Chapter 16: Agamon's Army
Kwado lay there for some long minutes, listening to the sounds of battle as his breathing levelled out. Even from there, he could tell the prisoners were winning. The delusions of grandeur that had spurred the Hammer’s bravado were idle fancy at best, phantoms of an invincible force reduced to so much dust.
Then a familiar noise shook Kwado out of his reverie, one he had not heard in quite some time. It was the beat of a horse’s hooves across gravel. They slowed near the tower, coming to a halt.
“Curses,” a man said.
“Hobb?” Kwado got to his knees and peered over the edge of the crooked platform.
“Sorla’s light alive, troll,” Hobb said with a whistle. “How did you make it through this scrape?” He sat bareback on a black stallion wearing a cocksure grin.
“You left us,” Kwado said.
Hobb frowned. “Never. I went to procure a horse so I could lure the rockcrusher away on fleet legs.” He frowned as realization came to him. “Was hoping to trick the beast into knocking down part of the fence for us.”
Kwado thought about it for a moment then returned his friend’s smile. “I knew you’d never abandon me.”
“Yeah…but the beast is dead,” Hobb said. “And with it our last chance for freedom. Even with the warden’s men surely decimated, we’ve got an army of goblins to worry about. And it won’t be long before they head this way. Savages are probably going to take over the whole camp.”
From his vantage, Kwado could see over the clusters of barrack tents, past the tiered sections of the quarry, to the center where the Qilin rested atop its aerie. Hobb’s estimation was correct. A scarce handful of the warden’s men remained on the field, sorely pressed and cornered by gangs of goblins. Not all of the wretched creatures were interested in the humans, however. Some were more intent on beating other humanoids, using their newly claimed Qilin rods to twist their ex-contemporaries with waves of torturous pain. Kwado’s fingers found the collar around his neck, stopping to hover inches from the cold metal.
“Did the beast get Boram?” Hobb asked.
“Boram?” Kwado said absently.
“The gargoyle,” Hobb said. “You know…tall fellow, made of stone, murderous gaze. Where’s he at?”
That jostled Kwado’s memory. “Before…when he came back and saved me from the Hammer,” he said absently, the wheels in his mind spinning. He quickly searched the floor of the tower.
“The Hammer came here?” Hobb said in disbelief.
Something between the floorboards glinted in the moonlight, but it was not metal. Kwado pried it loose triumphantly and held the phalatite before his eyes in wonder. “He brought it back for me.”
“Brought what back?” Hobb said. The horse whinnied and sidestepped. “You’re not making any sense.”
“The phalatite, Hobb,” Kwado said. “Boram brought it back to free me.”
Before his friend could ask another question, Kwado slapped the phalatite to his brand as he had seen Boram do. The light sparked from his skin. It felt cold as ice and hot as magma all at once, though none of it hurt. He was happy to feel that pain. He could feel the Qilin’s iron will over him lifted like a net pulled free from the center of his soul. The sensation passed, leaving him dizzy. His body was light as air, free of the evil totem’s grasp.
A prisoner’s scream carried on the wind. Kwado gazed out at the Qilin with hatred in his heart. Who would make such a horrible thing? He wondered. How could anyone desire to see those around them suffer so much that they would imbue a relic with such awful magic?
He never thought he could hate something so fully. How many lives had been broken due to the Qilin’s lecherous grip? He had seen at least a dozen miners executed in various ways since coming to the Gulag. The battlefield at the heart of the quarry was littered with death.
“Would any of this have even been possible, if not for the Qilin?” he wondered aloud.
“Those are ponderings for wiser men than I,” Hobb called. “Come on down. We’re going to have to try to scale the barbed wire before those goblins get up here. Wait…how’s the damage up there? Any way to get to the other side?”
Kwado surveyed the watchtower, or what was left of it. The main platform leaned at a sharp downward angle. The fencing was bent and twisted where the harpoon gun had pulled free, but other than that, the three outward walls were still intact. There would be no getting out that way. He looked at the harpoon gun, freed and pointing down toward the ground by Hobb, and sighed. Where was that when he’d needed it?
