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 had a Fear Trial today with Star. The landscape we were dropped into was a new one. The scenery around us was more unsettling than usual- a skeletal maze of twisted black trees that stretched jagged branches towards a dark sky above. There was very little light.

Star muttered a few words that would have gotten her in trouble with Ala. “I’ve never seen this one before. It looks like a high three- maybe even a low four.”

“Three?” The highest level I had been in was two, and those had been bad enough.

“Yeah. We’ve gotta move. When you get to higher levels things start hunting you.”

I shuddered, looking around worriedly. What sort of things would be hunting us? I definitely didn't want to stick around here to find out. Star was the expert here. I would just have to trust her judgement.

Maybe it was just me, but the shadows around us seemed to grow longer, the skeletal trees bending towards us, reaching broken, blackened boughs towards the two of us like grasping fingers. I thought I was just imagining it, until I realized that the trees actually were getting closer. One of them was reaching for Star, tortured looking limbs wrapping themselves into her hair, reaching for her throat.

“Star?”

There was no answer from her.

“Star!”

Her eyes were wide and full of terror, and her breathing was hard. There was definitely something wrong with her.

First rule of the Fear Trials: Be selfish. When your Trial partner is caught, you leave them. But I had just watched Kira die. I didn't care if this wasn't real- I wasn't about to lose Star too!

I grabbed the branch above her head. Almost instantly I understood why she was frozen. Soft, whispering voices filled my mind. Help us. Free us. Join us. They really had gone all out on this Fear Trial. The voices sounded real, even if I knew they were just recordings, played again and again to scare me. With some effort, I snapped the branch. A deafening scream rang out, and Star dropped to the ground.

I knelt next to her, slapping her cheek. “Star! Wake up!”

“Uuuh…” she groaned weakly, but other than that there was no response.

I had heard of this happening before. When a new Fear Trial was tested, sometimes they had the fear ratings wrong, and it was much more than anyone could handle. I had no idea why I wasn’t incapacitated like Star, but I had to move.

I started to drag Star with me, but now the rest of the trees were coming to life, reaching for me with dark, grasping fingers. The crackling of wood around me sounded like tortured screams, and Star was still limp in my hands. The trees around us were actually shifting now, roots swirling like tentacled feet as they dragged themselves closer to the two of us. Wood snapped, and branches reached for the two of us. I looked at them coming, and felt pure terror begin to paralyze me. I knew I had to move fast. Whispering a weak apology, I dropped Star, and ran for my life.

I didn’t make it far. The ground underneath my feet was shaking, rippling like an illusion. I tripped over an extended root, and fell to the ground. I looked up to see one of the horrible, dark trees leaning over me, a hole in the center opening wide like a mouth. I stared at it, knowing this was it, and I was going to die. All clear thoughts were wiped from my mind. I just stared up at it, numb, only able to whimper, wishing I could die now- no, wishing I was already dead, anything to stop this terror and get his horrible creature away from me…

The branches were reaching for me, wrapping around my arms. The wood cut into my skin, and I could hear laughter. A sense of malicious glee was emanating from this thing. It was glad it had caught another prey, and it was enjoying my fear. I tried to scream, but my voice came out as a weak croak. I closed my eyes and prepared to die.

Another scream cut through the darkness. Still in a dazed, weak, terrified state, I dimly saw a figure with fiery red hair burst through the branches holding me, attacking them with blind rage. It was Star. But I had left her behind, hadn’t I? What was she doing here now, fighting to save me like I was the one who had been frozen in terror, left to die in the darkness?

“Run, Shal!” She yelled at me. “Get up and keep running! Don’t look back, whatever happens!”

That nightmarish tree had withdrawn from me. Star was dragging me to my feet. The air was cold against my face. I was alive.

Star shoved me forwards. “I said run!”

