Look, it's only been a month between updates this time! Pretty good, huh? Enjoy!

Chapter Six

During the short, cold day, Kâras reclined on the Reverie couch in his cold, spare room and remembered Maerimydra. It was the thing he hated to remember most, awake or in Reverie. He woke a little before sundown, shivering, his head filled with a cacophony of sensations, the chief of which was a sick, smothering fear that wrapped around his ribs like an iron cage. He tried to meditate in preparation for his prayers, but could not sit still.

After a little restless pacing, he went outside and climbed up the stick ladder, past the other doors set into the giant trunk, to the very top of the tree. There was a small, round platform suspended among the branches, and Kâras sat in the middle of it, facing west. It was bitterly cold, and there was no shelter from the wind. The weak winter sun was almost gone, staining the sky with pale pinks and yellows and the faintest green. The light no longer stung his eyes as it once had. He stared ahead until the sun slipped below the horizon and night fell over the forest. The darkness should have been soothing, but it was mostly just dark. That bothered him for some reason, though he couldn't quite put his finger on why.

He slipped back down the ladder to his room, settled next to the brazier, and began to pray. Normally he would pray at midnight, in a room without any light, but he was too cold to put out the brazier and he thought he would be busy at midnight. He prayed to the Masked Lady, to the goddess who had been, and still was, Eilistraee, but secretly he wished he prayed to Vhaeraun. On some nights his new deity wasn't so hard to accept; this night wasn't one of them.

He emerged from his room again into a darkness only a little deeper than that following sunset: the moon had risen. He'd intended to speak to Aliira's friend Yvonnel first, but she would probably be dancing with the other priestesses. He'd find Xytherril instead.

Keeping to the shadows out of habit, he slipped through the shrine in search of the Jaelre Nightshadow, but paused at the sight of movement through the trees. Curious despite himself, he drifted closer and found himself looking up at the shrine proper: a dozen giant swords carved out of obsidian, set point-first into a great disk of white marble, and capped with a pale roof.

In the clear space around the shrine, the priestesses of the Misty Forest danced and sang. Naked but for their holy symbols and their swords, they leaped and spun without any apparent pattern. Their blades sliced perilously close to their own bodies and the bodies of their sisters. Sometimes two blades clashed together, but somehow no blood was ever spilled.

Once males had been forbidden from even watching these dances. Now, they were supposed to join. Kâras had yet to get the hang of this kind of worship; he avoided the dances when he could, and when he couldn't he spent most of them trying to keep his head attached to his shoulders. From the sidelines, though, he had to admit it was beautiful to watch.

He picked out Cavatina swirling through the dance, her singing sword humming along with the hymn. He had to admit she was beautiful to watch, too. She really wasn't that bad, for a female. She was arrogant, of course, and hated Nightshadows, but that was to be expected. When she stopped to think instead of just acting or speaking, she was actually quite intelligent.

Movement beyond the dance caught his eye. On the far side of the ring of dancers, someone else hid in the shadows and watched. Not a priestess, Kâras thought, or she would join her sisters. Another Nightshadow might have been drawn as he was drawn, but he didn't think there was any cause for a Nightshadow to be on that side of the shrine.

Giving in to curiosity again, he slipped around the edge of the open space. He wasn't quite as skilled at moving silently though the forest, with its myriad obstacles to crack underfoot or rustle against his side, as he was at creeping through the stone corridors of the Underdark, but any stray noise was lost amidst the priestess's singing. As he drew near the spot, he stilled and let his eyes hunt among the vegetation. After a few minutes' patient searching, he picked out the slim form of a drow male leaning against the shadowed side of a tree, watching the dancers with rapt, longing eyes. A black mask covered the lower half of his face.

A Nightshadow, then. But he wasn't one of the three Auzkovyn males Kâras had met, and he was too young for Xytherril. Kâras crept a little closer. He thought he could pick out, even deeper in the forest than the Nightshadow, another shape. Was someone watching the watcher?

