The Fear Trials

'Hello. My name is Shal. I’m ten years old, and I need to tell this before I either die, or curl up in a ball and never move again.'

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I woke up with a scream of terror, sure the fearling was still eating me. I found myself lying on a cold concrete floor, gasping. The monitors above me displayed various numbers that flickered above me. I focused on them, and tried not to remember the feeling of the fearling’s teeth against my skin.

One of the officials hovered over me. When he saw that I was awake, he shook his head, giving me a disappointed look.

“Not a good record today, Shal.”

I wanted to protest that I had tried. It had just been an accident. But it wasn’t worth it. I hadn’t passed. I had died.

Lili’s voice echoed in my head as that thought crossed my mind. There are only two ways to escape the Trials. One is to pass; to make it to the end. The other is to die. And believe me, the first is a lot nicer than the other. But also a lot harder.

And this time I had died.

“No dinner tonight, and no visits,” the man said dismissively.

What?! Punishments for failure were often enforced, but this one was harsher than usual. Maybe it was because of my mistake. But I didn’t argue. It wasn’t worth it.

The official brought me back to my cage, and I watched as they guided Ala towards the Trial room.

“Good luck!” I whispered to her.

Ala glanced my way and then nodded. She was guided away, to the Trials room. I sighed, and slumped back. The lunch buzzer went off, and I hurried to the lunch room. This was all the food I would get today, after all. The one good thing about my Trial was that it had been quick, leaving me time to eat.

After lunch I sat slumped in my ‘room’. To try and cheer me up, Jess visited with Sim, and we talked about our Trials.

“Want to hear how my ‘Sim’-ulation went?” was Sim’s wisecrack for the day. Jess laughed, but I just nodded numbly. Sim frowned, but then her ever present smile returned.

“This time, I actually passed!” she exclaimed.

Jess clapped Sim on the shoulder, and I tapped my hands together in a weak approximation of a clap. Sim sighed, and then turned to look at Jess, who had also had a Fear Trial today.

She winked, then leaned in like she was sharing a big secret.

“I killed a fearling.”

That got me out of my slumps. Sim and my eyes widened. Fearlings were tough, strong, powerful, and dangerous. It took some serious guts and skill to kill one.

“Nice job!” I complimented. Sim shared her compliments as well. Then they turned to us.

“I died this time,” I muttered.

“Aw… I’m sorry, Shal!” sympathized Jess.

I tried not to be too down, for their sakes. I just shrugged, trying for a half hearted smile. “S’fine. If I pass tonight’s Fear Trial, they won’t hold it against me.”

Sim laughed. “That’s the spirit! You show ‘em, Shal! Take them down!”

That got a laugh out of me. Sim has never failed to cheer me up, and I don’t think she ever will. “Thanks, Sim. So, what did you win?”

Sim beamed. When you pass the Fear Trials, you get some kind of reward. My friend Lilli, who is the smartest girl out of all of us, won a puzzle book once, and she hasn’t put it down since.

Sim held up a guitar proudly. “My first gift!”

It wasn’t that big. Just a red piece of wood with strings, really. But Sim held it like it was her newborn child. Jess studied it with awe. It wasn’t often that they gave us something to entertain ourselves with.

“Let’s hear a chord!” said Jess eagerly.

Sim strummed a chord. Clearly her skills were off, because the chord sounded more like a dissonant clang than anything that could be mistaken for music. Jess and I both flinched.

Sim shrugged apologetically, a little grin slipping onto her face. “Sorry! Sorry! I… I’ve never played an instrument before. I’ll get the hang of it.”

“Or our ears will get the hang of your playing.” Jess shrugged.

We both laughed. Then the buzzer went off. Sim’s door opened, and Jess left reluctantly, giving Sim a quick pat on the back. Sim grinned, and went back to fiddling with her guitar.

I lay back on my bed, and closed my eyes, trying to get some sleep before my night Fear Trial. If anything, those ones are worse, because you have to come back to your room in the dark.

I hadn’t intended to sleep for long, but when I woke I heard the sound of my cage door opening. I had slept most of the afternoon away. It was time for my evening Trial. Sim gave me a wink and mouthed ‘good luck’. I passed her quickly. I almost made it to the end, when a tap on the bars alerted me to another of my friends.

Lilli was smiling out at me. Her pale face was framed by black hair, pulled back into her usual messy braid. Her green eyes shone with more life than most of us could muster. I’m pretty sure she’s a genius. One of the older ones at 14- She’s good at finding out secrets to the Fear Trials, and her mind works in a way that I can never understand.

“Go for fives,” she whispered to me. “Good luck.”

I nodded, and then quickly hurried down the hallway so I wouldn’t get punished for hanging back.

We’re technically not allowed to give each other help, but we had devised a code of hints that we used with each other. The code had originally been created by Lilli. Go for fives meant that I should tap five times on each door, which would agitate any fearlings inside, provoking them to make some noise and reveal themselves. It was a good tip, and Lilli insisted it had saved her more than once.

I reached the Trial room, and seated myself in the center. I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes, waiting for the usual pinch of the needle.

The process was as usual. The sharp sting of the needle sliding into my skin, the blacking out, and then the Fear Trial. Nothing began out of the ordinary.

But this Fear Trial was going to be different.

 
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