“No way out up here,” he called.
“Damn it, all that tower and nothing useful to offer,” Hobb said. He glanced nervously down the path toward the slope.
Kwado’s eyes locked on the harpoon turret. “Not everything’s useless.”
Hobb barely registered what he had said, but when he heard the loud groan of metal scraping against wood, he snapped his attention back to the watchtower platform.
Kwado threw his shoulder into repositioning the gun, swiveling it on its broken base. He pulled back on the handles and looked down the metal crosshairs. “A little more to the left.”
“Are you mad?” Hobb shouted. “That thing is too damaged to work properly. You’re going to get yourself killed up there.”
The Qilin centered in Kwado’s sights. “I’d rather die than turn my back on all these folk.”
His muscles flexed hard to keep the wobbly harpoon gun balanced. He squeezed the trigger in the right grip and released the mechanism. The tower rocked backward from the force, splinters of wood raining down around Hobb as he reared back his stallion.
The harpoon burst from the turret like an unlit lightning bolt, soaring through the air with a high-pitched whistle. Kwado sucked in his breath and watched it, praying the massive steel spear could maintain its trajectory long enough to cover the distance. It whizzed past the barrack tents and careened over the sheer cliffs marking the quarry, but with each meter it began to lose altitude.
Come on, he thought. Just a little further…almost there.
Heads turned to the sky as the harpoon whistled past the swelling crowd of terrified prisoners. Kwado saw the man in black spin around as the harpoon passed, raising his arms and shooting a bolt of magic at it.
“No!” Kwado shouted.
The ball of energy caught the tail of the harpoon, knocking it into a downward spiral over the wide chasm. It would never touch the Qilin at that angle! Instead the harpoon cracked hard into the aerie, burying itself a foot deep into the rock.
Kwado balled his fists and shook in rage, but then the entire aerie suddenly rocked. He held his breath and opened his eyes wide. The unbalanced Qilin tipped backward, spilling from the column of rock. He threw his arms up in the air and screamed for joy as it tumbled over the edge of the aerie and crashed down into the lowest level of the quarry.
Though he could not see it, Kwado knew without a shadow of a doubt that the Qilin had been destroyed. He could hear that well enough in the joyful cries that spread through the Gulag.
“What did you do?” Hobb said, dumbfounded.
Kwado jumped up and down for joy but stopped short when the tower groaned under his weight.
“Damn maniac. You better get down from there,” Hobb said, pulling his stallion farther away from the leaning tower.
Kwado did not argue. It was a tricky climb down, the occasional rung bent or missing entirely in the aftermath of the rockcrusher’s assault. With each step, the tower threatened to come down around him. As he put bare feet on the ground, climbing over the slain rockcrusher, a roar came from up the path.
A blade the size of a man sliced through a wall of the blacksmith’s tent in three consecutive strokes. Tinarius ran through the opening with the massive bastard sword held over his head, shouting like a madman. Even from where he stood, Kwado could see the ogre’s eyes were no longer clouded, the curse of blindness lifted with the Qilin destroyed. When Tinarius reached the fence, he brought the sword down hard enough to cut down a hundred-year-old oak. His expertly crafted blade sliced through the chain links as easy as it had the canvas tent, leaving behind a trail of sparks.
Soasha came out of the tent after him. She held a small crossbow at the ready, aiming it up and down the path. Her eyes locked on Kwado, and she lowered the weapon to shoot him a wiggly wave and grateful smile. Meanwhile, Tinarius cut a couple more sections of the fence away until a massive hole remained, large enough for him to duck through to the other side. He grunted for Soasha to follow, and the elf waved one more time before running to meet him. Tinarius bent down on one knee so she could climb up his back, then they ran off into the forest, free for the first time in decades.
Kwado glanced back to Hobb. His friend looked like he had swallowed a goat. He stared openly at the hole in the fence, clearly still trying to comprehend what had just happened. “Thought you said you killed him,” Hobb said.
“You think you could put him down?” Kwado said.
“Point taken.” A slow smile crept over Hobb’s face. “We did it.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself of the reality before them.
