[39] Sage

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As we walk down the halls towards the all-too-familiar changing rooms, I feel a strange knot in the pit of my stomach, born from nerves and some well-placed concern for my friends. I am in first place in rankings, so I have no reason to fear a thing. I am also obviously the Albinos' favorite. Jake, on the other hand, is too kind for them, and Deirdre is not doing well.

While the aliens claim to just wish to observe us at work, they obviously want more, something that the last-place contestants do not have. What does this next Trial hold for us?

After all, this is the ninth Trial. If Jake's and my theory is correct, this is the second to last Trial before...before what? I have no idea and I'm not sure I want to.

I pull on the jumpsuit and smooth my hair back away from my face carefully and deliberately, stalling for time. Staring at the mirror's reflection, I suddenly notice something under the bench that I had failed to see when I first entered the room.

I pull it out carefully and grimace. A thick vest, the material of which I instantly recognize as bulletproof, does not bode well for this Trial.

Nor does the gun and holster awaiting me in the weapons room.

For the first time since beginning the Trials, I am almost overpowered by the urge to remain in the changing room as I force myself to step into the suffocating darkness.

I take a deep breath and ready my gun, resting my finger on the body of the weapon rather than the trigger. I know from experience that I am a trigger-happy person, and I don't want to shoot one of my friends by mistake when the lights come on.

It takes them a few more seconds than usual to flip on, and I swallow the sudden panic at the thought that maybe they won't at all, that maybe this Trial is in darkness. But when they do, the scene awaiting me is no picnic, either, especially seeing as the light remains dim.

This time, Jake's, Deirdre's, and my doors are lined in a row and we're already standing side by side. So are we teammates, then? I desperately hope so.

Before us, the room itself is dark. The walls and ceiling - what I can see of them - are the same soul-sucking shade of grey. However, brightly glowing walls - the only source of light in the room - form a winding maze throughout the space.

"Another maze?" I mutter exasperatedly just as the intercom crackles to life.

"In this Trial, the goal is merely to reach the other side of the room," the Albino says, even cheerier than usual as if this Trial will truly be a snap. It's about then that the bad feeling in the pit of my stomach begins to grow. If an Albino's that happy, it means trouble for us. "The first person to touch the opposite wall wins! Killing your own teammates deducts points. Killing members of the opposite team adds points. Losing members of your team to the other team does not affect your score, but helps theirs, and vice versa. Ready, set, go!"

"Got all that?" I mutter dryly, glancing left and right. Jake is on my right. Deirdre is on my left. They both nod grimly.

"Great," I murmur, rolling my head and shoulders in preparation. "So, how do we want to play this?"

"Maybe how we did in the first maze?" Jake suggests.

"Perfect. Deirdre, you take the lead."

Deirdre doesn't have to ask why. She just racks her gun and grins, moving quickly to stand in front of me.

"Jake, you're in the middle," I order, taking a step back to give him space. He has the least gun experience, so I'll need to count on Deirdre at the front and myself at the back of our short line to get us safely through this maze. Jake nods and follows my command without hesitation. I turn around, my back accidentally bumping against his as I do so. The small bit of physical contact is comforting.

Then, we venture into the maze.

For the first few hundred feet, we hear and see nothing. Along with keeping my eyes trained on the floor, I also regularly check the tops of the glowing walls and the ceiling, although all someone or thing would have to do to hide that far above the light would be to disguise themselves in black.

Then the whirring noise starts.

We ready our guns, halting. "Try not to be very trigger happy," I order quietly over my shoulder to my friends, and instantly regret the advice. What if a "shoot first, ask questions later" mindset is needed in order to survive? I am about to take back my words when Deirdre screams shortly and a gun fires.

Please let that have come from Deirdre, please let her be okay, I chanted in my head, refusing to turn around and face potential horror. "What's happening?" I urgently yell instead.

"She shot an Albino. He's dead. We're okay," Jake relays quickly, voice unsteady.

"Good job, Deirdre," I call out to her, calming down.

"Thanks," she replies happily. Any trace of fear in her voice is once again gone and I know what's happened. She is accepting her murderous side once more. She is prepared to spill as much blood as is needed in order to get us to the other side of this maze. It is the perfect mindset to be in during a Trial, especially this one.

The whirring sound is still playing steadily and noisily. "Where is that coming from?" I ask, unable to identify even the vague direction in which the source of the noise is located.

"Definitely in front of us," Jake replies firmly just as Deirdre easily says, "Behind us."

"Great," I say, the word drawn out sarcastically. "So, nobody knows where it is."

"I could be wrong," Jake offers, but from the tone of his voice, I know that he thinks he is completely correct.

"For now, it doesn't matter. Let's just keep moving," I decide after a moment, and we do so.

"The Albino was alone, right?" I ask as we pass its body, glancing distastefully down at its still-open, white, lifeless eyes.

"Yeah. Doesn't seem like a very good strategy, if you ask me," Jake replies. "I feel like we're missing something."

I shrug. It's not like we can do anything about that or what it might mean at the moment, so I just focus on guarding our backs.

I see a shape move before me and take careful aim instead of hastily firing, giving me time to confirm that it is, indeed, a rapidly approaching Albino.

The gunfire startles Jake and I feel him turn behind me to see its source. "No! Focus!" I scream, but it is too late.

Jake turns back around. "Deirdre?" I hear him call fearfully, and my heart skips a beat. "Deirdre!"

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