Ninth Chapter, First Part: Learning

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Iris woke again to the blue bird bent over her in motherly concern, its iridescent feather crest outlined by the moon's lambent orange.

Iris groaned, her limbs sore and her head still spinning from the maze. "Let's not make a habit of this, okay?"

The blue bird cocked its head to the side, and perhaps it was the remnants of sleep blurring Iris's vision, but there seemed to be mirth in the bird's whirling eyes.

Iris had fallen asleep, or, if she were being honest with herself, collapsed at the base of the hill where the maze had spat her out, but now she lay on marshy ground in the middle of a wide flat expanse. Turning her head, she could see silvery puddles surrounded by rough sedge glinting all across the plain, and though there were no trees, gnarled roots roughened the landscape. Stretching her arm out across the ground, Iris dipped her fingers in the nearest silty puddle, and was surprised to find it cool but dry, like sand as fine as silk.

"What I would really love," Iris said, turning her head back to face the bird, "is to go home. But since I'm stuck here for now, I don't suppose you know some safe place I could go?"

The bird trilled, cocked its head to the side, and ruffled its feathers as it shuffled a few steps to the side.

You won't get anywhere lying on the ground, Iris translated, her elbows sinking into soft ground as she struggled to stand. Her limbs were heavy and barely under her control, and though Iris tried to attribute the unwieldy weight to exhaustion, she wondered too if it was the tug of this realm, its atmosphere slowly enveloping her and bleeding through her with its own colors. Iris's breath hitched as she remembered her time in the Candlewood, and suddenly she felt like crying, or screaming, or running as far and as fast as she could.

The crooning of the bird- Kismet, she remembered- coaxed Iris back into reality. Right, the swamp. First she had to deal with this swamp. It seemed to stretch on forever, the edges lost in the gloom of near-twilight, and what Iris could see of it suggested that each stretch was near indistinguishable from the rest. Just sedge, sludge, and silverly puddles.

Kismet was perched on one of the scraggly roots that arched out of the soggy ground, her brilliant azure nearly glowing in the gloom. As Iris approached her, Kismet fluttered over to a further root and chirped. Iris grinned. She had a guide, now; no need to worry that the swamp would end as disastrously as the forest or labyrinth.

The ground was treacherous as Iris followed Kismet. In some places it was as slippery as mud, and in others it sucked at her feet. But though she could feel the squelch of swamp between her toes with every step, her feet were dry as soon as she lifted them up. It was a queer sensation, but this whole realm was queer, so Iris thought little of it and didn't wonder what filled the ground instead of water.

She had been following Kismet for a while, carefully skirting the roots and puddles, when she slipped, her foot snagged by something small and hard she couldn't see. She fell forward hard, and the air forced from her lungs rippled across the puddle only fingers away from her face. As she wheezed and tried to suck in breath, Iris saw color bloom in the silverly puddle. What was once the color of fog warmed into red-brown and creamy white, with softer patches of color swelling and shifting throughout. At first Iris thought she was reading into random spirals, making sense of the chaos into something fanciful, but the longer she stared in the puddle the more clear it became that she was, impossibly, watching herself bind the rogue shade back at school.

It was mesmerizing to watch from above. In the viscous nearly-indigo shadows of the maelstrom, her green-blue flames flitted through like leaves in a teasing autumn breeze. There was grace to them even if there seemed no pattern. At the time, Iris had felt she moved with some higher purpose, some profound understanding of her surroundings, but now, watching from above, she couldn't tease out the meaning of her movements. Why did she turn right there, and duck down like a cat slinking under a fence? What cue forced her to spin like that, her limbs wanton and her face slightly too tight to be serene?

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