Chapter 4: Funnel

She's still uncertain until that very first step she takes off the path in pursuit of the light. Then, it's as if a tightly pulled violin string has snapped mid-concours. All that hesitation, all that preparation—a life spent slaving away to that tyrant called Ideals—seems ridiculous. It doesn't matter anymore. The campsite is soon just a speck behind her. Her muscles, crying in agony, are silenced by sheer determination. Even her sense of danger, her reason, is discarded like a shed snakeskin. One does not need common sense once the path has been left behind.

It is simply of no use.

The wind is an arcane tongue that seems to be whispering a name. Rhiannon craves the touch of it. The light promises something worth chasing—an answer, perhaps, to a question she is still too terrified to ask. As the wind and the light pull her forward, everything around her fades into darkness. All she can see is that light. If I don't keep up, I'll lose sight of it...! Soon, even that desperation is gone, replaced by a trancelike calm. The light is almost close enough to touch now. Rhiannon hardly registers the feel of the scratchy tree branches digging into her as she walks or the way the light zigzags through the deepening density of the foliage.

Then, with the snap of the hypnotist's practiced fingers, the hapless subject awakens from their dream. And suddenly Rhiannon no longer knows how far she's come—or how far she's willing still to go.

"Where are you going!?" Sharp talons dig into Rhiannon's arm and it takes a moment for her to comprehend that they're not talons, but nails. Her gaze trails up from there to delicate fingers, to a slim forearm, to shoulders hunched slightly forward. There's a swan's neck that curves up to a face; it's the face of a pink-haired woman that Rhiannon knows, even when it's barely illuminated by the moon. Sometimes you can only regonize people as the sum of their parts, she thinks giddily.

"I was—" She cuts herself off before she can say something that she knows Caroline will think is stupid: the truth. "What are you doing here?"

"Are you kidding me? More like, why are you wandering off at night?"

In the pause between breaths, Rhiannon notices something and freezes. "Do you hear that?"

"What? I don't hear anything."

"Exactly. There's..." There is no noise around them. Not a creature is stirring. Even the wind has ceased.

And then a high-pitched scream cuts through the night like a jeweled dagger. Caroline's grip tightens around Rhiannon's arm.

That... That sounded like Sophia! "We've got to go back to the campsite—" She tries to pull Caroline along as she steps forward, but the other woman is rooted to the ground and Rhiannon is jerked backwards. "Caroline?" she asks nervously. But the other woman's face hardens. "Let's go! They need our help!"

Caroline winces when they both hear more screaming, deeper in tone. "No!" It's almost a whisper, paper-thin. "We need to help ourselves first. That wasn't a surprised scream, that was..." She trails off. She looks uncomfortable. She doesn't look like she's going to move.

Rhiannon stares at Caroline in open-mouthed incredulation. "You just—"

THUMP.

A sound as old as the earth echoes towards them. The trees swing as if they're opening a path. Rhiannon swallows the words "want to leave them?"

"What was that!?" Caroline cries.

"I-I don't know. But I think it came from the same direction as the camp!" Perhaps a tree fell. Perhaps it's thunder. Rhiannon comes up with a million explanations, each less likely and less comforting than the last.

THUMP...

IT draws nearer. The ground around them shakes.

THUMP... THUMP... THUMP...

It's a steady beat, an adagio tempo of foreboding.

"What do we do, Caroline!?"

"I... I don't know!"

THUMP. THUMP... THUMP. THUMP...

There is no more screaming. IT draws nearer.

THUMP THUMP. THUMP THUMP THUMP...!

The tempo accelerates. It's no longer possible to deny that the sound is approaching them. The chase has begun.

"I think we need to run, Rhiannon!" She takes a step backward.

Still concerned, Rhiannon takes one shaky step forward, back towards the camp. "What about River and Sophia—"

"Run now!!" Caroline finally drops Rhiannon's arm and runs at full sprint into the wilderness.

There is a flash of light, a familiar glow just on the periphery of Rhiannon's vision. "Caroline!! Caroline, follow the light!!" Rhiannon takes off running in the same direction. How is she running so fast!?

"Why the hell should I do that!?" Caroline is already impossibly far.

"I don't know!!"

Caroline doesn't dignify that with a response. Soon, Rhiannon can make out neither her nor the glowing light.

THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP...!

Rhiannon has no time to worry. IT is at full gallop. IT is like a predator who's locked onto ITS prey. Unlike Rhiannon, IT is unimpeded by trees. She runs faster than she has her entire life. This time, she feels every graze from the branches, every rock she kicks with splaying toes.

THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP. THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP.

She is no longer sure whether IT still follows or whether what she hears is the pounding of her own heart, her blood rushing to her ears chilled by the night.

