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Homeland (part 1 chapter 3)

2006-08-28 22:09

  Chapter 3 The Eyes of the Child

  Masoj, the young apprentice-which at this point in his magic-using career meant that he was no more than a clean- ing attendant-leaned on his broom and watched as Alton DeVir moved through the door into the highest chamber of the spire. Masoj almost felt sympathy for the student, who had to go in and face the Faceless One.

  Masoj felt excitement as well, though, knowing that the ensuing fireworks between Alton and the faceless master would be well worth the watching. He went back to his sweeping, using the broom as an excuse to get farther around the curve of the room's floor, closer to the door.

  “You requested my presence, Master Faceless One” Alton DeVir said again, keeping one hand in front of his face and squinting to fight the brilliant glare of the room's three lighted candles. Alton shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other just inside the shadowy room's door.

  Hunched across the way, the Faceless One kept his back to the young DeVir. Better to be done with this cleanly, the master reminded himself. He knew, though, that the spell he was now preparing would kill Alton before the student could learn his family's fate, before the Faceless One could fully complete Dinin Do'Urden's final instructions. To much was at stake. Better to be done with this cleanly.

  “You. .” Alton began again, but he prudently held his words and tried to sort out the situation before him. How unusual to be summoned to the private chambers of a mas-ter of the Academy before the day's lessons had even begun.

  When he had first received the summons, Alton feared that he had somehow failed one of his lessons. That could be a fa-

  tal mistake in Sorcere. Alton was close to graduation, but the disdain of a single master could put an end to that.

  He had done quite well in his lessons with the Faceless One, had even believed that this mysterious master favored him. Could this call be simply a courtesy of congratulations on his impending graduation? Unlikely, Alton realized against his hopes. Masters of the drow Academy did not of-ten congratulate students.

  Alton then heard quiet chanting and noticed that the mas- ter was in the midst of spellcasting. Something cried out as very wrong to him now; something about this whole situa-tion did not fit the strict ways of the Academy. Alton set his feet firmly and tensed his muscles, following the advice of the motto that had been drilled into the thoughts of every student at the Academy, the precept that kept drow elves alive in a society so devoted to chaos: Be prepared.

  The doors exploded before him, showering the room with stone splinters and throwing Masoj back against the wall. He felt the show well worth both the inconvenience and the new bruise on his shoulder when Alton DeVir scrambled out of the room. The student's back and left arm trailed wisps of smoke, and the most exquisite expression of terror and pain that Masoj had ever seen was etched on the DeVir noble's face.

  Alton stumbled to the floor and kicked into a roll, desper-ate to put some ground between himself and the murder-ous master. He made it down and around the descending arc of the room's floor and through the door that led into the next lower chamber just as the Faceless One made his appearance at the sundered door.

  The master stopped to spit a curse at his misfire, and to consider the best way to replace his door. “Clean it up!” he snapped at Masoj, who was again leaning casually with his hands atop his broomstick and his chin atop his hands.

  Masoj obediently dropped his head and started sweeping the stone splinters. He looked up as the Faceless One stalked past, however, and cautiously started after the master. Alton couldn't possibly escape, and this show would be too good to miss.

  The third room, the Faceless One's private library, was the brightest of the four in the spire, with dozens of candles burning on each wall.

  “Damn this light!” Alton spat, stumbling his way down through the dizzying blur to the door that led to the Face-less One's entry hall, the lowest room of the master's quar- ters. If he could get down from this spire and outside of the tower to the courtyard of the Academy, he might be able to turn the momentum against the master.

  Alton's world remained the darkness of Menzoberranzan, but the Faceless One, who had spent so many decades in the candlelight of Sorcere, had grown accustomed to using his eyes to see shades of light, not heat.

  The entry hall was cluttered with chairs and chests, but only one candle burned there, and Alton could see clearly enough to dodge or leap any obstacles. He rushed to the door and grabbed the heavy latch. It turned easily enough, but when Alton tried to shoulder through, the door did not budge and a burst of sparkling blue energy threw him back to the floor.

