Chapter 14: Prison Break
They lay in wait for several hours. Long enough to ensure the rest of the prisoners were down for the evening. Every fire in the camp was out with the storm raging in full swing. Rainwater pooled in wide puddles of pinkish brown slop. The three of them lay in silence, each lost in his own thoughts of escape.
Kwado wondered at how dark the Gulag had become. It seemed a different place, somewhere that resembled the quarry like a distant cousin. He thought it was odd how accustomed to familiar sights and sounds his mind could become.
Bursts of lightning overhead lit the quarry in flashes of blue light, cascading shadows looming all around them. For a long while, the better part of their wait, the thunder seemed to be coming from directly overhead. Thankfully, the lightning only touched down on the slopes of the mountain, tearing a tree or two in half with nature’s mighty wrath. The sound of it was deafening, and when it happened the three shared a look, as if silently agreeing it was well and good that they had not set out yet, as the deafening boom woke the entire camp.
“Haven’t seen a night watchman in some time,” Boram whispered, his voice swallowed by the pitter patter of rain against slate.
Hobb shuffled wetly. “Been an hour and eighteen by my count.”
Kwado appraised his friend, impressed. “Think they’re keeping out of the rain?”
“Rat’s tits if I wouldn’t do the same,” Hobb said.
Boram nodded his agreement.
“Then we move?” Kwado said.
“Looks like it,” Hobb said.
Kwado held his breath. The whole night, all he could think about was what freedom might be like, living with his aunt in Preaknot. The past few weeks he had found himself daydreaming about farming a small plot of onions. Now that the moment was upon them, he felt as if his stomach was trying to retreat into his throat.
The three of them sat still for a while, staring at each other and gathering the courage to move. Thunder rumbled overhead. Then it happened all at once.
They were on their feet and moving, Boram at the lead, followed by Hobb then Kwado. In single file, crouched low, they carefully cut a path past rows of sleeping prisoners. Kwado could not believe how loud it sounded as they splashed through the labyrinth of puddles and padded across stone with soaked feet. He prayed the rainfall dulled the noise, and his eyes sought for watchers in the night, scanning over the huddled bodies marinating in the rain. How many of those poor souls were dead already? Surely a storm such as this would finish off some of the oldest prisoners.
Lightning flashed above them, near the mountaintop. It touched down like a giant smashing the rock with his mighty hammer. The landscape lit up. Kwado sucked in his breath sharply, realizing he was looking directly at a man in black robes. The man was gazing out to the west when the lightning came down, but his eyes locked on Kwado as if he had heard the troll’s gasp all the way across the sea of sleeping prisoners. Instinctively Kwado threw himself on his comrades, tackling Hobb and Boram to the ground.
“Are you mad?” the gargoyle snarled, shoving Kwado off his folded wings.
“There’s a man over there!” Kwado said much too loudly.
“Plenty of damned men around here,” Hobb said. “There, there, oh look, there…there’s men everywhere, Spike.”
Kwado’s eyes sought the darkness for some sign of the stranger, but the light from the thunderbolt was gone. “Not a prisoner,” he said. “It was something else…”
“A guard?” Hobb said, suddenly interested. He crawled on his hands and knees in the mud to Kwado. “Did he see you?”
“I’d bet my life on it,” Kwado said.
Boram groaned. “We should bunker up, wait for him to pass.”
“I don’t think he was very interested in us,” Kwado said, still searching the spot, though all he could see was a curtain of gray rain and shadows. Thunder rumbled overhead, its grumbling protest elongated.
“Not interested?” Boram shook his head. “The pressure’s too much for him. He’s lost it. We need to leave him behind.” Kwado turned to find the gargoyle towering over him, his face a mask of shadows.
Hobb jumped to his feet. “Nobody’s leaving anybody behind. Come on, blokes. Whoever you think is out there…well, he ain’t called no guards yet, so I say we keep moving.”
Kwado shook his head, though he was not fully engaged in what his friend said. He found his feet and fell in line behind them.
They came upon another swell of prisoners. They were more tightly packed than some of the other pockets, man and humanoid alike huddled against each other, desperate to keep warm through the downpour. Boram gazed over his shoulder, motioning to northern path. They could skirt the mass of prisoners that way, but it would mean going down a level into the quarry. Hobb shook his head and sharply motioned for Boram to get moving. They were going to cut through the crowd.
Boram moved deftly on cloven hooves through the press of prisoners, stepping down between an arm, beside a sleeping head, or over a body. For his part, Hobb moved with the grace and skill of a wildcat. If Kwado was not trying so dreadfully hard to keep up with them, he might have found time to be impressed. But it was all he could do to find open spaces wide enough for his blocky feet. He concentrated hard to make it through.
Lightning flashed on the mountain. Kwado’s head immediately snapped in the direction he had seen the robed man. His breath caught in his throat again. The man was still there, but now he was with at least eight others.
“You see, there!” he shouted, pointing at the stranger.
