After a while, she's desensitized to the feeling of falling and the sense of terror abates. Time seems to go by in slow motion as she falls, her long hair whipping up around her face. She feels a frenzied little breeze against her cheek and realizes that it's the flapping of wings. Severin.
"You implied that I should trust you...so we probably won't die from this, right?" she says, amazed at how casual she sounds.
He merely chirps in reply, impossible to interpret with human ears. "At least you can fly... Lucky."
Eventually, slowly as a snowflake drifts, Rhiannon lands on solid ground again feet-first. She decides that it must be magic—whether Severin's or the magical nature of the labyrinth itself. It's pitch-dark. She holds her hands out, spreading her arms out in a half circle to feel for something. Anything. She reaches behind her and feels something solid. "Dead end behind me," she says. Severin chirps cheerfully. Perhaps it's bird sarcasm. "Why don't you turn back into a human so you can explain this to me?" But Severin stays, she assumes, hovering in the air. There must be some reason he wants to stay as a bird. ...I hope he's not just messing with me. "Can you at least make some light or something?" When nothing happens, Rhiannon decides to take matters into her own hands.
She takes a deep breath to calm herself. She remembers Severin's words: that she has the power of the dawn within her. She's never conceived of magic before, never thought herself capable of anything but mediocrity and a hum-drum life. But Rhiannon desperately wants to tap into her powers now. Even though it doesn't alter her view, she squeezes her eyes shut and tries to imagine herself glowing.
There's a little spark inside me and I want to help it grow. It feels meditative and she lets the feeling of calm grow.
Severin begins to twitter excitedly. Rhiannon slowly opens her eyes. "I did it! I'm glowing!" It's only a slight phosphorescence, but the glow is able to illuminate her immediate vicinity. It will have to be enough for now.
Rhiannon sees walls to her left and right, mere inches from where she'd reached out her hands. Ahead, there is only darkness, the promise of something more. "No way to go but forward, huh?" Severin bobs up and down in the air. She decides that's his way of nodding and so like a newborn foal not yet accustomed to its legs, she starts to walk. Rhiannon can feel the air around her, feels it touching her skin. She wonders if the glowing ups her sensitivity, as well.
The walls are solid, but not rock like the labyrinth walls above ground. They give a little when she pushes against them. Some kind of plant material. It's dense, though. I'm not cutting through that any time soon. Rhiannon navigates slowly, taking every turn and turning every corner only to retrace her steps upon hitting a dead end. "Haven't you been here before? You could help, you know." No reply from the bird, however.
"Rhiannon?" A worried voice cuts through the darkness. Rhiannon recognizes it immediately and a sense of relief washes over her.
"Caroline!" Just like before, Caroline calls out to her again and again, allowing Rhiannon to follow the sound of her voice. The two are quickly reunited. "No limerick this time?" The other woman smirks in a self-deprecating fashion.
"Couldn't think of anything. Are you okay? ...and how are you doing that?"
"The glowing?" Rhiannon tilts her head. "I'm not sure. Severin wasn't helping... I'm beginning to think he can't use magic when he's a bird. But earlier, Severin said that I have the power of dawn and that means sunlight, right?" Caroline nodded. "So I tried visualizing it and next thing I knew, I started glowing."
"That sure is convenient, isn't it? Maybe you're some kind of magic prodigy." The bird that is Severin bobs up and down. "What's he doing?"
Rhiannon flushes at the compliment, suddenly glad that the glowing is obscuring her features. "I think that's his way of nodding yes."
"Huh. Speaking of which, why is he still a bird? He was practically glued to you earlier, he was so desperate to be human."
"I'm not sure..." Rhiannon's somewhat doubtful of his intentions, despite her hopes. "One cannot simply trust an alchemist that one has just met." she mutters, but the bird gives her a look of disapproval somehow.
With nothing else to go on, the two women decide to continue forward. "Is it just me, or does this path feel like it's the same as it was above?" Caroline says after a while.
