“Sharadin, watch the way you use my name! Actually, do not say it at all. Next time it slips, I will have your tongue.” Amaris brushed her fingers through her hair. Almost a week of travel had brought her and this shape shifter just a few miles from the first known guard post of the southern army. Three days, and this man still called her by name. “Arian. Do you understand me? I am to be known by you only as Arian. This is not a pretend title, this is my identity to you from this day forward. I did not come all this way to die by a slip up.”
“Are you finished, Arian?”
Amaris exhaled, shaking her head. She swug out of the water skin. At length, they continued their journey South. Riding this shape shifter, Amaris felt alone, exposed, and unready. The glow of the broach under her shirt where it hid burned gentle against her chest. Hours passed before they approached their first challenge. She gripped the brown main between her fingers, and sighed, then dismounted. As her feet touched the ground, Sharadin took his human form. Amaris tried to find her tongue, but just breathed heavy, trying to focus on one disgusting man who she felt she could take out, instead of the group all around him to whom she would surely fall if a fight broke out.
“Arian,” Sharadin patted Amaris’s back, “come on, just like last time.” Sharadin shook his head, and then addressed the front most guard who gripped his hilt while eyeing the strangers.
“We need passage south. We are carrying messages to Dunharrow officer Grange.” Sharadin addressed the gruff man.
Amaris swallowed, trying to dislodge the build up in her throat.
A dark woman stepped forward, arms crossed, and examined Amaris. The woman flicked her like a bug. “No. This is not a prisoner, what is her story?” She kicked Amaris’s calf, and the latter stumbled a couple steps away from the grass growing underfoot.
“This is our best type of spy. Arian is able to maintain Alaquendi properties, and infiltrates our greatest enemy.”
Several people stepped closer, looking like hungry wolves at a feast. Amaris tried to make her smile cruel, and shook her head, crossing her arms. It was not enough. The woman who had addressed them grabbed Amaris’s arm, and squeezed it tight. A minuscule amount of energy drained into the woman, Amaris yanked her arm free. “Damn it! I need that to get South. How should I deliver my message if you all leech off me?” But the starving woman gripped both Amaris’s arms. She stared like a hungry child, and compassion swelled inside Amaris who knew a little life given would not damage her any. Yet for the greater task she pulled away again, and gripped the woman’s collar, looking down into her eyes with hatred she could only conjure by recalling her last fight with these people. “Take it off the new recruits! Seventeen years, unfaltering, has earned me this painful position, and only three others dare join me. Your actions might delay for weeks my return to the midlands, where I have to pose as an Alaquendi.” Amaris pushed the dying woman away, and watched the earth shrivel beneath her step. Silver laced this woman’s hair, and Amaris felt glad to have at least a little gold in her own to match. She looked at Sharadin. “We need to move on. I am not dealing with these people.”
The guard with whom Sharadin had spoken gave them leave. As they left, Amaris watched a minor beating taking place on the desperate woman who had reached out. Amaris struggled to keep her composure until out of sight. “I never want to do that again.” Amaris knew Sharadin could not answer, as she sat astride the brown horse.
They made progress, but the ease with which they passed checkpoint groups the first day diminished with the second and third, as they changed their story to avoid detection. Amaris became Arian the prisoner, or Arian the woman going to punishment (and here she received more than a couple blows.) After six days, Amaris and Sharadin came to a small town. Amaris suppressed her fatigue and dismounted before the blurs of people resolved into a small depressing mass. She loathed to think of this trip with Fleecel alone, she needed the man beside her to be strength now and then when hers gave out.
Amaris tried to ignore the onlookers as she walked passed with false confidence. Then Sharadin gave her a firm shove between the shoulders, and Amaris stumbled a few steps.
Amaris blinked, and erected her back, and Sharadin pushed her again. This time she stayed slumped over, and tried to drag her feet a little. “Better. Now listen to me next time, and maybe I will spare you worse.”
Amaris fought the urge to wail on Sharadin, but she obeyed. They had to make their current ruse of Arian the prisoner convincing. No one around her looked confident or strong, why should she? Sharadin grabbed Amaris’s arm and she stumbled. “That is plenty, Sharadin.” Amaris yanked against the man, but his grip tightened.
