Well, it's not what I would call a prompt update, but it's better than last time, hmmm? Not only does life keep inconveniencing me, I don't actually have access to my books right now, so I'm trying to write everything from memory. So I beg your continued patience with my slow updates, and also your continued contributions of reviews. Remember, every author loves to see "Faves" and "Follows," but she loves to see reviews even more!

Chapter Five

Rowaan led Cavatina deeper into the shrine, where the great trees clustered closely together, so close their tangled branches nearly blocked out the moonlight, and the ground was almost free of snow. Cavatina sensed movement above her, and saw priestess walking across the larger branches, more than a hundred feet in the air, as casually as if they were on the ground. Stairs and ladders had been carved into the steeper places, and platforms and bridges dotted the canopy.

"Have you been to the Misty Forest Shrine before, Lady?" Rowaan asked, following the direction of Cavatina's gaze.

"Only to pass through it."

"There was once an ancient elven outpost here. This is the center of the grove, where the keep stood, millennia ago. Here is where we keep out library, our hall of healing, and other important offices. Storerooms, living quarters, and gardens ring this central area. The shrine proper is to the north, and past that are the hot springs."

"Hot springs!" Cavatina exclaimed. "Those sound nice."

"Especially in this weather," Rowaan agreed. "If you have the chance, you and your—you and Lord Kâras should visit them."

Cavatina didn't miss Rowaan's slip. "He's not my consort," she said drily, amused and a little horrified at the thought. It wasn't that Kâras was unattractive; in truth, Cavatina thought the opposite was true. She just didn't think she could stand his attitude—and she knew he'd assassinated at least one of the females he'd been consort to in the past. That sort of thing didn't inspire trust.

Rowaan offered her a sheepish smile. "I was curious. You seem very... familiar with each other."

Cavatina supposed that was one way of describing their argument. "We led the Acropolis crusade," she explained, and then, unable to help herself, added, "But over-familiarity is one of his flaws."

"I think Kâras was right when he said Nightshadows are not as tame as the males we are used to," Rowaan admitted. "The male lay worshipers are accustomed to serving females, but the Nightshadows are accustomed to fighting us. The lay worshipers are content to serve kinder mistresses than those they knew in the Underdark, but Nightshadows demand true equality."

Cavatina eyed her askance. "That sounds like something Kâras might say."

Rowaan laughed ruefully. "Jazlyn Auzkovyn is the senior Nightshadow here. He's not as outspoken as Kâras, but he nonetheless makes his opinions known. And his opinion is that the Nightshadows are not being treated with the respect they deserve."

"And what's your opinion?" Rowaan was young, as young as Cavatina herself, but seemed wise beyond her years. In her more introspective moments, Cavatina admitted that wisdom was not one of her strengths.

"I think he may be right," Rowaan admitted. "But it's to be expected. There's a lot of bad history between us, and two years is too short a time to mend all those wounds. A few years ago, one of the priestesses here was killed by a Nightshadow. By Eilistraee's grace, we were able to raise her; but after Vhaeraun's death, one of the Nightshadows who came to the shrine was the one who'd killed her! Of course, no one can be blamed for the evil deeds performed before she—or he—was redeemed, but I had to send him to the High Forest. I couldn't ask Dinaefay to work alongside him, to live alongside him."

"What did Jazlyn Auzkoven say?" Cavatina asked, feeling sure she already knew the answer.

Rowaan grimaced. "He called me a hypocrite. He said that if we truly believed in the power of redemption, we would let bygones be bygones."

It sounded like something Kâras might say. Cavatina hoped the two of them never met; they would be hatching plots within minutes. "The Nightshadows may say they want to be treated with more respect, but they're not making it easy, are they?"

"Every priestess who came to this shrine came because she wanted to be redeemed," Rowaan said solemnly. "The Nightshadows... sometimes I think they came only because they had no choice. Sometimes I think they don't want to make it easy."

The dense forest opened a little, revealing a single enormous giant that made the great trees surrounding it seem like little more than saplings. Ridges and blocks of pale stone, the same color as the ruins scattered throughout the shrine, protruded at irregular intervals from the tree's bark. At trunk's base, two roots spread apart to reveal an arched stone doorway carved with flowering vines. As Rowaan led Cavatina through the arch, Cavatina realized the tree had somehow grown around an ancient elvish tower, weaving wood and stone until they were nearly indistinguishable.

Inside, a staircase spiraled around the inside of the tower, lit by glowing balls of light that drifted beneath the ceiling like tiny moons. Cavatina followed Rowaan up the staircase, passing several wooden doors. Rowaan opened the fourth door, ushering Cavatina into a round room filled with books and scrolls, all tucked neatly in half a dozen bookcases. The center of the room was dominated by a set of shallow drawers, whose flat top doubled as a table. More globes of light drifted overhead, making the room bright by drow standards.

