They all laughed when Drizzt recounted Dahlia’s defense of her foot at the expense of poor Ben, and indeed, any here knew the man.
Even Dahlia couldn’t resist a bit of a grin.
One by one, the bandits drifted away to their respective cots, until only the tall bandit named Hadencourt remained. “Now you go to Neverwinter Wood to repay Lady Sylora?” Hadencourt asked.
Dahlia, half asleep by that point, perked up immediately and stared at the man.
“We hear much,” Hadencourt explained. “And surely the tale of Dahlia Sin’felle is one of note, as were her two journeys to Gauntlgrym.”
The matter-of-fact manner in which he spoke made Drizzt uneasy. He looked to Dahlia, who seemed on the verge of throttling the man.
“Pray tell us what you’ve heard, good Hadencourt,” Drizzt prompted.
“More than any of the others here, of course,” said the man. “But then, I knew much more about the situation long before I met up with Farmer Stuyles and his band of misguided heroes.”
Dahlia and Drizzt exchanged suspicious looks.
“I’m not a former farmer,” Hadencourt flatly declared. “Nor a peasant, nor a commoner, nor a true member of this ridiculous band, in any manner they would accept.”
“Do tell,” said Dahlia.
Hadencourt stood up—Drizzt and Dahlia were quick to do likewise. “I’d prefer to show you,” Hadencourt said, and started off into the dark night.
Drizzt and Dahlia exchanged glances yet again, and Drizzt recognized the murderous hints on her face. He called forth Guenhwyvar, sent her on a roundabout path, and they set to follow the man.
In a moonlit lea, they caught up to Hadencourt. He stood easy, staring up at the stars and the lunar orb.
“Are you an agent from Waterdeep?” Drizzt asked.
“Or from the high captains of Luskan?” a more suspicious Dahlia added.
Hadencourt laughed and slowly turned to face them. “Hardly,” he said, “to either.”
“You serve Sylora Salm!” Dahlia accused, and she brought her staff in front of her in a powerful and aggressive movement.
Hadencourt laughed all the louder. “Serve?” he echoed, and his voice took on a different timbre, deeper and more resonant, full of something … darker.
Horns wormed out of his head, spiraling up above him. His mouth elongated, widened into a devilish grin of long and pointed teeth. His skin darkened, midnight blue, black perhaps, and he grew in stature, his clothing tearing, his enlarging and cloven feet bursting from his boots as he stood towering over the couple. With fiendish, clawed hands, he ripped the remainder of his clothing aside, his spiked tail waving out behind him.
A great inhalation lifted the fiend’s massive chest and a pair of leathery wings sprouted behind hm.
“By the gods, is the world full of devils?” Drizzt asked.
“It’s a malebranche,” whispered Dahlia, who was quite knowledgeable of the denizens of the lower planes.
As if in answer to Drizzt’s rhetorical question, two more fiends leaped out from the brush to either side. These were smaller than Hadencourt, each wielding a shield and a long sword. While Hadencourt’s skin was cool and dark, like a long dead coal, theirs was fiery red, peeking at Drizzt and Dahlia in stark stripes through the leathery wrapping of hellish armor. Each wore a bronze helm, but the horns showing through those headpieces were surely their own and not ornamental.
“It’s a world more to our liking now,” Hadencourt started to reply to Drizzt, but the drow cut him short by bringing up Taulmaril and shooting an arrow right into Hadencourt’s chest. The enchanted missile slammed in hard, burning and sizzling, and knocked the malebranche back several steps, and before he could even bellow in rage, the other two leaped at the companions, long swords flashing.
Dahlia’s weapon pointed forward like a spear, and out flashed Drizzt’s scimitars, coming up in front of him in an underhand cross that slapped aside the legion devil’s thrusting sword. He followed through hard, left and right, wanting to get past this lesser fiend to get to Hadencourt.
But this one was quick, whipping its shield around in time to block the chopping blades, and even as Drizzt retracted and re-aligned, two more legion devils leaped out from the side to join their embattled companions, one coming in hard to Drizzt’s left, the other to Dahlia’s right.
Drizzt started to yell out to warn his companion, but he bit off the first word, realizing that Dahlia didn’t need his shout. She stabbed her staff straight ahead, driving back the legion devil, then swung it down and to the side, planting against the ground beside Drizzt’s feet. Up she went, high into the air, and she drove out to the side, double-kicking into the second charging fiend. One foot slammed against the shield block, but the second slipped past and cracked the devil in the face, halting its charge and nearly dropping it to the ground. The devil tried to swipe at her with its long sword, but Dahlia was too agile for that and rolled her legs up high, the sword harmlessly slashing nothing but air beneath her.
She flipped over into a somersault and landed in a crouch beside Drizzt.
He wasn’t watching. He couldn’t be. His scimitars flashed left and right, thrusting ahead and lifting vertically to defeat the surprisingly well-coordinated attacks of the devils. He worked purely on instinct and the fast fiends came at him, sword, sword, shield, and shield. Metal rang out against metal as scimitar met sword, then came the dull thuds as Drizzt’s attack met a heavily-padded shield.
