“Ow!” The exclamations were simultaneous as Nessie and Amaris were slammed into each other in the front bench of the van that Portus drove so recklessly. Amaris gripped her seatbelt in an effort to slide back into her respective seat before Portus veered around another curve in the road. A squeal emitted from the back of the van and the G force of the next turn squished the two girls against the left window again.
“This is better than a rollercoaster!” Nessie chuckled breathlessly.
“No, worse! Rollercoasters don’t have windows to smash into!” Amaris replied over the noise of the gravel road.
“Do you think Portus would take it easy in the turns if we asked?” Nessie tried to whisper, but she ended up hollering anyways.
“I think he’s actually enjoying it.”
A peek into the rearview mirror at Portus’ amused expression confirmed Amaris’ suspicion, and all the two girls could do was laugh helplessly as they were collided again.
“Finally!” Nessie sighed with relief as the van careened to a stop amidst humming aircrafts.
Portus unbuckled and pointed to a helicopter that appeared just ready for take-off. “This is our ride kids! This is a military airport, but one of the pilots is one of us… gifted. He flies the new gifted to the maze to receive their gifts. He hasn’t had much business lately because there hasn’t been many gifted popping up.” Portus swung out of his seat to open their door.
“I think that all of my ribs are eternally bruised.” Ruthie grumbled, only half-serious, as the team scrambled to the doors of the dusty van.
Amid the groaning and stretching, and rubbing of bruised limbs, Amaris laughed. “I don’t think I have any ribs left.”
While passing her on the way out, Siobhan snickered and poked her in the side.
“Ow!” Amaris swatted her hand away.
“I found them!” Siobhan joked, then leapt out of the van and dashed in the direction of the waiting helicopter.
With a backwards glance at Nessie, Amaris dove out of the van door and the swirling sand smacked her face. Spluttering and shielding her eyes with her hands, she sprinted towards the helicopter. Sand shifted treacherously underneath her boots as she leapt to grab the handle of the door, and with one last cough, swung into the helicopter. Amaris tried to hike up her sagging utility belt and flop into the farthest plastic seat from the entrance at the same time. The door clanged shut behind Portus, but the noise seemed to grow louder instead of diminish.
Smiling gratefully at Nessie, Amaris took the headphones offered to her, but they dangled in her hand for a moment as the helicopter took off. Holding her breath, Amaris peered out the window at the ground falling away. Then her mind refocused as the din of the helicopter assaulted her ears, so she hastily clamped the headphones on. The noise dimmed considerably, but Amaris was immediately distracted by an odd sensation in her right hand. She had forgotten the lightbulb injury that had brought her here in the first place. Apprehensively, she turned her hand over and inspected the ragged cut in her palm. To her surprise and relief, the cut had already sealed into a scar with uneven edges. Waving off Nessie’s inquiring look, Amaris slumped in her seat and felt the exhilaration drain from her body as she noticed MickeyMac bandaging up a bloody gash on her own hand.
“Too many injuries, this isn’t safe!” Her brain warned her.
Mentally smirking, the more careless side of Amaris replied: “Since when did we give much thought to being safe?”
Then the brain dialogue began, and external Amaris began to space out.
“We should care more about our safety.”
“Come on, we all know that dying can’t be that bad.”
“How do we know? We’ve never died before.”
“Exactly. We should try it some time.”
“Yeah, let’s not do that.”
“It’d be an experience!”
“An experience we’d never survive from!”
“Well…. yeah. I mean, it’s dying.”
“………….we’re dangerous to be around.”
Amaris woke to the odd sensation of something dragging her ear down. Straightening up, she pushed her headphones back in place and quickly wiped the ticklish trickle of drool off the corner of her mouth. Idly wondering what Portus and Adam were talking about, Amaris leaned forward to listen, but her attention was caught by the reflection of the pilot’s face in the windshield. Turning to the rearview mirror for a better view, Amaris stared at the reflection until his gaze flickered slightly in her direction.
“He caught us looking! Quick, look away, look away!”
Amaris jerked her head to the side and gazed studiously out the window as her mind raced to collect memories.
