[25] Sage

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Due to my (sometimes wonderful) insanity, I am able to stare at the wall for who-knows-how-long before the spaceship's lights finally click on. As soon as the lights come on, I squeeze my eyes shut, and when I reopen them, it doesn't even take five seconds for them to adjust to the drastic change in lighting.

Maggie enters my room. "Trouble sleeping?" she asks, a smile quirking her lips.

"Shut up," I reply idly.

"As you wish." She beckons for me to follow her and sweeps out of the room before waiting to see if I will obey. Of course, I do.

We stop in Jake's bedroom, the Nicole's, then Xavier's, and finally Deirdre's. Each person wakes slowly and lazily before obviously remembering what day it is, where they are, and snapping to awareness.

The mood is somber as we are taken to the same dressing rooms as for the previous two Trials. I slip on the familiar skinsuit and find that this once more, I have a katana as a weapon. Now, however, I also have a shield. I am familiar with its style - it is the kind that police forces on Earth use. It looks like a thick cuff of metal that wraps around the middle of your forearm, but when you tap it, it unleashes a thin, lightweight metal shield that can withstand pretty much anything. It makes me wonder if Deirdre is armed with a gun, or if we are all given the shields for general safety.

The door slides opens and I step into the familiar darkness. The disembodied voice over the intercom says calmly, "There are two teams. The first team consists of Deirdre, Jake, and Sage. The second team consists of Nicole, Xavier, and an Albino teammate. Don't worry - he is at their skill level in regards to physical fitness and combat. You have forty minutes to find the chalice located somewhere in the room while keeping your teammates and yourself alive. Each competitor in the winning team will receive one hundred points towards ranking, and an extra fifty points will be awarded to each person if every team member survives. Three...two...one...go."

The lights snap on and I hurriedly take in my surroundings. Jake is to my right, Deirdre to my left. Likely, Nicole's team is on the other side of the...

Maze.

The enormous hedge maze in front of us.

"So we have to get to the chalice in the center of the maze?" Deirdre queries.

"No. We have to find the chalice. It might not be in the middle," I correct her. "But I don't want to just run blindly into this. Jake, you take the lead. You're...huge...enough to hide behind and you can take the most damage, not to mention that you're the strongest. Deirdre, I need you in the middle. Don't use your guns unless absolutely necessary. I'll take up the rear so I can watch our backs. Problems? Issues? Good, let's go."

Thankfully, the other two don't hesitate. I have won their respect by now. Jake hurries to the entrance of the maze and Deirdre follows. I turn around, walking backward. I had perfected the art of backward walking on Earth and knew exactly how to step so I felt any tripping hazards long before they had the chance to fell me.

We travel in silence for a few minutes before Jake shouts in surprise and there is a screeching noise. "What is it?" I demand, unwilling to turn around unless absolutely necessary.

Deirdre replies, since, from the sound of it, Jake is preoccupied with fighting the newfound threat. "It's some sort of bird thing! It's dive bombing Jake!"

"What part of him is it dive bombing?" I ask impatiently, trying to gauge how much of a threat this bird it.

"His face."

"Oh, not good. Deirdre, can you hit the bird?"

There is a pause while the little girl thinks about it. "Well, the bird has a pattern. Two seconds in the air before dive-bombing Jake's face for about four seconds. It flies for his eyes first and then his ears." I realize that she wasn't thinking about whether or not she could hit the thing, she was searching for a pattern in the bird's madness. Impressive.

"Shoot it if you think you can without hitting Jake!"

There is a gunshot and a horrible screech. Something hits the ground and Jake stops fighting, breathing heavily.

"Is it dead?" I demand.

"Very," Deirdre assures me. "Jake's fine, too. He's got a cut on his cheek - "

"Superficial. I'm good. Let's go," Jake says shortly, still gasping for breath. He doesn't sound "good," but I know that it'll take a lot more than that to take him down.

As we continue walking, I take a close look at the birdlike creature. It looks like a raven, but its talons are mangled and wickedly sharp. I hope that they're not infected, but if so, that the infection won't set in until we have the chalice.

"That was impressive, the way you figured out the pattern to that bird," Jake tells Deirdre. I am glad that he is being so kind to her. If she wants to impress Jake, Deirdre will be more than willing to help find patterns in future battles to do so.

"Thanks," Deirdre replies. I can hear the happiness in her voice.

We walk in silence for a few more hundred feet before I bump into Deirdre's unmoving back. "Why are we stopping?" I ask through gritted teeth. I am uncomfortably aware of our ever-decreasing time limit.

"We're at a crossroads," Jake calls back. "Right or left?"

I try to listen for any signs of danger in either direction, but I cannot hear anything down either path. Then again, I'm farthest away from the crossroads. "Can you see anything down either path?"

There is a moment of silence before Jake replies, "No. They look identical."

"I can bet you that's not true," I mutter annoyedly, and then louder, "Deirdre. Take my place." I turn around and push past the little girl and Jake so I can look down both paths. Jake was partially correct. The ways look very similar, but the left path has a defining characteristic.

"There is a root sticking up out of the middle of the left path," I call over my shoulder.

"So?" Deirdre asks.

Sighing at their utter ineptitude, I explain, "That means there is a tree somewhere off the path but close. Taking the left route will likely take us closer to said tree. Since the right is barren, I would assume that the chalice would be more likely to be hidden to the left, although I could be wrong."

"Yeah, but you seldom are," Jake points out as I return to the back of our line and turn around.

I smile. It is true, but there is no need to say so. We begin moving again, turning left.

And then we hear the scream.

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