The red snake was dancing again.
“Not this time,” I tell it. “You don’t tell me what to do.” I can’t see it dancing, but I know it’s doing so all the same. It loves to coil around my guts and squeeze. Always gently at first, but the longer I ignore the sensation, the stronger it grows. Once, it became so bad I couldn’t even eat until it stopped.
“That’s what you said last time, and the time before. Oh, and do you remember what happened previous to that one?” I hate when the snake teases me. I’ve figured out by now that it loves to make me feel helpless, like I need it to live. Some days, its grip on me feels so tight that I’m inclined to believe it. Trust of the matter is, reality is the opposite.
“You’re the one who needs me,” I shoot back, completely unprompted. The snake doesn’t require a coherent conversation anyway. It can read my thoughts. “I say no, and you starve. Now fuck off.
The sensation of a hundred pins needles my shoulder. The left one, to be precise, where the snake likes to live most of the time, hidden away beneath my uniform’s pauldrons. Years ago, it started on the back of my hand. Everyone mistook it for a tattoo. Nobody ever stuck around me long enough to realize that it disappeared, crawling up my arm to where it resides now. Logically speaking, if I don’t exorcise it soon, it’ll be infesting my head.
“Don’t say words you can’t take back.” The prickling stops. Soon, a flash of heat replaces it, washing over me from head to toe. Sweat beads on my forehead, mucking up the grime already caked there. “You wouldn’t be here without me. You’d have been another corpse on the battlefield long ago.”
It’s right. When the snake is being cooperative, when it’s hungry at the right time, it shares its talents with me. It makes me strong, alert, fearless. I become the perfect soldier. But I only do it on the snake’s terms; when it wants me to. Still, too many times I’ve dodged a spear with its help. I shouldn’t antagonize the snake, because it can always find another host.
“Next time, I’ll get you double.” Sometimes bargaining works, when it’s not too hungry. “This prisoner is important. I’m not executing him for your appetite.”
“It’s so cute when you try to resist.” The tip of its tail tickles the underside of my chin. It knows I hate that. Only one person gets to do that, and it’s not the snake. “I’m hungry tonight, and that means I’m eating. Now get to it, human.”
Even after years of living with the parasite, I still don’t know what kind of magic it uses. All I know is that I was begging it to stop in seconds. I lift my head off the canvas of my tent, and there’s a giant sweat stain where I had fallen. The knot in my guts unwinds and the pressure in my head calms down, but not entirely. The snake doesn’t want me to forget why we’re feeding.
The prisoner’s tent is on the other side of camp. I hurry. None of the patrols bother stopping me. They know better than to bother the commanding officer when he’s got a look of urgency on his face. The pair of troopers guarding the prisoner salute. I make a point of dismissing them before they can ask any questions, which they’re all to eager to do. None of the rank and file like being around an interrogation.
I tie the flaps of the tent shut behind me. The prisoner raises his head and looks me in the eye before he realizes who I am. He flinches, no doubt remembering my right hook. He’s saying something to me, but his words are drowned out by the snake’s whispers in my ear.
“Just make it fast,” it says. I look down at the prisoner. He’s shying away from me, trying to back away despite being tied up. He’s not looking forward to what’s coming next. He has no idea. I thumb my dagger, one last instinct resisting drawing my weapon. “I’m losing my patience.” I drag my feet as I circle behind the prisoner. I obey.
A stab to the heart is enough. I have to clamp my hand over the prisoner’s mouth to stifle his screaming, but all I hear is the snake hissing in unbridled joy. It blesses me with a surge of strength to keep my victim pinned beneath my arms as the life bleeds out of him. The prisoner’s struggles die down. The snake leaps from my shoulder and coils around the dying man’s neck. Its fangs plunge straight into his throat, sucking blood. If the animal could make any noise, its slurping would be heard across the entire camp.
The tension and pain inside me dissipates. The snake is too busy drinking blood to pay any attention to me. I’m holding a corpse in my arms, but even that can’t dent the relief I’m feeling. A few breaths later, and my breathing is back to normal. I twist the knife to make absolute sure he’s dead. I’ve seen what the snake does to live meat, and I don’t wish that on anyone.
“Satisfied?” Now that it’s not tormenting me anymore, I realize what it’s made me do. Central command will probably demote me for executing an important spy.
“Very.” It smacked its lips in a way that no real snake could do. “There’s no need to feel bad. He was dangerous. Don’t you think your superiors will agree that the empire’s better off with him dead?” The snake always has some kind of justification ready when this happens.
“Leave me alone,” I say with pursed lips. I have to stay in the tent a while longer if anyone’s to believe that the prisoner tried to escape and I had to take him down.
“Until the next time you need me, of course.”