I almost died on a dare.
It was stupid, but I have a temper and I probably would have done it anyway because of the money I could have gotten, the new life. I'm dirt poor- poorer than poor and hated because of it.
It was called The Trials- the contest that almost killed me.
The origin of The Trials was told to us from a young age as terrifying horrors or action-packed heroics. Either way, the details were pretty blurry. No one really knew the exact story because all we can do is tell secrets.
Those with knowledge don't share it and lie about it if it's asked about by a curious person who would disappear quickly if they continued, never seen again. But most have no idea where we came from or who we are, so we don't have any truths to tell anyways. I don't think anyone knows we exist and we don't know if there are others like us out there, somewhere in the world.
I'm convinced our leaders- the chairmen- would like to ensure our demise instead of our prosperity. Whatever secrets they're hiding from us about our lives is probably what started The Trials in the first place- the gruesome training and final competition between the 16-18-year-olds to join our guardians- those who protect us. Those who get jobs as bodyguards of the chairmen and the treasury. Those who go outside the walls into the world and protect us from whatever dangers we're being hidden from.
We call them the Elite because that's what they are. Elite. Better than us. Because to them, we're nothing.
The Trials happen annually in what we've nicknamed The War Cavern, or as I call it, The Largest Coffin We Have- a large arena of obstacles, raised rock columns, crumbling bridges of shocking height, and annually changed elements of death. Last year they used acid, the year before that lava, before that poison darts.
Most of the time participation is voluntary unless you've committed some heinous crime with mandatory participation in the trials, though it rarely happens.
Though people join even if they don't want to because of the promise of victory- so if you want respect, money, a job, new life, and prestige among other things, you'd join. So pretty much if your life sucks, like me, or you've trained your whole life to achieve the ideal goal- The Elite.
Victory comes to the top ten participants with grand winnings of 10,000 pieces of gold, our main currency, and monthly salaries and bonuses to both the winner and their family of Duri Coins, which are made of precious silver and shaped like a donut, about half the price of a piece of gold. And a spot with the Elite. The higher you are, the better the job with the Elite. The first place gets first to pick.
In my fifteen years of life, I've never seen someone in the trials win if they joined because their life sucked. They usually died. And no one cared.
And I would turn 16 in a week, the day the trials opened for training.
Even though I'd go down kicking and biting, screaming about how I hated what we've become or whatever, I would never win if I joined. I wouldn't even be martyred if I died. Just forgotten.
But I had no interest in being entertainment for the Chairmen and their private parties in the viewing ring around the main arena- protected by everything-proofed glass. I could handle my "every-thing sucks life." The only people who won anyways were the 18-year-old rich guys that trained for this their whole lives- ensured victory. It was no wonder there was something wrong with our government.
My decision to not participate in The Trials wasn't based on cowardice, but anger. While that didn't change, my decision about the games changed when Ace and Emma, the ideal couple who would dominate The Trials this year, and their stupid posse found me. I was working-out under the bridge that connected the main road to the farming-fields because even though I wouldn't train for The Trials, I promised my mom I would take care of myself when she was gone. And here I was suffering on push-up number sixteen.
"Yo Alien!" Ace shouted as they came up to me.
I didn't look up, just kept going. Down, up... Down, up... Down, up... 19.
"Look," Emma smirked. She was holding onto Ace's buff arm and wearing an annoying blue bow in her blonde ponytail. "It's the homeless girl, Ace. Trying for the trials, Phoenix?"
Down, up... 20.
My mom named me Phoenix because of what she called, An assured ability of resilience or something like that. The name fit because I took after her bright red hair and green eyes, which didn't exactly fit in with the perfect ideal blonde and brunette and black hair that every perfect person in our city had.
I didn't look or act like anyone, hence the name alien. Down, up... 21. "No," I grunted in response.
"You should," Emma said. "Give me a chance to get rid of you."
"Finally rid of Alien girl," Ace chuckled, like the empty-brain male he was.
Down, up... "Leave me alone." I said it like it would work. It didn't.
"Leave? Well, we just got here." Emma bent down so her perfect minty breath tickled my face. "We would hate to leave, right Ace? We should give her something to convince her to let us stay. Chat a while."
"Yeah, some dirt." He took his large black boot and shoved it on top of my back, forcing me to the dirt ground without being able to close my mouth first.
My nose and cheek throbbed from hitting the ground hard, and I was coughing so hard from inhaling dirt that I shook. When it finally stopped, all I heard was all of their laughter.