“We’ve seen him before. Now why can’t we remember where?”
Her mental frustration was dissolved by the rush of wind and sand that barreled in through the opening doors. Adam jerked his headphones off and listened as Portus yelled something in his ear, then turned to Amaris. She yanked off the headphones and inclined her head to listen. “We have to jump out, six feet above the ground, pass it on.” Nodding, Amaris turned to Nessie and repeated the command. When Nessie turned to MickeyMac, Amaris unbuckled and crept to the door just as Adam jumped out and thudded to the sand that churned beneath the helicopter. Forcing herself not to think, Amaris let go of the door handle and tumbled out.
Her stomach lurched painfully, then she slammed into the ground, landing like Iron Man: one knee and one fist planted solidly in the ground. Amaris rose, and her right knee smarting from the landing, walked stiffly to join the rest of the team.
Portus and MickeyMac were the last to jump, but all eyes were turned towards the stone Everest that awaited them. The shuffling and whispers were silenced as each team member faced the ordeal before them. Some eyes reflected fear, others welcomed the challenge, but resolve shone in all.
The helicopter noise faded out into the distant horizon, heralding the dusk that was quickly blanketing the desert sky. The loss of daylight quickly brought the immediate task at hand back to the team members’ minds. Boots slogging in the sand, they began to line up for Portus to check their equipment. Beginning with Adam, he rummaged through his utility belt, counting off a mental checklist.
Amaris swiveled her gaze around to analyze her team’s individual status. Due to the thoughtful expressions, Amaris concluded that they must be conjecturing about what expected them in the maze.
Except for MickeyMac. She is definitely spaced out. Or maybe naming constellations. If I had a constellation, I’d name it Toby…..
Her thoughts were brought back from a constellation named Toby to Portus tugging on her belt.
“Nervous?” He inquired without pausing his mental count.
“I’m a pro at imperfections, and I’m best friends with my doubt.” Amaris shrugged as the lyric rolled out casually.
“Is that so…” Portus snapped the last pouch on her belt shut and stepped back to look at her. “Are you sure you’re not mentally freaking out?”
“Do I have a reason to?” She replied carelessly and adjusted the leather bracelet dangling from her right wrist.
Portus’ eyes dropped to her hand, then he grabbed her wrist and held it, palm up. “What’s this scar?”
“Oh.” Amaris pulled her hand away slightly, but he didn’t let go. “A smashed lightbulb. That’s what brought me here in the beginning.”
“Out of all the methods…” His words trailed off and dropping her wrist, leveled her with a gaze. “Yes. Now you have a reason to freak out.” He held up a hand, halting her next question. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Adam barely spared Amaris a glance when she stepped beside him to survey the stone fortress anticipating them. “Scared? Apprehensive? Tentative?”
“Nope.” Adam stuffed his hands into his pockets. The utility belt jingled slightly.
Then the side of the mountain split open.
Amaris leaned forward slightly and watched, amazed as the outline of a large door seemed to create itself out of the rock.
“Okay, maybe a little bit apprehensive.” Adam recanted his former reply as he started walking towards the door that was creaking open to reveal its cavernous interior.
Amaris smirked silently and waited for the rest of the team to trickle into the door. Alissa, the last of the team, passed by her and then paused to look back. Amaris mirrored the action and both girls gazed at Portus, standing alone between the stirring sand and desert sky.
“Go on in, guys…” he urged them, his voice faltering a little. “I’ll be waiting outside.”
When Alissa crossed the threshold just behind Amaris, the heavy stone door sealed itself, emitting the faint feeling of separation that caused some team members to shiver. To assuage their fear, all strained to pierce the darkness with their gaze, and in response, faint letters glowed far away on the stone floor.
Siobhan lurched forward slightly as she recognized her name, and then ran to it with her hand outstretched. When she reached it, her fingers traveled over the luminescent letters but nothing happened. Cautiously, Siobhan placed both feet on the letters, and somebody let out a slight scream of alarm when the room began to shudder. Quickly walking through the American stylized door in front of her, Siobhan’s adventure began.
