Chapter 5: Transformation

"What is it?" Caroline asks, but she sounds distracted.

"I think... I think it's a bird."

"Huh." Distracted turns into dismissive.

Wanting to get a closer look, Rhiannon crouches down. In the moonlight, she can see that the bird is a dusty blue color. Its feathers are fluffy and plumped; its legs are folded proximally to the body. Is it...still alive?

She cranes her neck back to look at Caroline and ask her opinion, but the other woman has already moved on. Rhiannon cannot make out exactly what she's doing, but she hears grunting and thudding.

"You're not trying to climb your way out, are you? There's no way. The pit is, like, eight feet deep." Rhiannon calls out to Caroline's general location.

"It's really...more of a trench than a pit. Besides... What else...do you suggest we do?" Caroline manages between huffs and puffs. After several attempts at climbing, she lets out a string of expletives. "I can't get a grip on this dirt!" Despite saying that, she soon begins her attempts anew. It's hard for Rhiannon to continue watching. She isn't sure she can say anything that will be of comfort to Caroline, so Rhiannon returns her attention to the fallen bird.

I think it's still breathing, but maybe it's just the wind ruffling its feathers. Despite her apprehension, she kneels with her knees and shins in the dirt. Rhiannon slowly moves her hand toward the bird to scoop it up with her palm.

The moment her skin comes in contact with the bird's feathers, the bird begins to glow like the moon. An electric current shoots through Rhiannon's body from her fingertips to the crown of her head to the ends of her toes. It's such a surprise that she can't even react to it.

She does not let go.

The bird grows heavy in her hand, impossibly heavy...and then it begins to grow in size, as well.

Before Rhiannon has time to process what's happening, she is no longer cupping a small bird in her hand. There's a very human man standing next to her and she is lightly touching his bare shoulder. The shoulders of his black tunic have been cut out, likely for fashion reasons. Upon closer inspection, she realizes he is dressed in black from head to toe. His hair is an antique silver in contrast to the dune sand color of his skin. The bird-turned-man is not exceptionally tall, but his body is lanky and lean-muscled.

Rhiannon finally has the wherewithal to react, realizes she's been staring, and inhales sharply as she withdraws her hand in alarm.

"Wha—"

Just like that, the man stops glowing and he reverts back into a bird.

"What's wrong with you? I finally became human again! You didn't have to let me drop like that!" he squawks at her from the ground. The voice is disturbingly deep and masculine, coming from a little bird.

"Oh, uh... sorry? Umm..."

Wait, why am I apologizing? What's even going on? Rhiannon thinks as she scoops the bird up once more. When the bird becomes a man again, he is staring at Rhiannon with a hard, doubtful look.

"Rhiannon, who are you talking to—whoa!" Just then, Caroline loses her grip on the wall and tumbles down a few feet to the ground. The man grabs Rhiannon by the wrist and pulls her with him as he walks over to where Caroline has fallen.

"Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine... But who are you?" Caroline's guard is up.

"My name is Severin."

"Severin? That's not a real name."

"I assure you, it is."

"Caroline, we know someone named River." Rhiannon reminds her, crossing her arms.

"Good point."

"Wait, his name's not important. He's..." Rhiannon massages her temple with her free hand and takes a deep breath. She realizes with some regret that what she is about to say is ridiculous. "He's a bird!"

Caroline's gaze flicks between the man and Rhiannon a few times, her expression blank. "He's. A bird." Her tone is so flat that you could iron dress shirts on it.

"Well, not right now."

"I am not a bird." Severin sounds offended. "I just turn into one."

Caroline raises an eyebrow. Exasperated, Rhiannon yanks her hand out of Severin's grasp and he immediately returns to bird form. This time, instead of falling, he flutters in the air between the two women. "How did I know you were going to do that? Typical."

"It's the easiest way to explain, isn't it?"

Caroline's mouth hangs open. "No. No no no no. This cannot be happening."