THUMP!

Rhiannon slips. She flails, trying to grab something around her, but there is nothing. She falls palm-first to the ground.

THUMP-THUMP! THUMP-THUMP! THUMP-THUMP!

Her heart races wildly still, as if it believes it might pull her ahead when her body cannot. There is a flutter of wings, a whisper that she cannot make out. Then the sound of the forest surges all at once like a wave crest smashing onto sand. Rhiannon is unprepared, unworthy.

An eternity passes by while she grips the dirt and dead leaves and her senses, her chest heaving with strained breaths. "Ca... Caroline...! Caroline, where are you!?"

A long pause, then: "I'm here! I'm here...!" The other woman's voice echoes all around her.

"Where is 'here'?"

"Uh, should we play I Spy? I spy...a damn tree! I don't know, Rhiannon, it's dark and we're in the woods!!"

"........."

If she can make wisecracks like that, she's probably okay. Rhiannon is more worried about the other two, but it's all she can do to save herself right now. I won't be any use to them if I'm dead... Maybe that's what Caroline meant earlier. She has to believe in their survival to go on. Sophia's got the map. River's a strong young man. Besides, they could’ve been screaming about something else! These rationalizations will just have to do.

"Rhiannon! You still there?" Caroline sounds far away, but safe.

"Yeah!"

"Okay, follow the sound of my voice!"

Caroline starts talking and making conspicuous noises. Rhiannon presses onward towards the sound as best as she can. She can no longer see the light. The wind only breathes meaningless platitudes.

"There once was a man from Nantucket.
His whole family lived in a bucket.
But his wife didn't care
for their home's damp air.
'This place just ain't gonna cut it!'"

It is enough. Thanks to this, Rhiannon is laughing hysterically by the time she catches up to Caroline. Her fear and relief both accost her at once.

"Please don't think that's my true poetic ability. I was pressed for time," Caroline sniffs, affecting offense.

"What? I thought that was amazing!"

"My father would say that that doesn't count as a limerick." Even though she's speaking of her father, Caroline's tone is self-derisive.

"Well, your father's probably never had to compose one while being chased through the woods."

"...Probably not. But that's no excuse. We're not being chased right now."

They share a tired, but genuine smile.

Rhiannon looks around nervously. "I don't see the light anymore."

Caroline frowns. "Did you follow that 'light' all the way out here?"

"Well... Yeah."

A sigh. "I don't think that was such a good idea."

"It led us away from...from...whatever that was, didn't it?"

"What if it was just luring us to something worse? Like... Do you know what a lanternfish is?"

"Uh..."

"It lures prey with a bright light attached to its head."

"I know that!" Rhiannon stomps her foot on the ground. "I just didn't see how it's rele—whoa!" The ground shakes violently. She loses her footing and flails her arms wildly as she falls over. When will I learn that this doesn't work?

"Watch out!" Caroline reaches for her, but a beat too late. The two tumble headfirst into a hole together, collapsing in a heap.

"Oww!! Are you okay...?"

"Yeah... I just hurt my pride, that's all..." Caroline grumbles, groaning as she rubs the back of her head and neck. She slowly stands up and tests her limbs by bending her knees and elbows, twirling her foot at the ankle. She then takes a few steps forward. "I don't think anything's broken. You?"

Rhiannon performs the same tests. "I... I think I'm okay." The two women peer up the sides of the pit and see that they're surrounded by high walls. Rhiannon jumps, but even then, her hands are inches from the top.

"Are these...bushes? It felt pretty solid when we were standing." Caroline frowns.

Slowly, Rhiannon reaches her hand towards the pit walls, but beyond the leaves there is an unmistakable layer of stone. "This is solid rock. I think there's something...carved in it." However, it's much too dark to see.

"What are we going to do now?"

"I don't know..."

"Why did you wander out here by yourself!? Are you crazy? Look what you've gotten us into—"

"I'm sorry, I don't think I asked you to come!"

"........."

"Did you want to stay at the campsite? The one that probably got smashed by whatever was chasing us?" Rhiannon is shocked by her own tone, her defensiveness.

"You had no idea that would happen when you decided to go on your little night walk! Don't act so superior!"

"I'm not! ...I'm not acting superior. I just don't see the point in arguing when we've just been through something like—"

Their argument is cut off by something falling onto the ground directly in front of them. They both jump, with Rhiannon yelping in surprise. Neither of them moves for a few moments, but it seems that whatever fell is not moving. They take slow, measured steps towards it. In the moonlight, they can make out the form of a fallen bird. As she draws closer, Rhiannon can now see that she and Caroline are not trapped on all four sides like she originally thought.

For behind the bird, there is an entrance.