[35] Sage

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I stab one of the animals before I even fully register what it is.

I stare at the monster's dying form in a mix of bewilderment and disgust. Its red blood billows through the water in lazy clouds.

The thing looks like a monkey, but its mouth is freakishly wide and is lined with razor-sharp teeth, not to mention that it has gills below its ears. Its fur is a dull, metallic silver. I reach down a hand to feel the material as the last light dies from the strange monster's eyes.

I feel the water moving around me and whirl around just in time to swim out of the way of another creature headed straight for me. My weighted vest slows my movement, which is a huge drawback, as the monkey-fish seem to have nothing dragging them down. I glance at my surroundings quickly as I stab this one's face, eager to see how my companions are doing.

Jake is warding off three monkey-fish at once, swinging his spear in wide, dangerous arcs. Deirdre is awkwardly lunging at one. Nicole is desperately swimming out of the way of a small horde of them.

I assess the situation. I have killed two of the monkey-fish. My companions are fighting about eight others. There are no more entering the tank, thankfully.

I sigh, swimming over unconcernedly to assist Deirdre. She had wounded the creature attacking her, and while it is considerably slowed, it's still lunging for her, baring those deadly teeth. A stab through its neck from my spear remedies that quickly.

We both swim quickly over to help Jake. He has already killed one of them and the other one has been fatally wounded. Its wide jaws open and close as if it is gasping for air. By the time Deirdre manages to impale the third attacker, the second monkey-fish is dead.

Reluctantly, I swim over to Nicole and make quick work of the four attacking her. She isn't even trying, I think irritably, taking some condolence in knowing that such negligence will reflect badly on her ranking, and take a deep breath as I begin to relax. If that was the entire Trial, that wasn't so bad.

The same doors that admitted the monkey-fish open again, startling me. This time, there are quite a few more of them than the last wave. I am preoccupied for several minutes fighting off my personal attackers. I am quickly beginning to feel the strain of fighting underwater, especially in this heavy suit, and I know that the breathing mask was built for calm diving expeditions, not desperate conflict. I am finding it harder and harder to draw breath.

Deirdre seems to be facing the same problem on a slightly larger, more dangerous scale. Her chest is heaving as she drunkenly swings at the approaching monkey-fish. Once my attackers are all killed, I rush to her aid and make quick work of the handful of creatures approaching. We take a few seconds to catch our breath, mainly for Deirdre's benefit, as I assess our situation.

Jake is fighting off about as many of the monsters as I just had to. Nicole is again maneuvering through the water rather than standing her ground and fighting, which is only making the creatures angrier as they swipe and miss her by mere inches at times.

I gesture Deirdre over to Jake, since he's basically got it under control and she won't have to exert herself too much, while I myself swim to help Nicole. Just as I get there, I see her mouth open in a silent scream and blood billows through the water.

She is not dead - that is very clear very quickly by how much she is writhing in pain. There is a gash in her arm, however, the severity of which I cannot tell from the distortion of the waves, the chaos of the monkey-fish, and the blood billowing around her limb. The wound looks to be on the top of her arm rather than the bottom, so she probably isn't bleeding out - as long as her veins and arteries are still intact.

I set to work killing the monkey-fish surrounding her with a new fervor. She couldn't fight in the first place, so now that she is wounded, she will be seen even more as the weak one in the pack, to easily be picked off. I'll have to fight the monsters sent for me and her. The mere thought is exhausting.

The doors open and I assume Jake has finished off his attackers. A new wave of monsters emerge. After glancing over at Deirdre and Jake to ensure that they are both still alive and unharmed, I try to prepare myself - but I can feel my hope, along with my adrenaline, draining away.

There are so many of them. I am going to have to fight so many of them.

In a lull in this even more ferocious battle, I gesture to Nicole and then point to one of the wrecked houses near to us. She ducks inside and I feel some of the pressure lift from my back. Now, she is easier to defend.

It only takes me missing the sight of one monkey-fish, though.

One monster to swim through the hole in the building's wall while five others distract me. At least, I assume that's when it happens. 

Since our breathing masks silenced our voices to the outside world, I will never know exactly when a monkey-fish tore into Nicole's throat. I will never know if there was even enough time for her to scream in terror or pain.

It is only after Jake, Deirdre, and I have defeated the third wave and I glance behind me, through the broken window to check on Nicole, that I find her, head lolling as if her neck is broken, throat jaggedly ripped open. Her blood billows through the water and I swim away from it after a second of being frozen in place, sickened slightly. I hadn't been able to get a good look at Xavier's corpse, so this is the first dead body I have truly seen in two years.

I swim to join Jake and Deirdre. Jake cocks his head confusedly at me, gesturing to the empty water next to me to signify Nicole, and I simply shake my head. It's all I can do. Deirdre runs a finger over her throat, her eyes questioning, and I nod and mime my own being ripped out.

We wait for the fourth wave, but none come. Maybe the Trial is over. Maybe it was to see how many monkey-fish we could each kill, or to measure our productivity underwater.

Or maybe, as Jake suspects, it was just to kill another one of us off.

I glance at Deidre and Jake's faces, worry rapidly spreading over their features, and know their thoughts are mirroring mine.

No matter what the next Trials hold, most likely, one of us is going to be the next one to die.

I can't take the stillness anymore after about another minute. I make a deliberate show of unstrapping my vest so my friends will follow suit. As soon as we do, we quickly begin to rise to the surface of the tank, kicking our legs to help us reach it.

I am acutely aware of Nicole's body far below us. I can see in my mind's eye her hair drifting listlessly around her lifeless head.

*

We all have to go to the hospital room. Jake has an injured rib or two from when he accidentally hit himself in the side with the pole of his spear. Deirdre is feeling incredibly faint because she wasn't getting enough oxygen - in fact, Jake has to carry her to the hospital. I have a small cut on my leg that I didn't even feel until I was above water and discovered it while undressing.

Deirdre is quickly hooked up to respiratory equipment. Maggie takes a couple of X-rays of Jake before deeming his ribs simply bruised, and she easily wraps my superficial wound with gauze. My still-damp skin is cold wherever my dress doesn't cover it, and Maggie's icy hands don't help matters.

"Whenever you are ready to see your results, let me know," Maggie says quietly, taking her position by the door. For once, she doesn't sound particularly cheery, and I wonder if it is because she actually feels remorse at assisting in Nicole's murder, or if she is merely showing us what she know we'll want to see.

My friends and I exchange glances. Deirdre flashes a thumbs-up from the bed where she is lying, some of the color returned to her cheeks.

I turn to Maggie and nod grimly.

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