Excerpt from Cursed, a Jonmarc Vahanian Adventure
“What in the name of the Crone is that?” Jonmarc swore, wide-eyed, as he looked out over the no-man’s land. Men were running toward the line the War Dogs had established, but something about their movements did not seem quite right.
“Ashtenerath,” Harrtuck muttered, making the word a curse. “Just the kind of trick I’d expect from the Night Wolves.”
“What are they and how do we fight them?” Jonmarc asked, gripping his sword.
“They’re men broken by drugs and magic. And you don’t. Leave this to the old-timers,” Harrtuck said, rising to his feet.
“Not going to happen,” Jonmarc snapped, rising as well.
Harrtuck glowered at him, but there was no time to argue. The ashtenerath were already on them.
Jonmarc’s attacker stared at him wild-eyed, his eyes glazed, his mouth twisted in a feral cry. The attacker’s movements were jerky and unpredictable, but fast and unexpectedly strong. Jonmarc was hard-pressed to parry, let alone go on the offense. Every strike vibrated down his arms with bone-crushing intensity. It took Jonmarc’s full concentration to fight the madman, an opponent utterly without regard for his own survival, an enemy focused only on killing.
Jonmarc was fast, but the ashtenerath was faster. The wild man opened a slash on Jonmarc’s left arm before Jonmarc could beat him back. Madness glimmered in the attacker’s eyes, and spittle dripped from his slack mouth. Jonmarc had little time to appraise his attacker, but he noted that the man was dressed in rags and seemed heedless of the festering wounds on his arms and hands. His fingernails looked as if he had clawed his way out of the grave, and his face was flushed with homicidal zeal.
Jonmarc parried, doing his best to block the sword-strikes that came nearly too fast to see. He was operating on pure instinct, trusting to the native talent that had earned him the regard of his training partners, hoping it would be enough and doubting that he could hold out long.
For all his experience, Harrtuck was struggling against an opponent of his own. Winded and red in the face, Harrtuck managed to beat back his attacker only to yield the same ground as the madman went on the offensive once again.
“How do we beat them?” Jonmarc shouted. Down the War Dogs line, he saw his fellow mercenaries straining to hold the foe at bay. Even Captain Valjan was hard-pressed, though he swung at the ashtenerath with two swords and his full strength.
“Burn them out,” Harrtuck puffed. “They can’t last long.”
Jonmarc danced backward, enticing his attacker to follow. He dodged right and left, parrying only when he could not get out of the way. The ashtenerath’s sword whistled near his ear, and on the next swing, it opened a painful slice on Jonmarc’s shoulder. Still, he was leading his enemy on a merry chase, forcing the ashtenerath to come after him, intentionally choosing uneven footing and jumping from flat ground to the top of the ruined wall and back again.
The ashtenerath swung again with enough strength to part Jonmarc’s head from his shoulders. Jonmarc parried. The blow smashed the sword from his numb fingers. The ashtenerath looked at him with eyes alight, slashing one way and then the next with his long, sharp sword.
Jonmarc scrambled to get out of the way. His sword had fallen out of reach, and he couldn’t pull his second sword without opening himself to the ashtenerath. He had no doubt that his enemy meant to kill him and then hack his body into tiny pieces. He was backing toward the edge of the forest, and he grabbed a fallen tree branch. It was too long and unwieldy, but it caught the worst of two of the ashtenerath’s strikes before it cracked uselessly. Even then, the branch caught the attacker’s blade just long enough to buy Jonmarc precious seconds as he dropped the limb, drew his second sword and ran.