  “Curse this place” Alton spat. The portal was magically held. He knew a spell to open such enchanted doors but doubted whether his magic would be strong enough to dis-pel the castings of a master. In his haste and fear, the words of the dweomer floated through Alton's thoughts in an un- decipherable jumble.

  “Do not run, DeVir” came the Faceless One's call from the previous chamber. “You only lengthen your torment!”

  “A curse upon you, too” Alton replied under his breath. Alton forgot about the stupid spell; it would never come to him in time. He glanced around the room for an option.

  His eyes found something unusual halfway up the side wall, in an opening between two large cabinets. Alton scrambled back a few steps to get a better angle but found himself caught within the range of the candlelight, within the deceptive field where his eyes registered both heat and light.

  He could only discern that this section of the wall showed

  a uniform glow in the heat spectrum and that its hue was subtly different from the stone of the walls. Another door- way? Alton could only hope his guess to be right. He rushed back to the center of the room, stood directly across from the object, and forced his eyes away from the infrared spec-trum, fully back into the world of light.

  As his eyes adjusted, what came into view both startled and confused the young DeVir. He saw no doorway, nor any opening with another chamber behind it. What he looked upon was a reflection of himself, and a portion of the room he now stood in. Alton had never, in his fifty-five years of life, witnessed such a spectacle, but he had heard the mas- ters of Sorcere speak of these devices. It was a mirror.

  A movement in the upper doorway of the chamber re-minded Alton that the Faceless One was almost upon him. He couldn't hesitate to ponder his options. He put his head down and charged the mirror.

  Perhaps it was a teleportation door to another section of the city, perhaps a simple door to a room beyond. Or per-haps, Alton dared to imagine in those few desperate sec-onds, this was some interplanar gate that would bring him into a strange and unknown plane of existence!

  He felt the tingling excitement of adventure pulling him on as he neared the wondrous thing-then he felt only the impact, the shattering glass, and the unyielding stone wall behind it.

  Perhaps it was just a mirror.

  “Look at his eyes” Vierna whispered to Maya as they ex-amined the newest member of House Do'Urden.

  Truly the babe's eyes were remarkable. Although the child had been out of the womb for less than an hour, the pupils of his orbs darted back and forth inquisitively. While they showed the expected radiating glow of eyes seeing into the infrared spectrum, the familiar redness was tinted by a shade of blue, giving them a violet hue.

  “Blind?” wondered Maya. “Perhaps this one will be given to the Spider Queen still” Briza looked back to them anxiously. Dark elves did not al-

  low children showing any physical deficiency to live.

  “Not blind” replied Vierna, passing her hand over the child and casting an angry glare at both of her eager sisters. “He follows my fingers”

  Maya saw that Vierna spoke the truth. She leaned closer to the babe, studying his face and strange eyes. “What do you see, Drizzt Do'Urden?” she asked softly, not in an act of gentleness toward the babe, but so that she would not dis-turb her mother, resting in the chair at the head of the spi- der idol.

  “What do you see that the rest of us cannot?” Glass crunched under Alton, digging deeper wounds as he shifted his weight in an effort to rise to his feet. What would it matter? he thought. “My mirror!” he heard the Faceless One groan, and he looked up to see the outraged master towering over him.

  How huge he seemed to Alton! How great and powerful, fully blocking the candlelight from this little alcove between the cabinets, his form enhanced tenfold to the eyes of the helpless victim by the mere implications of his presence.

  Alton then felt a gooey substance floating down around him, detached webbing finding a sticky hold on the cabi. nets, on the wall, and on Alton. The young DeVir tried to leap up and roll away, but the Faceless One's spell already held him fast, trapped him as a dirgit fly would be trapped in the strands of a spider's home.

  “First my door” the Faceless One growled at him, “and now this, my mirror! Do you know the pains I suffered to acquire such a rare device?”

  Alton turned his head from side to side, not in answer, but to free at least his face from the binding substance.

  “Why did you not just stand still and let the deed be fin-ished cleanly?” the Faceless One roared, thoroughly dis- gusted. .

  “Why?” Alton lisped, spitting some of the webbing from his thin lips. “Why would you want to kill me?”

  “Because you broke my mirror!” the Faceless One shot back.