"You can remember that? I have no idea."
"It's not like I memorized the layout, but..." She hesitates, only continuing after Rhiannon smiles at her encouragingly. "Well, I feel like the ratio of left turns to right turns is about the same as before."
"Huh..." Rhiannon thinks back to how she was navigating before reuniting with Caroline. Or not navigating, to be precise.
Caroline seems to misinterpret her response. "It's not like there's any scenery to take in. I can't help but pick up on patterns instead." Caroline goes on and on trying to justify herself. "I used to draw maps a lot. So I just..." It's adorable, Rhiannon thinks, but also a little sad.
"That's incredible," Rhiannon asserts.
"You think so? You don't think it's weird?" Caroline's eyes are wide, disbelieving.
"I don't think it's weird. You're amazing. I never would've noticed something like that." It's a true statement, but the relieved look on Caroline's face gratifies her all the same. I wonder...if she's used to having to explain herself like that. If she's...used to being stepped on. The thought annoys her.
Rhiannon shakes her head vigorously from side to side, clearing away her negative thoughts. "...Why don't you lead the way instead, Caroline?" she asks brightly. The other woman hesitates, but Rhiannon nods at her with a smile. Caroline then nods firmly in reply and takes a few steps forward to overtake Rhiannon. Their trek is much smoother after that, with far less dead ends involved. "What did you have to draw maps for?"
Caroline's face, hopeful and satisfied, suddenly darkens. "Oh... For my writing, I guess." That's all she says on the subject.
Eventually, they see a light down the distance of a long corridor. The light shifts in size and brightness, alternating between blue, green, and purple. Caroline and Rhiannon exchange glances. Severin had said that this labyrinth is part of the "lair of the Aspirants", Rhiannon recalls. That light doesn't look natural. What if those Aspirants didn't take kindly to intruders?
Still, there's nowhere else to go. They approach the light more slowly and cautiously, hugging the walls as the path begins to descend. Rhiannon feels the air grow hot, but Caroline shows no reaction to it. Is it my skin? Am I sensing something...magical? She hears a low hum that gets louder the further down they go.
The trio comes to the edges of a large chamber—a cavern. There are thick columns of rock connecting the ceiling to the floor and in the center of the room, there is an impossible mass of crackling lightning. The source of the light. She can see a large entrance—or exit—on the other side of the chamber. Using gestures instead of words, Rhiannon calls Caroline and Severin forward. The three of them run up to one of the columns together, hiding behind the jagged rock. Now closer to the center of the room, the inside of the mass of lightning becomes visible.
The center of the room dips down at least eight feet, not unlike the trench from just outside the labyrinth. The electricity concentrates around a ring of stalactites and stalagmites, forming a magical fence. Inside the fence, there is a group of people numbering at least 50. Rhiannon's blood runs cold when she recognizes several of the people there. The group is largely made up of would-be hikers she'd seen at the hotel during the orientation meeting.
"That's River and Sophia over there!" Caroline hisses into her ear. The sound of her whisper echoes across the room, bouncing off the domed ceiling and the columns. Caroline bites her lip. None of the people, who are making quite a bit of noise themselves, seem to notice, however. It takes a bit for Rhiannon to see them, but then she spots River's dark skin, a rarer shade in the group. Sophia is crouched on the ground with her face in her hands while River is standing by her, his hand on her shoulder. Is she...bigger?
How long have they been in the labyrinth? Disoriented by the dark and her earlier fall, Rhiannon has no idea. Still, it could not have been longer than a few hours. Perhaps half a day? The rapid growth of Sophia's baby bump is disturbing, given the timeframe. She looks at Caroline, who seems to be reacting to the same sight. They exchange grim looks. Rhiannon gestures from the people in the room to them as if to ask "What do we do?"
