"Do you truly mean to try?" Masoj asked, his voice conde-scending and filled with disbelief.
Alton turned his hideous glare on the student.
"Direct your anger elsewhere, Faceless One" Masoj said, averting his gaze from his mentor's scarred visage. "I am not the cause of your frustration. The question was valid"
"For more than a decade, you have been a student of the magical arts" Alton replied. "Still you fear to explore the nether world at the side of a master of Sorcere"
"I would have no fear beside a true master" Masoj dared to whisper.
Alton ignored the comment, as he had with so many oth-ers he had accepted from the apprenticing Hun'ett over the last sixteen years. Masoj was Alton's only tie to the outside world, and while Masoj had a powerful family, Alton had only Masoj.
They moved through the door into the uppermost cham-ber of Alton's four-room complex. A single candle burned there, its light diminished by an abundance of dark-colored tapestries and the black hue of the room's stone and rugs. Alton slid onto his stool at the back of the small, circular ta-ble, and placed a heavy book down before him.
"It is a spell better left for clerics" Masoj protested, sitting down across from the faceless master. "Wizards command the lower planes; the dead are for the clerics alone"
Alton looked around curiously, then turned a frown up at Masoj, the master's grotesque features enhanced by the dancing candlelight. "It seems that I have no cleric at my call" the Faceless One explained sarcastically. "Would you rather I try for another denizen of the Nine Hells?"
Masoj rocked back in his chair and shook his head help-lessly and emphatically. Alton had a point. A year before, the Faceless One had sought answers to his questions by en-listing the aid of an ice devil. The volatile thing froze the room until it shone black in the infrared spectrum and smashed a matron mother's treasure horde worth of al-chemical equipment. If Masoj hadn't summoned his magical cat to distract the ice devil, neither he nor Alton would have gotten out of the room alive.
"Very well, then" Masoj said unconvincingly, crossing his arms in front of him on the table. "Conjure your spirit and find your answers"
Alton did not miss the involuntary shudder belied by the ripple in Masoj's robes. He glared at the student for a mo-ment, then went back to his preparations.
As Alton neared the time of casting/ Masoj's hand instinc-tively went into his pocket, to the onyx figurine of the hunt-ing cat he had acquired on the day Alton had assumed the Faceless One's identity. The little statue was enchanted with a powerful dweomer that enabled its possessor to summon a mighty panther to his side. Masoj had used the cat spar-ingly, not yet fully understanding the dweomer's limitations and potential dangers. "Only in times of need" Masoj re-minded himself quietly when he felt the item in his hand. Why was it that those times kept occurring when he was with Alton? the apprentice wondered.
Despite his bravado, this time Alton privately shared Ma-soj's trepidation. Spirits of the dead were not as destructive as denizens of the lower planes, but they could be equally cruel and subtler in their torments.
Alton needed his answer, though. For more than a decade and a half he had sought his information through conven-tional channels, enquiring of masters and students-in a roundabout manner, of course-of the details concerning the fall of House DeVir. Many knew the rumors of that eventful night; some even detailed the battle methods used by the victorious house.
None, though, would name that perpetrating house. In Menzoberranzan, one did not utter anything resembling an accusation, even if the belief was commonly shared, with-out enough undeniable proof to spur the ruling council into a unified action against the accused. If a house botched a raid and was discovered, the wrath of all Menzoberranzan would descend upon it until the family name had been ex-tinguished. But in the case of a successfully executed attack, such as the one that felled House DeVir, an accuser was the one most likely to wind up at the wrong end of a snake-headed whip.
Public embarrassment, perhaps more than any guidelines of honor, turned the wheels of justice in the city of drow.
Alton now sought other means for the solution to his quest. First he had tried the lower planes, the ice devil, to di-sastrous effect. Now Alton had in his possession an item that could end his frustrations: a tome penned by a wizard of the surface world. In the drow hierarchy, only the clerics of Lloth dealt with the realm of the dead, but in other societies, wizards also dabbled into the spirit world. Alton had found the book in the library of Sorcere and had managed to translate enough of it, he believed, to make a spiritual con-tact.