“I am handling this.” Sharadin responded. Amaris turned on the man and saw someone else holding her back while Sharadin argued with the hulking man holding Amaris. Another man approached, and then a woman whose sudden scrutiny scared Amaris more than the two men with their brute. “She is my charge, and I will not be seen to fail with her.”
“Exactly.” The woman’s sounded cunning. Amaris’s heart beat raged at the sound.
“We can help you,” the second man said to Sharadin.
“I have her handled.” Sharadin insisted.
“Damn Manori. Too proud to do things properly for the poor wench.” Then they thrust Sharadin aside, and pulled Amaris from the street. Sharadin followed, as did others. A man ripped off Amaris’s boot and she fell, her back smacking against the hard-packed earth.
“Do not hurt her.” The rough man still had Amaris’s arm in his hand.
“Sorry. Her balance is poor.”
Amaris began to rise, but the man pressed his knee against her stomach. She gasped, and he lessened the force. Her stocking was removed and the man grabbed her bare ankle. At once, Amaris felt a small surge of herself flying into the man’s form.
“That will not help!” Amaris screamed.
“It needs to hurt,” the woman pushed hair off Amaris’s face. “Relax, because this is the only way for you to join the Arkainda.” Both the woman’s dry hands took hold of Amaris, marring her skin with their touch. In finality of her fate, the man’s fingers laid over her bare throat, inches above the concealed broach, and Amaris felt steady leaks of strength vanishing from her. So gradual, and uncomfortable that every minute seemed less than a week of vigor. More people — traitors of her race — piled their hands onto her skin, puncturing holes in the barrier that held Amaris together. Her head started to ache, and her parched mouth did not bother objecting her fate. She only hoped when they finished she would have enough life in her blood to finish her job.
“We will not even finish her!” Once of the men shouted, then chuckled. “She takes forever.” Amaris smirked at her own strength, and then passed out.
Amaris opened her eyes, but did not see light. Brown and grey shades in abstract forms filled her vision. Then she heard his voice. “Sharadin, I am going to kill you.”
“You are too weak for that.” He sounded snide. Amaris promised herself he was acting.
“Because of you.” Her voice sounded sallow, empty, quiet, and parched.
“Maybe you will forget that when you come round. Actually, remember it, next time you will be on the other side. At the rate of our new recruits, that time will come fast for you. I want to finish your conversion alone.” Sharadin scooped his arm under Amaris’s shoulder and lifted her to her feet. She could only just stand. “Your strength surprises, maybe I need to wait until you diminish further.” Amaris let her legs go out, and Sharadin lifted her off the ground while the surrounding crowd laughed. She dropped her arm away from Sharadin, losing grip and making it harder for him to carry her. “Perhaps you are ready.” Amaris flickered her eyes shut and dropped her head, hanging limp. She tried to block out the rasping voices cheering Sharadin toward terrible acts that would rip out the rest of Amaris’s person until a shell remained. He would never listen. “Alright then, to the swamp with you,” is all Sharadin replied.
After a vague recognition of being laid onto straw-like grass, Amaris’s stamina disolved. She had no conscious understanding. No time. No light or dark. No hunger or strife. She missed any sunrise or set. And with the darkness when she opened her eyes, Amaris feared discovering where she laid, what had happened to her body, and if she was even Alaquendi anymore. Then a minuscule prick of white appeared overhead. Maybe it had already been there, and Amaris had not seen its weak radiance. She felt in sync with the struggling star. Where am I? She tried to say, but no sound escaped her lips. A hand brushed against her cheek. It did not take or give any form of strength, but she could feel the touch. Sharadin spoke, but Amaris only saw his lips move, no sound, no connection. At least she would perish beneath the star.
Amaris struggled to open her eyes, but the smoggy shadows had more strength than she. Amaris. Her chest heaved, and she spluttered for air. Amaris. Her hand smacked whatever made the noise and grabbed someone’s shirt, and then she could see. Sharadin leaned over her, pensive control marked his face; how long had she lain unconscious in the dusty South? Several minutes of steady breathing enabled her to talk.
“Watch your tongue down here.”
Sharadin nodded with something near a smile. “Absolutely, Arian.” Sharadin sat up tall and looked in all directions. “Thank the king of that star you stare at that the Arkainda did not succeed.” He sighed. “I did not know if you would wake as one of them.”