"We just ran for our lives from a giant monster and this is the part you have a problem with?"

Severin lands on Rhiannon's shoulder and when he changes back to human form, he presses his hand down hard against Rhiannon's shoulder. As Severin grows to full size, she is pushed down further, hunching her back until her face is almost touching the ground. "Okay, okay, I get the message. I'm sorry. Now get off me!" He relaxes the pressure but maintains the connection.

"We have to be touching," he explains.

"Excuse me?"

"I have been cursed to be stuck in bird form after sunset, but it seems the curse is abated if we're touching. I don't understand how, but you seem to have the power of dawn within you."

"How convenient for you," Caroline quips. "You get a free pass for all the sexual harassment you could want."

Severin turns and looks at Caroline, his jaw slightly raised to accompany an arrogant glower. "Hardly. And that's quite the curse you have. May even be worse than mine."

"What? Caroline's cursed, too?"

Caroline's face takes on a configuration that Rhiannon has not yet seen: pure fury. Indignant rage. But she does not raise her voice in protest. She does not make a sound. She seems to be digesting Severin's words, but they do not agree with her.

"Why are we talking about curses as if they're totally commonplace now? What's going on? What was that monster earlier?" Rhiannon tries to bring the topic back to the beginning.

"You're asking me?" Severin raises an eyebrow.

"You seem...supernatural, to say the least. Shouldn't you know these things?"

"Just because I'm cursed doesn't mean I'm some kind of expert on the occult."

"Forget it!" Caroline growls. "Who even cares what his deal is? What are we going to do? We just got chased down here by some giant monster and we can't climb out." It seems she's finally given up on her previous strategy.

"Severin, can't you fly up and see if you can find us a vine to climb up with or something?"

In response, Severin wordlessly narrows his eyes while simultaneously raising his eyebrows.

"You know what I mean! We've gotta work with what we have."

He rolls his eyes. "I cannot. You saw how I fell, didn't you? It's like there's an invisible dome all around the labyrinth. I can't fly out of here. I'll... We'll have to go in."

"Labyrinth?" Caroline and Rhiannon burst out incredulously.

"Yep." Severin gestures towards the entrance behind him, the spot where he fell.

Rhiannon shakes her head. "And where does the labyrinth lead. Up? Out?"

"...You don't know?"

"No! Do you think we'd be freaking out if we did?"

Severin gives a low bow with a flourish, though the gesture is dripping with sarcasm. "Welcome, ladies, to the Labyrinth of the Aspirants."

"What does a labyrinth need deodorant for?"

"No more puns or I'll curse you, too."

Rhiannon catches Caroline's eye and they smirk at each other over his head. Caroline looks much better with a smile, even if I had to make that awful joke to induce it.

"A-ny-way," Severin punctuates each syllable with irritated gusto. "Either your luck is very good or very bad because you have stumbled upon the lair of the Aspirants, the secret society of alchemists."

"Alchemists?"

"The conversation won't proceed if you continue to parrot my words with that awestruck tone. Think."

"You have to realize that this is a lot to take in," Rhiannon frowns.

"You...really have no idea what this place is?"

"No, we don't."

Severin nods, finally accepting what they've tried to tell him from the start. "In that case, yeah. It would be a lot," he admits.

"...Or at least I don't," Rhiannon adds slowly.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Caroline demands.

"I mean... He said you're cursed, too. So for all I know, you could already know all about alchemists and stuff."

"So just because he says I'm cursed, I'm for sure cursed? You're going to take this complete stranger lunatic at his word?"

"He does turn into a bird. That's pretty compelling evidence for the existence of magic and curses, I'd say."

Putting her face against the palm of her hand, Caroline stomps off past them and into the labyrinth.

"Caroline?"

She stops and turns, looking annoyed. "Well? What are you waiting for? We've got no choice but to go in, right? That's what he said."

