Having Biadet in the meeting with us helped in a number of ways. She knew the plan was to wait for the dragon to come pick us up and the bright lights would tell her where. To be fair, a big flash of light would have attracted her and Gullen’s men anyway, so letting her know that wasn’t revealing anything vital, but this way she knew exactly what to look for.
Which was good.
It meant she wouldn’t bother looking anywhere else.
The idea of sending Flossie off on her own, even with Keezy to watch out for her, didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. Not that she wasn’t capable of doing the job, it was just that she was also capable of making a giant cock up of it. And if you wanted to weigh up the odds to see which one was more likely, a fifty-fifty split wasn’t a success rate I’d be happy with.
Even if she did manage to get to the dragon, get back here, spot the signal and make it down to collect us, by that time the Dargot army would be aware of our location and a dragon is a nice big target for arrows.
Fortunately, there were other ways out of Dargot. The way we got in, for a start. The tunnel Keezy had guided us through led straight back to where Nyx and Vikchutni were. All we needed to do was get back to the hole in the alley near The Pickled Gherkin, and our escape was as good as done. Not a very spectacular plan—no climbing the outside of buildings or sliding down a zipline—but one well within my skillset. My skillset consisting mainly of hiding and running away.
“Can you lead us back to the tunnel?” I asked Keezy.
“Yes, but it won’t be so easy now they know we’re here. They’ll be watching for us and it’s a fair way away. There is another tunnel, closer.”
Whatever my group had that makes them express twice the usual amount of the moron gene must have been contagious. “You didn’t think to mention this before?” I chided the eight foot monster. Fortunately, after being so easily defeated by Biadet he wasn’t in a fighting mood so he didn’t kill me on the spot.
“It’s not the most ideally situated. It’s in the barracks.”
“Ah,” I said. Keezy and his men had been posing as soldiers so it made sense for them to have an easy to get to escape hatch nearby. Not really that easy to get to once they’d been exposed.
“Okay, Pickled Gherkin exit it is.”
Obviously we couldn’t just stroll across town and jump down the hole like a magic chute to freedom. There were soldiers out there and they had a description of what I looked like. But that did mean if things got dicey, the others could get away while the soldiers chased after me.
Very heroic, you might think. Sacrificing myself to enable the rest of them to escape. Because, as you know, I would do anything to save my friends. Which raises the obvious question, are you high?
There was no way I was going to run around to Benny Hill music, not even if the Dargot army entirely consisted of big bosomed women running at double speed. They had a description of me. They knew what I looked like. Who did I know who could do a passable impression of me?
If I was being hyper-critical (I know, so unlike me) I’d say Keezy’s version overdid the slouching a bit, and the face was a bit too grey and lifeless. I might not smile a lot, or express emotions on the regular, but that does leave me with silky smooth skin. All that stretching from smiling and grinning is a breeding ground for lines and wrinkles. That’s why beautiful women become so humourless as they grow older. That, and the realisation no one will put up with their shit once their looks are gone.
Keezy would make an excellent decoy. Assuming I could convince him to do it.
“How are you feeling?” I asked Maurice.
“Pretty good.” He was in his underwear (his boner had gone down, finally) and kicked his legs about. “I’d have thought I’d be a little stiff at least.”
“That’s because she’s been pumping you full of magic,” I said.
Claire smiled, probably expecting some thanks or a kiss. She got neither.
“Why did you do that?” Maurice looked irritated. “If you overdo it, you’ll start ageing.”
“What difference does that make?” Claire answered with equal irritation. “I did it for you.”
“Well, next time don’t.”
“I’ll do what I want.”
Five seconds back and they were all ready at each other’s throats, arguing over who had the right to sacrifice themselves for the other. I love you more. No, I love you more.
“Are they always like this?” said Jenny.
“It’s sexual tension. We won’t let them fuck, so they have to release the energy somehow.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” insisted Claire.
“We aren’t animals,” said Maurice, extremely tensely.
“You’ve got five minutes. We’ll wait downstairs. Be quick.”
Claire was stripping off before I even turned around. We filed out and closed the door behind us. We didn’t have much time and we had to get across the city without being seen, but I really couldn’t put up with them bickering the whole time. If she’d just used her brain and shagged him while he was unconscious, we wouldn’t have to make these needless pit stops.
It turned out to be all over quicker than I thought. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs and began briefing Keezy, Flossie and Jenny on what I wanted them to do, Claire appeared at the top of the stairs buckling her belt.
“That was it?” I said.
She nodded and blew out a breath. “We both went off immediately.” Maurice appeared behind her looking dazed and his top on backwards. At least they were efficient with their time. It had been about thirty seconds.
The plan was to stay alert, keep to the shadows and back alleys, and try to get across town without being seen. There was six of us, so we wouldn’t be able to blend into the background. To be honest, we’d probably stick out like a hen night wearing day-glo dildos on their heads, but we had a troll to do our fighting for us, and it was out and out our best chance.
Keezy took the form of the same man as when he’d entered and rearranged his clothes. He had a knack for twisting and tucking garments so they fit no matter what size he took. We walked back into the bar area where business was pretty dead. It was quite late and only a few drunk men were left, mostly asleep on tables, snoring. There may have been some people upstairs at it, but there hadn’t been much noise up there, either. The working girls sat around chatting, perhaps waiting for a late rush.
Claire and Maurice thanked the guy behind the bar and she even hugged him. She might have had the personality of a viper, but even Claire had got to the point where she could make friends and develop relationships with complete strangers. Well, whores and pimps, but it was a start.