“If that is what they did to my friend—” Amaris tried to push away from the ground. Sharadin helped her sit. He scooted behind her, and she leaned back against his. Sharadin passed her a water skin, and Amaris took a swig. The thin water tasted off. “That is from the swamp, right?”
Amaris took another long drink. At least they had a water source.
“You will not stand out. Just watch where you step. You rehabilitated better than I thought possible, after what they—”
“I have survived worse than that stunt..”
“You amaze me, Arian.”
“I need this strength, but I can act weak.” Amaris examined a chunk of thick, golden hair. Remnants from her previous encounter, mixed with damages from the most recent attack. Amaris looked over her shoulder at Sharadin. “Ready to act as my slaver?” Amaris felt Sharadin’s heavy sigh. She waited for him to gather his constitution, and then he leaned away from her. Sharadin pulled Amaris to her feet, and she surveyed the bland landscape. No fainting or weakness remained, but she felt only a shadow of her former self. “Is this what humans feel?” She looked at the grey water and beige reeds, stagnant in the stale air.
“I hope not.”
They locked gazes, and Amaris hoped between them they could find their destination. The Manori had acquired only the direction to the chest Amaris loathed and longed for, but not the location.The two struggled South for several miles, until Amaris felt certain they had missed their mark. The land leveled into a blank, brown slate of dead grass and cold breezes which caught up and swirled dirt and dust. Amaris dismounted and waited for Sharadin to shift. “Something is wrong.” Amaris crossed her arms, unhappy to be having this conversation again.
“Everything is wrong. So we continue in the direction of that wrong until we can fix this mess.” Amaris made no response, so Sharadin continued. “South, Amaris. Where else would he put this device?”
“But we have seen no guards for days. If we reach the cliffs, and have not found it still, our supplies may not bring us North again.”
“True.” Sharadin paused. “So your suggestion?”
Amaris heaved her shoulders, and then sat down. “Wish our contacts had found more information.”
Sharadin huffed. “I meant a helpful idea.”
Amaris brushed her fingers through her hair. “Split up? Cover twice the ground.”
“Bad idea. You would be exposed, and alone. If damage came to you—”
“I do hope you are not going to tell me I can be safer in the South if we stay together. Because, clearly, I have thought of that already.”
“Good.” Amaris continued. “I go South-East, and you South-West, where we know for certain BG has forces lined up. Perhaps they are there for a reason.” She raised her eyebrows. “I will avoid people, and you will have speed and strength. If we find nothing, we meet in the true South, and perish at the cliffs, where we are headed already.”
“So you want me to fetch you if I come upon anything? And if you discover the basin?”
“You will know.” Amaris stood and grasped Sharadin’s shoulders. “I hope to see you again.”
“Be wary, Amaris.”
She smirked. What else would she do?
Amaris plodded on for five days, and saw nothing new. Her hair had less burgundy, and the flora marking her path increased. Soon she would not have much left. Either Sharadin or she would find the Basin soon, or someone would spot Amaris. Never had she been so overt as an Alaquendi. Nothing bloomed anywhere between her and the horizon, in any direction, and here she walked in front of vibrant greenery. She slept, and woke up in a puddle of grass. If the land was killing her, it did so with a pleasantness Amaris could not have expected in the South. Wide open plains, large vast sky holding one little star, and miles without a soul but herself. Soon her failure would bring a sea breeze, and cliffs to jump from. She understood her ancestor’s draw toward this land. She tried to picture this slice of earth as rolling plains. If only she did not have the damnation of fighting or dieing on this now-desecrated open space.
Amaris stopped counting days, and regretted sending away Sharadin. Her rations thinned, and hope of seeing any person again wained. So she veered her course toward the cliffs. Once the ocean opened up before her, she sat at the edge, and dangled her legs off the rim of her world. She stared into the waves that rippled before crashing into the rocks. Hundreds of years before, an Alaquendi woman held the same broach Amaris had in her hand now, standing over this cliff. What if they had fallen then? Would the Alaquendi, the Humans, the Manori, been able to overturn BG if a legend did not promise they could defeat him only one way? If no one knew about a key, or the locked chamber to life, would the last seven generations have lived better? Amaris thought to thrust herself over the cliff side. For the sake of everyone else, she decided against the leap. Leaving behind a ghost story would give this cursed continent nothing. Perhaps the broach just needed the right carrier. No one else had made it so far.. She owed to Manori, and to Sharadin the chance they had given her. She wandered East, hoping to encounter either Sharadin or the Basin.