Though she follows, Rhiannon can't help feeling unsure. "How do we know we'll be able to find out way out?"

"I vaguely remember how to get through." Severin offers. "We don't have to go into the secret society's hideout. They have multiple exits. One's bound to go back above ground."

"We?"

"Yes. I'm trying to get out of here just as much as you two are."

Caroline narrows her eyes at him. "You're not...on the run from these alchemists, are you? That's what this is sounding like. Why were you cursed?"

"Who can say?"

"You can!"

"Now, now..." Rhiannon urges the two of them forward.

She and Severin end up holding hands. The trio proceeds through the labyrinth mostly in silence after that. Caroline, forced to stick close to Severin in order to see by the light of his glow, lets out frustrated growls when they periodically reach dead ends. Each time, she verbally assaults Severin mercilessly, but he takes it with a smug sort of grace.

"Hey, I said I vaguely remember. You really expect me to memorize the layout of a labyrinth?"

"I don't know, you tell me! You're the wizard here."

"Alchemist."

"Whatever!"

"Severin..." Rhiannon touches him lightly on his forearm with her free hand.

"What is it?"

"You... You really can't fly up and look at the area around the labyrinth?"

"I already said that I can't. Why?"

"Well... Before we fell down here, we were running from a monster."

"Right. You've mentioned that already."

"....That monster, I think it attacked our campsite. We had two..." She hesitates to call them friends and then feels guilty about the hesitation. "There were others there. I just want to know if they're safe."

"That monster, did you see it?"

"No. It made the ground shake and from the sound of it we could tell it was chasing us, but it disappeared after we fell into the trench."

Severin looks up at the night sky as if trying to glean something from the stars twinkling above. He is quiet for a long time as they continue walking. Just as Rhiannon gives up on receiving a response at all, he murmurs, "I believe your companions are still alive."

"How do you know?"

"Death is a powerful force. A monster that big is an equally powerful force. If that much energy dissipated into the ether, it would be noticeable. But I feel nothing."

I guess when he was looking up at the sky, he was actually feeling the magical force in the air or something. She is afraid to inquire further. "I see..." she manages to say.

Out of the corner of her eye, Rhiannon sees Caroline's shoulders relax. Though the other woman seems callous at times, from that small motion Rhiannon can see that in her way, Caroline was worried about River and Sophia, as well.

"Uh-oh." Caroline freezes in her tracks.

"No. No uh-oh." Rhiannon bites her lip. "...Why 'uh-oh'?"

Caroline pauses to consider her words before saying, "Is it just me, or are the walls...closing in?"

"Umm...."

As much as Rhiannon does not want to acknowledge this reality, she has to concede.

"We'd best hurry then," Severin says with a dead cheerfulness.

"Umm, is it okay to be so blasé about it?"

"Sure, sure... Now run!" Caroline breaks into a sprint and Severin grips Rhiannon's hand tighter before doing the same, dragging her along. The three of them run forward through the labyrinth, nearly ramming into the walls with each turn.

"How do we know we're going the right way!?"

"We don't!"

The walls are touching her shoulders now.

Rhiannon has no choice but to keep moving. She can hear Severin's heavy breathing. His nails are digging into her arm. She wonders if it might not be faster if he transformed back into a bird and flew, but then realizes he's doing this for her.

If I wasn't here, he... She shakes her head, trying to rid herself of these grim thoughts. No. If I wasn't here, he'd be stuck being a bird. But... Is this really any better...?

Then she blinks and now Caroline is gone.

"Caroline!!" Rhiannon screams.

"I'm here...!" The muffled sound of Caroline's shouted reply is puzzling. Is she...falling? The sound gets further away, lower.

The walls are crunching her torso into a v-shape now.

"Do you trust me?" Severin asks, his voice whisper-soft.

"No!" Rhiannon answers, but he's already let go. His dimly glowing body fades out of view as the walls squeeze Rhiannon into inexistence.

Now she, too, is falling.