He was an easy knife-throw away when a twig betrayed him. The strange male jerked around at the sound. His eyes widened when he saw Kâras, and his hand went the sword at his side.

Be easy, Kâras signed. Are you Balan?

The male's eyes narrowed, which was all the confirmation Kâras needed.

I was sent from the Promenade, he began. Before he could finish the sentence, Balan bolted.

Kâras ran after him before his thoughts could catch up to his legs. For some reason, Balan had returned to the shrine. Perhaps he had changed his mind about running away, and wanted to beg for mercy. Whatever his reason, Kâras' quarry had landed right in his lap, and he wasn't going to let it get away. Balan, however, had other ideas. He was noisier that Kâras, but faster; Kâras could follow the noise the boy made as he crashed through the forest, but he could tell Balan was drawing ahead of him.

If only he'd called out when the chase first started, he thought bitterly. But they were far enough from the shrine by now that he didn't think any of the priestesses would hear him over the sound of the sound of their own singing. Calling for help had never even occurred to him until it was too late.

Something tangled around his feet and he tripped, almost fell. He glanced down and found that he'd tripped over one of the hunting horns many of the priestesses carried; the strap was twisted around his ankle. Kâras didn't pause to question his good fortune. He snatched up the horn continued his pursuit. As he ran he pushed aside his mask, brought the horn to his lips, and blew.

The sound caught him by surprise, even though he was the one making it, and he almost stumbled again. It was a wild, urgent sound, like moonlight and silk rolled together into one noise. The others at the shrine had to have heard it, but he didn't know if anyone would catch up to them in time.

Kâras ran on, until pain stabbed at his side with every breath and the roar of his own heartbeat half-deafened him. He could not remember ever running like this, so fast for so long; even the moonlight hunts hadn't pushed him so hard.

After a while, he heard Balan's pace slow. The boy's steps were louder, and he stumbled several times. Kâras gained on him, until he could sometimes catch glimpses of the boy's back, but he didn't close with the other Nightshadow. He wanted Balan to be exhausted when he caught up with the boy; it would make it easier to talk sense into him or, if necessary, subdue him. But when Kâras heard voices behind him, he picked up the pace again. He wanted a few moments alone with Balan before the priestesses caught up.

"Balan!" he called.

He broke through an opening in the trees and found himself facing Balan across a narrow clearing. They stared at each other, chests heaving, breath steaming in the cold air. Then Balan turned and started away.

"Wait!" Kâras said. "I'm not—"

Balan froze, then stumbled back into the clearing. An enormous spider followed him into the open, easily twice as tall as the boy. For a heartbeat too long Kâras stared at it, frozen, uncomprehending. It stretched out one impossibly long foreleg, knocked the fleeing Balan to the ground, and bent down, mandibles working in anticipation.

In that moment, Kâras considered running. He was completely unprepared to face a foe like this, and trying to save the boy would probably just get himself killed. Then he remembered the priestesses behind him and realized he didn't have to kill the spider—only hold it off long enough for help to arrive.

Kâras blew the hunting horn again. The magical blast didn't seem to hurt the giant spider, but it knocked it back a step. He tossed the horn aside and stretched his hand toward the almost-full moon. "Masked Lady!" he cried. "Smite this monster!"

A bolt of moonlight twined with darkfire struck the spider's abdomen. It reared back, legs flailing in silent pain. Balan was struggling to his feet; Kâras darted forward and grabbed his shoulder, dragged him back. Before they'd managed more than a few stumbling steps the spider was back, striking, not at Kâras, but at Balan. It's fangs bit deeply into Balan's shoulder and side, and the boy fell to the ground, already writhing from the poison. Kâras managed to draw his short sword and hack at the thing's face. When it reared back, he lifted his arm and fired his wrist-crossbow.

The bolt sank into one of its central eyes, yet it neither retreated nor shifted its focus, only stooped again to attack Balan. This time it's mandibles latched onto the boy's head and, with a sickening sound, tore it off in a spray of blood.

End of Part I...