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At the same time, Dahlia shifted her left hand under the right, working her weapon in a circular defense, right to left then back to the right, keeping the other Shadovar at bay.

She whip-snapped three times again, but only the first two connected as the dazed Shadovar tumbled away.

Dahlia came up straight against her lone opponent, and just to keep him off balance, reverted her two weapons into one long staff again. She noted then the recognition on her enemy’s face. This Shadovar knew her, knew Dahlia as Sylora’s champion.

And so he knew, too, that he was doomed.

Drizzt swept the two swords aside, his own blades ringing a tune on the one to his left with a backhand block then a forehand, and back and forth.

“Dahlia!” he called as he drove farther out that way, past the woman’s back.

The fighter to Drizzt’s right pursued him, and was caught completely by surprise as Dahlia threw her staff out behind her, catching it high along the shaft and stabbing back hard, jabbing the Shadovar squarely in the throat.

Drizzt finished his drumbeat on the sword of his other foe by stepping forward suddenly as he struck one last time, his blade slashing the Shadovar’s forearm. His sword went flying wide and the Shadovar fell back, grasping its arm.

But Drizzt didn’t follow, leaping back to his right, a sweeping backhand slashing out in front of him to bite at the other dazed warrior. His forehand followed, right below the level of the first strike, and the drow ranger threw himself around in a complete circuit. Once again, the backhand led the way, now just below the last strike, then a forehand, lower again. And around Drizzt continued to a third double strike.

Drizzt leaped back to the left. The other Shadovar had recovered his sword. To the drow’s right, his last opponent stood very still, arms stretched out wide. This Shadovar, too, dropped his weapon, though he was obviously not aware of the motion.

Six lines of blood appeared from his neck to his belly.

He sank to the ground.

The remaining Shadovar in front of him turned and fled.

Drizzt glanced back at Dahlia and winced at the sight. She had that last Shadovar down by then, and drove her staff like a spear against the fallen warrior’s head, again and again.

“Dahlia!” Drizzt called. He’d never seen her acting so viciously. “Dahlia!”

She finally glanced at him, but quickly looked past him to see the fleeing Shadovar moving into the forest.

“No,” the elf said with a growl.

She charged past Drizzt, shouldering him aside and nearly to the ground in her haste.

“Let him go,” Drizzt implored her, but too late.

Dahlia sprinted to a large tree, planted her staff, and vaulted up to the branches. Drizzt followed her progress by the rustling and shaking leaves, and couldn’t help but be impressed by her arboreal prowess.

Then Drizzt spotted the fleeing Shadovar, some distance away and running through the trees, stumbling often.

The Shadovar came up straight then leaned forward in a sprint, but too late.

Dahlia dropped upon him.

Drizzt shook himself from his spectator’s trance, glanced around quickly to confirm that the four Shadovar in the camp were all dead, and sprinted off, calling for Dahlia to spare that one that they might garner some information.

He stopped calling out as he neared the scene and saw Dahlia bending over, her flails pumping furiously. By the time he came up beside her, he had to look away. She’d beaten her enemy’s head to a misshapen mess of blood and gore.

“Dahlia,” he said, loudly but not sharply.

A flail hummed in the air, spinning and striking down, pulverizing bone.

“Dahlia!” he yelled.

She couldn’t hear him. Drizzt looked for an opening so he could get near to her without getting clipped, and quickly enough so he wouldn’t give her the opportunity to turn on him with those battering weapons. Dahlia seemed beyond rational to him at that moment, her face a mask of rage, and indeed, she grunted and growled with every vicious beat.

Drizzt truly believed that she might lash out at him.

He slid his blades away, measuring her movements, recognizing her rhythm. Down went her left arm, to the other side from him, and up went her right.

Drizzt dived across her back, slipping his right arm underneath Dahlia’s raised arm and clamping his hand behind her neck. As he landed on her back, driving her to the side, she instinctively tried to slap back at him with her free left, and that gave Drizzt the chance to loop his left hand under her left elbow.

He had her trapped, one arm up high, the other pulled back like a chicken wing, and as she continued to stagger to her left under the weight of his assault, it was an easy enough task for Drizzt to slip his left foot to the side of Dahlia’s left foot and trip her up. He made the fall as easy as he possibly could, but he had to keep his weight upon her as she thrashed and screamed in protest.

“Dahlia,” he kept saying against her insistent chorus of “Let me go!”

“He’s dead,” Drizzt assured her. “They’re all dead.”

“I want to kill him more!”

Drizzt blinked in shock and tightened his hold, fully immobilizing the woman. He brought his lips to her ear and whispered, “Dahlia.”

“Let me go!”

“They’re dead. You killed them. Dahlia!”

He kept whispering, and finally, after a long while, Dahlia relaxed beneath him.

Drizzt eased his grip, inch by inch, then slid off her and jumped to his feet, reaching a hand down in an offer of aid.

Still on her belly, Dahlia looked up at him but refused the hand. She rolled to the side, twisted, and put her feet under her. Then she stalked past Drizzt, back the way they’d come. She did slow enough to spit on the mound of gore that had once been a Shadovar head.