It made me angrier. I moved to get up, but Ace shoved his boot down again, forcing me to the floor, though I had my mouth closed this time. A grunt escaped my lips as he pushed harder, making me think my ribs were about to break.
Emma bent down farther, just enough she wasn't getting dirt on her perfect skirt. "You would never win The Trials, you know."
A familiar ferocity I get when I lose my temper flared up in my chest, making me strong enough to use enough strength to make Ace's boot fall off my back and to push Emma against the wall of the bridge.
She shrieked as my hands pushed her shoulders. "My skirt!"
I didn't pay attention to the dumb skirt, just what she had said. I knew I was strong. I knew I had the courage, and all of the other stupid stuff praised for winning the games.
"How would you know if I could win The Trials?" I growled.
"Hey, let off!" Ace yelled, moving towards me.
"I wouldn't do that," I warned in a low voice. "Not if you want to live through the next minute."
Ace stopped in his tracks, confused. "Yeah? What're you gonna do?"
I had to think fast.
"I trained a biter."
That stopped him. "You're kidding."
"Nope. Named him Ralph. He's bright red. He'll bite your head off the minute I call him, so back off."
"Ralph?" he laughed.
"I'll call him, I swear."
He shut up.
Biters were birds twice the size of a Raven with three rows of razor-sharp teeth and two talons on each claw-like knives. They seemed nice, usually a bright color like red or purple. Until you got them mad. Then you usually lost a limb or two, maybe a couple fingers if you're lucky.
I had a scar the length of my back, traveling from my left shoulder to the right hip-bone that I earned for wielding off Lucky, my sister's yellow biter from our last stash of Apples my sister had taken from the Richardson's orchard before she disappeared, too.
It didn't hurt, really. Only sometimes, though it was a good reminder that biters couldn't be tamed and they liked apples. It reminded me of my sister, in a strange way.
"Let off, Ace," Emma said warily. "I don't want to find out if she's telling the truth."
"I can guarantee you I am." Please keep believing this lie...
I turned to Emma, still angry. "Why would I lose during The Trials? What is it, really? Why would I lose?"
"You're not good enough," she seethed.
My eyes flashed dangerously.
"Em..." Ace warned.
I grunted and let go of Emma, who straightened up and ran to Ace, whining about her skirt.
"I'll show you that I'm good enough when I win."
Away from immediate danger, the couple and whoever was in their posse fell back to being jerks.
"Sign up," Ace challenged. "Barely sixteen and still not good enough. You'll die, you know. Probably because of us."
I frowned. "I don't think so."
"Well, we'll see," Emma boasted.
Ace chortled. "Yeah, see you lose!" His cronies cheered.
"Ace," Emma chided. He stopped laughing and started looking tough again.
"I guess so," I said, growling.
Emma and Ace just scoffed and walked away to the comfort of their city skyscrapers and private trainers.
The minute they were gone and my temper had died down, the adrenaline had disappeared and I was still sore from pushup number sixteen, I took a deep breath, thinking over about what I had just done. Agreed to a contest of life and death.
On the day of my sixteenth birthday, I watched Emma, Ace, and the whole city that didn't like me see me signing up for presumable death as I put "Phoenix" in bold letters under the 16s list for The Trials.
"Alien girl's doing The Trials!" one shouted.
"She won't make it very far, will you Alien?" another said.
I ignored it and continued to fill out the forms saying that I wouldn't sue if I died in the contest or something, not that I could.
The jabs and cheers got louder as I finished the papers and moved into the large entranceway that would lead to the "Congrats You Might Die or Get Rich!" PowerPoint.
Steeling myself for winning and terrified of my probable defeat, I fell numb, moving throughout the day and the prep and the training alone and automatically. By the time the contest started, the whole day had been a blur. At some time they had us dress in the uniform for this year- a sturdy black and grey bodysuit with a collar, jacket, and boots. I side braided my long hair, something my mother had taught my sister who had taught me.
As they brought us to the arena entrance I could feel my senses wake, my eyes sharpen, my arms and legs tense to run and fight.
An annoying voice made me look to my left. "Ready to lose, stray?" Ace sneered.
"Stray," I muttered. "That's a new one." Not that it wasn't true, I thought wryly.
A siren rang, and I ran.
For the first few moments fighting for my life all I heard was the thudding of boots on the cavern floor and Ace shouting about winning top pick for the Elite.
Then the screaming.
On impulse, I ducked, covering my head with my hands and dropping to the floor. I realized the screeching was not from us, but from the annual element of death- this year, biters.
