One large Ashmadai began waving one of those scepters—only this weapon appeared more black and streaked with red than usual—to direct the other three. One of those three slung a bow over his shoulder and scrambled to a climbable tree, while the other two began their approach, moving defensively from tree to tree and brush to brush. One forged ahead, ducking for cover, then motioned for his companion, who sprinted past him to the next point of cover.
They were well trained and well practiced, Barrabus saw that simply from their coordination. He glanced back at Effron again, who maintained his oblivious posture, and shook his head.
Barrabus weighed the movements of the approaching zealots, weighed his options, and found his opportunity. He always preferred to cut the head off the serpent, so as the three continued toward him, two on the ground and one in the trees, Barrabus slid out to the side and began his own advance—but around the foot soldiers.
The one in the back acted like the leader, and so that one became the primary target. Determinedly, stubbornly, even spitefully, Barrabus wouldn’t let concern for Effron deter him, particularly since the idiot warlock seemed unconcerned for his own safety.
Barrabus continued to watch the first three for some time, moving past them carefully but soon recognizing that they had spied Effron as their prey. But he knew he needn’t be too concerned. Long experience had shown him that once locked in on a potential foe, these zealots practiced pure recklessness, and if Barrabus had been walking upright and singing a song of a Calimport brothel, those leading three wouldn’t likely have paid him any heed.
He continued to watch their advance for a short while longer anyway, and he realized deep in his gut that it was mostly because he wanted to witness the death of Effron.
The archer in the tree moved swiftly into position. Barrabus saw him set an arrow. The other two were nearly at the edge of the clearing, and should charge forth at any moment.
With a determined grimace, Barrabus pulled his attention away and turned back to the Ashmadai leader, noting then the warrior’s curious armor. He wore spiked pauldrons and had circular spiked metal plates strapped at various points on his body: one over his left breast, one centered on his gut, smaller ones on his hips and legs, and a strangely spiked codpiece. That garb was unusual enough, particularly for the uniformly leathered Ashmadai, but what showed beneath the armor as the assassin moved closer for a better look had Barrabus pausing in puzzled curiosity.
Was he about to battle a mummy? The warrior was wrapped head to toe in strips of some grayish material, like dirty old rags.
The assassin didn’t know what to make of it, but as soon as he heard the bowstring’s twang behind him, he didn’t care, and he bolted from the brush.
He came in hard, sword leading in a sudden thrust. He stopped his run with a hop, planting both feet and springing into an airborne somersault. The Ashmadai warrior, surprisingly quick, turned as the assassin flew by, and even managed to prod out with his black and red scepter.
Barrabus parried that easily enough and landed with his sword cleverly underneath the Ashmadai’s weapon. As he turned back in, the Ashmadai charged at him as well, and never quite managed to disengage that weapon. Up went Barrabus’s sword, carrying the scepterlike staff-spear with it and creating a clean opening in the Ashmadai’s defenses. Barrabus waded in happily, dagger set by his hip. He mused that he might be able to get back in time to watch Effron’s demise.
The Ashmadai warrior twisted and tried to pull back, but Barrabus was too fast for that, and the turn only opened up a better target: the hollow of the warrior’s breast, just beside the spiked metal plate.
The fine dagger, magically enchanted, smoothed by the blood of a hundred kills, caught up to the retreating man and plunged hard.
And didn’t penetrate.
Only then did Barrabus understand that the Ashmadai’s backward motion was not a futile retreat, but a ploy—and one that allowed the strange zealot to pull Barrabus off-balance and also put them both in a position where the Ashmadai could disengage his weapon. And since the kill shot had seemed assured, Barrabus had no contingencies in mind.
The assassin moved purely on instinct as he felt the staff-spear pull free of his upraised blade, bringing his sword down hard, though he knew he’d be behind the incoming strike, and throwing himself to the side, swinging his opposite hip out even wider. His amazingly quick reaction prevented a solid strike from the scepter, and he accepted the glancing blow and spun away.
Halfway through that spin, he realized he had a problem.
The muscles on his right hip, where the clubbing scepter had struck, began to twitch and contract, and Barrabus stumbled.
Barrabus the Gray never stumbled.
His hip continued to spasm, the skin tightening around the bruise, and a burning sensation ran down the side of his thigh. He’d never felt anything quite like it. It wasn’t poison, but more of a magical effect.
A necrotic and withering magic.
The twitching did not diminish—quite the opposite. His leg muscles snapped and released and snapped again, painfully, and Barrabus had to fight hard just to hold his footing.
He stumbled more than once, and couldn’t think of executing either a charge or a retreat.
The Ashmadai warrior came on, a grinning mummy.
Effron casually pulled a crooked wooden wand from his belt as he watched the archer in the tree drawing back, the other two crawling in amidst the thick brush.
Those two burst from the underbrush, ten strides away, and the archer let fly.