Caroline shakes her head, then her eyes widen and she roughly pulls Rhiannon closer, more out of sight. There's movement. From the other side of the chamber, three figures are emerging from another entrance. Each figure is dressed in dark, fantastical clothes as if they lost their way while trying to get to a LARP meet. But there's no time for snark, not even in her head.
As they begin to speak amongst themselves, the sounds of their voices reverberate across the room. But at this distance, it's impossible to tell which voice is coming from whom.
"Is this all of them?" A low voice.
"I believe there are two more yet wandering the labyrinth." a different voice responds, more feminine. Two more? Rhiannon looks at Caroline, whose eyes are wide with disbelief.
"Hmph. And what of the...interloper?" the first voice demands.
"We have sent the homunculi after him. He will be brought to us shortly, I'm sure." returns a third voice, deep like an oboe.
That must be Severin they're talking about...right? They know about us. They...they planned for us to be here.
Suddenly, Rhiannon feels a hand at the crook between her neck and her shoulders. She sharply cranes her head backward and sees Severin in human form again. "Wha—" she immediately stops talking, not wanting to give away their presence, but it doesn't matter. Severin pushes her—hard. The impact sends her and Caroline past the rock column and puts them in plain view. The darkly dressed figures stop talking, look right at them.
As their physical connection is lost, Severin reverts back to bird form. Did he set us up?! But no sooner than she thinks this does Severin do something else unexpected and dives into one of the cargo pockets of her shorts.
"Do you trust me?" he'd asked her. She still isn't sure. But perhaps Severin has a plan. Rhiannon clings to that faint hope, though she knows it isn't like her to believe in strangers. As she loses consciousness, no doubt thanks to the friendly alchemists on the other side of the chamber, she tries to fall so as not to squish the hopefully friendlier alchemist in her pocket.
The next thing she knows, Rhiannon is awake again. She'd merely blinked and she went from hitting the rock floor to standing up again in a completely different place. "Where..." It's a small cell carved from seemingly the same rock as the larger cavern they'd just been in, but capable of holding perhaps only 2-3 people. She is alone...or so she thinks, but there is a faint chirping by her ear. When she turns her head, she can see Severin's dusty blue feathers. "You'd better have a good explanation for this." She practically growls at him. Still, she knows that it's unlikely that he is an enemy, even if he isn't exactly an ally. There's a good chance that he is the "interloper" the dark figures had mentioned and besides, he's stuck in the cell same as her.
Rhiannon reaches out her hand and unlike before, Severin allows her to touch him. He transforms and becomes human, his eyes closed and her hand now cupping his cheek. She sighs and he moves to take her hand with his, removing her hand from his face. The two of them stand side by side. He turns and she follows his line of sight to the only door in the room. "You've got a lot of learning to do if you want to do more than glow in the dark." Severin narrows his eyes and just like that, the door is pulled off of its hinges, allowing them to exit.
They leave the cell and walk into what appears to be a hallway with doors lining the opposite wall. She cannot explain it, but Rhiannon can feel something emanating from some of the doors, but not others. "That weird...heat that I feel... Is that magic?" Severin nods. "Why couldn't I feel that before?"
"When you tapped into your dawn magic to glow earlier, you awakened your dormant senses. You haven't used magic all your life. Now that you are, more will become clear to you."
"Uh-huh." She can't help but feel that he's being pointlessly vague.
"Your friends are in these chambers. Well, I assume so, anyway. After all, they separated everyone. Which door do you want to open first?" His tone is detached. Impossibly casual.
Rhiannon frowns. "Does it matter? Can't you open all of them?"
Severin shakes his head. "Magic isn't infinite. I only have so much energy to draw from. That's why we call it 'alchemy.' Something of equal value must be lost."
"What did you lose when you popped that door off the wall?" she asks, but Severin just smiles sadly. "Right. Okay, there will be time to explain all that later."
She faces the line of doors in front of her and feels a familiar sensation spilling forth, calling to her...
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