  It didn't make any sense, of course-the mirror had only been shattered after the initial attack-but to the master, Al-ton supposed, it didn't have to make sense. Alton knew his cause to be hopeless, but he continued on in his efforts to dissuade his opponent.

  “You know of my house, of House DeVir” he said, indig-nant, “fourth in the city. Matron Ginafae will not be pleased. A high priestess has ways to learn the truth of such situa- tions!”

  “House DeVir?” The Faceless One laughed. Perhaps the torments that Dinin Do'Urden had requested would be in line after all. Alton had broken his mirror!

  “Fourth house!” Alton spat.

  “Foolish youth” the Faceless One cackled. “House DeVir is no more-not fourth, not fifty-fourth, nothing”

  Alton slumped, though the webbing did its best to hold his body erect. What could the master be babbling about?

  “They all are dead” the Faceless One taunted. “Matron Ginafae sees Lloth more clearly this day” Alton's expression of horror pleased the disfigured master. “All dead” he snarled one more time. “Except for poor Alton, who lives on to hear of his family's misfortune. That oversight shall be remedied now!” The Faceless One raised his hands to cast a spell.

  “Who?” Alton cried.

  The Faceless One paused and seemed not to understand.

  “What house did this?” the doomed student clarified. “Or what conspiracy of houses brought down DeVir?”

  “Ah, you should be told” replied the Faceless One, obvi-ously enjoying the situation. “I suppose it is your right to know before you join your kin in the realm of death” A smile widened across the opening where his lips once had been.

  “But you broke my mirror!” the master growled. “Die stu-pid, stupid boy! Find your own answers!”

  The Faceless One's chest jerked out suddenly, and he shuddered in convulsions, babbling curses in a tongue far beyond the terrified student's comprehension. What vile spell did this disfigured master have prepared for him, so wretched that its chant sounded in an arcane language for-eign to learned Alton's ears, so unspeakably evil that. its se-mantics jerked on the very edge of its caster's control? The Faceless One then fell forward to the floor and expired.

  Stunned, Alton followed the line of the master's hood down to his back-to the tail of a protruding dart. Alton watched the poisoned thing as it continued to shudder from the body's impact, then he turned his scan upward to the center of the room, where the young cleaning attendant stood calmly.

  “Nice weapon, Faceless One!” Masoj beamed, rolling a two-handed, crafted crossbow over in his hands. He threw a wicked smile at Alton and fitted another dart.

  Matron Malice hoisted herself out of her chair and willed herself to her feet. “Out of the way!” she snapped at her daughters.

  Maya and Vierna scooted away from the spider idol and the baby. “See his eyes, Matron Mother” Vierna dared to re-mark. “They are so unusual”

  Matron Malice studied the child. Everything seemed in place, and a good thing, too, for Nalfein, elderboy of House Do'Urden, was dead, and this boy, Drizzt, would have a dif-ficult job replacing the valuable son.

  “His eyes” Vierna said again.

  The matron shot her a venomous look but bent low to see what the fuss was about.

  “Purple?” Malice said, startled. Never had she heard of such a thing.

  “He is not blind” Maya was quick to put in, seeing the dis-

  dain spreading across her mother's face.

  “Fetch the candle” Matron Malice ordered. “Let us see how these eyes appear in the world of light”

  Maya and Vierna reflexively headed for the sacred cabi-net, but Briza cut them off. “Only a high priestess may touch the holy items” she reminded them in a tone that carried the weight of a threat. She spun around haughtily, reached into the cabinet, and produced a single half-used red candle. The clerics hid their eyes and Matron Malice put a prudent hand over the baby's face as Briza lit the sacred candle. It produced only a tiny flame, but to drow eyes it came as a brilliant intrusion.

  “Bring it” said Matron Malice after several moments of ad-justing. Briza moved the candle near Drizzt, and Malice gradually slid her hand away.

  “He does not cry” Briza remarked, amazed that the babe could quietly accept such a stinging light.

  “Purple again” whispered the matron, paying no heed to her daughter's rambling. “In both worlds, the child's eyes show as purple”

  Vierna gasped audibly when she looked again upon her tiny brother and his striking lavender orbs.

