[29] Sage

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The lights flick on and suddenly, I am very confused.

We are all in a white, sterile room. Two chess boards are situated within five feet of one another. There are no Albinos to fight, no terrifying creatures to avoid, no rules to follow, no announcement to instruct. Just us humans and the chess boards.

"Do we have to win a game of chess to get out of here?" Jake asks slowly after a beat of silence. I shrug and Nicole plops down in one of the rigid, uncomfortable-looking chairs at one chess table.

"Jake and Nicole, you guys pair up," I order, deciding to take charge as the silence gets longer and more awkward, and it becomes clear that nobody is going to say anything. "Deirdre, we can play together.

As Jake nods, crosses the room, and begins a chess match with Nicole, Deirdre and I sit at the other chess board. I'm glad no one objected to my commands or matches, because I think the Trial will work out best this way. Nicole would have no mercy on Deirdre and she'd probably just rip out my throat if she even thought I was going to win. I'm counting on her attraction to Jake to keep their match...civil, at least.

"I don't know how to play chess," Deirdre whispers as if it is a shameful secret.

I chew my bottom lip, staring at the board. "I used to..."

"So neither of us know how to play the game that is the whole point of this challenge?" Her voice takes on a panicky edge and I think quickly.

"We don't know that that's even the objective," I remind her. "We never received any instructions, after all."

Deirdre shrugs, visibly calming down. "Good point. So...what now?"

"I don't know." I think for a moment more before offering, "How about we make up our own rules?" I remember once owning an ancient board game called Monopoly when I was younger, but the game's instructions had been lost somewhere in the past decades. My brother, ever-creative, invented his own rules which made the game extremely fun and fast-paced.

"Sounds good." Deirdre picks up her rook - at least I can remember the names of the pieces. "Or we could make a story."

"What do you mean?"

As Deirdre explains, she picks up the chess pieces that she refers to and places them in new squares. "The king and queen are on a date and everyone wants to make sure that they are not disturbed. So, the watchtowers - rooks, right? - watch out for the bad guys, and if any appear, the horses run out and clobber in their skulls!" Now, Deirdre takes one of my white pawns and places it in front of her knight, which is in front of all of her other pieces. "This is an undercover spy pretending to be a civilian, and he's about to get executed for his crimes against the kingdom!" Her voice takes on a grand quality with her final words.

I grin as I watch Deirdre get more and more into storytelling mode. These are my favorite moments with her - when she reverts to a childlike nature and does normal children things - with a hint of morbidity thrown in, of course. "I have an even better idea," I tell her, moving my pieces around to mirror hers and gently taking back my pawn. "What if we combined your story and my game?"

For the next ten minutes, we make a weak set of rules and then patch the flaws up as we find them. Since I still for some reason don't feel like the point of this Trial is truly winning a game of chess, I have no problem with letting Deirdre win three times out of five.

It is an hour later before our respective doors open and the calm Albino over the intercom says, "This Trial is over. Please return to your changing rooms and you will be led directly to the results room."

Results right away? They must have judged us earlier in the Trial, which means all of us completed or failed whatever the objective was before the hour was even up. I can't decide whether or not I like that arrangement.

Although I am fairly certain that the objective of the Trial was not winning the chess game - they couldn't have assumed we would all know the game - I cannot figure out what it was, and that is what is truly bothering me.

*

"Who won?" I mutter out of the side of my mouth to Jake as we walk down the hall. Deirdre is on my other side, clutching my hand. I don't mind the physical contact, weirdly.

"Nicole and I tied. I won three games but so did she," he whispered back. "She has a better understanding of chess than I do and knows a few fancy tricks, but all my gaming means that I'm extremely good at strategizing."

I raise my eyebrows. "Huh. So combined, you guys were at somewhat of a standstill."

"Yeah." Jake huffs out air in the faint semblance of a chuckle. "I thought I was screwed when she won the first game, but then I looked over and saw that you guys weren't even playing chess, and we weren't being told to return to our changing rooms or anything, and now I'm just really confused as to what the Trial was."

"Hopefully we'll find out what the hell is going on," I murmur as we enter the results room. Then I stop, staring open-mouthed at the results.

Deirdre and I are - miraculously - tied in first place. Nicole is only a couple of points behind Jake.

Deirdre whoops and holds up both her hands for a double-high five, which I willingly deliver. Then I turn to Jake, only holding up one hand. "You're still beating Nicole! Yeah!"

He smiles and shrugs, lightly pressing his hand against my outstretched palm, but I can see the worry in his eyes and know that he is stressed about being so close to last place.

"Calm down. You're still ahead of Nicole, which means you're more likely to rise higher in the scoring," I try to assure him.

He nods quickly, like he's trying his hardest to believe me and falling short of his goal. "Yeah. You're right."

Deirdre is still bouncing up and down from happiness. I am momentarily distracted from my own glee, however, when my stomach growls.

"Hey, Maggie," I say, tapping our Albino guide on the shoulder. "How about some food for your prisoners?"

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