[26] Sage

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I whirl around to face forward, all thoughts of safety abandoned. Jake scoops up Deirdre so we can move quickly and yells to me, "Come on!"

I struggle to keep up, but he is soon pulling far ahead of me. Finally, he doubles back, scoops me up as well, and we are off.

I cling to Jake's neck, heart thudding. It is not thudding with fear, however. My heart is running on adrenaline.

"Who do you think died?" I shout in Jake's ear.

"Do you have to assume the worst?" he snaps back.

We round a corner of the maze and of course, my assumption was right. Nicole is hunched over Xavier's lifeless body, rocking back and forth, shoulders heaving with agonized sobs. The Albino is standing dispassionately a few feet away, in front of the huge tree.

Jake moves as if to go to her, but I place a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. I am on high alert. Not only are they the enemy team, but something must have killed Xander, and it could be anywhere.

"Sage, she's hurting," he mutters, obviously guilty at staying put although he does not attempt to move forward again.

"She'll be fine. We might not be. Whatever killed Xander must be around here somewhere and it hasn't hit our team yet."

I hear the racking of a gun and, without looking at Deirdre, say, "'Atta girl. Just don't get trigger happy."


Nicole stands and whirls to face us, realizing we are here. "Get away from me!" she screams, raising dual swords similar to my singular katana and thundering toward us.

"Stay back," I warn my teammates, activating my shield. Stepping forward, I parry her desperate thrusts easily, the shield absorbing the impact shock almost completely.

Finally, Nicole stops attacking me and sinks to her knees, sobbing as her swords fall from her hands. "Just - just kill me."

I raise my sword readily but think of Jake just as he shouts, "No!" Nicole and I both turn to look at him.

"She doesn't know what she wants. She's in shock - she's grieving. Leave her alone, Sage," he orders tiredly.

"I wasn't going to kill her," I mutter, but the fact that I have to lower my sword as I'm saying so undermines my claim.

"Nicole, what killed Xavier?" Jake asks gently as I rejoin my team members. Deirdre's not pointing the gun at Nicole, but she's holding it tensely at her side.

"Why would I tell you? Why the hell would I tell you?" Nicole hisses, and I can see that she's well and truly losing it. Crazy knows crazy. "You're the enemy! We're supposed to kill you!"

"The point of this challenge is to get the chalice," Deirdre corrects her quietly, her first contribution to the conversation.

"Shut up, you little - " Nicole sucks in a deep, gasping breath and lets it out in a long, pain-wracked moan. "He was the only thing that was ever there for me! The only person! Why did they take him? Why did they have to take Xavier?"

"Nicole, you need to calm down," Jake tries in an attempt to pacify her. It is the wrong thing to say.

Nicole screams and turns to the tree, raising her sword and driving it into one of the protruding roots. The Albino suddenly whirls into action, drawing his swords and crouching low, obviously ready to move quickly.

Before I can warn my teammates, tell them to prepare for whatever is guarding this tree, something erupts from the ground underneath Xavier's body, and his corpse is sent flying into the air. Something looks wrong with his chest, but I can't concern myself with it at the moment.

The thing is completely silent. It dives for Nicole but her Albino teammate leaps in front of her and extends his sword within the span of a second. The creature stops just short of the blade and flies straight up, pausing for a second to survey us and, in doing so, allows me to see what it is.

It looks like a worm. Huge and fat and beige, its mouth reminds me of something...some animal...

"Jake! Invasive Great Lakes species, early to late-2000's!" I shout, the animal's name suddenly coming to me. Sea lamprey. A giant, flying sea lamprey. Lovely.

Jake's brow furrows in confusion and then the creature aims for Deirdre.

My brain and body snap into action. Everything is in high definition and I know the Voice is in control but I do not care. As long as we kill that thing, keep it from hurting Deirdre.

My shield is up and I am in front of Deirdre before my brain even recognizes that my body has moved. The flying lamprey smashes into my shield and falls back, obviously growing angrier although it makes no noise

"I'm gonna do something stupid!" I warn everyone, and before any of them can react I jump onto the back of the creature.

In those moments, I am more grateful for the Voice's presence than I have ever been before. The old Sage would never have had the courage to do what I'm currently doing.

The monster bucks underneath me, silent as ever, but I grip its soft, cylindrical body tightly with my knees and raise my sword high above my head. The creature soars higher and higher, and I know that if I kill it, there are chances - rather high chances - of death involved. Specifically my death.

I drive my sword through where I assume the monster's head is, although there is no distinction between it and its body. And finally, it makes a noise.

The strange, lamprey-like creature screams, a dreadful sound that makes my ears feel like they're bleeding. I scream with it, bending over its dry body, squeezing my eyes shut, and clapping my hands over my ears as if that will block out the mind-numbingly awful sound.

The flying lamprey finally falls silent for good, and its body starts to dip toward the ground below. I feel my hold on it weakening and am forced to grip it with my arms as well to keep from tumbling off of the tube-shaped body.

We are falling, falling toward the ground, and I am prepared to die.

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