Chapter 7: Open Doors

An awful symphony of moans and screams can be heard from inside the cells. Alongside the rush that she now recognizes as magical energy, Rhiannon also feels a growing sense of dread.

"What's happening to everyone?"

Severin hesitates, but Rhiannon's sincere, deep amber eyes are fixed on him expectantly. "Each of these cells is reinforced with magical energy. The inhabitants are being..." He squeezes his eyes shut, pinches the top part of the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He sighs. "They're being infused with a great deal of magical energy."

Rhiannon furrows her brow, frowning in confusion. "What? Why?"

"It's a way to awaken latent magical power. Apparently. But a great majority of people who are exposed to that much magical energy either go mad or die."

"Then why do it!?" She is alarmed now, worried for Caroline, Sophia, River, and all the others she knows not by name.

"The number of alchemists in this world dwindles year by year. Fewer are born with latent abilities," he shrugs as if what he says does not affect the lives of several dozen people at this very moment. "The Aspirants are getting desperate."

"So they just...abduct people who are going hiking?"

Once again, Severin gives a noncommittal shrug of his shoulders. "That I am not privy to." Rhiannon is silent for several seconds after that. How does one begin to process such information? Finally, Severin coughs and changes the subject slightly. "So that's why I can only open one door right now. I don't have enough energy to counteract all that."

Rhiannon nods grimly. It's awful, but can't be helped. Saving one person at this moment is better than nothing. She lifts her chin and surveys the line of doors ahead of her. Each door is a different color, perhaps to correspond to the person within. She remembers, suddenly, that her own cell door was white.

Her eyes—her very senses are drawn to a deep blue door ahead and to the left. There are no windows, so there is no way of telling who is inside, but Rhiannon walks in front of it.

"Are you sure?"

"What difference does it really make? I have no way of knowing who's where," she sighs. Severin nods. His grip on her shoulder tightens as he raises his other arm, holding his hand palm-out towards the door. There is a low humming sound and then...pop! As with Rhiannon's, the door is pulled from its hinges.

Inside, kneeling on the ground almost in child's pose and facing the wall, there is a young man with dark brown skin and black hair. Rhiannon recognizes the blue t-shirt immediately—River. However, there is one striking difference...

The person before her has a pair of pure white wings protruding from his back. They are small, each about the size of a fist, covered in white feathers, and situated between his shoulder blades. They are beautiful, but alarming as things that should not exist.

Do I have wings!? Is this because of the magic? But when Rhiannon instinctively claps one of her hands over her shoulder to touch her back, she feels nothing. She isn’t sure if she is disappointed or relieved at the realization.

River is moaning in pain. While the door has been broken, surely the stream of magical energy remains intact. Recalling this, Rhiannon rushes forward to touch her friend on the shoulder. "River!! Come on!"

He jerks away from her in fear, swatting at her with his hand. "Get away!"

"River, it's me!"

He finally turns his head away from the wall and his eyes widen as he takes in the look of her. Rhiannon can only imagine what he sees: an unkempt little Asian woman with torn clothing and a bruised body. But recognition dawns. "Rhiannon... We thought you and Caroline were dead!"

He pulls her into his arms, into a desperate bear hug. The motion pulls Rhiannon away from Severin, who reverts back to being a bird and then chirps at them indignantly from above. Usually, Rhiannon is not too happy about being hugged by people she isn't intimately familiar with, but... Given the circumstances, it's more of a comfort than anything. "Me and Caroline..." She isn't sure if it’s prudent to bring up the lights or the fact that they went off alone. "We were running away from that monster. We were afraid the worst had happened to you two..."

"Is Caroline... I mean, was she with you?"

Rhiannon nods. "We got separated when the Aspirants knocked us all out and put us into these cells."

"Aspirants?"

"Oh..." Not knowing how best to explain, Rhiannon touches Severin. When he changes back to human form, he has a grumpy look on his face.

"Good of you to include me in the conversation only once it's convenient for you."

"Sorry. I got a little distracted there."

"I'll say."

"Wait... What the hell just happened!?" River, a person with little angel wings attached to his back, is surprised at a bird turning into a man. Rhiannon can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation, no matter how bleak the bigger picture.

"I'll let him explain... But first, we should get out of this room." River nods and the three of them go back out to the hallway. Out of the field of strong magical energy, a weight seems to be lifted from River and he takes a strong, deep breath, then exhales with obvious satisfaction.

"Man am I glad to be out of there... Thanks, Rhiannon."

"It's really more thanks to Severin," she smiles sadly, glancing at her taciturn companion. "Severin, can you explain to him everything you told me and Caroline?"

"Oh, sure. Is there ought else you require, your highness?"

"Come on, don't be like that."

Severin rolls his eyes, but nonetheless does his part to clue River in, though with less detail than when he explained things to the two women.

"So these...Aspirants?"

"Yeah."

"These Aspirants kidnapped us all so they can experiment on us?"

"Severin's not really sure what their ultimate goal is, but it seems like that, yeah. Maybe we all have magical potential," she frowns. "It can't be a coincidence, can it? I've got...dawn magic and you've got those wings."

River's eyes go wide. "Wings? What wings?"

"You've got little wings on your back. You didn't notice?" she says, tilting her head to one side.

"Uh, no!?" he reaches both his hands to his back and gropes around until he finds them. His face goes ashy. "I have wings." he says in a deadpan voice after a long silence.

