Zaknafein sank down into his bed in an easy sleep, the most comfortable rest he had ever known. Dreams did come to him this night, a rush of dreams. Far from tumultu-ous, they only enhanced his comfort. Zak was free now of his secret, of the lie that had dominated every day of his adult life.
Drizzt had survived! Even the dreaded Academy of Men-zoberranzan could not daunt the youth's indomitable spirit and sense of morality. Zaknafein Do'Urden was no longer alone. The dreams that played in his mind showed him the same wonderful possibilities that had followed Drizzt out of the city.
Side by side they would stand, unbeatable, two as one against the perverted foundations of Menzoberranzan.
A stinging pain in his foot brought Zak from his slumbers.
He saw Briza immediately, at the bottom of his bed, her snake whip in hand. Instinctively, Zak reached over the side to fetch his sword.
The weapon was gone. Vierna stood at the side of the room, holding it. On the opposite side, Maya held Zak's other sword.
How had they come in so stealthily? Zak wondered. Magi-cal silence, no doubt, but Zak was still surprised that he had not sensed their presence in time. Nothing had ever caught him unawares, awake or asleep.
Never before had he slept so soundly, so peacefully. Per-haps, in Menzoberranzan, such pleasant dreams were dan-gerous.
"Matron Malice will see you" Briza announced.
"I am not properly dressed" Zak replied casually. "My belt and weapons, if you please"
"We do not please!" Briza snapped, more at her sisters than at Zak. "You will not need the weapons" Zak thought otherwise.
"Come, now" Briza commanded, and she raised the whip.
"I should be certain of Matron Malice's intentions before I acted so boldly, were 1 you" Zak warned. Briza, reminded of the power of the male she now threatened, lowered her weapon.
Zak rolled out of bed, putting the same intense glare alter. nately on Maya and Vierna, watching their reactions to bet. ter conclude Malice's reasons for summoning him.
They surrounded him as he left his room, keeping a cau. tious but ready distance from the deadly weapon master.
"Must be serious" Zak remarked quietly, so that only Briza, in front of the troupe, could hear. Briza turned and flashed him a wicked smile that did nothing to dispel his suspicions. Neither did Matron Malice, who leaned forward in her throne in anticipation even before they entered the room.
"Matron" Zak offered, dipping into a bow and pulling the side of his nightshirt out wide to draw attention to his inap. propriate dress. He wanted to let Malice know his feelings of being ridiculed at such a late hour.
The matron offered no return greeting. She rested back in her throne. One slender hand rubbed her sharp chin, while her eyes locked upon Zaknafein.
"Perhaps you could tell me why you've summoned me"
Zak dared to say, his voice still holding an edge of sarcasm. "I would prefer to return to my slumbers. We should not give House Hun'ett the advantage of a tired weapon master"
"Drizzt has gone" growled Malice.
The news slapped Zak like a wet rag. He straightened, and the teasing smile disappeared from his face.
"He left the house against my commands" Malice went on.
Zak relaxed visibly; when Malice announced that Drizzt was gone, Zak had first thought that she and qer devious co-horts had driven him out or killed him.
"A spirited boy" Zak remarked. "Surely he will return soon"
"Spirited" Malice echoed, and her tone did not put the de-scription in a positive light.
"He will return" Zak said again. "There's no need for our alarm, for such extreme measures" He glared at Briza, though he knew well that the matron mother had called him to audience to do more than tell him of Drizzt's depar-ture.
"The secondboy disobeyed the matron mother" Briza snarled, a rehearsed interruption.
"Spirited" Zak said again, trying not to chuckle. "A minor indiscretion"
"How often he seems to have those" Malice commented.
"Like another spirited male of House Do'Urden"
Zak bowed again, taking her words as a compliment. Mal-ice already had his punishment decided, if she meant to punish him at all. His actions now, at this trial-if that's what it was-would be of little consequence.
"The boy has displeased the Spider Queen!" Malice growled, openly enraged and tired of Zak's sarcasm. "Even you were not foolish enough to do that!"
A dark cloud passed across Zak's face. This meeting was indeed serious; Drizzt's life could be at stake.
"But you know of his crime" Malice continued, easing back again. She liked that she had Zak concerned and on the defensive. She had found his vulnerable spot. It was her turn to tease.
"Leaving the house?" Zak protested. "A minor error in judgment. Lloth would not be concerned with such a trifle issue"
"Do not feign ignorance, Zaknafein. You know that the el-yen child lives!"
Zak lost his breath in a sharp gasp. Malice knew! Damn it all, Lloth knew! "We are about to go to war" Malice continued calmly, "we are not in Lloth's favor, and we must correct the situation" She eyed Zak directly. "You are aware of our ways and know: that we must do this"
Zak nodded, trapped. Anything he did now to disagree would only make matters worse for Drizzt-if matters could be worse for Drizzt.
"The secondboy must be punished" Briza said. Another rehearsed interruption, Zak knew. He wondered how many times Briza and Malice had practiced this encounter.
"Am I to punish him, then?" Zak asked. "I'll not whip the boy; that is not my place"
"His punishment is none of your concern" Malice said.
"Then why disturb my slumber?" Zak asked, trying to de-tach himself from Drizzt's predicament, more for Drizzt's sake than his own.