  “He is your brother” Matron Malice reminded her, view-ing Vierna's gasp as a hint of what might come. “When he grows older and those eyes pierce you so, remember, on your life, that he is your brother”

  Vierna turned away, almost blurting a reply she would have regretted making. Matron Malice's exploits with nearly every male soldier of the Do'Urden house-and many others that the seductive matron managed to sneak away from other houses-were almost legendary in Menzo-berranzan. Who was she to be spouting reminders of pru-dent and proper behavior? Vierna bit her lip and hoped that neither Briza nor Malice had been reading her thoughts at that moment.

  In Menzoberranzan, thinking such gossip about a high priestess, whether or not it was true, got you painfully exe-

  cuted.

  Her mother's eyes narrowed, and Vierna thought she had been discovered. “He is yours to prepare” Matron Malice said to her.

  “Maya is younger” Vierna dared to protest. “I could attain the level of high priestess in but a few years if I may keep to my studies”

  “Or never” the matron sternly reminded her. “Thke the child to the chapel proper. Wean him to words and teach him all that he will need to know to properly serve as a page prince of House Do'Urden”

  “I will see to him” Briza offered, one hand subconsciously slipping to her snake-headed whip. “I do so enjoy teaching males their place in our world”

  Malice glared at her. “You are a high priestess. You have other duties more important than word-weaning a male child” Then to Vierna, she said, “The babe is yours; do not disappoint me in this! The lessons you teach Drizzt will rein-force your own understanding of our ways. This exercise at 'mothering' will aid you in your quest to become a high priestess” She let Vierna take a moment to view the task in a more positive light, then her tone became unmistakably threatening once again. “It may aid you, but it surely can de-stroy you!”

  Vierna sighed but kept her thoughts silent. The chore that Matron Malice had dropped on her shoulders would con-sume the bulk of her time for at least ten years. Vierna didn't like the prospects, she and this purple-eyed child together for ten long years. The alternative, however, the wrath of Ma- tron Malice Do'Urden, seemed a worse thing by far.

  Alton blew another web from his mouth. “You are just e boy, an apprentice” he stammered. “Why would you-?”

  “Kill him?” Masoj finished the thought. “Not to save you, if that is your hope” He spat down at the Faceless One's body. “Look at me, a prince of the sixth house, a cleaning steward for that wretched-”

  “Hun'ett” Alton cut in. “House Hun'ett is the sixth house”

  The younger drow put a finger to pursed lips. “Wait” he remarked with a widening smile, an evil smile of sarcasm.

  “We are the fifth house now, I suppose, with DeVir wiped out”

  “Not yet!” Alton growled.

  “Momentarily” Masoj assured him, fingering the cross-bow quarrel.

  Alton slumped even farther back in the web. To be killed by a master was bad enough, but the indignity of being shot down by a boy. . . .

  “I suppose I should thank you” Masoj said. “I had planned to kill that one for many weeks”

  “Why?” Alton pressed his new assailant. “You would dare to kill a master of Sorcere simply because your family put you in servitude to him?”

  “Because he would snub me!” Masoj yelled. “Four years I have slaved for him, that back end of a carrion crawler. Cleaned his boots. Prepared salve for his disgusting face! Was it ever enough? Not for that one” He spat at the corpse again and continued, talking more to himself than to the trapped student. “Nobles aspiring to wizardry have the ad-vantage of being trained as apprentices before they reach the proper age for entry into Sorcere”

  “Of course” Alton said. “I myself trained under-”

  “He meant to keep me out of Sorcere!” Masoj rambled, ig-noring Alton altogether. “He would have forced me into Melee-Magthere, the fighters' school, instead. The fighters' school! My twenty-fifth birthday is only two weeks away”

  Masoj looked up, as though he suddenly remembered that he was not alone in the room.

  “I knew I must kill him” he continued, now speaking di-rectly to Alton. “Then you come along and make it all so con-venient. A student and master killing each other in a fight?

  It has happened before. Who would question it? I suppose, then, that I should thank you, Alton DeVir of No House Worth Mentioning; Masoj chided with a low, sweeping bow. “Before I kill you, I mean”

  “Wait!” cried Alton. “Kill me to what gain?”

