“They are expendable,” Alegni assured him. “More will come to replace them, and those who do will find the Shadovar among the settlers—Shadovar declared as heroes of Neverwinter.”
“Perhaps we can greet them on the Herzgo Alegni Bridge?” another Shadovar remarked.
Alegni turned to the woman and nodded.
He hoped for that very thing.
Barrabus rolled and rolled again, taking all the shock from his fall and moving far enough from the pursuing zombies to set his feet properly under him to defend. He came up tall in front of the scrabbling creatures. His sword drove them back with long cuts while his dagger stabbed hard into any who tried to come in behind that sword.
He was surrounded, but that meant nothing to the agile warrior. He spun left to right, his sword slashing and stabbing, and at one point, he even tossed the blade up a bit and caught it with a reversed grip. He turned his wrist then stabbed behind his back to skewer a leaping zombie behind him.
Again he turned, yanking the sword hilt up high so he could bend back in under it, tearing it free of zombie flesh. He flipped it again, caught it with a normal grip and circled it over his head before slashing it across another zombie, shoulder to hip. The weight of the blow stopped the charging creature cold. It crouched as the blade tore down across its chest. Then the zombie bounced once, to the side, before falling away.
Barrabus couldn’t savor the kill, for he stood alone out there and so many zombies sensed him, smelled his living flesh, and came at him without fear.
But he kept moving. He kept swinging. He kept killing.
He couldn’t think, and that was the joy. He couldn’t think of Alegni or the Empire of Netheril, or Drizzt Do’Urden, or who he’d once been or what he’d now become.
He just existed, simply survived, in the ecstasy of battle, lost on the precipice of death itself. His muscles worked in perfect harmony, honed in the practice of a century. Every strike came at the last possible moment, barely quick enough because of the growing enemies around him.
Eventually, even he wouldn’t be quick enough and his enemies would get through to him.
To tear at him. To bite at him. To kill him?
Barrabus the Gray was doubly cursed. The years did not diminish him, but he hated his existence.
He couldn’t kill himself, for that sword, Claw, was inside of his mind and wouldn’t allow it. He’d tried—oh, how he’d tried!—in the early years of his indenture to the Netherese, in his service to Herzgo Alegni, but to no avail. He’d even built a contraption that would drop him on his knife to end his life, but it had failed because he had not properly secured the weapon—because that sword, Claw, had deceived him.
Nor did it even matter when, indeed, he had been killed. For that awful sword and the mighty Netherese had not allowed him to easily escape through death. Even as he drew his last breath, his life was renewed, resurrected, by the awful, unrelenting devil sword.
And so Barrabus the Gray was left with battle, wild and ferocious battle, and he believed that this was how he would eventually meet his end. Perhaps one time, the sword would grow bored enough with him to simply let him go.
Would it be this day?
Did he want it to be this day?
The question seemed ridiculous as he surveyed his work: a handful of destroyed zombies and several more flipping absurdly around on the ground, limbs missing or maimed so badly they couldn’t support the creature or answer its crazed call.
Perhaps the curse was his own cowardice, Barrabus thought. Perhaps he couldn’t kill himself or even let himself be killed, or even truly put himself in an inescapably deadly position because somewhere deep inside of his heart and soul, his continual declarations that he wanted to die were all a lie. For if he were slain over and over again, if he proved useless in battle, would Alegni not let him go?
Another enemy neared, and at the last moment, Barrabus looked into her eyes—living eyes and not those of a wretched zombie.
Surely Barrabus, who had been battling Ashmadai zealots for so long, recognized the intensity in those eyes, and he knew to take this foe seriously. She came at him with a high stab of her weapon, one of those familiar red-flecked staff-spears almost all of the Ashmadai employed. As Barrabus moved his sword up horizontally to parry, the woman retracted and dropped her spear lower. Sliding her hands along its length, she spun a full circuit and clubbed at him with the scepter’s thicker end.
Barrabus expected the move. He’d seen this high-feint, low-club maneuver from every Ashmadai who had initiated battle against him, and none but the initial attempt had ever gotten near to hitting him. Even as his sword started its ascent, Barrabus quietly repositioned his feet, and as soon as the woman began her true move, the assassin charged ahead.
She hadn’t even come all the way around when he slammed into her, and in her twisted position, she couldn’t begin to hold her balance against his bull rush. She tumbled, and he simply leaped over her, ignoring her attempts to swipe at him with her weapon. He landed standing above her head and facing her.
She recognized the danger and she thrashed, trying to turn at least sidelong to the man. But Barrabus paced her easily, staying above her head, where any swings or stabs she might try had little effect.
He stared into her eyes. Perhaps it was because they looked so different from the soulless zombies’ eyes, but for some reason, Barrabus didn’t slip his sword past her pathetic defenses and finish her.
She almost clipped his shin with a swing of her scepter but he dropped his leg back in time to avoid it, then kicked out, his boot meeting the club where she gripped it. The Ashmadai howled in pain and the staff-spear went flying.
