Someone was sprinting. My vision of what lay ahead of the crowd remained obscured, but I could tell one thing for sure - No matter what it was, I needed to act fast. Normally, I would prefer to linger behind and observe the cause of the panic. However, the first race down the stairway had already proved these challenges were time-sensitive.
Thirty bodies moved seemed to surge as one across the passageway and into the dark, dilapidated room which lay across it. My eyes flickered behind me; I was near the back, but I maintained a position ahead of five or so others.
I still couldn’t tell why as our jogging turned to flat-out running, but I began to get a hint from the funnel-shaped tunnel we found ourselves in. With each step I took, the walls were caving in more and more to create a narrow, funnel-like structure.
I could only imagine that narrowing got worse as we went on, considering I began to see the crowd among me diminish into a nearly straight line in front of me. The ceiling sloped downward, the floor sloped upward.
The sensation of being in a tunnel brought back memories I’d have rather forgotten. I felt claustrophobic and trapped as we continued, with no direct end in sight. Although there had once been dim torchlight to guide us, now we ran in the pitch black.
“Hey, is it just me or are the walls caving faster?” A boy called out behind me, and I instinctively went to turn my head; that was a mistake. Looking behind me, I could see the walls pouncing on the applicant furthest behind us.
I kept running, but my eyes were glued to the girl at the far back. The floor had pushed up to trip her over, the ceiling suddenly falling just centimetres above her as she lay on her back.
“Hey, what’s wrong? Why’re you making the face?” The boy asked, and I could tell his dark hazel eyes were nervously darting my face.
“Just… don’t look behind you,” I murmured, before flipping my face back to the front and surging forward.
I could hear him beginning to mutter something in response, presumably out of confusion or fear, but he was interrupted as a scream flooded the entire, never-ending corridor.
Damnit. If the walls were moving faster at the back, then that meant this queue we were in would be extremely dangerous for my position.
Even worse, I could hear the person ahead of me panting heavily - We’d been running at high intensity for a few minutes now, so I could imagine it was beginning to push some of the less fit candidates to their limits.
Normally, I would’ve asked if they were alright or ignored them and moved fast. But, as they panted, they began to slow down so their body could continue to accommodate their demands.
Continuing to run at my highest speed, I could see a sharp push down in the tunnel ahead. Running would no longer be an option at that point, and thus I could only imagine people had taken to crawling.
If we got to that point, I would be stuck behind the slow runner ahead of me for the rest of the tunnel. That would be extremely hazardous, and my fears were punctuated by the sound of another piercing scream filling the air.
I highly doubted they were killing candidates like this - Letting the mass of initial applicants fight to the death with Shifters was one thing, but these were the ‘cream of the crop’ that remained after a series of challenges.
In this total war with the Shifters, the Imperial Army needed to conserve as much manpower as possible, so I heavily doubted they were letting talented applicants die like this.
I couldn’t help but worry that was merely my justification to avoid the cruel reality of the situation. If that were the case, then being left behind would not only bring an end to my lifelong goal but my life as well.
I couldn’t let that happen. If I really needed to, I could pull at the boy in front of me and bring him to the ground, hopping over him to continue running. As we got closer and closer to the ceiling drop, the option became more and more rational, more and more tempting in my mind.
However, I couldn’t. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t sacrifice another for that purpose. If I had to, absolutely, then yes. But right now, I still had time - There were still two more behind me, and I hoped to hell they would be able to keep up before the walls got to them.
Perhaps that was too optimistic. As soon as I’d emptied my mind to focus, I heard a third scream. The situation was getting direr and direr, and I was running out of options. So I shouted. I urged and begged those ahead of us to hurry up.
I began to think my words had reached listening ears, as the boy ahead of me began to accelerate, but my train of thought crashed. Something far more severe took priority.
I felt a hand on the back of my shirt, and then a strong pull, before another hand slammed against my upper back, throwing me into the person ahead of me. I smacked into them with enough force for us to both collapse, as the boy trampled over our backs, with the mere whisper, “I’m sorry.”
‘I’m sorry’? Did he seriously think anyone would accept such an apology after being sacrificed?
I didn’t truly blame him. No, I had thought similar thoughts, and he was in an even more lethal position than I was. But did that make me forgive his action? Not even remotely. Being justified is not equal to being moral.
Clambering to my feet, I wanted to push forward and leap across the boy ahead of me. But, I knew I couldn’t do that. First, I stepped over him, because I wasn’t that selfless. But second, I twisted to stretch out my hand to the boy I’d fallen into.
I could tell from his face that he was exhausted. He looked healthy and strong, like every remaining applicant, but conditions like these were rough for even an athlete. His orange hair flopped across his forehead as his eyes rose to mine, tired and worn out.
Yet, there was a sense of endurance as he rapidly picked my hand, pulling himself up. I suppose survival instinct must’ve played a part, but there was something else in his eyes. A sense of duty, I suppose.
I gazed up at the walls behind us, trying to gauge how much time we had left, but the sight was anything but reassuring. The walls were emerging towards us, seconds from swallowing us whole, as I poured my heart into escaping.
After a few metres, we reached the ceiling drop and I descended to my knees. I grimaced. I hated this feeling of crawling; I’d done it a thousand times in home-training with the Commander and Naomi, but I could never get the sour taste of the first experience out of my mouth.
Looking forward, I couldn’t even make out the boy who’d pushed us to the ground, which wasn’t the most reassuring sign about our predicament.
“C’mon, you can do it… Keep up, man.” The shaky voice called out behind me, perhaps sensing my discomfort or just wanting to urge me along for his own safety. Regardless of the motive, it did motivate me.
“What’s your name?” I called out, my hands and knees tearing away at the surface to force myself to keep going.
“Makuro,” He panted, “Angkat.” I heard him pause for a second, trying to regain his breath as he struggled to push his body to his limits and utter his Azurian name. “You?” He asked. Clever, saying ‘what about you’ would’ve taken more effort.
“Shinsato Katsuro, let’s get through this together.” I nodded, as I felt my body begin to give out. My legs were feeling like jelly, my lungs bursting.
The fact that around twenty-six people ahead of me were all coping with this just demonstrated the sheer insanity of the quality of applicants. Each and every one of these people would be a great member of the army, but for some reason, the government was insistent on less than half of them even enrolling in the CMA.
Makuro didn’t respond, but that was probably wise as we had to conserve each bit of our energy. Finally, I let out a rough gasp as my whole body seized up. I couldn’t make it much further.
But then I saw it; a torchlight on the other side. It was so close.
I crawled closer, my arms slamming roughly against the stone ground. Five metres. Four. Three. Two. One.
“We’re so close, let’s fucking go, Makuro!” I called out, as I heaved my body through the end of the tunnel, lifting myself out with a sigh of relief. We’d actually made it, thank god. For more than a few moments, I had thought those would actually be my last moments.
“Makuro, c’mon man, you’re nearly there,” I called out again; he’d been right behind me, so I figured he should have already been out, but there was still no sign of him.
As I waited, I looked out at the next stage - There was a gigantic pit in front of me. I peered down it, but all I could see was perpetual darkness. It was like a void, waiting to swallow you up. Terrifying. Stepping back, I spotted a large stairway on the other side. I guess it was time for a decision.
But first, Makuro. I was getting a little bit uneasy about how long it was taking, so I looked back towards the wall where the tunnel ended. Or… Huh?
I stifled a gag. Looking at a truth I didn’t want to face, I felt a deep sickness rising throughout my body. No, it was impossible. There was absolutely…. there was absolutely no way…
I was facing a full wall.
The tunnel opening was gone.
Makuro Angkat was gone.