Drizzt winced again and stared, dumbfounded.

Such were Dahlia’s demons.

But how, and why, and to what end, he had no idea.

Chapter 14: Unwelcome Companionship

THE LESS YOU SAY, THE MORE I’LL TOLERATE YOU,” BARRABUS THE Gray said to his hunting companion.

The misshapen warlock replied with a crooked, condescending grin, an expression that was becoming more and more typical of the young tiefling, and one that greatly annoyed Barrabus. The assassin had never been fond of spellcasters—priest or wizard. He didn’t understand them, and certainly didn’t like fighting them. He’d fought hundreds of duels against warriors, and usually escaped untouched. But whenever he battled a wizard, he knew he was going to get stung. Even the puniest of spellcasters had clever dweomers that would sift through his defenses to bite at him.

Even more than that, Barrabus had never met a wizard who wasn’t arrogant, as he’d never met a priest who didn’t justify the most heinous of actions by hiding behind his god.

He had no use for either.

Yet here he was, out in Neverwinter Wood beside this Effron creature, whose dead arm hung behind his back and waggled like a boneless tail, and whose strange eyes seemed a testament to a mixed breeding gone absurd. To make his sheer physical ugliness even more profound, Effron was a tiefling, and Barrabus had come to know he’d rather couple with an orc than partner with one of the devil spawn. Truly, this one seemed possessed of everything Barrabus the Gray didn’t like, and that only reminded him all the more that he was no longer possessed of free will, that the awful sword, which he’d carried—and foolishly believed he’d dominated—for decades, would truly torment him for eternity.

“Are you afraid I’ll alert the zealots to our presence?” Effron said with a snicker. “Ah yes, as Lord Alegni explained to me, you’re only truly deadly when you catch your victim by surprise.”

Barrabus stopped and turned around to face Effron, his expression grim—but that did little to douse the tiefling’s taunting grin.

“I take it you expect me to attack you, then,” the assassin said dryly.

“I’m never off guard,” the warlock replied.

Barrabus laughed, but coldly. How many times had he heard such a proclamation? How many times had such a claim been the last words ever spoken by a victim?

Oh, but how Barrabus wished that to be the case now! He would love to cut this one’s throat out.

“And you cannot attack me anyway,” Effron went on. “Lord Alegni wouldn’t allow it, would he?”

At what point would Effron’s taunting lead him to the breaking point, where recklessness overruled reason, the assassin wondered? He understood the torment he would receive if he killed Effron. The awful sword had made it perfectly clear to him. He hadn’t forgotten his turtlelike posture on the bridge—the Herzgo Alegni Bridge—and the unbelievable agony accompanying, indeed facilitating, that humiliation.

But this one …

It had occurred to Barrabus more than once that morning, their first day out in the forest together, that Alegni had placed Effron at his side just to provoke him. Perhaps Alegni, who seemed equally disgusted by Effron, knew the warlock would be too much for Barrabus’s limited patience, the sword’s threats be damned. Perhaps Alegni wanted Barrabus to slay Effron and thus rid him of the troublesome warlock. Then, as an added benefit, he would torture Barrabus—perhaps to death—as punishment.

The tiefling warlock seemed to revel in annoying Barrabus or Alegni, or any of the others at the Netherese encampment, for that matter. He was always flashing that crooked grin.

To what end?

Barrabus saw pain in the young tiefling’s face, but he didn’t care enough to look deeper.

He did widen his scrutiny of Effron, though, examining the shattered, badly dislocated shoulder and that ridiculous limb hanging limply behind the tiefling. Someone might have done Effron a great favor and killed him in the course of whatever trauma had caused those injuries.

He caught something else then, just a whisper of sound in the distance—the snap of a fallen twig, perhaps. Effron, oblivious, started to speak, but Barrabus waved him to silence with such intensity that even the obstinate tiefling quickly shut up.

Barrabus turned and moved behind the nearest tree, drawing his weapons as he went. When he looked back, he could only sigh, for Effron had not moved, and just stood there, looking at him curiously, and with a bit of amusement, it seemed.

So be it, Barrabus decided, and he turned his attention to the forest beyond. He was glad he was allied with the Shadovar at that moment, because the zealots he easily spotted might have been invisible in the shadows if they’d been minions of Herzgo Alegni.

He turned back again to the warlock, waving to get his attention, then warning him with sharp hand signals that four enemies approached.

In response, Effron just offered that stupid grin, and he tilted back and forth quickly so that his limp arm would flop out to the side in a ridiculous and macabre wave.

Barrabus narrowed his eyes and wished he had enough time to run back there and throttle the idiot. But again, so be it, he decided, and he felt even better about that choice when he considered that perhaps these zealots would kill Effron and save him the trouble. That pleasant thought didn’t hold, however, for when Barrabus turned back to the approaching Ashmadai patrol, he realized they’d already noted Effron, and what had seemed like a simple ambush for Barrabus suddenly transformed into something much more complicated.