[24] Sage

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The rankings have changed.

Deirdre shrieks and claps her hands. "Yes!"

The rankings read: Deirdre, myself, Xavier, Nicole, and lastly, Jake. Jake is far, far behind us where points are concerned. I know that he will have to ace the next Trial to have a hope of catching up. And he has to catch up. 

He has to.

Deirdre is doing a strange, wriggling happy dance. "Sage, I'm first!" she exclaims as if I haven't read the board, tugging at my dress. On instinct, I pick her up and spin her around, my long blond hair whirling out behind me. Deirdre giggles and looks for all the world like an innocent little girl.

Jake grins, ruffling her hair when I set her down, but there is worry in his eyes. Worry for himself.

"You have to win the next Trial," I mutter, raising my eyebrows at him.

"I know," he replies quietly. "I will."

*

We are given changes of our clothes and released into the rec room. I feel like resting, however, rather than playing the drums, so I watch Jake play video games. This time, he sets it at an incredibly easy level so we can chat as he moves quickly and smoothly through each level.

"What do you think the next Trial is going to be?" I ask idly.

"I don't know. I feel like they haven't endangered our lives enough, though, as they see it. With the first Trial, we were all working together and there was virtually no way we could have lost unless you or I simply stopped fighting. In the second Trial, at least in my world, there was no way I could have gotten hurt. I was surrounded by scrawny, gentle civilians - for the most part, of course. I would guess the third Trial's going to be something dangerous. And, since we haven't actively worked against one another yet, it might also be an each-for-their-own type thing."

I frown. "Unless 'taking me down' involves killing me, I need you to take me down in the next Trial so you win it. If your prediction about what it's going to be like is correct."

"Fine. I'm not hurting you, though."

My frown morphs into a smile and I lean my head against his leg. "Thanks. And ditto."

We sit in silence for a little bit longer. Occasionally, we talk, sharing small stories about topics that we can't read too deeply into. It feels comfortable, familiar. Right.

Is this what having a friend always feels like? I don't know. The Voice is confusing my emotions.

Or maybe I'm just confused.

After all, what did I do to deserve Jake?

*

After quite a bit longer, Maggie arrives to take us to our sleeping quarters. I settle into bed, curling into a ball like I used to do when I was young. A memory flashes through my mind.

My mother leans down, a soft smile playing over her lips. "Goodnight, Sage."

"'Night, Mommy." As she kisses my forehead and starts to rise, a necklace falls out of her tank top. I reach up and grab it quickly. "What's this, Mommy?"

"It's you and your brother. I want to keep you close to me, always." She smiles wider and opens it, showing two tiny school pictures, one in each half of the locket. One picture is of me, my long hair braided into two blonde pigtails. I am not quite smiling, but humor dances around my features. The other is of my brother, looking uncomfortable in his button-up shirt but doing his best to smile for the school photo.

"I like this necklace," I murmur, eyelids growing heavy as I release the locket.

"I'm glad." My mother's gentle laughter fills my ears and the light dims as I drift from my memory into a world of dreams.

I am running, dashing through a forest. My feet slap the ground, the chill air filling my lungs. I gasp desperately in an attempt to catch my breath, sucking in air and expelling it almost equally quickly. The breath bursts from my body in puffs of white.

I zigzag through trees, stumbling over fallen logs and hidden stones. A bird chirps at me from a nearby perch. "Run," it chirps urgently. "Run faster. It's coming."

I know, I try to tell the bird, but no sound comes out. I open my mouth in a silent scream.

Jake steps out from a nearby tree and catches me. I struggle, trying to free myself from his iron-like grip, but it is impossible.

Finding my vocal chords operable again, I scream, "Let me go! She's coming?"

"It is?" Jake asks casually, releasing me. I stumble back a few steps and watch in horror as a sword bursts through the front of his chest. The crimson blood begins running from his chest, dripping toward the sky, running up the trees, entirely defying gravity, coloring the sky, the clouds, everything...

red.

I wake up already battling my own mind, struggling with the Voice as she attempts to erase the dream. "I want to remember it," I growl, the memory already slipping. But soon, it is gone, and whatever panic or unease I felt is crushed by the Voice.

"What, you suddenly can't control my dreams?" I mutter sourly, standing. Nobody else is in my room, which most likely means I have woken up early. As I register the darkness, my suspicions are confirmed. 

My senses are moving slowly right now - the Voice is still settling in. Then I remember.

Today is the day of the third Trial.

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