For the good of her sanity, she did not have to wait long. Sharadin found her, with ease she assumed from the trail she left, and told her of his failure in discovering anything but an army readying for battle. The Alaquendi were forming ranks against the South while Amaris and Sharadin sought out the Basin. War would begin soon. They had the best distraction, and still no results. But Sharadin had managed a double portion of supplies, so they had more time. Time for more wandering. But Amaris obliged. They continued to separate and rejoin once every other day. Sharadin never struggled to find Amaris with the greenery following her, but assured the woman that the path only remained for half a day before dying again. This continued for another five days, and Amaris’s efforts tapered to a minimum. She started to admire the macabre land for its consistency. In all her long years, she had never found something dead last so long. The deciseviness unnerved her.
Sharadin galloped at a great speed toward Amaris, interupting her contemplation. He returned a day early, or Amaris had lost a day of memory. He shifted, and his speed began carrying him beyond Amaris, who stepped aside.
“Easy!” She shouted.
Amaris lurched toward the man, and smothered his mouth. He stood still while she scolded about the use of her name. When she finished, and released her grip. The man just smiled. Great! Sharadin had snapped. She rubbed her forehead, studying the ground. She always had the cliffs. Sharadin spoke.
“Maybe we should give this up,” Amaris sat down, and dropped to her back. The dusty ground seemed as good a place to die as any.
Sharadin leaned over her, grinning. “The Basin has a leak.”
“Yes, I know that.” Amaris closed her eyes, and covered her face. She heard the man sit beside her.
“I did not know that.”
Amaris pulled lowered her hands, and stared. “Wait…”
Sharadin pulled Amaris up by the back of her dress. “Are you ready?”
Sharadin carried Amaris to where fingers of light green spread out in a long, thin web among the dead grass. As Sharadin continued, the space between the bands diminished, filling in with clumps of dark green. They followed the growth until a meadow replaced the dusty ground, and Amaris’s eyes trained on the plant life that varied from flowers to small tree stumps and sprouts that had yet to be cut. When Amaris lifted her gaze, she saw a sea of emerald rippling in the breeze. When Sharadin stopped, Amaris dismounted and hunched into the thick field.
Sharadin pointed out a small structure, almost hidden by the vines wrapping over it. The two sought out a plan, while Amaris sank her fingertips into the deep brown soil. Together, they found their best option, but Amaris requested several moments to get into character as the wilting recruit. She did not feel weak enough to play her part until some degree of meditation on BG, which pulled her mind into a dismal state. Sharading shifted, and Amaris climbed on his back. She blinked slow, laying against the horse’s thick neck, her fingers just holding his main. Amaris tried to feel pain with each step he took. Twice she let herself slide, and almost fall. She mimicked the motions needed to get to the city on Fleecel after the ambush, and hoped to look filled with wounds and sucked dry of strength. Sharadin began shifting, and Amaris slid from his back, smacking the ground. No acting necessary to wince at that pain. Sharadin ignored Amaris’s fall and walked straight past her. She stopped her play of pretend, and smelled the fresh soil, eyes closed against the noonday sun. The mumbles Sharadin made grew louder as some creature disturbed the gentle wind through the reeds, and then she heard him speak.
“She is mostly dead already. But my captain seems to think this silly place might get her through the transition. I’m waiting for her to fade off so I can toss her off the cliff.”
Fingers grabbed Amaris by the jaw, jerked her head around. She felt strength flow from her face into the hand, and moaned. “She is dying, but still has her own life inside her.” Amaris did not recognize the voice. “How did she do that?”
“How the devil should I know? I am just the messenger. She was someone else’s charge, and they dumped her on me to fly to the glamorous battle.” Sharadin said.
“Where you should be.”
Amaris’s heart lodged in her throat.
“You two will keep an eye on her, then?” Sharadin asked.
