Page 44

Effron opened his arms wide, not even trying to block her thrust, and paid no heed to the arrow as it plunged into the back of his insubstantial head. The last magical bolt Effron had thrown took the name of “ghostly” precisely because of its effect on the caster.

The thrusting scepter plunged into nothing substantial, just the misty form of the dematerialized, ethereal warlock, and the female managed just a hint of confusion on her face—just one delicious hint. The arrow, too, passed right through Effron, and right into the woman’s eye. The resulting splash of gore and blood proved conclusively that she was not similarly ghostlike. She fell straight to the ground, landing hard and awkwardly, but Effron knew she hadn’t felt a thing.

Off to the side and in front of him, the other Ashmadai finally managed to pull himself from the ground. The zealot, his hair and eyebrows all burned and smoking, his skin bright red and bubbling in places, turned a hateful glare at the warlock. His breath coming in gasps of outrage, he charged.

Effron spun his wand in the air and threw forth a spinning, shadowy snake that seemed to dissipate to nothingness as it neared the target. Still, the Ashmadai staggered as if he’d been punched in the face. Blood began to run from his shattered nose, and he spat out a tooth as well, but infuriated, he kept coming.

The archer behind Effron cried out again, and this time there was more than simple pain reflected in that scream. This time, it was a scream of horror.

Effron couldn’t help but smile at that, at how easily he’d controlled the battle.

The Ashmadai warrior finally caught up to him, and the warlock moved into a defensive posture. Effron seemed at a great disadvantage, wearing only robes, holding only a flimsy wooden wand, and with one useless arm hanging limply behind his back, but the warlock was not without his magical defenses in the form of his enchanted robes, his ring, his amulet, his cloak, his bracers, and his belt. And Effron didn’t have to worry about scoring any hits against this warrior. The Ashmadai would take care of that all on his own.

Indeed, as the warrior tried to strike at Effron, that shadowy snake reappeared as a shadowy strangler around the man’s neck. He gasped and gagged, his eyes bulging both with surprise and from the brutal force of the tightening magical coil.

Stubbornly, the zealot swung again, his scepter banging against Effron’s mangled shoulder. The blow stung the warlock and forced him a step to the side.

But the shadow strangler struck again, and this time the Ashmadai vomited blood. He lifted his scepter to strike again, but it fell from his dying grasp, and he stared at Effron with confusion and hatred, then tumbled over to the side, quite dead.

The strange, mummified warrior charged around the tree, unafraid. He paused just long enough to look ahead, left and right, to try to find his quarry, and when his head turned right, Barrabus came out from behind the tree to his left.

With all his strength, the assassin smashed his sword down atop the back of the warrior’s head, and this time, the zealot did move forward—and it was not a ruse—under the weight of the blow. In went Barrabus for a second strike, and a third and a fourth, and a kidney stab with his dagger.

When his rage played out and the Ashmadai warrior managed to stagger far enough away from him, Barrabus didn’t pursue. In that confusing frenzy, Barrabus had been tapped again by the awful scepter, this time on the left shoulder. Now it, too, began to spasm. His dagger fell from his grasp and the pain jolted him every few heartbeats.

A few strides away, the zealot turned around, grinning, unhurt by Barrabus’s attacks.

Barrabus’s leg clenched in a vicious spasm as he bent to retrieve his dagger, and he nearly tumbled to the ground. It appeared as though he’d completely lost his balance, his sword, too, falling from his grasp.

The Ashmadai came charging in.

But despite the pain, Barrabus was not off-balance and helpless. He reached for his sword, or so it appeared, but came up again with a handful of dirt, which he flung into the eyes of his pursuer.

The zealot groaned and fell back. Barrabus retrieved his sword—his other hand, numbed and writhing with spasms, wouldn’t let him get the dagger back—and turned and fled, running as fast as he could manage, throwing his right foot forward and fighting for all his life not to let that numb limb buckle beneath him.

A barrage of screams demanded Barrabus’s attention, and he winced in revulsion as he noted the Ashmadai archer tumbling down from the tree. The frenetic man clawed and slapped desperately at his own skin as a horde of tiny spiders poured forth, biting their way through from inside the poor man.

“Effron …” Barrabus muttered, and shook his head in disgust.

He came into the clearing just as another black bolt flew from the warlock’s wand into the male warrior, who was on the ground and seemed already dead.

“Effron!” Barrabus called. He heard the mummy Ashmadai closing in behind him. He turned to meet the charge, fighting defensively, not wanting to be touched by the scepter again. “Effron!”

“I killed three already, and you haven’t even finished your one?” the warlock called back, his voice filled with an oh-if-I-must sigh.

Barrabus growled and muttered a stream of curses under his breath. He parried furiously against the spinning and thrusting scepter. Every now and then, he countered with a strike, but he saw little chance of hurting this … creature.