He wrung his hands together, gingerly opened the book to the marked page, and scanned the incantation one final time. "Are you ready?" he asked Masoj.
Alton ignored the student's unending sarcasm and placed his hands flat on the table. He slowly sunk into his deepest meditative trance.
" Fey innad . . " He paused and cleared his throat at the slip. Masoj, though he hadn't closely examined the spell, rec-ognized the mistake.
"Fey innunad de-min. . " Another pause.
"Lloth be with us" Masoj groaned under his breath.
Alton's eyes popped wide, and he glared at the student. " A translation" he growled. "From the strange language of a human wizard!"
"Gibberish" Masoj retorted.
"I have in front of me the private spellbook of a wizard from the surface world" Alton said evenly. "An archmage, according to the scribbling of the orcan thief who stole it and sold it to our agents" He composed himself again and shook his hairless head, trying to return to the depths of his trance.
"A simple, stupid orc managed to steal a spellbook from an archmage" Masoj whispered rhetorically, letting the ab-surdity of the statement speak for itself.
"The wizard was dead!" Alton roared. "The book is au-thentic! "
"Who translated it?" Masoj replied calmly. Alton refused to listen to any more arguments. Ignoring the smug look on Masoj's face, he began again.
"Fey mnunad de-mill de-suI de-kef"
Masoj faded out and tried to rehearse a lesson from one of his classes, hoping that his sobs of laughter wouldn't disturb Alton. He didn't believe for a moment that Alton's attempt would prove successful, but he didn't want to screw up the fool's line of babbling again and have to suffer through the ridiculous incantation all the way from the beginning still another time.
A short time later, when Masoj heard Alton's excited whis-per, "Matron Ginafae?" he quickly focused his attention back on the events at hand.
Sure enough, an unusual ball of green-hued smoke ap-peared over the candle's flame and gradually took a more definite shape.
"Matron Ginafae!" Alton gasped again when the summons was complete. Hovering before him was the unmistakable image of his dead mother's face.
The spirit scanned the room, confused. "Who are you?" it asked at length.
"I am Alton. Alton DeVir, your son"
"Son?" the spirit asked.
"I remember no child so very ugly"
"A disguise" Alton replied quickly, looking back at Masoi and expecting a snicker. If Masoi had chided and doubted Alton before, he now showed only sincere respect. Smiling, Alton continued, "Just a disguise, that I might move about in the city and exact revenge upon our ene-mies!"
"Menzoberranzan, of course"
Still the spirit seemed not to understand.
"You are Ginafae?" Alton pressed. "Matron Ginafae DeVir?"
The spirit's features contorted into a twisted scowl as it considered the question. "I was. . . I think"
"Matron Mother of House DeVir, Fourth House of Menzo berranzan" Alton prompted, growing more excited. "High priestess of Lloth"
The mention of the Spider Queen sent a spark through the spirit.. "Dh, no!" it balked. Ginafae remembered now.
"You should not have done this, my ugly son!"
"It is iust a disguise" Alton interrupted.
"I must leave you" Ginafae's spirit continued, glancing around nervously. "You must release me!"
"But I need some information from you, Matron Ginafae"
"Do not call me that!" the spirit shrieked. "You do not understand! I am not in Lloth's favor. . . "
"'ll'ouble" whispered Masoi offhandedly, hardly sur-prised.
"Just one answer!" Alton demanded, refusing to let an-other opportunity to learn his enemies' identities slip past him.
"Quickly!" the spirit shrieked.
"Name the house that destroyed DeVir"
"The house?" Ginafae pondered. "Yes, I remember that evil night. It was House-"
The ball of smoke puffed and bent out of shape, twisting Ginafae's image and sending her next words out as an unde-cipherable blurb.