Another flash of lightning crackled across the sky then touched down on an old pine clinging to the slope. It tore in half and boomed violently across the Gulag, so close Kwado could feel it in his chest. Hobb was saying something, but Kwado could not make it out. The strange man swiveled where he stood, as if he was dancing on air, and once again he stared directly at Kwado.
Hobb slapped his hand down. “Move, you fool!” he shouted.
All around them, prisoners were rousing from their nightmares. No amount of weariness could numb one to the power of a lightning strike. Hobb tugged at him again as the shadows swallowed the landscape and he finally turned to his partner. Boram was ahead of them by ten yards and not slowing.
“Did you see that? He had goblins with him,” Kwado said.
“Looks like we’re not the only ones making a break for it tonight,” Hobb said, pulling at him again.
This time Kwado allowed himself be moved. Satisfied, Hobb danced between the waking prisoners in a mad dash. Kwado worked hard to keep up. Hobb was already catching up with the gargoyle. They’re going to leave me, he realized with panic.
His next step came down sideways and too far from his body. His heel slid in the mud, stretching his legs apart in a way he was not built for. Before he knew what was happening, he pulled himself sharply to the right, overcorrecting, and toppled onto a prisoner. The man was already awake, trying to fall back asleep after the lightning crash, and assumed Kwado was a night watchman until the troll’s weight smothered him.
“Spike!” Hobb called, seeing his friend go down.
Kwado scrambled to his feet, wiping mud out of his eyes. The prisoner sat up with his knees pressed against his chest. He looked terrified at first, but then his eyes worked over Kwado’s face and then to Hobb, who was making his way back through the crowd. A slow mischievous smile crept over his dirty face.
“No, don’t do it,” Kwado pleaded.
The thunder rumbled again, much closer this time, as if it surrounded him on all sides. The prisoner shook his head and opened his mouth wide to scream. There would be a nice reward in it for him, catching a set of runners. Hobb lurched forward and drove his knee hard into the man’s face. There was a crunching sound, and the prisoner mewled like a kitten, clutching his broken nose to try to stem the blood. Kwado stood there, stunned. The prisoner recovered and started to protest, and Hobb clocked him in the jaw, laying him out cold in the mud.
He looked to Kwado. “Are you injured?”
Kwado shook his head. “I thought…”
“What? That I’d leave you?” Hobb said.
Kwado hung his head shamefully. “Thank you for coming back.”
“What kind of a fool would I be to leave a perfectly useful troll behind?” Hobb teased.
“Escape!” a humanoid’s voice cut through the storm, shrill and vindictive. Kwado spun around, looking every which way, trying to find their snitch. “They’re trying to escape!” the voice screamed again.
This time he locked eyes on the creature. It was the hobgoblin Hobb had tussled with on Kwado’s first day in the mine, sitting up and pointing at them, screaming for the guards.
No sooner was the alert given than more prisoners woke up and joined in, each one hoping to curry favor from the guards so they might get a reward.
Hobb balled his fists and turned around and around. “Zip it, you idiots. Is there no honor among thieves?”
Boram was out of sight. Either he had slipped into the sleeping ranks or he was up the slope already. Tent flaps were flung aside and guards came running down the slope, weapons in hand.
“Rat’s tails,” Hobb cursed. He licked his soaked lips and thought for a second, then a light entered his eyes and he nodded once. “Spike, old boy, follow me.”
Before Kwado could ask what he was on about, Hobb sprinted through the folds of prisoners, straight toward the incoming guards! One of the watchmen stopped at the base of the slope and yelled for his comrades, pointing at Kwado and Hobb.
“We can’t fight all of them,” Kwado said.
Hobb looked like he was enjoying himself. “Be ready, Spike. Don’t let them know it doesn’t work.”
Kwado was about to ask what he meant when one of the guards pulled out a Qilin rod and screamed for them to halt. Hobb winked at him and doubled over, rolling in the dirt and screaming. Kwado fell a split second after him, making a show of writhing in pain on the ground. Wet boots plodded up beside them.
“Thought you could make a run for it, did you?” the guard barked.
Kwado cringed further into the dirt when the tip of a rusty sword pressed against his chest.
“Think I’ll cut this one up just for fun. Let him bleed out then wait till he heals and cut him some more.”
“Hey, Hammer,” the first man barked, “aren’t these the two troublemakers you was on about earlier?”
The Hammer stalked up, a hood over his head to keep the rain off. “Runts,” he grumbled. “Guess their punishment wasn’t severe enough.” He pulled out his dagger and stepped toward Hobb. “A shame, too. They were good diggers.” He pulled the dagger back, ready to thrust it into Hobb’s chest.
“No, wait!” Hobb screamed, holding up his hands.
The guards fell back, surprised at such movement in a prisoner wracked by the Qilin. Hobb realized his mistake and clutched his chest in false pain. “Ach…wait, it wasn’t us. We were the ones called you out here.”
The guard with his sword pressed against Kwado’s chest chuckled. “Is that so? Then where are these runners you were calling about?”
