Claude picked up a handful of fallen leaves and dirt, and tossed it at the magus. He suddenly stopped and raised his arms to shield his eyes, and the dirt stopped a centimetre from his body and fell to the ground. Claude noticed a translucent bubble flash around the man's body.
The man finally realised he'd blocked like a fool, and laughed to hide his shame.
"You've run out of options! Take out your stuff and draw the formation diagram. I'll make you regret you were born if you don't!"
Claude was on his feet again, and stood uneasily about three metres from his assailant. He stared, wide-eyed, at the magus charging at him again, closed his eyes, and shouted with everything he had left.
His assailant paused for a moment, and stared at him incredulously, his eyes more puzzled than dazed.
"Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!" Claude screamed more than shouted, his mind now in a complete panic.
The magus only continued to stare at him, half amused. He felt a series of light knocks on his head, like someone was knocking on his skull like it were a door. The magus did not remain unaffected for long.
The first three spells didn't have much effect, being more of a nuisance than anything else, but the fourth made the man wince.
"Who's hitting me?"
The fifth hit him and his knees buckled and his eyes glossed slightly. His sword fell out of his hand as he clasped his head. Claude dropped his rucksack and leapt for the sword. His panic abated when he felt the sword's cold steel in his hands. He'd acted just in time as well.
A moment later the spells' effects wore off and the magus' attention returned to Claude. He knew immediately the brat must have played a trick on him and his fury boiled.
Claude shoved the sword at the man's heart as violently as he could, but as if repelled by a magnet, the sword was shoved aside and it missed completely. His assailant grabbed him in both arms and wrestled him to the ground. Claude was much smaller than his brawny attacker and was quickly pinned beneath him.
Claude wanted to pull out his hair. How was he supposed to fight the bastard? First magic didn't work, and now even good old stabs did nothing! He couldn't even beat the man in a wrestling match! He slammed punch after punch at the man's face, ribs, anything he could reach, but they were all shoved back at him like he was hitting a balloon that just refused to pop. His enemy wasn't just sitting by idly while he was pummelled either. He was giving at least as good as he was getting, and unlike Claude's punches, his did not bounce off.
It didn't take long for Claude's face to start looking like a mulberry. Luckily he realised early on that the sword was more of a liability than an asset, so he'd tossed it away before the man could wrestle control of it back from him. The two continued to pummel one another, but Claude was losing worse and worse with every punch. It seemed his only hope was to last, somehow, until his attacker's barrier faded.
His assailant knew that as well, however. He was not the best at hand-to-hand, but decent enough to hold his own, and his shortcomings were more than made up for with his superior bulk, weight, and strength. He could overpower anything the brat tried, and shrug off anything the boy threw at him. He finally decided the attacks weren't worth defending against wholeheartedly, so he stopped blocking with his left hand and arm, and instead grabbed onto the boy's throat with it, and squeezed. The brat's started choking almost immediately, and his eyes hazed a couple dozen seconds later. He knew well the boy still had that strange dizzying spell of his, but it only made him dizzy, and now he had his hand on the brat's throat, there would be no more casting.
Claude's face turned red, then purple slowly. He fought for every breath, but the man's hand was too strong and it collapsed his throat every time he managed to gasp a breath. He didn't dare try to take the man's hand away with his own. Giving his other hand even a momentary opening would be the end of him. That said, his end was near enough if he couldn't get the hand off his throat.
His mind grew sluggish and his vision white as he began to lose his brain. And the more he struggled, the tighter the hand clasped. The distorted image of a small, black-bladed dagger flashed through his mind, and he clutched for the last hope he had. He didn't even bother to remember that no attacks could hit his enemy. His mind was utterly focused on doing something, anything, to get air.
He reached for his dagger with all his might, but that gap was all his attacker needed, and a second hand clasped his throat. Claude felt the veins on his head begin to scream as the pressure threatened to burst them, and he felt the cartilage in his throat begin to crack. If his cartilage gave, it wouldn't matter even if he somehow managed to get free, his throat would collapse and he would never take another breath.
His mouth gaped like a fish gasping for water, but nothing relieved him. His eyes were now red, blood tears rolling down his cheeks from the burst veins in his eyes, and his mouth was frothing.
He felt the cold handle of the black dagger between his fingers, and without thinking, yanked it out of its scabbard as hard as he could and plunged it into the magus as far as he could, as quickly as he could, and as many times as he could.
Squelch! Squelch! Squelch! Squelch!