I left them to say their farewells and went to the doorway to check the street. The men watching would probably be out there and I doubted they’d fall for the same trick twice. What we needed was a convenient Mardi Gras parade to be passing by, or some Chinese New Year’s thing in the middle of the year (wake up China, how can it be a new year in February? You should know how a calendar works, you print most of them). Losing ourselves in a giant crowd with lots of people wearing masks (with a few extra for desperate fugitives) would have been sweet. If the universe was intent on not letting me have a Hollywood ending, it could at least let me have a Hollywood Act 2 middle break.
The street was surprisingly empty. Not even signs of any of the men from before. They could have moved, but I doubted they would have left. Especially since Biadet knew we were here.
“This way,” said Claire. She led us round the bar to a back door which opened into an alley. Keezy went out first, pretending to be drunk and in need of a slash. A whole mimed routine followed. Such a ham.
We all slipped out, closed the door and snuck toward the street at the end. It ran parallel to the one out front and there was a pitch dark alley opposite. We would be shadow-hopping our way across town.
“Ready?” whispered Keezy. “Go.”
He ran into the street with us behind him. Dogs started barking somewhere ahead of us. There were shouts and the sounds of people running. Keezy turned around and ran back the way we’d come. Everyone panicked and turned around to follow him.
Dogs were how they had found the trolls last time. They could tell trolls from humans, like they could spot Terminators. Which probably meant Biadet had arranged for them to be brought in. Technically, she hadn’t used anything she’d overheard, but she had identified Keezy as a troll when she was in the room, so I felt like she was bending the rules a little. I have no idea why I expected her to keep to her word, I just did. And she had, kind of.
“Now where?” I asked Keezy once we were back in the first alley.
“I don’t know. We could fight our way out.”
No, we couldn’t. “What about the barracks? Can we get there?”
He nodded but looked a bit confused.
“Just go, we’ll figure something out on the way.”
He ran down to the other end of the alley, away from the barking.
Logically (and I think we all know the kind of logic I’m talking about) if the soldiers were all out looking for us, the one place they might not expect to find us is back at their place. With them deployed across the city, it might even be empty. Right?
The barracks were conveniently close. They were a series of low buildings lined up against the city wall. There was no way out of the city here, but there wasn’t anyone about, either, other than a lone sentry at the gate to the compound. We watched him from a distance, hidden beside a building. The dog barks seemed to be getting closer.
The sentry didn’t look very dangerous, a young man, slight of build, carrying a spear and a sword at his side. We could take him out if we could get to him, but the area was well lit. He’d easily see us coming and there was a bell next to him.
“It’s Billman,” said Keezy. “He’s just a private, but that bell can summon men in an instant. Although there may not be anyone to summon. It looks very quiet.”
The bell hung from a post that was part of the entry gate. It was within easy reach, just a tug on the cord and game over.
“Can you change into who you were when you were a soldier?”
“Yes,” said Keezy. “But he will recognise me.”
“Good,” I said. “Do it.”
We ran towards the sentry, just me and Keezy. He had me held by the shoulder, driving me ahead of him, and I had my arms behind my back like they were tied.
“Billman! Billman!” called out Keezy in a lowered voice.
Billman reached for the bell.
“No, don’t make any sound. The enemy will find us.”
He stopped, his hand held out just shy of the bell. “Captain… what are you doing here?”
“I’ve captured the Visitor. I have to get him to the Administrator but his colleagues are looking for him.” He smacked me on the back of my head, nearly knocking me over. Method actors.
“But I thought… they said you were a traitor.”
“That damn Administrator tricked us,” I said, overacting horribly. If you can’t beat them... “Made us think he was one of us, so we trusted him.” I spat at Keezy. They do that a lot in movies. In real life, it’s hard to spit that far. I felt something dribble down my chin.
Billman’s eyes expanded as he grasped the situation. And then closed as Keezy punched him in the face. The others came running as soon as they saw the sentry go down. No one came out of the barracks. The place looked deserted.
“The tunnel is this way.”
We followed keezy around the back of one of the buildings to a patch of grass no different to the rest. He began digging.
We emerged in the woods, surrounded by darkness and scratchy shrubs. It had taken us about an hour to traverse the tunnel, keeping silent in case the dogs heard us. One by one we crawled out of the hole at the other end and gathered in a group, unsure which way to go but full of adrenalin and relief. Our smoothest escape, ever.
“Can you feel which way the dragon is?” I said to Flossie.
“No. It don’t work like that. Oh, wait.” She put her fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle. Every dog in a five mile radius probably heard her.
There was a loud trumpeting sound to my left, followed by a strong stink on the breeze. It was definitely the dragon, but the noise hadn’t come from its mouth.
“That way,” said Flossie, inordinately pleased with herself. Had she trained the dragon to fart on command? It didn’t bear thinking about. It’s quite hard to shout at someone for being an idiot when their idiocy actually pays off.
We headed in the dragon’s general direction, hands over mouths. I had a ball of light set quite dim, enough to show the way without attracting attention from the city, hopefully. I could have lit a flame to get rid of the smell, but with that much methane in the air, it would have probably destroyed the forest in a giant mushroom cloud.
We stumbled through the trees until we reached a clearing. The dragon was sitting with its tail curled around its body. Nyx was throwing up in a corner. And Gullen Santan was sitting on a stick (that’s what it looked like) with a handkerchief held over his mouth and nose.
“Ah, there you are,” said the Administrator for Road Planning and Maintenance. “Lovely pet you have. Does he have a name? I love animals.”
Six huge dogs sat up around him, their eyes glowing faintly red, their metal teeth glinting.