But we crash into the tree, which likely saves my life.
I force open my eyes but find that my fingers are locked too tightly around the lamprey's body to let go of the dead monster. We are buried solidly in the tree, my face mere inches from the thin upper branches.
"Sage!" Jake roars. "Sage!" Deirdre's small, terrified voice joins his screams.
"I'm fine! Fine," I shout back, struggling to catch my breath. I am lucky, unbelievably lucky.
"Can you get down?" Jake calls up, sounding relieved. Before I can reply, there are sounds of a struggle. I try to peer through the branches but, covered as they are with leaves, they are too thick for me to see through to the ground. By the noises, however, it sounds like Nicole is attacking my friends once more.
"Don't shoot, Deirdre!" I hear Jake command.
"I would like to argue that point," I retort, still struggling to see. "Shoot the bitch."
The fighting pauses and I call, "Please tell me she did not just run off."
"That's exactly what she did," Jake replies in a voice that sounds too tired to deal with me. "Now, can you get down by yourself?"
"Of course, but it's going to take a few minutes." I finally find myself able to unhook my arms from around the dead lamprey and do so, shaking out the pins and needles.
"Watch out!" I warn, and use the last of my strength to roll the creature off of the tree and toward the ground below, swinging myself onto the lamprey as we fell. Deirdre shrieks and Jake makes a "woah" sound as the lamprey hits the ground with a thud.
"Why did you do that?" Jake asks calmly after a moment of silence while I contemplate how best to climb down from the tree. The top branches are obviously abnormally strong, or I would be falling straight through it. So it stands to reason that I can just scale down the side of it...
"Sage!" Jake calls just as calmly. "Why did you roll down the worm?"
"Sentences you thought you'd never say," I reply, beginning my descent. "I'll explain in a few seconds. Just lemme get out of the tree."
It's more like a few minutes before I reach the ground. My hair is filled with twigs and leaves, and there is a rip in the left arm of my jumpsuit. Jake immediately wraps me in a tight hug and Deirdre wriggles her way in between us. I feel a strange flash of something...something nice...and then it is gone.
Finally, my friends pull away and Jake points to the lamprey, looking for all the world like a frustrated parent. "Explain yourself."
I gesture to his sword, sheathed at his waist. "Draw your sword."
He hesitates before following my command with uncertainty. The sword is longer - and generally larger - than mine, and I know it will do perfectly.
"Now drive it into the lamprey's stomach."
I repeat my words slowly and patiently. "Open the lamprey's stomach."
"Because I'm a sick weirdo. Well, okay, that's true, but the chalice is inside it!"
"How do you know that?"
"I will explain it after we win this Trial. Please, can you hurry?" I am worried that Nicole or the Albino has already heard us and are returning to steal our win.
"Why do I have to do it?"
I give him the most disbelieving look that I can muster and finally, realization dawns. "Oh, I have to be the one to truly win...I get it." He strides over to the dead monster and, with only a moment of hesitation, drives his sword into its side. His blade collides with something that makes a metallic clanging sound and he hastily withdraws. With a look as if he is going to be sick, he slowly reaches into the cut he made in the lamprey and pulls out a wet, bloody chalice.
Deirdre whoops and claps her hands, jumping up and down. I am beginning to feel a little woozy. "We won," I try to say, but it comes out as a moan, and I drop to my knees, the world fading in and out. In my last moments of clarity, I see the same happening to Deirdre and Jake and know that the Trial is over.
I am woken by Maggie's gentle hands shaking my shoulders. Blinking myself into full consciousness, I look around me.
I am curled up on the floor of the results room. The others have already been woken and are glancing at each other and me.
"Why am I always the last one to wake up?" I mutter irritably before standing and facing the results board. It is blank at the moment, but within seconds it turns on and relays our results.
Jake is in first place. I am in second, while Deirdre is third and Nicole is fourth.
Xavier's is slightly faded out at the bottom of the screen. I suddenly remember his body, that something was wrong with his chest, and raise my hand like a schoolgirl.
Maggie points to me, just like a teacher. "Yes, Sage?"
"Did the lamprey burrow into Xavier's chest? Did it eat his heart out? Is that what killed him?"
Nicole lets out a strangled sob, pressing a fist to her mouth, and Jake puts a warning hand on my shoulder. "What?" I ask defensively, glancing up at him. "I'm just curious."
"You killed him," Nicole growls, glaring at Maggie. "You and the other Albinos."
"No," Maggie corrects, calm as ever, the usual tiny smile playing over her lips. "The Blind Nightmare killed Xavier. Unfortunate, but the weak and foolish must be culled. Such is the purpose of the Trials."
"He wasn't weak or foolish! He was the only one of us left who had a life to return to on Earth! A family!" Nicole drops her gaze, tears trickling down her face, and I know she is right. My family - those of them who are still conscious - hates me, and with good reason. Jake's parents are ashamed of him. Deirdre's family is dead, by her hands. Nicole's mother must be ashamed of her daughter as well, or out of the picture since her stepfather was arrested. Xavier had a home and a family, albeit among criminals.
"Then he made an unfortunate mistake," Maggie counters easily and turns, leading us from the room without another word. Nicole bares her teeth furiously, chest heaving with silent sobs, but says nothing, just lags at the back of the group as we leave the room.
"The Trials are getting harder," Jake murmurs to me. "But, thanks to you, now I have a chance."
"Now it's Deirdre I'm worried about," I mutter back. "Nicole's going to be the next to die, we all know that. She's got nothing left - why would she live? Then it'll just be down to us three."
"I wouldn't underestimate her," Jake says softly, glancing over his shoulder to make sure nobody - specifically Nicole - is listening to our conversation. "She might seem powerless, but just because she's emotional doesn't mean she's weak."
"Emotions make you weak. They don't have to be bad to cripple you. Emotions are great and all, don't get me wrong, but they severely limit what you are capable of. Consciousness, morality, guilt, hope, love...They all get in the way." I fix my gaze on Maggie's back, unwilling to meet Jake's eyes. I can feel them trained on me, however.
"You're wrong." His voice is quiet, so sure of itself. "You might think you're right - you are quite often - but about this, you're dead wrong."
YOU ARE READING
Sixteen-year-old Sage Greene was locked in a maximum-security asylum for the criminally insane after murdering nearly 200 civilians. It isn't her, though - it's the voices. There are two sides to Sage: the normal, self-conscious teenager, and the Vo...