And Effron tapped the wand to his head, thinned to two dimensions, and thinned again into what seemed like a single line. The insubstantial warlock plunged into a snake hole, sliding into the ground as the arrow flew harmlessly by.
“A caster!” one of the charging zealots yelled as he and his companion skidded to a stop.
That proved to be an expected mistake, from Effron’s point of view, and he came back out of the hole, throwing a curse on the warrior to his left as he widened again to his normal form.
The two cried out and came on with fury, waving their staff-spear scepters and crying out for their devil god.
Effron’s magic reached out at the warrior to the right. He didn’t point his wand at her, but merely offered a sardonic smile. The air between caster and target waved and waggled, like heat rising from a hot stone. A psychic wave rolled out at the female warrior. That wavering air blackened and seemed to roll back up on itself like a coiling serpent, right before it struck her.
She gave a garbled yelp and staggered, her face twisted and torn, her mind scrambled with agony and stinging pulses of magic.
The warlock threw his hand out to block as the other warrior bore down on him, the zealot bending low as if to plow him right over—and why not, the warlock understood, for this one more than doubled his weight.
Except that the warlock had more than one contingency in place for just this kind of attack, and as the warrior struck him, before the fighter could drive him backward, it was the Ashmadai who went flying, straight back the way he’d come, and in that flight, he burst into flames.
Effron, too, went flying, but not from the warrior’s momentum. In his circle of study, the magic was known as Caiphon’s Leap, and he simply dematerialized—noting the archer’s next arrow sailing at him from the tree at just that moment—and walked through a dimensional teleport to reappear right behind the staggering female Ashmadai.
With that one still dazed and stumbling and the other warrior rolling around on the ground, trying to douse the stubborn flames, Effron focused on the archer. Pointing his wand, he threw a black dart of magical energy from its tip. Anyone inspecting that dart closely might think it a flying arachnid.
It struck the archer and nearly dislodged him, but he managed to hold his perch, grimacing and growling in defiance, and managed, too, to fire off another arrow.
This one nearly scored a solid hit, and Effron looked at the missile with great annoyance as it hung from his black robe.
But he dismissed his anger and turned from the archer and struck again at the burning warrior instead, a black bolt, a ghostly bane, flying forth from his wand to slam the man as he tried to stand, knocking him back to the ground.
Effron could hardly contain his grin as he heard the archer cry out again in pain, and as the female warrior finally straightened out enough to charge at him from the other side. The warlock marveled at the archer’s aim, for he knew that his cruel and clever missile had hit the mark, and so knew the man to be in excruciating agony.
But indeed the archer’s shot was true, the arrow diving at the back of Effron’s head.
The Ashmadai gripped his scepter in two hands and swung it as a club, recklessly pushing forward with his attack.
With his hip shuddering with spasms, muscles popping so forcefully he had a hard time standing straight, Barrabus couldn’t exploit that obvious weakness nearly as much as he might have hoped. Absent the injury, he could have picked his strikes clearly. As it was, he took what he could get.
The scepter rushed in from his left and Barrabus faded right, snapping his sword up to block, thrusting his dagger hard again against the Ashmadai’s chest, then even managing to twist out of the scepter’s reach in such a manner that he was able to slash his sword down diagonally across the Ashmadai’s neck. He gained some confidence as he came out of the spinning retreat to find that his enemy was not pursuing, to find the mummy staggering under the weight of that strike.
He started back in for the kill, but something in his gut held him back—just enough so that as he neared, he was ready to defend. Fortunately, the cunning zealot revealed his ruse, coming straight in, uninjured, and launching another series of vicious swings.
Barrabus backed and parried, keeping his distance, inspecting his enemy’s neck closely. He hadn’t marred the wrapping, and the mummy’s grin and sparkling eyes told him that his solid sword strike had actually done no real harm. He scanned downward, to find not a hint of scarring on the Ashmadai’s chest from his last dagger strike, and the first, which had been a perfect strike with all his weight behind it, revealed barely the slightest of scratches on the gray material.
His weapons couldn’t get through.
Barrabus dodged and struck again, sword deftly working around the swinging scepter to crack against the Ashmadai’s knuckles. But the man didn’t flinch; his grip didn’t waver at all, it seemed. And he responded with a backhand and a second violent sidelong slash that he cut short, as if to tease Barrabus by proving that the strike on the hand had done nothing at all, and reversed the swing suddenly into a forward thrust.
Barrabus turned and fled, forcing his wounded hip forward to throw that leg in front of him. He clenched his teeth against the pain—he had no time for pain. Barrabus made good speed as he turned around a thick oak. He thought of stopping there for a sudden strike on his pursuing enemy, but realized such a reversal to be too obvious.
But there was a second oak, blocked from the Ashmadai by the first …
Effron smiled at the Ashmadai female standing directly in front of him just as the arrow dived from the tree. Obviously spying the true-shot arrow, she growled and grinned as well, and stabbed hard.