“Bring her closer, first. She needs more help; needs to be closer to the core..”
Amaris caught on every bit of earth between where she fell and the place to which Sharadin dragged her. He squeezed Amaris’s shoulder before leaving her. She tried not to move as Sharadin left, and felt paralyzed for the following hours. Amaris had no thoughts of how to do any good from her current position. She had a sword, and would have to face two guards. Why Sharadin did not stay and fight them off with her, she could not decide. But something made him leave. Something Amaris could not see with her eyes shut in false unconsciousness. Since they would let her rest, she could think. Light beyond her eyelids disappeared, and Amaris flickered her eyes open. The star was overhead. Over the Basin. Of course. Amaris fluttered her eyes at a disturbance approaching, and tossed her head to the side. She groaned, and then slept.
In the morning, she refused the urge to sit. Instead, Amaris waited until midday to open her eyes, and faked a failed attempt at getting off the ground where she lay for hours. Only two guards. A small stone building with a wooden door, and life seeped everywhere. Amaris allowed herself to prop onto her elbows a few hours later, trying to show gradual progress, while beyond that, she had no ideas. Meanwhile, she felt renewed with strength to take down the door herself. Her impatience emboldened a single attempt that evening. “Can you help me at all?” She asked the guards.
“How?” The tan man asked. “You failed the simple part. Die.”
Amaris wiped her hand over her face.
“I can try, but you might be beyond our fixing.” The second man said. He had more silver than black in his hair. Amaris realized why Sharadin left her instead of fighting. Only one of the guards was Arkainda, the second might be Manori. She could not see what Sharadin knew about this man by scent. His second form.
“Do anything, please. I must avenge my mother, and nothing anyone has done worked for me.”
The tan man’s smile did not encourage Amaris as he spoke. “That is because Arkainda try only one way of weakening you Alaquendi.”
“Oh, do not do that to her. You will only kill the woman before we convert . . .” The Arkainda looked at Amaris. “What is your name?”
“Arian Shrieder.” Amaris answered.
“Leave it to Arain.” The Manori turned to her. “I can knock some of that strength out of you and let Darshel finish you off.”
Amaris narrowed her eyes. “You Manori work too hard to show your strength. Let Darshel do his worst and see what happens.”
As the Arkainda held both Amaris’s wrists, she pretended to weaken little bits at a time. Then he would leave her be, and repeat the same. The whole night, Amaris thought the only progress made to her detriment had been Darshel’s strengthening. She slept again, but they made her leave the green grass so she could fade a little overnight. In the morning, Amaris gasped for air and pleaded for help, pretending desperation to get closer to the Basin again. They made her crawl back, and watched, Darshel with hopeful eyes, the other with amusement. She made it back onto the lush green lawn, sore elbows being the only real damage, and inhaled like she had been drown. Darshel touched her at once, trying to draw anything out of her he could. She saw him smile with pleasure. Then he went back to his post. “She has no hope, there is too much inside this one. Would make a better guard than soldier, since she dies when away from this this little plot.”
“More a captive than asset, then.” The Manori said.
“I wish,” Amaris made her voice quiver. “That I could help . . . Anything.” She burred her face in her arm, and went silent. Nothing happened after that, Darshel even abandoned trying to convert Amaris. Then, as she falsified sleep, one of the men shook her without any consideration for the facade of her weak body.
“Can you at stand?” The Manori asked, biting his lip, and glaring.
Amaris nodded, and then clawed up the man until he yanked her. She tottered for a second and then stood fast.
“Good.” The man patted Amaris’s shoulders. “Take my post, you wench.” He nodded to the other guard who stood, arms crossed over his chest, a snarl on his face.
Amaris nodded. “Why?”
“Because it is all we can use you for. We had report last night of them killing the Tempth. I need to see this battle before it is ended. The pathetic Arkainda can watch this mess you all made.””
Amaris felt her eyes light up. Everything she needed, she glanced at the locked door, almost everything. “Go then,” she tried to sound sad. “You deserve that sight, not me,” she averted her eyes.
“No you do not.” The Manori ran and hit the sky with long dark wings. Amaris gasped and stepped back, and then she remembered the other guard.
