Amber and Cressela made their way through the forest, ravens flying over their heads and gliding forwards in the cool, misty grey-blue skies. Clouds of fog drifted and slept around dark towering tree trunks, and the ground was darkened and coated with twigs and pebbles. Weaving their way through the trees scattered across the forest, Amber stopped behind a tree, noticing a female figure sitting on a large rock, dressed in a deep, navy blue hooded gown, the edges patterned with mini red roses and green leaves. There was a thin chain around her neck, with a large bright green pendant hanging from it. Her silky straight hair was tinted black, and her skin was pale as she held out a hand to a raven that drifted towards her - and with a flap of its wings, it landed, settling onto the material that covered her palms. She gazed at it thoughtfully, with ambient wonder in her expression, and the raven calmly stayed where it was. Then, noticing Amber and Cressela watching, it called out to them in interest, and Cressela jumped slightly as the girl's attention shifted to them.
"You two. Are you both lost?"
Amber and Cressela stepped forwards, and the girl stood up, the raven fluttering up and perching on her shoulder, cocking its head in judgement. The girl looked around the same age as Amber, and her sapphire blue eyes moved to her.
"No, we aren't lost," Amber replied uncertainly, "who are you?"
"Raelynn Ravenna," she answered, sitting back down as more ravens approached her, and Amber watched in curiosity.
"Do ravens just... come to you?"
Raelynn shrugged, smiling lightly.
"Well, as my name hints, ravens and I... well I don't know - we're sort of... at one. We can learn a lot from them, you know." She looked back towards them, shifting in her seat.
"And you are?"
"Oh - I'm Amber," Amber said, smiling a little, "and this is Cressela."
"Yes, I remember Cressela," she said, taking down her hood, "you were the one who managed to escape with your coetus. What are you doing back here now?"
"I came back to free us all," Cressela replied, nodding at Amber.
"Amber found me. We're going to Dr Insanis. You know how to get to next level from here, Rae?"
Raelynn smiled, raising a brow.
"You and a human girl are going to free us from Master Insanis? Just how easy do you expect that'll be, Cressela? What is her power or skill? What makes her so special?"
"Look," Amber stepped in, sitting beside her as ravens perched and watched on tree branches and the ground, "I know that it seems unlikely and all, but I'm really determined to help. It was me that found Cressela living alone, and I couldn't just walk out on it. We have to try."
Raelynn shook her head, flicking her dark hair behind her shoulder.
"Amber, you have no idea who you are up against."
Amber brushed the comment away, glancing to the floor in thought and then back up at Raelynn.
"Don't you want to escape? Go somewhere safe, or where you really belong, with your friends and the rest of your species?"
Raelynn paused, debating silently in her mind. Then she sighed, and pointed forwards, past Cressela, to where the staircase was in the distance.
"You see there? My friends are inside, at Level Four. Believe me, it will get harder to pass each level the more you go on. You're lucky to have made it this far, Amber. And Cressela," she continued, crossing her legs in bemusement, "once Insanis knows that you're here... well, you can only imagine how he'll react."
"Please," Amber persisted, looking her straight in the eye, "this might be the only chance you'll ever get."
Raelynn sighed but nodded.
"Okay. Here," she said, pulling off her necklace and handing it to Amber, "you'll need this if you're going to Level Four. Put it in the top step, and you can go. But I'm not supposed to do this," she said, a concerned look on her face, "I was meant to get my ravens to attack and stop you from going further. So good luck. All our hopes rest on you two now."
Amber nodded thankfully, putting the necklace around her own neck and standing up.
"Thank you, Raelynn."
She nodded, standing up too as some ravens scattered at their movements.
"You are not an ordinary human," she commented, smiling at Amber, "you seem different. Maybe, maybe you have a chance."
Amber and Cressela smiled at her and went on, Raelynn Ravenna watching them leave and rested on a tree, her ravens perching on its branches and at her feet.
"No ordinary human," she repeated to herself, staring at Amber and Cressela as they walked off towards the stairs side by side, talking amongst themselves, "no ordinary human at all."
Then she held out her hands, and a couple of ravens flew to her eagerly, landing on them and watching her.
"Don't you think?"
"Do you think that maybe Rae was right?" Cressela asked Amber as they headed towards Level Four.
"About Insanis? Do you think we stand a chance?"
Amber bit the inside of her lip, thinking. Of course, this Dr Insanis must live up to his name. He was crazy but intelligent - he must be, to have been able to create Cressela's species. How could a human even create another being? It seemed impossible - but then, that was one of many words that Amber didn't believe in.
"Of course we do. We've got to try. And he's only human, Cressela. If we don't do this, who else will?"
Cressela nodded in agreement.
"True. Come, let's go up."
The two girls advanced up the white stone stairs, and Amber pulled off the chain that Raelynn had given her, glancing at the bases of the stairs until she found its place. She carefully inserted it, and they stood there, Cressela glancing around in uncertainty.
Then, the ground below them started to grind and shiver, and suddenly the trees and birds of the forest in front of them parted into two, opening like doors from a pop-up book into an indoor area, the stairs continuing upwards. Amber watched in surprise and amazement, and the two stepped inside. Looking back, some of the forest's trees were still scattered around, but they looked more like paintings on the walls than actual trees. Small, delicate beads of snow fell from the high up ceiling, and as they climbed the stairs and made it to the top, they parted and split into two, leading into a golden, pale peach hall, with two large, dark wooden doors acting as gates, presumably to the next level below.
"He must be a genius," Amber whispered, as she and Cressela came down the staircase, "to design and construct all of these levels."
"A genius isn't the word I'd use."
A girl's voice from the ground floor distracted them, and Amber looked over to see a girl sitting on the marble ground, wearing a dark olive green dress and a long beaded necklace around her neck and auburn red hair that swept down to a little past her shoulders. Her skin was a pale colour too, and in one hand she clutched a small bunch of pink roses. But as Amber looked more closely at her, she noticed that the roses were somehow bleeding, the inky red liquid dripping onto the floor. The girl looked up with sad forest green eyes, and a spark of hope and something else that was quite undetectable suddenly came to her expression as Amber and Cressela approached her warily.
"Finally," the girl breathed, smiling with a new faint, crazed look in her eyes as she spoke, "We've been waiting for you both since the day she escaped."