Hobb held up his hands and got to his knees, clutching his chest and panting heavily. Kwado had to admire his showmanship. “They’re…they’re…” Lightning flashed across the quarry, illuminating the landscape as sure as if the sun had risen. Hobb’s hand shot up, pointing directly toward the robed man. “They’re right there!”
“By the gods!” The guard gasped. The tip of the sword left Kwado’s skin as the other guard took an uncertain step back.
Kwado turned to see what they were all looking at. The lightning was just fading, shrouding the Gulag back in shadows, but he got a glimpse of the black-robed stranger, who was not alone. Where before there had been a handful of goblins, now stood a group of at least twenty, and all of them were staring back at the guards with naked necks.
“He’s removed their collars,” Kwado gasped.
The Hammer pulled the horn from his partner’s neck, tugging the man toward him as he brought it to his lips and blew with all the air he had in his lungs.
“Awake! Awake! Prison break!”
Agamon leaned over another goblin, his pale fingers working crookedly through the air while he stirred something invisible with the tip of the gnarled black staff in his other hand. The goblin’s collar fell off, and it hopped away from him on hands and knees, turning back to bare its fangs.
Agamon studied the feral creature’s yellow eyes. “Is that any way to treat your new master?”
The goblin swiped its clawed hand in the air and snarled again. The other goblins he had already freed began to exchange glances. He did not need to be a mind reader to know where this was going. Goblins were a stupid lot, easily manipulated and only respectful of power.
“Submit,” Agamon said to the defiant troublemaker. “I’ll offer no second chances to join my ranks.”
The goblin pulled itself up tall and flexed its chest. It spit on the ground at his feet.
“So be it,” Agamon said. He opened his mouth wide. A globe of green gas spit forth, encapsulating the goblin’s head before it could move away. The desperate humanoid tried to scream, but his throat filled with poisonous gases, turning his defiance to a gurgle. Within seconds the spell was spent, leaving the goblin in the mud with boils covering his face. He writhed and convulsed, a long painful death, but silent, just as Agamon needed him to be. When he swept his gaze over the remaining goblins, they were bowing their heads to him, a symbol of fealty.
Shouts rang out from the other side of the quarry. Agamon’s eyes penetrated the stormy darkness to find the troll and his companions on the ground. Guards stood over them, and one of the prisoners was pointing directly at Agamon.
“Damn the gods,” Agamon muttered. He’d thought it would be mere child’s play to sneak into the prison and stage a coup.
The twenty or so goblins turned to him for guidance. He frowned. There should have been time enough to release thrice their number before the guards caught on.
“Look to the hill,” he commanded. “These are the demons who have kept you bound in captivity, filling their larders with the fruits of your hard labors.”
The goblins agreed, batting each other and growling, baring fanged teeth and flexing their claws.
“Join me now, become my legion. Together we will strike down these infidels. Under me, you will reclaim your rightful legacy. With me, you will know power such as you have never imagined!”
The approaching guards could see them clearer now, could make out that the goblins’ collars were most certainly gone. The goblins flexed and growled, fearlessly facing their captors. Agamon smirked when he saw the twinge of fear in the guards’ eyes.
As the short man blew on his bullhorn, Agamon thrust a fist into the air. “Prisoners no more!” he yelled.
The goblins rushed forth under his battle cry, throwing themselves on their wardens. The humans thought to bolster their forces by using the Qilin, forcing other prisoners to fight alongside them.
“Fools,” Agamon said. “The Qilin certainly demands servitude, but at the cost of pain. And pain…well, that takes precious time to recover from.” That was something Agamon meant to use to his advantage.
He pointed his black staff at one of the prisoners writhing in pain. A line of anti-magic shot into the troglodyte’s collar, releasing it from his scaly throat. The guard who had thought to enlist the prisoner to his cause quickly stepped back, still holding the Qilin rod in front of him. The troglodyte realized its freedom and leapt to its feet, growling. It fell upon the guard and sank fangs into his face.
Agamon could have laughed at the sight, it was so comical to him. His goblins were beating the few remaining prisoners who had given in to the guards’ demands. This is almost too easy, he thought.
While his goblins fought the guards, Agamon turned his gaze to the Qilin, perched atop the needle-like aerie in the center of the Gulag. This was what he had come for, the prize he sought, the key to raising the army he needed. His bandits had proved to be no match for the trials barring access to Xatalon’s ancient fortress, the Khaliav, resting place of the crystal throne. But with the Qilin in hand and scores of already collared humanoids, once he took control of the quarry he would instantly inherit an army of such magnitude that nothing could stand in his path to retrieve the lost god’s power.
More tents tore open at the top of the quarry. The warden and all of his men came down to meet their enemy, a formidable force. Agamon’s smile faltered as he turned his attention back to the battle. His eyes took on a dark cloud of shadows, like liquid smoke seething from the corners of his tainted soul. So these were the Neanderthals who stood between him and his destiny? Black smoking circles of magic surrounded his fists and staff. Agamon’s smile returned. He prayed the gods would show mercy to the many souls that would die at his feet tonight.