“Yes.” Amaris exclaimed through her teeth when her name appeared next. Forgetting all but the excitement in entering the maze, she strode forward and stepped onto the letters.
Wind suddenly glanced off her face when a breezy silk curtain fluttered in front of her. Without glancing back, she swept the curtain aside and stepped through.
Her quickly formed expectations crumbled when she stepped into a dark hallway lined by grimy windows that let in no light, and all the panes were shattered in some way. Her boots crunched on debris as Amaris stepped carefully through the hallway, shying away from the walls. At the end of the hallway was one huge window, shot through with branched fissures signature to broken glass. Hesitatingly, Amaris laid one finger on the window, and it tumbled down in a shower of shards.
The scar in her hand tingled slightly when she stepped through the window frame and into a massive, deteriorating warehouse. In contrast to the hallway, the warehouse was devoid of windows. When she peered through the dim light, the first thing that caught her gaze was the silhouettes straggling all over the walls of the warehouse. Like frozen shadows, the silhouettes flickered unsteadily in different positions.
Warily creeping past the figures on the walls, Amaris then came face to face with the huge letters of unfinished graffiti sprawled across the far wall. Reading the words in alternating silver and black spray paint, recognition lit in Amaris’ eyes.
“For you were once darkness…” She read aloud and her eyes searched for something to complete the verse. A nondescript can of spray paint sat upon the floor beneath the letters. Amaris began reciting from memory slowly as her fingers gripped the can and in broad strokes, finished the sentence. “…but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.”
The hiss from the can of spray paint ceased when Amaris stepped back to review her work. In surprise, she noticed that the words she wrote matched the silver and black theme. Eyeing the can suspiciously, she decided to keep it.
Faint whispers filled the air, and the frozen shadows suddenly leapt off the walls and dashed past Amaris into a gap in the flooring that was gradually widening to reveal a rickety set of stairs. When all the shadows had passed and vanished down the stairs, Amaris reluctantly decided to follow.
Descending the stairs, she was relieved to see that the lower tunnel was well-lit with small lightbulbs set into bronze fixtures snaking across the walls and ceiling. Up ahead, Amaris saw more unfinished graffiti on the walls. “My introduction to punk life.” She remarked as she studied the new words. “If you don’t stand for something…” she laughed as she lifted the spray paint. “You might fall for anything.”
When she finished the last letter, a faint wind whistled through the hallway, and all the lightbulbs flickered. Amaris froze, her hand still raised. Her eyes darted down the hallway, and the faint gleam of glass beckoned her. Slowly approaching the light, she walked out of the tunnel and into a huge, dark room that seemed closed off. In an exact radius from the walls, a large dim lightbulb about two feet tall was suspended in an upright position.
Intrigued, Amaris swept the hair that had escaped her French braid back from her face and leaned forward to gaze into the perfectly transparent glass dome.
A faint golden light sparked in the center of the lightbulb, and images wavered in the growing light. Amaris suppressed a gasp when she heard her mom and dad’s voices echo through the room. “It’s a girl!” And then a baby squalled. The first image was filled with a pudgy little baby face, its eyes tightly shut and the tiny brow wrinkled in infant distress.
The image dimmed as the baby was transformed into a small toddler with chubby hands and a shower cap adorning her light brown hair. Amaris’ oldest brother’s voice squealed with delight. “Mom, look at Amaris!”
With a faint smile, Amaris laid her hand on the glass, absorbed in her memories.
The toddler lengthened out into a lanky little girl with long thin brown hair and tear-drop shaped eyes. Amaris watched the skinned knees, the games of tag, the stuffed animals that talked, and the worn tennis shoes. She winced, then grinned while watching her innocent younger self turn into a confused and awkward preteen. Ages thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen dragged sluggishly by, and the golden glow brightened behind the images and voices as younger Amaris discovered hairstyles other than ponytails, and the dorky appeal of Converse.
As faint as a breath of wind, the lightbulbs in the tunnel flickered again, and the images dimmed as the atmosphere in the room changed. It felt colder. Became distant and indistinct.