“Yield!” Barrabus poked his sword tip just below the hollow of her throat. He couldn’t believe the word as it left his lips.
“Never!” she hissed. She grabbed the blade of his fine weapon and blood erupted from her hand.
Barrabus retracted fast—against her pull. His disgust for these zealots heightened in that moment, but still, he didn’t stab down hard to put an end to her.
He sensed a zombie approaching his back and reversed his grip on his sword, thrusting it out behind him and scoring a solid hit in the creature’s gut. He bent down and held his sword firmly, arcing the blade above him. It flew over him, crashing into the zealot as she tried to get away.
Another pair of zombies rushed at Barrabus. He darted forward, sword and dagger thrusting and flashing out to either side, clearing a path so he could rush right between the undead pair. He turned to the left and chopped one to the ground.
His dagger hand worked independently, snapping back and forth to fend off the second zombie’s slapping hands. Step by step, Barrabus fell back, and the hungry beast came on. Suddenly Barrabus stepped forward and drove his dagger straight into the zombie’s eye, all the way to the hilt.
How the creature thrashed! But Barrabus just left the dagger in place and stepped back. Another stubborn enemy was coming his way.
The female Ashmadai hadn’t even bothered to collect her fallen staff-spear. She just came at him with her fists.
Barrabus tossed his sword up into the air, and the woman couldn’t help but let her gaze drift up with it.
When she looked back at Barrabus, she saw only his fist, closing fast. Her nose shattered under the weight of the blow and blood gushed from both nostrils. But she held her footing.
Barrabus ducked her grasp and rolled under her arm. She stumbled forward, and sliding beside her, Barrabus captured her in a head lock. He knew how to kill quickly with such a choke, and knew how to shorten it to incapacitate.
The woman struggled for just a few heartbeats before she fell limp in his grasp. He meant to let her fall unconscious to the ground in front of him, but another zombie came in at him, so he threw her at it. He dived out the other way, into a roll, and retrieved his sword.
He came up and reversed his momentum, charging right back in, slashing at the zombie once as it extricated itself from the Ashmadai.
Barrabus’s dagger still stuck deep into its eye, the other zombie came at him, too, ignorant of his flashing sword and flailing wildly.
Then flailing without hands.
Then without an arm.
Then its head flew free, spinning up into the air.
Barrabus caught the head as it fell, by his own dagger hilt still deep in the eye, and a flick of his wrist sent the gruesome thing spinning away.
He had both of his weapons again and the immediate threats had been eradicated, but Barrabus knew he was in trouble.
Across the field came the more formidable foes, a host of Ashmadai, and the lich he’d seen beside Sylora Salm herself, the lich he knew to be beyond his power.
He glanced back at the city wall and the distant gate. From inside, the sounds of battle echoed loudly. The defenders had hardly put this first assault down.
Barrabus the Gray had nowhere to run.
A streak of blue-white lightning erupted from Valindra’s scepter and sped for Neverwinter. Its glow reflected on the terrified faces of a pair of archers for just a flicker before it struck in a great explosion, blowing the men off the city wall.
The lich wanted to fly up into the air, to get up over that wall and rain death on those inside. She hated them, viscerally. They were alive and she was not, and how she wanted to count them among the ranks of her undead army.
But then Valindra remembered Arunika’s words, and the promise of emotional control. This was one of the tests she and Arunika had discussed, where the hunger of lichdom and prudent caution crossed swords.
Still she found herself drifting toward the wall.
She remembered Sylora’s orders for her: She would use her army to test defenses and soften up the enemy until Arunika’s new allies could be brought in and exploited.
Still she couldn’t stop herself.
But then she saw some fighting at the base of the wall. Zombies scrambled to get at some unseen foe. The Ashmadai she’d sent ahead to die, stubbornly still alive, was going in as well. Other Ashmadai began shouting about the enemy on the field, naming him as the Netherese champion.
Before Valindra could even tell them to catch and kill the champion, the furious zealots had taken the task upon themselves. They stretched their line far down to Valindra’s left and began approaching, the ends of the line curling ahead to seal off any escape by the infamous Barrabus the Gray.
Valindra turned her attention back to the enemy champion and his battle. The Ashmadai woman was down, many zombies lay scattered around him, and now he saw his coming doom.
He would run for the wall, the lich knew, and perhaps someone there would drop him a rope …
Hardly thinking, Valindra reached out with her scepter and a burst of red lights spun across the field. As the last of the missiles flew away, the lich conjured a storm cloud and began pelting Barrabus and the ground around him with ice.
She watched with a satisfied grin as he pulled his cloak tight and hunched low, futilely racing for the wall.
The Ashmadai warriors closed fast from behind.
But then came shouts from the farthest edge of the line, far to Valindra’s left: “Shadovar! Netheril is come!”
To the Ashmadai, no battle cry could sound more encouraging. As one, they forgot their enemies in Neverwinter and turned instead to meet the newest force on the field.