"Last day" Drizzt breathed in relief as he donned his cer-emonial robes. If the first six months of this final year, learn-ing the subtleties of magic in Sorcere, had been the most enjoyable, these last six in the school of Lloth had been the least. Every day, Drizzt and his classmates had been sub-jected to endless eulogies to the Spider Queen, tales and prophecies of her power and of the rewards she bestowed upon loyal servants.
"Slaves" would have been a better word, Drizzt had come to realize, for nowhere in all this grand school to the drow deity had he heard anything synonymous with, or even hinting at, the word love. His people worshiped Llothj the females of Menzoberranzan gave over their entire exist-ence in her servitude. Their giving was wholly wrought of selfishness, though; a cleric of the Spider Queen aspired to the position of high priestess solely for the personal power that accompanied the title.
It all seemed so very wrong in Drizzt's heart.
Drizzt had drifted through the six months of Arach-Tinilith with his customary stoicism, keeping his eyes low and his mouth shut. Now, finally, he had come to the last day, the Ceremony of Graduation, an event most holy to the drow, and wherein, Vierna had promised him, he would come to understand the true glory of Lloth.
With tentative steps, Drizzt moved out from the shelter of his tiny, unadorned room. He worried that this ceremony had become his personal trial. Up to now, very little about the society around Drizzt had made any sense to him, and he wondered, despite his sister's assurances, whether the events of this day would allow him to see the world as his kin saw it. Drizzt's fears had taken a spiral twist, one rolling out from the other to surround him in a predicament he could not escape.
Perhaps, he worried, he truly feared that the day's events would fulfill Vierna's promise.
Drizzt shielded his eyes as he entered the circular cer-emonial hall of Arach- Tinilith. A fire burned in the center of the room, in an eight-legged brazier that resembled, as everything in this place seemed to resemble, a spider. The headmistress of all the Academy, the matron mistress, and the other twelve high priestesses serving as instructors of Arach- Tinilith, including Drizzt's sister, sat cross-legged in a circle around the brazier. Drizzt and his classmates from the school of fighters stood along the wall behind them.
"Ma ku!" the matron mistress commanded, and all was si-lent save the crackle of the brazier's flames. The door to the room opened again, and a young cleric entered. She was to be the first graduate of Arach- Tinilith this year, Drizzt had been told, the finest student in the school of Lloth. Thus, she had been awarded the highest honors in this ceremony. She shrugged off her robes and walked naked through the ring of sitting priestesses to stand before the flames, her back to the matron mistress.
Drizzt bit his lip, embarrassed and a little excited. He had never seen a female in such a light before, and he suspected that the sweat on his brow was from more than the bra-zier's heat. A quick glance around the room told him that his classmates entertained similar ideas.
"Rae-go si'n'ee calamay" the matron mistress whispered, and red smoke poured from the brazier, colpring the room in a hazy glow. It carried an aroma with it, rich and sickly sweet. As Drizzt breathed the scented air, he felt himself grow lighter and wondered if he soon would be floating off the floor!
The flames in the brazier suddenly roared higher, causing Drizzt to squint against the brightness and turn away. The clerics began a ritual chant, though the words were unfa-miliar to Drizzt. He hardly paid them any heed, though, for he was too intent on holding his own thoughts in the over-powering swoon of the inebriating haze.
"Glabrezu" the matron mistress moaned, and Drizzt rec-ognized the tone as a summons, the name of a denizen of the lower planes. He looked back to the events at hand and saw the matron mistress holding a single-tongued snake whip.
"Where did she get that?" Drizzt mumbled, then he real. ized that he had spoken aloud and hoped he hadn't dis-turbed the ceremony. He was comforted when he glanced around, for many of his classmates were mumbling to them-selves, and some seemed hardly able to hold their balance.
"Call to it" the matron mistress instructed the naked stu-dent.
Tentatively, the young cleric spread her arms out wide and whispered, "Glabrezu"
The flames danced about the rim of the brazier. The smoke wafted into Drizzt's face, compelling him to inhale it. His legs tingled on the edge of numbness, yet they somehow felt more sensitive, more alive, than they ever had before.