When I looked up, I saw a guy who I'd seen with Ace in the markets. His name was Trevor something, not that it matted now because a bright orange biter had him fighting for all his fingers in a wrestling match.
The birds, probably more deadly than the crumbling bridges and rock columns, swooped down onto the crowded teens behind me, though it was only a moment before I knew one would spot me in my crouched position on the floor.
The moment I started moving, I felt my breath come in short gasps as my chest was nearly crushed when the body of someone flung into me, catapulting me forward onto my stomach, knocking the air out of me.
I groaned as the male figure rolled off of me, yelling and stumbling incoherently.
"Shut it, you'll call the biter!" I snapped. I yanked him behind one of the rock columns as we caught our breath.
I eyed the guy, who had long brown hair and stunning green eyes. Like mine.
"Have eyes like yours, I know. People hate me because of it too, now that the city's supposed to be perfect or something because we now have chairmen instead of a president or king or something." He continued breathing hard as he looked over to me. "The name's Chase."
I raised my eyebrows. "Phoenix," I offered.
Of course he does.
He was silent for a minute, the screeching of the birds behind us as they continued attacking the rest of the people ringing in my ear. Then he said, "You know, we could win this. Show Emma and Ace and their stupid work-out buddies that perfect doesn't really have a definition."
I grinned. "You had me at winning."
"Come on, Red."
We sprinted across the floor of the cavern, trying not to be seen by the birds, but no luck. Three of them spun their heads around and came after us like a hawk after its prey.
We made it to the edge of the cavern, where a spiraling stone walkway led the way to the top of the rock columns.
I grunted and followed as we started climbing, trying to go as fast as we could without falling off the narrow ledge or getting caught by the biters.
At the top, I grinned as I saw what I would need to change my life and win the contest- a bo-staff in the form of a long metal rod. "Chase!" I called, moving towards it.
He saw what I meant and followed, our wordless synchronicity going without a second-guess. We were high enough up to see that most of the competition was either out of play or still wrestling with the biters in a flurry of color and teeth.
If I got the staff, we would win.
Then it all crumbled. Literally.
I distantly heard Chase's and my screams as the edge of rock I was standing on of the column crumbled as I reached for the staff, just as the first bird reached Chase.
He grunted desperately as he picked up the metal rod and swung it at the bluebird, who squawked with surprise as it flew into the wall. The second bird managed a good swipe across his face, which made him drop to his knees, wiping off a crimson smear.
I grabbed the edge of the column before falling but my fingers slipped an inch and a shrill scream escaped my lips, the floor many feet down.
"Phoenix!" Chase called. "Hold on!"
"No!" I yelled sarcastically. "I was planning on letting go, right?"
"Now's not the time for sarcasm, Red!"
He wacked and missed the second bird, missing but creating a flurry of green feathers.
"I think now's just a fine time for sarcasm, Chase. You know... right before I FALL TO MY DEATH!?"
"I got it, I got it." He took another swing at the St. Patrick colored bird, ducking away from the talons and dropping the rod.
He definitely did not have it.
The loss of the rod and the clattering of it falling to the ground distracted the bird just enough for him to grab my arm and pull me up so I could make it to the top of the column.
The green biter opened his beak for a snack of our limbs when a rock fell from the ceiling, plummeting it to the ground.
Joy overwhelmed me, and we spun around each other, shrieking in victory.
It didn't sound right though, and I realized that the shriek wasn't Chase's or mine, but another biter.
"Phoenix!" Chase warned.
Without a second thought, I punched the thing hard, swinging with surprising might.
As it flew to the ground, shocked and fluttering weakly, I opened my eyes wide in astonishment.
Ace and Emma below were nursing biter wounds, and a few contestants I didn't recognize had lost, biter feathers and scratches adorning them.
The wounds wouldn't stay long, but it was just enough for them to not be qualified for victory.
Stray biters were being corralled back into whatever side tunnel they'd come from, marking the end of the contest.
"Congrats, Red, you rose from your ashes," Chase said.
I turned to him, confused. "I rose?"
He nodded with a smile. "To victory with resilience," he declared. "You wanted something, you fought for it, you succeeded. Oh, and happy birthday, by the way."
I smiled at him.
Wiping off a little blood from the scratch on his head, he said, "We won, Red. We did it. You rose to victory."
I grinned wider. He was right- just like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, I had risen to be a stray to being elite. To being victorious.
We had survived a contest of life and death.
I had won The Trials.