“Elias!” Tas darts toward me. “The lock is stuck. And Laia—the Warden—”
I spot the Warden scuttling across the yard with Laia in a chokehold. She kicks at him desperately, but he’s lifted her off the ground, and her face turns red from lack of air. No! Laia! I’m already moving for her, but I grit my teeth and force myself to stop. We need those pens open if we want to get the Scholars out and loaded onto the boats.
“Get to her, Tas,” I say. “Distract the Warden. I’ll deal with the lock.”
Tas runs, and I drop Darin beside the Scholar pen. The legionnaires guarding its entrance have bolted toward Kauf’s in an attempt to stop the mass exodus of prisoners, and I turn my attention to the lock. It’s jammed good and tight, and no matter how I twist, it does not open. Within the pens, a man shoves his way forward, only his dark eyes visible through the slats. His face is so filthy that I cannot tell if he is old or young.
“Elias Veturius?” he says in a harsh whisper.
As I unsheathe my scim to break the lock, I venture a guess. “Araj?”
The man nods. “What’s taking so long? We’ve—Behind you!”
His warning saves me a spear through the gut, and I barely dodge the next. A dozen soldiers close on me, undistracted by the chaos at the gate.
“The lock, Veturius!” Araj says. “Quickly.”
“Either give me a minute,” I hiss through gritted teeth, flicking my scims to divert two more spears, “or make yourself useful.”
Araj barks an order to the Scholars within the pen. Seconds later, a barrage of rocks flies over the top and rains down upon the spearmen.
Watching this tactic is like witnessing a pack of mice flinging pebbles at a horde of ravening cats. Fortunately for me, these mice have good aim. Two of the closest spearmen falter, giving me enough time to spin and break the lock with a swipe of my scim.
The door bursts open, and with a roar, the Scholars explode from the pen.
I swipe up a Serric steel dagger from one of the fallen spearmen and hand it to Araj, who barrels out with the rest. “Open the other pen!” I shout. “I have to get to Laia!”
A sea of Scholar prisoners now crowds the yard, but the Warden’s form pokes out above them. A small group of Scholar children, Tas among them, attack the old man. He lashes out with his scim to keep them at bay, but he’s loosened his hold on Laia, and she thrashes in an attempt to break free.
“Warden!” I bellow. He turns at my voice, and Laia kicks her heel straight back into his shin while biting the flesh of his arm. The Warden jerks up his scim, and one of the Scholar children slips close and bashes his knee with a heavy skillet. The Warden roars, and Laia tumbles away from him, reaching for the dagger at her waist.
But it’s not there. It gleams now in Tas’s hands. His small face twists with rage as he lunges for the Warden. His friends swarm all over the old man, biting, clawing, bringing him down, taking their revenge on the monster who has abused them since the day they were born.
Tas plunges the dagger into the Warden’s throat, flinching from the geyser of blood that erupts. The other children scurry away, surrounding Laia, who pulls Tas to her chest. I am beside them moments later.
“Elias,” Tas whispers. He cannot take his eyes off the Warden. “I—”
“You slew a demon, Tas of the north.” I kneel beside him. “I am proud to fight by your side. Get the other children out. We’re not free yet.” I look up at the gate, where the guards now battle a horde of crazed prisoners. “Meet us at the boats.”
“Darin!” Laia looks at me. “Where—”
“By the pens,” I say. “I can’t wait until he wakes up and I can give him hell. I’ve had to drag him all around this bleeding prison.”
The drums thud frenziedly, and over the chaos, I can just barely hear the answering drums of a distant garrison. “Even if we escape onto the boats,” Laia says as we race for the pens, “we’ll have to get out before we reach the Forest of Dusk. And the Martials will be waiting, won’t they?”
“They will,” I say. “But I have a plan.” Well, not exactly a plan. More like a hunch—and a possibly delusional hope that I can use my new occupation to do something quite mad. It’s a gamble that will depend on the Waiting Place and Shaeva and my power of persuasion.
With Darin slung over my shoulder, we head for Kauf’s entry gate, inundated with prisoners. The crowd is rabid—there are too many people fighting to get out, and too many Martials fighting to keep us in.
I hear a metallic groaning. “Elias!” Laia points at the portcullis. Slowly, ponderously, it begins to drop. The sound gives new heart to the Martials beating back the prisoners, and Laia and I are driven farther from the gate.
“Torches, Laia!” I shout. She snatches two off a nearby wall, and we wield them like scims. Those around us instinctively cringe from the fire, allowing us to force a path through.
The portcullis drops another few feet, almost at eye level now. Laia grabs my arm. “One push,” she shouts. “Together—now!”
We lock arms, lower the torches, and ram our way through the crowd. I shove her beneath the portcullis ahead of me, but she resists and whips around, forcing me to come with her.
And then we are beneath, through, running past the soldiers battling prisoners, making straight for the boathouse, where I see two barges already a quarter mile down the river and two more launching from the docks, Scholars hanging off the sides.