"Glabrezu" he heard the student say again louder, and Drizzt heard, too, the roar of the flames. Brightness as-saulted him, but somehow he didn't seem to care. His gaze roamed about the room, unable to find a focus, unable to place the strange, dancing sights in accord with the ritual's sounds.
He heard the high priestesses gasping and coaxing the student on, knowing the conjuring to be at hand. He heard the snap of the snake whip-another incentive?-and cries of "Glabrezu!" from the student. So primal, so powerful, were these screams that they cut through Drizzt and the other males in the room with an intensity they never would have believed possible.
The flames heard the call. They roared higher and higher and began to take shape. One sight caught the vision of all in the room now-caught it and held it fully. A giant head, a goat-horned dog, appeared within the flames, apparently studying this alluring young drow student who had dared to utter its name.
Somewhere beyond the otherplanar form, the snake whip cracked again, and the female student repeated her call, her cry beckoning, praying.
The giant denizen of the lower planes stepped through the flames. The sheer unholy power of the creature stunned Drizzt. Glabrezu towered nine feet and seemed much more, with muscled arms ending in giant pincers in-stead of hands and a second set of smaller arms, normal arms, protruding from the front of its chest.
Drizzt's instincts told him to attack the monster and res-cue the female student, but when he looked around for sup-port, he found the matron mistress and the other teachers of the school back in their ritualistic chanting, this time with an excited edge permeating their every word.
Through all the haze and the daze, the talJtalizing, dizzy-ing aroma of the smoky red incense continued its assault on reality. Drizzt trembled, teetered on a narrow ledge of con-trol, his gathering rage fighting the scented smoke's confus-ing allure. Instinctively, his hands went to the hilts of the scimitars on his belt.
Then a hand brushed against his leg.
He looked down to see a mistress, reclined and asking him to join her-a scene that had suddenly become general around the chamber.
The smoke continued its assault on him. ;
The mistress beckoned to him, her fingernails lightly scraping the skin of his leg.
Drizzt ran his fingers through his thick hair, trying to find some focal point in the dizziness. He did not like this loss of control, this mental numbness that stole the fine edge of his reflexes and alertness.
He liked even less the scene unfolding before him. The sheer wrongness of it assaulted his soul. He pulled away from the mistress's hopeful grasp and stumbled across the room, tripping over numerous entwined forms too engaged to take note of him. He made the exit as quickly as his wob-bly legs could carry him, and he rushed out of the room, pointedly closing the door behind him.
Only the screams of the female student followed him. No stone or mental barricade could block them out.
Drizzt leaned heavily against the cool stone wall, grasping at his stomach. He hadn't even paused to consider the impli-cations of his actions; he knew only that he had to get out of that foul room.
Vierna then was beside him, her robe opened casually in the front. Drizzt, his head clearing, began to wonder about the price of his actions. The look on his sister's face, he noted with still more confusion, was not one of scorn.
"You prefer privacy" she said, her hand resting easily on Drizzt's shoulder. Vierna made no move to close her robe. "I understand" she said.
Drizzt grabbed her arm and pulled her away. "What in-sanity is this?" he demanded.
Vierna's face twisted as she came to understand her brother's true intentions in leaving the ceremony. "You refused a high priestess!" she snarled at him. "By the laws, she could kill you for your insolence"
"I do not even know her" Drizzt shot back. "I am expected to-"
"You are expected to do as you are instructed!"
"I care nothing for her" Drizzt stammered. He found he could not hold his hands steady.
"Do you think Zaknafein cared for Matron Malice?" Vierna replied, knowing that the reference to Drizzt's hero would surely sting him. Seeing that she had indeed wounded her brother, Vierna softened her expression and took his arm. "Come back" she purred, "into the room.