From a cushioned chair tucked between two bookcases, the male who had greeted her and Kâras earlier that night—Ralinn, Cavatina thought his name was—jumped to his feet . "Lady Rowaan, Lady Cavatina! I wasn't expecting you!" He casually dropped the book he had been reading to the chair and stepped smoothly in front of it. "May I help you laides find something?"

"I believe you've already met Ralinn," Rowaan said to Cavatina. "He keeps our library organized."

"You're a wizard?" Cavatina asked him. She'd noticed his soft hands earlier, but hadn't thought him a spellcaster.

Ralinn made a disparaging gesture. "I know some small spells, lady, but I am really nothing more than a dabbler—though I have a great love of books and scrolls."

He kept his eyes respectfully lowered while he spoke to her. After spending so much time with Kâras, seeing a male who acted like, well, a male, seemed strange. Cavatina found herself wishing he would look her in the eye.

While Rowaan spoke with Ralinn about maps, Cavatina drifted over to his chair, curious to see what he'd been reading. A cheap paper pamphlet lay on the seat cushion. With a smile, Cavatina recognized it as one of the "copper dreadfuls" published in Waterdeep. They often trickled down to Skullport, and Cavatina had once picked one up in one of the markets there. She'd found it full of buxom young maidens who were extremely grateful to be rescued from various dangers by handsome and virile knights. It was not the sort of thing she expected a drow to read.

"Lady Cavatina?"

Cavatina returned to the center of the room. Ralinn was pulling a map from one of the thin drawers, and he spread it across the flat top, securing the corners with glass weights. The map was smooth parchment, the lines drawn in colored inks and annotated in Elvish.

"Here's the Misty Forest," Rowaan said, indicating an irregular outline drawn in green. "It's bordered by the High Moors to the east and the River Delimbyr to the north. The Trade Way separates us from Trollbark Forest and the marshes to the south and west."

"The closest town is Daggerford, here," Ralinn said, pointing to a black dot beside the river. "But it's a small community, mostly human, and would not welcome a drow. It's more likely Balan would go south, to Dragonspear Castle. It's well known there is—or was—an entrance to the Underdark there, but the castle was reclaimed years ago and is now guarded by a small army."

"We've been concentrating our searches south of the shrine," Rowaan explained. "The entrance in Dragonspear, if it hasn't been sealed, may be well-guarded, but Balan is a Nightshadow and he may believe he has a chance."

"What about the High Moor?" Cavatina asked. "Might he have gone east?"

"The High Moor is filled with ruins from the ancient kingdom of Miyeritar, many of which contain portals," Ralinn said. "It would not be a bad direction to flee—if one was a wizard, which Balan is not. It's also infested with monsters and offers little cover. Facing the army at Dragonspear would be safer."

Cavatina studied the map, picking out the tiny silver crescent moon that marked the location of the shrine. She pointed to several other marks within the the borders of the forest. "What are these?"

"Those two are druid groves," Rowaan said. "We think there is a wild elf settlement near the third, but we've never been able to get close enough to be sure."

"The elves attacked your scouts?"

"Warning shots only. But we didn't want to go where we weren't welcome."

Cavatina nodded in approval. Although they were ostensibly on the same side, surface elves didn't always make the distinction between those drow who followed Eilistraee and those who occasionally crept up from the Underdark to slaughter entire elven villages. Maintaining friendly relations required tact and diplomacy.

Her finger traced the most direct route from the shrine to Dragonspear Castle. It passed close by one of the druid groves. "If you had to leave the Misty Forest, leave Eilistraee's faithful altogether," she asked Rowaan, "where would you go?"

Rowaan shook her head slowly. "I can't even imagine living anywhere else. I've spent my whole life here, on the surface, in the shrines. I suppose... I suppose I'd stay on the surface. Better to be unwelcome everywhere I go than to live in the Underdark."

Cavatina looked to Ralinn in silent question.

He dropped his eyes to the map, dragged his finger absently down the Sword Coast. "I suppose I'd stay on the surface, as well. The Underdark is a hell I have no desire to ever return to. But a Nightshadow might feel differently. There are free cities in the Underdark, where Lloth's priestesses do not have absolute rule. An assassin could do well for himself there."

Kâras, she felt sure, would return to the Underdark without hesitation. But what would Balan—young, inexperienced, new to both the mask and the sword—do?

Cavatina tapped the map impatiently. "We need to talk to those druids."