Kwado nodded and ran for the hole. Some part of him winced as he passed through the fence, fearing that somehow a guard would shoot him dead or that the Qilin would somehow reach back out to capture him. But none of that happened. No one screamed for him to stop, no curse wracked his body with pain and torment, and most importantly, no guilt weighed him down as he ran into the forest with Hobb riding his stallion just beside him. After all, he had just freed every last prisoner of the Gulag.
Overseer Shaffa fell to his knees in the mud, his face a smoldering husk. Agamon’s smile widened as he surveyed the remaining Gulag’s forces, a handful of men cornered and hopelessly outnumbered by his goblins. He grumbled but remained in good spirits. He had been forced to release another twenty or so humanoids to win the battle—most likely the same number he would have released before the guards’ interruption anyhow, but still, it was a shame to lose so many collared. He eyed the goblins as they tore apart the remaining guards or tortured those prisoners who had sided with the warden through his Qilin rod’s demands.
Perhaps I will let them live when things settle down, he thought. It might prove useful to have a few guards armed with Qilin rods to keep his new army in line.
His eyes found the Qilin, perched above them on its aerie, and he grinned like a snake. Such raw power, he marveled. The Qilin was a thing of beauty, forged by the first builders, those draconians said to be direct descendants of the world dragon, sprung from the first skin shed from his body. The draconians were the first to unlock the mysteries of the Qalari Runes. It was their faces that were carved into the Qilin, and at that moment he felt as if they smiled down at him, their new disciple. With the Qilin in hand, his task was nearly complete. All that was left was to take up the mantle and command his new army.
The goblins squealed as one of their kin choked the life out of a prisoner. I will have to dispose of them after all, he thought. Too unpredictable to have uncollared savages in my ranks.
Something moved in the air to the west. Agamon quickly held his staff in the air, forming a magical barrier to shield his body. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, shifting his satisfaction to horror as he took in the massive harpoon flying through the sky. It was far too large for his barrier to hold off, but he quickly realized that did not matter. This missile was not meant for him. It was meant for…
Agamon spun and gawked at the Qilin. He screamed again and thrust his staff toward the sky, funneling the life force of those closest to him in a warding spell that slithered into the air, desperately moving to intercept the harpoon. Withered goblins fell to the mud as their life-force fueled the spell further. But it was too late. Agamon cried out as his spell only nicked the back end of the missile. The harpoon shifted trajectory, but he knew that would not be enough. It stuck solidly into the aerie with a crunching twang.
He could find no words to express the festering rage that spilled forth from his heart, watching the Qilin tip over the side of the aerie. Centuries of existence, one of the greatest achievements of the draconians, shattered to pieces at the deepest floor of a salt mine, of all places. Agamon fell to his knees in anguish.
That was it. His one and only chance slipped between his fingers. No, more like snatched, he thought, his mind quickly turning to revenge. After all, someone had cast that harpoon. Someone was responsible for stealing his future. Agamon would make them pay dearly, would make them beg for death, would have their head—
His thoughts were interrupted by clammy hands squeezing his shoulder. A pair of goblins pulled him to his feet. “Master,” one said. “Are you hurt?”
Agamon shook the goblin away from him and snarled, lifting his staff as if to cave in its skull. The despicable creature threw his arms up and jumped back, its partner wisely releasing Agamon’s other shoulder. The pair of them fell to their knees in supplication. He stared at them curiously.
“He’s still alive!” a prisoner called joyously. Scores of cheering surrounded Agamon from all sides.
He slowly looked around to find all the prisoners gazing in his direction, and in their eyes...admiration. There was much celebration with many calling for tribute to their master for freeing them. Agamon’s frown lines etched deeply into his face.
They think I’m the one who destroyed the Qilin?
The goblins were the first to kneel, turning toward him with bowed heads. Agamon could scarcely hide his shock as their act was mirrored, spreading through the entire gathering like a tipped set of dominos. Before he knew it, every prisoner in the Gulag, man and monster alike, bowed before him, their new master.
Agamon smirked and raised his staff to the air. It appeared he had his army after all.