There is still time"
Drizzt's cold glare stopped her as surely as the point of a scimitar. "The Spider Queen is the deity of our people" Vierna sternly reminded him. "I am one of those who speaks her will"
"I would not be so proud of that" Drizzt retorted, clinging to his anger against the wave of very real fear that threat-ened to defeat his principled stand.
Vierna slapped him hard across the face. "Go back to the ceremony!" she demanded.
"Go kiss a spider" Drizzt replied. "And may its pincers tear your cursed tongue from your mouth" It was Vierna now who could not hold her hands steady.
"You should take care when you speak to a high priestess" she warned.
"Damn your Spider Queen!" Drizzt spat. "Though I am certain Lloth found damnation eons ago!"
"She brings us power!" Vierna shrieked.
"She steals everything that makes us worth more than the stone we walk upon!" Drizzt screamed back.
"Sacrilege'" Vierna sneered, the word rolling off her tongue like the whistle of the matron mistress's snake whip. A climactic, anguished scream erupted from inside the room.
"Evil union" Drizzt muttered, looking away.
"There is a gain" Vierna replied, quickly back in control of her temper.
Drizzt cast an accusing glance her way. "Have you had a similar experience?"
"I am a high priestess" was her simple reply. Darkness hovered all about Drizzt, outrage so intense that he nearly swooned. "Did it please you?" he spat.
"It brought me power" Vierna growled back. "You cannot understand the value"
"What did it cost you?"
Vierna's slap nearly knocked Drizzt from his feet. "Come with me" she said, grabbing the front of his robe. "There is a place I want to show to you"
They moved out from Arach. Tinilith and across the Acad-emy's courtyard. Drizzt hesitated when they reached the pillars that marked the entrance to Tier Breche.
"I cannot pass between these" he reminded his sister. "I am not yet graduated from Melee-Magthere"
"A formality" Vierna replied, not slowing her pace at all. "I am a mistress of Arach- Tinilith; 1 have the power to graduate you"
Drizzt wasn't certain of the truth of Vierna's claim, but she was indeed a mistress of Arach- Tinilith. As much as Drizzt feared the edicts of the Academy, he didn't want to anger Vierna again.
He followed her down the wide stone stairs and out into the meandering roadways of the city proper.
"Home?" he dared to ask after a short while.
"Not yet" came the curt reply. Drizzt didn't press the point any further.
They veered off to the eastern end of the great cavern, across from the wall that held House Do'Orden, and came to the entrances of three small tunnels, all guarded by glowing statues of giant scorpions. Vierna paused for just a moment to consider which was the correct course, then led on again, down the smallest of the tunnels.
The minutes became an hour, and still they walked. The passage widened and soon led them into a twisting cata-comb of crisscrossing corridors. Drizzt quickly lost track of the path behind them as they made their way through, but Vierna followed a predetermined course that she knew well.
Then, beyond a low archway, the floor suddenly dropped away and they found themselves on a narrow ledge over-looking a wide chasm. Drizzt looked at his sister curiously but held his question when he saw that she was deep in the concentration. She uttered a few simple commands, then tapped herself and Drizzt on the forehead.
"Come" she instructed, and she and Drizzt stepped off the ledge and levitated down to the chasm floor.
A thin mist, from some unseen hot pool or tar pit, hugged the stone. Drizzt could sense the danger here, and the evil.
A brooding wickedness hung in the air as tangibly as the mist.
"Do not fear" Vierna signaled to him. "I have put a spell of masking upon us. They cannot see us"
"They?" Drizzt's hands asked, but even as he motioned in the code, he heard a scuttling off to the side. He followed Vierna's gaze down to a distant boulder and the wretched thing perched upon it.
At first, Drizzt thought it was a drow elf, and from the waist up, it was indeed, though bloated and pale. Its lower body, though, resembled a spider, with eight arachnid legs to support its frame. The creature held a bow ready in its hands but seemed confused, as though it could not discern what had entered its lair.
Vierna was pleased by the disgust on her brother's face as he viewed the thing. "Look upon it well, younger brother" she signaled. "Behold the fate of those who anger the Spider Queen"
"What is it?" Drizzt signaled back quickly.