“Effron!” So distracted was he by his anger at the warlock, Barrabus nearly took a hit in the head, and one that would have surely killed him, he realized.

A series of black and purple darts spun and danced in the air past Barrabus, diving into the zealot—and the mummified creature staggered just a bit.

“More!” Barrabus yelled, and he took the opportunity to come forward and crack his sword atop the zealot’s forehead just for good measure.

“Oh, I’m quite depleted,” Effron replied. His voice came from farther away and continued to diminish as he spoke.

A wave of panic nearly swept over Barrabus. The good news was that at last his leg spasms seemed to have ended, though his left arm continued to jolt and jerk wildly.

He needed another diversion, something so he could break away and flee …

Even as he thought of that, the zealot in front of him exploded, or seemed to, with black and purple energy flying forth from every orifice. That energy slammed Barrabus, hurting him far more than it hurt the zealot. But at least the magic had blinded the Ashmadai, albeit briefly, but enough for Barrabus to break off and flee.

The zealot came in pursuit, and Barrabus glanced back just in time to see the contagion Effron had put in the warrior explode yet again, and once more the Ashmadai warrior had to pause and take a moment for his sight to clear.

By that time, Barrabus the Gray had melted into the forest, and few were as adept at hiding as he.

Particularly when his life depended on it.

Barrabus was still limping when he finally returned to the Shadovar encampment on the western side of Neverwinter, just an hour before dawn. He stormed past the guards, ignoring their confused expressions, and moved right up to the small home Herzgo Alegni had taken as his own. The assassin didn’t even bother knocking, but just pushed through the door—or started to.

“He’s not in there,” a guard called to him.

Barrabus spun on the man, and nearly toppled over from the shooting pain caused by the sudden movement of his hip. He twisted his grimace into a scowl and forced himself forward to confront the man.

“Where is he?”

“Gone north,” said a second guard, coming fast around the corner. “We found a patrol, one of our own, slain in the forest.”

Barrabus looked at him skeptically. Shadovar were dying almost every day in the continuing battle with the Thayans, so why would Alegni go out personally to investigate?

“This is different,” the first said.

Barrabus looked from one to the other. “Where is that miserable Effron?” he asked.

“With Herzgo Alegni,” the first replied. “He arrived two hours ago, and claimed that you had been lost in battle.”

“That was his hope,” Barrabus muttered.

“He arrived just as the first report of the deaths in the north came back to us,” the other explained.

“Where?” Barrabus demanded.

“The fourth patrol route, near the northern road,” replied the guard, referring to a location that Barrabus knew well, since it had been Barrabus, after all, who had determined the most appropriate positions for the patrols.

The assassin set off, but he wasn’t walking this time. He had suffered the pain and trekked back to the city on foot because he expected that it would loosen up his injured hip and also in the hopes that he might find Effron along the way.

Yes, finding Effron before the fool had returned to Alegni’s side had been his deepest desire, Claw’s magic and certain punishment notwithstanding.

He dropped his obsidian figurine to the ground and called forth his hellish steed. The black nightmare materialized in front of him, angry as always, pawing the ground with its fiery hooves. Still favoring his left arm, Barrabus climbed into the saddle and thundered away, following the cobblestones around the city to the northern road. The sun was just peeking over the horizon to his left when he found the small trail and turned back to the west, his long shadow standing out in front of him.

Among the trees on the smaller path, he dismissed the nightmare and began to track—an easy enough task given the heavy-footed Alegni.

“Sylora Salm’s champion returns,” he heard Alegni say a short while later.

“She has two champions, then,” came the reply from a raspy, whispering voice Barrabus surely knew. “The one who killed the fool Barrabus was quite formidable.”

Barrabus crept up in sight of the pair.

“Barrabus is not dead,” Alegni insisted. “I would know of such an occurrence—indeed, I would summon him back to life.”

“The sword has the power to do even that?” Effron asked with a wide smile.

“He will not so easily escape his eternal indenture,” was all that Herzgo Alegni would admit, but Barrabus knew the truth of it anyway.

“The strange Ashmadai—perhaps it was indeed a true mummy—had him beaten, I’m certain,” said Effron.

“And you left him?”

The warlock shrugged crookedly. “I had used the majority of my repertoire, since it was left alone to me to defeat the entire Ashmadai force, save that one.”

The assassin stepped out of the brush then, pacing steadily across at Effron and drawing his sword. “Good, then,” he said. “Just what I was hoping to hear.”

“Barrabus,” Alegni remarked, but the assassin paid him no heed.

“Far enough!” the tiefling warrior ordered, but the assassin again paid him no heed.

He did hear Alegni then, however, and in no small way, as that awful sword reached forth into him and twisted his guts into agonizing knots. Stubbornly Barrabus continued, one step, then after what seemed like many heartbeats, another.

“Barrabus.…” Herzgo Alegni warned.

“You hate him as much as I do,” the assassin managed to spit through his gritted teeth.