"Yeah... I'm guessing that's a new development?"

"Uh, yeah, that's one way of putting it!"

As River's hands close over his wings, the wings begin to grow in size.

"Wait!!" Rhiannon reaches forward to warn him. Her hands graze his wrists and the wings grow even more. By the time River thinks to remove his hands, they have each grown to about a foot in length.

"I wasn't imagining that, right? My wings just...grew?"

Severin leans in to observe the wings, moving around to look at them from different angles. "So... I believe this is connected to your magic potential, but the wings themselves are not magical."

"What does that mean?"

"It looks like they're kind of...a physical representation of your magic power, you might say. Perhaps you have not had wings up until now because your power lay dormant. Now that it's being awakened, even if by force, your wings are growing to their full size."

"And how big is full size going to be?" Rhiannon asks, alarmed.

Severin shrugs. "I mean, they're not my wings. I have no way of knowing that."

"Is it...normal for alchemists to have wings?" River sounds doubtful.

"I don't think there is a normal for alchemists... But I haven't seen another like you, that's for sure. And touching them will stimulate the magical connection, so it'll make them grow faster."

"You sure know a lot," River says to Severin, his voice a few degrees colder than before.

Severin merely shrugs yet again. Rhiannon is beginning to tire of his act of nonchalance. She knows so many guys like him at work that the behavior—meant to seem cool—is merely grating. "I have been trained to be an alchemist all my life. All of our knowledge is documented. If you are properly initiated one day, you'll learn all this, too."

"Initiated? Into the Aspirants?" The thought of joining the very group who had set a monster on them and rounded them up like cattle makes Rhiannon sick to her stomach.

"Goodness, no. There are many different groups of alchemists. The Aspirants are but one sect, and a fanatical one, at that."

Rhiannon squints at him. She wonders if he might be an alchemical FBI agent, here to narc on the Aspirants. Could that be why they're after him? Still, there is more to worry about at the moment. She pushes the thought aside.

"So what do we do now? You said you could only open one door, right?" Rhiannon asks. Severin nods. "But I don't want to just...leave here without everyone. I don’t think I could live with myself." River quickly voices his agreement.

"I had a feeling you'd say that. Besides, there's a low chance of the three of us making it out alive on our own. My own magical energy is nearly depleted."

"So..."

"There's only one course of action to take. I'm going to teach the two of you how to perform alchemy," Severin says, sounding reluctant as he runs his hand through his hai.

"Why didn't you just do that to begin with?" Rhiannon complains.

"It's...risky. I'm no teacher and while I recognize your magic, I have no idea what his is. We could have some very unexpected results." Severin runs his hand through his hair again, scratching the top of his scalp as he sighs. "Still... We have little choice. And using magical force to pull a door off its hinges is..not too complex, at least."

Rhiannon nods. "Tell me what to do."

"Me too. I'm in." River adds.

So Severin has the three of them sit down cross-legged in a circle on the ground, their knees touching those of the person next to them.

"Is this safe? I mean, doing this here? Now?" Rhiannon bites her lip.

"I believe the Aspirants have retreated for now. I don't feel their presence nearby. They most likely put everyone into their cells and left to await the fruition of the infusions in comfort."

"Great... That really makes me feel much better."

"You shouldn't ask questions that you don't want the answers to. I'll always be bluntly truthful, I'm afraid."

"Will you? Always?" Rhiannon fixes her eyes on his. Severin's eyes are like pools of sapphires, bottomless...and unfathomable. Despite his words, even in light of the fact that he is helping them, she can’t help but doubt. His helping them benefits him, too, after all. He seems like the type who’d sell us out for a magical corn chip.

But unaware of this silent judgment on her part, Severin merely closes his eyes and flashes an easy smile. "As best as I can."

Their magical instruction begins with eyes closed.

"Imagine a circle in your mind's eye," Severin says, his voice soothing and hypnotic. "Now imagine another circle next to it...but not touching. Not yet. Slowly, very slowly...bring those two circles closer together."

"As they overlap, imagine a color blooming inside the two circles."

"What color?"

"Any color. Whatever comes most naturally to you."

Rhiannon's color is white. Though she wouldn’t be able to put the reason into words, she just knows that River’s color is that same deep blue. Those doors were not just the entrances to their cells; they represent the door to their magic. And hers is white.

"As the color blooms and fills the two joined circles, imagine the circles overlapping until they become just one circle."

Rhiannon's circle is filled with white—not a pure, innocent white, but a bright, sharp color like that of the hottest flame.

"That is your magic. Imagine it filling you now. When you do so, you'll probably find that it hits a limit at some point. No one has unlimited magical energy. It is replenished naturally as we rest, but it cannot be forced."

Rhiannon feels like a glass three-fourths full. The missing bit could be due to inexperience, or it could be due to Severin siphoning her magic to stay human. I can’t really complain when he’s teaching me how to use it... she thinks, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

"Now open your eyes."

"Focus on one of the doors in front of you. Find one that feels...familiar. Imagine hitting that door with all the force of your color, and then pulling it from its hinges.

The combined force of River and Rhiannon's magical blows is more than enough to achieve their goals. A resounding crack! goes through the area as a pitch black door and a golden yellow door are opened.

So this is magic... Rhiannon marvels at the sight of the two doors opening. She did that. It was her power that made it possible. It's an exciting feeling.

I could get used to this.