanus. I might go back. I probably won’t. But here’s a tip,” I added with a pat on her back, and she shuddered before going limp completely, “if you want to uncover a secret, you can always join it. Be one yourself.