"I thought that you would wish to know" Malice replied.
"You and Drizzt became so close this day in the gym. Father and son"
She saw! Zak realized. Malice, and probably that wretched Briza, had watched the whole encounter! Zak's head drooped as he came to know that he had unwittingly played a part in Drizzt's predicament.
"An elven child lives" Malice began slowly, rolling out each word in dramatic clarity, "and a young drow must die"
"No!" The word came out of Zak before he realized he was speaking. He tried to find some escape. "Drizzt was young. He did not understand. . . "
"He knew exactly what he was doing!" Malice screamed back at him. "He does not regret his actions! He is so like you, Zaknafein! Tho like you"
"Then he can learn" Zak reasoned. "I have not been a bur- den to you, Mali-Matron Malice. You have profited by my presence. Drizzt is no less skilled than I; he can be valuable to us"
"Dangerous to us" Matron Malice corrected. "You and he standing together? The thought does not please me"
"His death will aid House Hun'ett" Zak warned, grabbing at anything he could find to defeat the matron's intent.
"The Spider Queen demands his death" Malice replied sternly. "She must be appeased if Daermon N'a'shezbaernon is to have any hope in its struggles against House Hun'ett"
"I beg you, do not kill the boy"
"Sympathy?" Malice mused. "It does not become a drow warrior, Zaknafein. Have you lost your fighting will?"
"I am old, Malice"
"Matron Malice!" Briza protested, but Zak put a look on her so cold that she lowered her snake whip before she had even begun to put it to use.
"Older still will I become if Drizzt is put to his death"
"I do not desire this either" Malice agreed, but Zak recog-nized her lie. She didn't care about Drizzt, or about any-thing else, beyond gaining the Spider Queen's favor.
"Yet I see no alternative. Drizzt has angered Lloth, and she must be appeased before our war"
Zak began to understand. This meeting wasn't about Drizzt at all. "Thke me in the boy's stead" he said.
Malice's narrow grin could not hide her feigned surprise.
This was what she had desired from the very beginning.
"You are a proven fighter" the matron argued. "Your value, as you yourself have already admitted, cannot be un-derestimated. To sacrifice you to the Spider Queen would appease her, but what void will be left in House Do'Urden in the wake of your passing?"
" A void that Drizzt can fill" Zak replied. He secretly hoped that Drizzt, unlike he, would find some escape from it all, some way around Matron Malice's evil plots.
"You are certain of this?"
"He is my equal in battle" Zak assured her. "He will grow stronger, too, beyond what Zaknafein has ever attained"
"You are willing to do this for him?" Malice sneered, eager drool edging her mouth.
"You know that I am" Zak replied.
"Ever the fool" Malice put in.
"To your dismay" Zak continued, undaunted, "you know that Drizzt would do the same for me"
"He is young" Malice purred. "He will be taught better"
" As you taught me?" snapped Zak.
Malice's victorious grin became a grimace. "I warn you, Zaknafein; she growled in all her vile rage. "If you do any. thing to disrupt the ceremony to appease the Spider Queen, if, in the end of your wasted life, you choose to anger me one final time, I will give Drizzt to Briza. She and her tortur. ous toys will give him to Lloth!"
Unafraid, Zak held his head high. "I have offered myself, Malice" he spat. "Have your fun while you may. In the end, Zaknafein will be at peace; Matron Malice Do'Urden will ever be at war!"
Shaking in anger, the moment of triumph stolen by a few simple words, Malice could only whisper, "lake him!"
Zak offered no resistance as Vierna and Maya tied him to the spider-shaped altar in the chapel. He watched Vierna mostly, seeing an edge of sympathy rimming her quiet eyes. She, too, might have been like him, but whatever hope he had for that possibility had been buried long ago under the relentless preaching of the Spider Queen.
"You are sad" Zak remarked to her.
Vierna straightened and tugged tightly on one of Zak's bonds, causing him to grimace in pain. "A pity" she replied as coldly as she could. "House Do'Urden must give much to repay Drizzt's foolish deed. I would have enjoyed watching the two of you together in battle"
"House Hun'ett would not have enjoyed the sight" Zak re-plied with a wink. "Cry not, . .. my daughter" Vierna slapped him across the face. "lake your lies to your grave! "
"Deny it as you choose, Vierna" was all that Zak cared to reply.
Vierna and Maya backed away from the altar. Vierna fought to hold her scowl and Maya bit back an amused chuckle, as Matron Malice and Briza entered the room. The matron mother wore her greatest ceremonial robe, black and weblike, clinging and floating about her all at once, and Briza carried a sacred coffer.
Zak paid them no heed as they began their ritual, chant. ing for the Spider Queen, offering their hopes for appease-ment. Zak had his own hopes at that moment.
"Beat them all" he whispered under his breath. "Do more than survive, my son, as I have survived. Live! Be true to the callings in your heart"
Braziers roared to life; the room glowed. Zak felt the heat, knew that contact to that darker plane had been achieved.
"Take this. . . " he heard Matron Malice chant, but he put the words out of his thoughts and continued the final pray-ers of his life.
The spider-shaped dagger hovered over his chest. Malice clenched the instrument in her bony hands, the sheen of her sweat-soaked skin catching the orange reflection of the fires in a surrealistic glow.
Surreal, like the transition from life to death.