This time I obeyed, my legs somehow moving beneath me, allowing me to stumble forwards, swaying like I was drunk. I struggled to move, dragging myself through the trees by sheer force of will. I had only made it a few feet when the sound of screaming and breaking branches made me turn.

Star was in a full out rage. She was surrounded by those awful, black trees, and was fighting insanely. Her order to run forgotten, I stood there and watched her in awe.

In the Trials, fighting usually means suicide. Whatever weird traps that exist, they’re usually meant to kill. They’re designed as a death trap, with only one way out. Fighting chances don’t exist. But now Star was completely defying that.

I had thought she was just giving me time to run. But now it seemed like she had no intention of trying to escape on her own. She was surrounded by trees, and screamed in rage as she attacked. Black branches snapped and shattered, bursting in the air with sounds like a series of gunshots. Star was balancing on the balls of her feet, dancing back and forth, snapping branches as they reached for her. Each time one tried to grab her, she snatched it and snapped it. Broken branches littered the ground around her feet. They twitched, but didn’t seem to be able to move on their own anymore.

“This is for Kira, you bastards!” Star screamed.

“Get out of there!” I yelled to her, finally finding my voice.

She turned to look at me, and her eyes widened. “Shal-”

That was as far as she got. The trees took advantage of her distraction, and lunged forwards. A pair of dark, vine like branches wrapped themselves around her arms, and yanked her backwards towards the open maws of two of the tree monsters. Pulling at Star, her arms began to stretch. She stared at me with wide eyes. She was fighting, but more branches were wrapping around her now, pinning her legs, then wrapping around her chest towards her head.

“Star!”

GO!” she screamed. The branches were almost to her head. “G- Aaah!” she let out a final choking cry as one of the vines forced its way down her throat.

In the Fear Trials, I do my best not to watch if my partner dies. But this time I didn’t even have a chance to look away.

Vines forced their way through Star. She seemed to burst as vines grew from her, tearing through her skin. There was no blood. There rarely was. In seconds, she was gone, replaced by a vaguely humanoid shape of vines. Then they withdrew, and I saw a limp body slump to the ground. She was most definitely dead. Even from this distance I could see the hundreds of tiny holes that covered her skin, where the vines had burst out. As far as deaths in the Trials went, this one was definitely one of the most disturbing ones I’d ever seen.

I’m sorry, Star. If she hadn’t rushed back in to save me, would she have made it?

No time to think about that. I had to keep running. That's what she had told me, right? I bit back a soft sob, reminding myself that this wasn’t real. I would see Star when this Trial was over.

Unless she dies like Kira did.

I decided not to think about that. I couldn’t be worrying about her right now. I still had to get myself out of this nightmare.

I turned to go, and froze. Standing still for an extended period of time in a Trial was not my brightest idea. Standing behind me was something that seemed similar to the horrible, black trees around me, but taller and much more humanoid looking. It stood a good seven feet, and looked down at me with a black face. It had no features, other than two black pits that might have been eyes. I could almost feel myself stepping towards it, like those eyes were drawing me in. Its unnaturally large hands reached for me, fingers hooked into claws that were tipped with dark red liquid that looked like blood. As it stared at me its face seemed to flicker. Its eyes grew then shrunk, the claws stretching and narrowing, jerking back and forth like it was having a seizure. The world seemed to bend towards it, like my vision was tunneling.

Staring up into those dark black eyes, and the grey sky above, my mind went blank. It reached for me slowly, with this awful, determined inevitability. Its claws slowly wrapped around my throat, lifting me into the air. I tried to scream, but my air flow was cut off. I shook violently and choked as I was brought closer and closer to those dark masses. Inside them, two little red lights flickered. The fingers began to pierce my throat, and I felt little vines, twitching and growing from its fingers, seeking my blood. A sound was coming from it too- a horrible rustling whisper that sounded like laughter.

It was too much. I was paralyzed by fear, unable to move, unable to think. The world flashed before my eyes. All I could see were those two red dots. Then my muscles went limp as I passed out.

 
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