The devil to his right came in aggressively, leading with its blade forward then swinging around for a shield bash. Its companion, working in perfect unison, tried to trap the drow by luring him farther to the left. But Drizzt recognized the maneuver.
As the devil to his right swung around to shield rush, Drizzt broke off fully with the other and turned a fast backspin over to his right, coming ahead in a rush behind the thrusting shield. He got a clean strike in, Icingdeath slamming hard against the devil’s back, tearing a few of the leathery armor bands and bringing hot blood over the fiend’s red skin.
The drow started in, thinking to drive the wounded devil into its companion and score many hits on both as they tangled, but again their coordination proved too clever, for both devils scrambled away as both of those facing Dahlia rushed off to the side as well.
After a single step of pursuit, both drow and elf skidded to a stop and swung back on each other, then turned as one to face Hadencourt.
He stood a few long strides away, holding a large black trident in one hand. He still stood straight, but the wound of Drizzt’s missile was clear to see, fetid smoke wafting out of the hole in Hadencourt’s right breast.
Drizzt glanced left and right, but the four legion devils showed no sign of returning. He looked to Dahlia and then both turned once more to Hadencourt.
“Come on, then,” Dahlia dared the fiend.
Hadencourt’s mouth widened into a feral hiss and he spun around, pirouetting around his planted trident. He free arm led the way around, crooked at the elbow, a large black metal bracer on that wrist glowing with sudden power. The malebranche snapped his hand forward and from that bracer came a host of spinning disks—shuriken—flying out at Drizzt and Dahlia.
Both went into a fast defense, Drizzt with his scimitars and Dahlia breaking her staff immediately into flails, whipping them back and forth to block and deflect as many of the multitude of missiles as she could.
And so they did, both of these superb warriors, but the sharp edges of the shuriken proved the least of their troubles. The missiles held a vicious secret, an explosive secret, and every block resulted in a small blast that drove the respective defender back in surprise and in pain as showers of tiny shards washed over them.
Now came the legion devils once more from the sides.
Hadencourt snapped his arm again and another volley of spinning missiles flew out at the disoriented pair.
They fell back. The legion devils charged in to finish the task.
Drizzt reached into his innate powers, back to the magic of the deep Underdark, and summoned a globe of impenetrable darkness, filling the area. He put one scimitar away as he did, his free hand grabbing Dahlia by the arm and tugging her along.
But they hardly got out of the globe when they were fighting again, a legion devil shield-rushing them and knocking Drizzt back, stumbling, while Dahlia fell to the ground.
Drizzt went back in hard, drawing his second blade, slashing ferociously to try and end the battle quickly. The legion devil didn’t cry out, but its fellows apparently heard its silent call, for soon they appeared around the globe.
“Run! Go!” Drizzt cried to Dahlia.
He didn’t have to ask her twice. Off stumbled Dahlia, a legion devil in close pursuit. She rushed from the lea and into the cover of the forest.
Drizzt forgot about her the moment she started away, because he had to. His focus became the three foes in front of him and the fourth, infinitely more dangerous, on the other side across his magical globe. He put his scimitars up in a flashing flurry, spinning and striking furiously. He dived down to the side, into a roll, and came up charging forward at the nearest devil, who threw its shield across to block.
And Drizzt stutter-stepped, stopping just for a moment, just long enough for the shield to whip past before lunging ahead with a vicious thrust. The legion devil managed to bring its sword around in time to partially block that stab, but only partially, and still the tip of Twinkle punctured its leathery skin. Better-aimed, the real attack of Icingdeath knifed in over the sword and scimitar, driving right into the howling devil’s mouth, breaking teeth and twisting into the throat and skull.
The blade reversed almost the moment it went in, for Drizzt had no time to tarry.
He couldn’t have asked for a better moment for Guenhwyvar’s arrival—how many times in his life had the drow experienced exactly that? The speeding panther flew in front of him, driving back the three legion devils.
Drizzt turned and he ran, full speed, his magical ankle bracelets speeding him along. He veered and paused only long enough to retrieve his bow, then tried to approximate where Dahlia had entered the forest—perhaps he could catch her pursuing devil and down it—but she was long gone.
Behind him, he heard Guenhwyvar roar out, and he knew there was pain in that call, but he knew that he couldn’t turn and fight.
Not here. Not now.
Hadencourt was still grimacing in pain, rubbing the hole in his chest, as he came around the globe to rejoin the three legionnaires. They had not pursued Drizzt, or the panther that was now limping into the brush, for the malebranche had instructed them not to do so.
No, Hadencourt had better allies for that task.
One of the legion devils growled in response and clapped its sharp teeth together and banged its sword on its shield, each strike drawing a pained grimace. The line of blood on its back thickened once more as the crease Icingdeath had put there opened wide.
The second wounded devil seemed less eager to chase off after the drow. It worked its serpent’s tongue over its broken teeth, each flicker bringing forth gobs of blood. The movement seemed to feed on itself, growing more ferocious with each flicker, becoming a convulsion, becoming a seizure.