After the fourth stab, and something warm covering his fingers, he felt the grip of death around his neck loosen. He stabbed his enemy another dozen times before he could finally gasp fresh air again. He did as soon as he could, not caring, or even noticing, the acrid stench of blood that hung in the air as thickly as his panic, and the soft, sour stench of panic-laced urine from between his own legs.
The magus slumped off him, mumbling with his last breaths
"I-impossible... How... how could you have... spellbane dagger..."
Claude gasped, blood mixing with his urine in his pants and ran down to soak the rear of his pants before seeping into the brown leaves and soil beneath. The blank spots in his vision slowly returned to focus, and he noticed a redness to the world. He wiped his face, and saw his hand come away covered in blood, his blood. Another tear ran down his cheek, he wiped that away as well, and again it was blood. His body fought him at every step, but a minute later he was sitting upright. The pain suddenly darted back into his mind, and his moaned as every muscle and ligament in his body protested what he'd just put them through most vehemently.
He took several more breaths, fighting to get his breathing under control, then stretched out and pulled the shawl off his attacker's face. Beneath it hid another mask, a beard which grew from almost right beneath the man's eyes, and hid his nose and mouth completely before vanishing into his shirt where it had been tucked prior to the attack's commencement. His forehead revealed a small scar, however. His beard had a single grey strand, betraying an age of at least forty, but probably no older than forty-five -- for there would have been more than one in that case.
Not a single memory, not even a lost moment of recollection or recognition came to Claude.This man was a complete stranger to him.
Damn Hurian for telling him about this! The old fat man had a reckoning coming. His mind cooled somewhat, however, and reason returned, perhaps more so because it was too exhausted to be angry than because it knew how to calm him. Hurian might not know he'd revealed Claude's secrets. They'd all been sitting there, watching him, and just a few innocent questions among friends might have unearthed all that needed unearthing.
His eyes wandered over the bearded corpse, and came to rest on a handle sticking out of its side. He reached out and pulled his dagger out with some difficulty. His last thrust had shoved it so far into the man's back it had lodged itself between two of his vertebra, right through the cushion between them. Blood still bubbled out of the many, many slit-like holes all over the man's back.
It took several substantial yanks to free the blade and return the dagger to Claude's possession. He sat, staring at the dagger, for several minutes, unable to fully appreciate how such an ordinary dagger, such a small dagger at that, could have saved him. His body shivered and his bladder let slip a couple drops when he thought of his immense luck, and of how close to death he had been.
If the dagger had not been a spellbane, he would be dead, and dead in one of the most humiliating ways he could have died.
He lifted himself to his knees, took another couple painful breaths, then heaved himself to his feet with a groan that would have shamed a cow in labour. He supposed he should be thankful for not having suffered a wound at his enemy's sword, but he doubted his body was in the mood for being thankful, nor did he suspect it would be anytime soon. His face had by now turned into a mulberry in both shape and appearance; and his thigh ached purply where his attacker had rested his knee.
He half-stumbled, half-crawled back to his crossbow, but was unable to reload it -- his arms simply didn't have the strength -- so he put it away and slung the rucksack over his shoulder tenderly and laboriously. He trudged-stumbled over to the shortsword, slid it back into its sheath, which he'd liberated from his now-deceased attacker, and tied it to his waist. He picked up the man's crossbow, and stared up at his mithril bolt, stuck in the tree a good ten metres above him, then sighed and forgot about it. He had nowhere near enough energy to even think about getting it.
Claude dragged himself back to his attacker's corpse and padded it down. He found a small pouch with three thales, several dozen fennies, and four pennies.
"Miser!" he half-spat half-coughed.
Damnit! Could the man who'd nearly killed him not have been at least a little richer? He didn't even have any expensive jewellery, not to mention any tomes. He'd hoped to find at least the man's Energy Barrier scroll, but he'd clearly cast the spell before catching Claude, and had hidden it somewhere Claude was not going to find it.
The only other thing he found was a simple bronze key. It looked like a loan key for a local inn's room, so nothing special. The only inn Claude knew that used that design of key was Mermaid.
He wondered if he should go take a look at the man's room, but he put the thought aside. He wreaked of blood, his attacker's blood and his own alike. He could not afford to attract the attention of unwanted third parties. Not to mention the suspicion his sudden arrival, key in hand, would raise.
He shoved the thought to the back of his mind. Regardless of what he did later, right now his first concern was dealing with the body -- and he was running out of time. Pegg would only give him so much leeway before he became suspicious. And lord help Claude if Pegg found him standing over a corpse in the middle of a grove, covered in blood, no less.