Amaris stirred and felt the change. Through the gathering mist on the lightbulb surface, she caught blurry images of dark hallways, ink and blood mixed, and heavy shards of glass.
The light faded.
On the glass dome, the mist thickened and became murky, seeping out from the lightbulb and enveloping Amaris’ legs as she stared into her past. The spray paint container was cold in her hand, and the blue plaid shirt that she wore suddenly felt heavy on her shoulders.
Fog crept into her voice. “I remember.”
“I remember watching you.” A voice responded.
Amaris didn’t look up. “Why were you so far away?”
“You didn’t want to find me.” He reminded her gently.
Silence settled as she gazed into the dome and a clear image emerged through the fog. It was her. Sitting huddled against a wall as shadows surged about her.
Amaris’ fingers tingled with remembering and she stepped away from the lightbulb. “Please, take it.”
A moment passed, then His voice spoke through the fog. “You know what to do.”
Without hesitating, she flipped the can of spray paint in her hand upside down, and closed her eyes as she swung.
Metal and glass collided, forming the melodic song of a shattering lightbulb. Words and images screamed for an instant, then vanished. The fog diffused. Shards soared in all directions. One shard, however, still hung suspended in the air.
“Amaris,” a deep booming voice echoed through the shard littered room.
Amaris straightened suddenly. It was a new voice that spoke to her. Not His familiar voice. She relaxed after realizing that the voice was recorded.
“I am Ellond, the first of the gifted. God has given you the gifts He has for purpose and you must use them to further His kingdom and to safeguard humanity. Accept your duty and be His warrior. Never falter, never give up, remember who you are, and who your God is. Receive your gift. Begin the testing.”
Amaris blinked twice, and shifting the paint can to her left hand, reached out to cradle the shard in her palm. It fit perfectly into her scar. Every jagged edge matching. Curling her fingers around the shard, Amaris felt the sharpness for only a moment, then she was gripping nothing.
Something hot and tingly surged up her arm from her hand.
“Agh!” Amaris stumbled backwards and tried to shake the heat from her arm, but it only intensified. She opened her hand and stared into her palm. The scar was illuminated with a blue light that emanated from her hand. In fascination, Amaris watched the light dance up and down her arm, then a whisper of a sound arrested her attention. Her eyes darted to the corners of the room, and biting her lip, edged back towards the tunnel.
The darkness was moving. And it was coming towards her.
The strange involuntary words came before she could stop them. In one terrified, uncontrollable moment, letters swirled up her wrist and Amaris yelped in terror when the nearest shadow leapt at her. Flinging out her hand to stop it, blue electricity streamed out of her fingers and when they collided with the shadow, both evaporated with a loud hiss.
The shadows halted.
Panting from sheer shock, Amaris stared at her hand. The light abated somewhat, but when the shadows began to whisper again her hand glowed so brilliantly it was hard to look at.
The shadows came again, but this time she was ready. Words began to waver in her palm and this time Amaris read them out loud as the electricity crackled. “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”
Steam dissipated in the air all about her and she strode through it resolutely, words already churning for the next onslaught. The shadows felt weaker when she lifted her hand.
“Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle!”
Her voice fell silent when the shadows vaporized and she faced her last enemy. Amaris approached the shadow quietly, transfixed by its gaze. Her own eyes were staring back at her, strangely sad and defiant and pleading all at once.
“You’re betraying yourself.” The Amaris shadow whispered.
Amaris placed a hand on the shadow’s shoulder and exhaled softly as the electricity warmed her fingers. “I no longer live…”
The shadow looked down in defeat. Amaris looked up and smiled. “…but Christ lives in me.”
Through the rising steam of the Amaris shadow, a door opened in the stone wall. The pale light of dawn spilled through the door.
Amaris inhaled deeply. She looked down at the blank can of spray paint in her left hand, and then at her luminous, alien looking right hand. Then she lifted her gaze to the door. Feeling ridiculously unprepared to take on the responsibility of protecting humanity, Amaris trudged out of her challenge and into the new day.
 Ephesians 5:8
 Thousand Foot Krutch
 2 Corinthians 10:4
 Psalm 144:1
 Galatians 2:20a
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