Alton leaped to his feet. "No!" he screamed. "You must tell me! Who are my enemies?"
"Would you count me as one?" the spirit image said in a voice very different from the one it had used earlier, a tone of sheer power that stole the blood from Alton's face. The image twisted and transformed, became something ugly, uglier than Alton. Hideous beyond all experience on the Ma-terial Plane.
Alton was not a cleric, of course, and he had never stud-ied the drow religion beyond the basic tenets taught to males of the race. He knew the creature now hovering in the air before him, though, for it appeared as an oozing, slimy stick of melted wax: a yochlol, a handmaiden of Lloth.
"You dare to disturb the torment of Ginafae?" the yochlol snarled.
"Damn!" whispered Masoj, sliding slowly down under the black tablecloth. Even he, with all of his doubts of Alton, had not expected his disfigured mentor to land them in trouble this serious.
"But. . " Alton stuttered.
"Never again disturb this plane, feeble wizard!" the yoch-lol roared.
"I did not try for the Abyss" Alton protested meekly. "I only meant to speak with-"
"With Ginafae!" the yochlol snarled. "Fallen priestess of Uoth. Where would you expect to find her spirit, foolish male? Frolicking in Olympus, with the false gods of the sur-face elves?"
"I did not think. . "
"Do you ever?" the yochlol growled.
"Nope" Masoj answered silently, careful to keep himself as far out of the way as possible.
"Never again disturb this plane" the yochlol warned a fi-nal time. "The Spider Queen is not merciful and has no tol-erance for meddling males!" The creature's oozing face puffed and swelled, expanding beyond the limits of the smoky ball. Alton heard gurgling, gagging noises, and he stumbled back over his stool, putting his back flat against the wall and bringing his arms up defensively in front of his face.
The yochlol's mouth opened impossibly wide and spewed forth a hail of small objects. They ricocheted off Alton and tapped against the wall all around him. Stones? the faceless wizard wondered in confusion. One of the objects then an-swered his unspoken question. It caught hold of Alton's lay-ered black robes and began crawling up toward his exposed neck. Spiders.
A wave of the eight-legged beasts rushed under the little table, sending Masoj tumbling out the other side in a desper-ate roll. He scrambled to his feet and turned back, to see Al-ton slapping and stomping wildly, trying to get out of the main host of the crawling things.
"Do not kill them!" Masoj screamed. "Th kill spiders is forbidden by the-"
"To the Nine Hells with the clerics and their laws!" Alton shrieked back.
Masoj shrugged in helpless agreement, reached around under the folds of his own robes, and produced the same two-handed crossbow he had used to kill the Faceless One those years ago. He considered the powerful weapon and the tiny spiders scrambling around the room.
"Overkill?" he asked aloud. Hearing no answer, he shrugged again and fired.
The heavy bolt knifed across Alton's shoulder, cutting a deep line. The wizard stared in disbelief, then turned an ugly grimace on Masoj.
"You had one on your shoulder" the student explained.
Alton's scowl did not relent.
"Ungrateful?" Masoj snarled. "Foolish Alton, all of the spi-ders are on your side of the room. Remember?" Masoj turned to leave and called, "Good hunting" over his shoul-der. He reached for the handle to the door, but as his long fingers closed around it, the portal's surface transformed into the image of Matron Ginafae. She smiled widely, too widely, and an impossibly long and wet tongue reached out and licked Masoj across the face.
" Alton!" he cried, spinning back against the wall out of the slimy member's reach. He noticed the wizard in the midst of spellcasting, Alton fighting to hold his concentration as a host of spiders continued their hungry ascent up his flow-ing robes.
"You are a dead one" Masoj commented matter-of-factly, shaking his head.
