My bare feet grind against the rough cavern floor as I run along the dimly-lit corridor. It hurts like hell, but whatever it was back there is worse than bloodied fucking feet. I throw a furtive glance behind my shoulder, and sure enough. There is movement in the distance. Slithering, followed by menacing, hissing sounds. It’s just a bunch of snakes, said their latest snack. To call those fucking monstrosities “just snakes” would be like staring down the open jaw of an alpha lion and calling him a puppy. It is safe to say that, after seeing the first few boys being swallowed alive and hearing the sickening crunch that came after, the rest of us cadets were not especially prone to stay and fight.
Back in the snake pit, we were twenty or so slave soldiers in training, and now only five of us remain. Five lucky survivors, struggling to outrun the frenzied snakes, each beat of our feet causing an increasingly painful shock as layers of skin are peeled away. To make matters worse, we are forced to listen to the mocking cheers and laughter of nobles, viewing our struggle via their damn recorders. “Poor little rats can’t find their way out of the maze,” says an older man haughtily. Another noble, a young woman this time, bursts out: “Stop teasing them and get this over with already; I want to hear em’ squeal.”
I grit my teeth, enveloping myself in a shield of fury. In the end, we are regarded as jesters. What’s worse, I should have expected this to happen. They would never have seriously considered giving us mercenary badges; yes, it is all to quell the people’s fury with fake hopes and empty promises. Give the ordinary folks the mere sliver of an illusory shot at a chance for another life, and they’ll go for it.
The cadet in front of me suddenly comes to a halt. Annoyed, I take hold of his shoulder, “Hey, what’s the big idea?”. Then I see it; before us is nothing but a thick stone wall. We have come to a dead-end, and behind us, the snakes are coming closer. “It’s over,” says a fat boy to my right, tears streaming down his red cheeks. “We’re just fodder… rats in a maze. We’ll die no matter what we do.” I clench my fists, turning to face the other despondent youths, “If you have time to whine, go look for an escape instead!”. Another boy, Ethan, I think he was called, steps up to me. “And how, exactly, do you suggest we do that?”. He points at the rapidly approaching wave of monster snakes. “I don’t fucking know, but we have to do something,” I say, smashing my fist into the wall.
To our great surprise, it crumbles like dirt at my touch, revealing a secret passage. Eyebrows raise, and mouths fall open, but there is no time to be elated over my discovery. A humongous red-eyed snake curls up its tail like a spring, launching itself into the fold of our group. I barely manage to duck inside the narrow passage as the snake smashes into the rock right where my head had been a moment ago. Desperate, I claw my way through the hole in the wall, doing my best to tune out the sound of pure despair as a boy — the fat one, I presume, is bit by a so-called snake. I note the presence of at least two lucky survivors by the crumbling of rocks behind me.
I press on through the slick cavern walls, appreciative of my position at the helm; at least I’ll be the last to die should we fall. “Hurry, please,” cries a boy I don’t know. “I have to survive; my little sister is waiting for me at home.” I stay silent. The crunching of bones follows from the corner, but the screams have ceased. It means the snakes will soon enter this passage in search of dessert. Drops of sweat stream down my face, and my tired body yearns for rest, but I will do all I can until I breathe my last breath, for the bastard nobles not to see my tears and fear.
Soon after, I notice a light in the distance. “Boys, keep it up; we are soon out of here!”. As if on command, I hear a familiar hissing sound far behind. Panic takes hold of me then. I slither through the passage, pressing hard against the rough surface underneath, caring not for the immense pain from countless cuts and bruises. “MOM” screams the boy from before, the sound of his death rattle echoing in the narrow enclosure, threatening to crush my eardrums. I get one arm out of the hole, dragging myself out into an open area. Ethan falls out from behind me, and the snakes are still busy eating the brother, who will never get to see his little sister again.
I scrutinize my surroundings, noting a loose boulder to the right of the tunnel. “Ethan, help me shut the hole.” I nod in the direction of the boulder, and he grins back at me. Together, we shove the massive boulder towards the hole. Neither one of us is in good shape, but there’s really no other choice but to extend our scarred bodies to their limits. Bloodshot eyes glare at me from inside the tunnel, and right as the snake launches, we manage to get the boulder stuck in position. Loud thumps echo inside the passage as angry snakes push against the blockade. They are trapped and we have prevailed.
We turn around to the clatter of a thousand palms.
“Well done, lads, you are now official mercenaries of the holy state of Ethria.”