“They terrify and disgust me,” she said. The guard nodded, and Amaris hobbled to the small building. Little more than a stone shed with a large wooden door against which she leaned, feigning exhaustion. She tried to plan an entrance. The one guard should pose a small problem, Amaris feared only her poor swordsmanship, and that with a month devoid of practice. Her stomach grew sour as procrastination stained her resolve. She knew her allies died in battle every minute that passed. Still, she let the moments slide away, and her palms grew sweaty as the day waxed into a heated noon.
“Coward.” She murmured the insult to herself.
“What did you say?”
Amaris nodded, crossed her arms, and locked her eyes with Darshel’s confused gaze. She had broke silence, she could break more. “That man, what is his name? Nevermind” —she cut off the guard’s answer— “he is a coward.”
“How? He is probably fighting the war—”
“Let him.” She laughed, listening to the strength in her voice. “He will die battling a decoy.” Amaris aleady had her dagger at her side, twirling it in her hand, behind her thigh so the man would not notice. She should have struck him then.
“What decoy? Arian, the war is over.” Darshel walked toward her.
She stabbed her blade into his shoulder, but did not know how to kill without provocation. “Almost.” She threw him aside, and watched as he struggled. Amaris bit her lip, walked to the man, and knelt on his chest. She bit her lip until a metallic flavor met her tongue. “You killed my mother,” she told herself. This whole people had killed her mother. She slit the man’s throat when he began to let out a scream. Amaris dropped her dagger, and walked toward the door, swallowing the blood in her mouth. The thick boarded door she knew would not break at her hand, so she gathered the plants and stacked them against the door for kindling, clearing the ground before it to contain any spread. Within a few minutes with the right stones, she had a small fire at the base of the door. She fed the flames, focusing on the red tongues eating the wood, willing them to consume. The glow sustained, and she watched, feeling a grin on her face. She drew her sword, and tried to pierce the entrance, then waited when it failed. The smoke started choking her, so she stepped back and turned away. Her vision blurred from staring into the heat, she drew in fresh air, and tried to calm her haste. The entrance would break down soon.
She winced at the bloodied guard, so looked instead at the dull sky. A few black specks moved around; odd since she had seen no birds this far south besides — She gasped and turned back to the small shed, and the pillar of smoke rising from it. Amaris threw her body against the door, and kicked with enough strength she stumbled time and again, but the wood splintered. When the the door started breaking apart, Amaris saw a bird come into view. No! She kicked again, and a board gave way. Once more only half a plank snapped. She grabbed the small opening, and thrust pulled herself into the small space. Her dress caught and her hands tore. She saw the chest inside, as large as a small wagon, emitting luminous waves which lit the interior. Amaris pulled through the hole and tumbled toward the stone locker.
Amaris ripped the key from the inside of her blouse, and scrambled when it flew to the ground. She looked up at the huge rock she had to open. She rushed around it, and sliced her burned hands on the sharp edge looking for any place to find purchase. Then the broach clamped into place. A bird screeched and the wood behind her crumbled. She pushed the lid, and a crack of light exploded, blinding Amaris, and hopefully the man behind her. She felt her flesh burning and with no sight of anything but bright white, she threw herself against the dislodged lid. She screamed so she could hear herself, Then it flew and smashed against the building. The structure cracked, and a chunk of stone fell into the open chest. The stone slab slipped, and Amaris heard it crash into the building. She screamed as the room blew up with vibrant colors and a thrumming pulse. She stumbled back in the wave of rushing windless air. She flew against the stones, which burned like a furnace against Amaris’s exposed shoulder, while flames poured down her dress. She pushed into the force, and turned to the door, where multiple soldiers stared in horror at the sight before them. They started shouting, and barking as they shifted into various beasts. Amaris turned back to the emptying chest. She slipped, and the next pulse from the basin threw her against the stones once more.
Amaris crumpled to the ground, and gave in to the basin as it killed and revived her. The structure came apart. Boulders smashed Amaris, and then she felt truest death right before the heap flew off her, and she gasped into consciousness again. Debris and energy smashed into and rolled over her one after the other. Amaris wept and screamed, praying for death or life to steal her away from the breaking and mending of her body.
Amaris felt every fiber of her being on fire, and closed her eyes tighter, but nothing pulled at her anymore.