Alton fought through the exacting ritual of the spell, ig-nored his own revulsion of the crawling things, and forced the evocation to completion. In all of his years of study, Al-ton never would have believed he could do such a thing; he would have laughed at the mere mention of it. Now, how-ever, it seemed a far preferable fate to the yochlol's creeping doom.
He dropped a fireball at his own feet.
Naked and hairless, Masoj stumbled through the door and out of the inferno. The flaming faceless master came next, diving into a roll and stripping his tattered and burning robe from his back as he went.
As he watched Alton patting out the last of the flames, a pleasant memory flashed in Masoi's mind, and he uttered the single lament that dominated his every thought at this disastrous moment.
"I should have killed him when I had him in the web"
A short time later, after Masoj had gone back to his room and his studies, Alton slipped on the ornamental metallic bracers that identified him as a master of the Academy and slipped outside the structure of Sorcere. He moved to the wide and sweeping stairway leading down from Tier Breche and sat down to take in the sights of Menzoberran-zan.
Even with this view, though, the city did little to distract Alton from thoughts of his latest failure. For sixteen years he had forsaken all other dreams and ambitions in his des-perate search to find the guilty house. For sixteen years he had failed.
He wondered how long he could keep up the charade, and his spirits. Masoj, his only friend-if Masoj could be called a friend-was more than halfway through his studies at Sorcere. What would Alton do when Masoj graduated and reo turned to House Hun'ett?
"Perhaps I shall carryon my toils for centuries to come" he said aloud, "only to be murdered by a desperate student, as I-as Masoj-murdered the Faceless One. Might that stu-dent disfigure himself and take my place?" Alton couldn't stop the ironic chuckle that passed his lipless mouth at the notion of a perpetual "faceless master" of Sorcere. At what point would the Matron Mistress of the Academy get suspi-cious? A thousand years? '!en thousand? Or might the Face-less One outlive Menzoberranzan itself? Life as a master was not such a bad lot, Alton supposed. Many drow would sacrifice much to be given such an honor.
Alton dropped his face into the crook of his elbow and forced away such ridiculous thoughts. He was not a real master, nor did the stolen position bring him any measure of satisfaction. Perhaps Masoj should have shot him that day, sixteen years ago, when Alton was trapped in the Face-less One's web.
Alton's despair only deepened when he considered the ac-tual time frame involved. He had just passed his seventieth birthday and was still young by drow standards. The notion that only a tenth of his life was behind him was not a com-forting one to Alton DeVir this night.
"How long will I survive?" he asked himself. "How long until this madness that is my existence consumes me?" Alton looked back out over the city. "Better that the Faceless One had killed me" he whispered. "For now I am Alton of No House Worth Mentioning"
Masoj had dubbed him that on the first morning after House DeVir's fall, but way back then, with his life teetering on the edge of a crossbow, Alton had not understood the ti-tle's implications. Menzoberranzan was nothing more than a collection of individual houses. A rogue commoner might latch on to one of them to call his own, but a rogue noble wouldn't likely be accepted by any house in the city. He was left with Sorcere and nothing more. . . until his true identity was discovered at last. What punishments would he then face for the crime of killing a master? Masoj may have com-mitted the crime, but Masoj had a house to defend him. Al-ton was only a rogue noble.
He sat back on his elbows and watched the rising heat-light of Narbondel. As the minutes became hours, Alton's despair and self-pity went through inevitable change. He turned his attention to the individual drow houses now, not to the conglomeration that bound them as a city, and he wondered what dark secrets each harbored. One of them, Alton reminded himself, held the secret he most dearly wanted to know. One of them had wiped out House DeVir.
Forgotten was the night's failure with Matron Ginafae and the yochlol, forgotten was the lament for an early death. Sixteen years was not so long a time, Alton decided. He had perhaps seven centuries of life left within his slender frame. If he had to, Alton was prepared to spend every minute of those long years searching for the perpetrating house.
"Vengeance" he growled aloud, needing, feeding off, that audible reminder of his only reason for continuing to draw breath.