" A drider" Vierna whispered in his ear. Then, back in the silent code, she added, "Lloth is not a merciful deity"
Drizzt watched, mesmerized, as the drider shifted its po-sition on the boulder, searching for the intruders. Drizzt couldn't tell if it was a male or female, so bloated was its torso, but he knew that it didn't matter. The creature was not a natural creation and would leave no descendants be-hind, whatever its gender. It was a tormented body, nothing more, hating itself, in all probability, more than everything else around it.
"I am merciful" Vierna continued silently, though she knew her brother's attention was fully on the drider. She rested back flat against the stone wall.
Drizzt spun on her, suddenly realizing her intent.
Then Vierna sank into the stone. "Goodbye, little brother"
came her final call. "This is a better fate than you deserve"
"No!" Drizzt growled, and he clawed at the empty wall un-til an arrow sliced into his leg. The scimitars flashed out in his hands as he spun back to face the danger. The drider took aim for a second shot.
Drizzt meant to dive to the side, to the protection of an-other boulder, but his wounded leg immediately fell numb and useless. Poison.
Drizzt just got one blade up in time to deflect the second arrow, and he dropped to one knee to clutch at his wound.
He could feel the cold poison making its way through his limb, but he stubbornly snapped off the arrow shaft and turned his attention back to the attacker. He would have to worry about the wound later, would have to hope that he could tend to it in time. Right now, his only concern was to get out of the chasm.
He turned to flee, to seek a sheltered spot where he could levitate back up to the ledge, but he found himself face-to-face with another drider.
An axe sliced by his shoulder, barely missing its mark.
Drizzt blocked the return blow and launched his second scimitar into a thrust, which the drider stopped with a sec-ond axe.
Drizzt was composed now, and was confident that he could defeat this foe, even with one leg limiting his mobility-until an arrow cracked into his back.
Drizzt lurched forward under the weight of the blow, but managed to parry another attack from the drider before him. Drizzt dropped to his knees and fell face-down.
When the axe-wielding drider, thinking Drizzt dead, started toward him, Drizzt kicked into a roll that put him squarely under the creature's bulbous belly. He plunged his scimitar up with all his strength, then curled back under the deluge of spidery fluids.
The wounded drider tried to scurry away but fell to the side, its insides draining out onto the stone floor. Still, Drizzt had no hope. His arms, too, were numb now, and when the other wretched creature descended upon him, he could not hope to fight it off. He struggled to cling to consciousness, searching for some way out, battling to the bitter end. His eyelids became heavy. . . .
Then Drizzt felt a hand grab his robe, and he was roughly lifted to his feet and slammed against the stone wall.
He opened his eyes to see his sister's face.
"He lives" Drizzt heard her say. "We must get him back quickly and tend to his wounds"
Another figure moved in front of him.
"I thought this the best way" Vierna apologized.
"We cannot afford to lose him" came an unemotional re-ply. Drizzt recognized the voice from his past. He fought through the blur and forced his eyes to focus.
"Malice" he whispered. "Mother"
Her enraged punch brought him into a clearer mind-set.
"MatrQn Malice!" she growled, her angry scowl only an inch from Drizzt's face. "Do not ever forget that!"
To Drizzt, her coldness rivaled the poison's, and his relief at seeing her faded away as quickly as it had flooded through him.
"You must learn your place!" Malice roared, reiterating the command that had haunted Drizzt all of his young life.
"Hear my words" she demanded, and Drizzt heard them keenly. "Vierna brought you to this place to have you killed. She showed you mercy" Malice cast a disappointed glance at her daughter.
"I understand the will of the Spider Queen better than she" the matron continued, her spittle spraying Drizzt with every word. "If ever you speak ill of Lloth, our goddess, again, I will take you back to this place myself! But not to kill you; that would be too easy" She jerked Drizzt's head to the side so that he could look upon the grotesque remains of the drider he had killed.
"You will come back here" Malice assured him, "to be-come a drider!"