  “ Alibi”

  “But you have your alibi, and we can make it better!”

  “Explain; said Masoj, who, admittedly, was in no particu- lar hurry. The Faceless One was a high-level wizard; the webs weren't going anywhere anytime soon.

  “Free me” Alton said earnestly.

  “Can you be as stupid as the Faceless One proclaimed you?”

  Alton took the insult stoically-the kid had the crossbow.

  “Free me so that I may assume the Faceless One's identity” he explained. “The death of a master arouses suspicion, but if no master is believed dead. . ”

  “And what of this?” Masoj asked, kicking the corpse.

  “Burn it” said Alton, his desperate plan coming fully into focus. “Let it be Alton DeVir. House DeVir is no more, so there will be no retaliation, no questions” Masoj seemed skeptical.

  “The Faceless One was practically a hermit” Alton rea-soned. “And I am near to graduation; certainly I can handle the simple chores of basic teaching after thirty years of study”

  “And what is my gain?” Alton gawked, nearly burying himself in webbing, as if the answer were obvious. “A master in Sorcere to call men-tor. One who can ease your way through your years of study”

  “ And one who can dispose of a witness at his earliest con-venience” Masoj added slyly.

  “And what then would be my gain?” Alton shot back. “To anger House Hun'ett, fifth in all the city, and I with no family at my back? No, young Masoj, I am not as stupid as the Face-less One named me”

  Masoj ticked a long and pointed fingernail against his teeth and considered the possibilities. An ally among the masters of Sorcere? This held possibilities.

  Another thought popped into Masoj's mind, and he pulled open the cabinet to Alton's side and began rummaging through the contents. Alton flinched when he heard some ceramic and glass containers crashing together, thinking of the components, possibly even completed potions, that might be lost by the apprentice's carelessness. Perhaps Melee-Magthere would be a better choice for this one, he thought.

  A moment later, though, the younger drow reappeared, and Alton remembered that he was in no position to make such judgments.

  “This is mine” Masoj demanded, showing Alton a small black object: a remarkably detailed onyx figurine of a hunt-ing panther. “A gift from a denizen of the lower planes for some help I gave to him”

  “You aided such a creature?” Alton had to ask, finding it difficult to believe that a mere apprentice had the resources necessary to even survive an encounter with such an un-predictable and mighty foe.

  “The Faceless One-” Masoj kicked the corpse again-“took the credit and the statue, but they are mine! Every- thing else in here will go to you, of course. I know the magical dweomers of most and will show you what is what”

  Brightening at the hope that he would indeed survive this dreadful day, Alton cared little about the figurine at that moment. All he wanted was to be freed of the webs so that he could find out the truth of his house's fate. Then Masoj, ever a confusing young drow, turned suddenly and started away.

  “Where are you going?” Alton asked.

  “To get the acid”

  “Acid?” Alton hid his panic well, though he had a terrible feeling that he understood what Masoj meant to do.

  “You want the disguise to appear authentic” Masoj ex-plained matter-of-factly. “Otherwise, it would not be much of a disguise. We should take advantage of the web while it lasts. It will hold you still”

  “No” Alton started to protest, but Masoj wheeled on him, the evil grin wide on his face.

  “It does seem a bit of pain, and a lot of trouble to go through” Masoj admitted. “You have no family and will find no allies in Sorcere, since the Faceless One was so despised by the other masters” He brought the crossbow up level with Alton's eyes and fitted another poisoned dart. “Per-haps you would prefer death”

  “Get the acid!” Alton cried.

  “To what end?” Masoj teased, waving the crossbow. “What have you to live for, Alton DeVir of No House Worth Men-tioning'?”

  “Revenge” Alton sneered, the sheer wrath of his tone set- ting the confident Masoj on his heels. “You have not learned this yet-though you will, my young student-but nothing in life gives more purpose than the hunger for revenge!”

  Masoj lowered the bow and eyed the trapped drow with respect, almost fear. Still, the apprentice Hun'ett could not appreciate the gravity of Alton's proclamation until Alton reiterated, this time with an eager smile on his face, “Get the acid”

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