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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part I


"Zio? That fake magician!" -- Alys Brangwin, PSIV

The drums beat insistently, a rhythmic, throbbing pulse that seemed to enter into the young man's mind, molding itself to his heartbeat. All around him, in a circle, stood the others, the initiated, their faces eager and expectant.

Before him, the pit of coals glowed orange. Waves of heat surged from it, washing over the young man. Naked but for a loincloth, his skin glistened with perspiration, sweat-slicked from the burning trial before him. The postulant trembled slightly, his courage ebbing.

"Be not afraid."

The voice was strong, dynamic, impossible to deny. The young man raised his gaze to the speaker and met his eyes, the dark, glittering orbs capturing his.

"Do not be afraid," said the man on the far side of the pit. "This is a trial of faith. You must place yourself in the hands of the Great Dragon. Worldly courage, worldly power is not enough. The test is not to face the flames, but to face your own heart. Do you have the will to abandon your empty life, your false ideals? To place yourself into the hands of one who can aid you, one greater than yourself?"

The postulant shuddered.

"I...I don't think I can do it!" he protested.

"Listen to me," the other man said. "Look at me. Listen only to me."

It was easy to do; the man's voice was compelling, lending him the air of authority. "You can do this, Lukas. You need only stride forth boldly, without hesitation, putting all your trust in the Dragon. Your faith is the armor that will shield you, for what is fire to a follower of the Master of Flames? Only should your faith waver, should you be worried and tentative, will you come to grief."

The drumbeat picked up the pace, becoming more insistent, urging Lukas on.

"Come, Lukas. Put your old world behind you. Accept the gift of the Great Dragon."

The speaker extended one hand to the young man. Quivering, Lukas drew in a deep breath, gathering his will, and then stepped forward, his bare foot coming down on the coals. He did not wait, did not hesitate, but took a second step, then a third, carried forward faster and faster by the drums and his own exhilaration until he reached out and caught the hand of the dark-eyed man, who pulled him the last step ahead until his feet were once more on cool sand.

With exultation, Lukas realized that he was unhurt! His feet felt warm, but no more. The leader took him by the shoulders and gently turned him to face the circle of observers.

"You see!" the man cried. "Lukas has crossed the Wall of Flame! He has put his trust in the Dragon, sloughed off his old self like a husk, burned free of his past by the cleansing fire! Now and forever, he is one of us!"

The crowd erupted with congratulatory cheers. The drums rose to a frenzy. Smiling faces pressed forward to touch and embrace, welcoming him into the ranks of those who had accepted the way of the Great Dragon. A cup was pressed into his hand.

"Go on," the leader said in his ear. "You are an initiate now. Join the celebration. It is only your due."

Then, with a gentle push on his shoulder, Zio sent Lukas forward into the revel.

* * * * *

Jason Cord eyed the waiting room's furnishings while the secretary was off conferring with her superior, letting the boss know that a hunter was leaving footprints on a rug that looked like a genuine Native Motavian weave from Molcum. Nothing but the best for the rich and powerful, he supposed. He was still looking over the paintings, though, when the secretary came back.

"Ms. Grant will see you now," she said briskly, holding open the door to the inner office.

That was fast, Cord mused. It had taken less than a minute from the time he'd walked into the building for him to navigate the bureaucratic obstacles and be shown into the presence of the woman herself.

As the door shut discreetly behind the hunter, Elaine Grant rose to greet him. She came out from behind her massive, glass-topped desk with her hand extended.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. Cord," she said. Her grip was firm enough to acknowledge the fact that many people--men--judged character on the power of one's hand without actually entering into that game.

"You're the one who's paying. I should be thanking you. Or why bother, since it's a business deal anyway?"

Elaine smiled wryly at him.

"And politeness is irrelevant in commerce? I've dealt with any number of merchants who believed I should thank them profusely for the favor they did of accepting thousands of meseta from me." The smile vanished and she added, "But in any case, this is not a business matter. It's very personal for me."

Cord was aware of that from the description of the job posted at the Hunter's Guild, but said nothing. It would have only made him seem arrogant and stupid.

"Come sit down and I'll give you the details," she invited. "Can I offer you a drink?"

Cord glanced at the sideboard.

"I'll take a mineral water, if you have it."

"Would you prefer Zeman or Termian?"

"I guess that's a yes. Zeman, I suppose."

Elaine took an opaque decanter of some kind of blue ceramic and poured two glasses of the sparkling water, adding a twist of purple-hued citrus vellan-fruit to each. The glass was surprisingly cool to the touch when she set it in Cord's hand. He looked up at her, curiously.

"It's a native Motavian cool-vial," Elaine explained. "It prevents heat from reaching the contents. Unfortunately, they can't be produced easily in bulk or I could make a fortune off them alone."

Cord could believe it. The hot, arid climate of the desert planet would make a reliable method of keeping liquids cold craved throughout Motavia. He sipped the water, which was more than refreshing to his dusty throat.

"But that is neither here nor there," the woman continued, returning to her desk, "and our business will not wait long."

As she seated herself, Cord studied her assessingly even as she did to him. Behind the desk, Elaine Grant actually seemed to grow larger, the force of her character filling the room. This, he decided, was the merchant princess, the confident, self-assured blonde in her white-trimmed green dress. Cord knew the stories, of course, how she'd come to Aiedo from Piata in her early twenties and built a trading concern out of nothing to become one of the city's leading merchants. In her late forties now, if she wasn't the richest woman in Motavia she wasn't far out of first place.

Undoubtedly Elaine had dealt with hunters before. The mercenaries, bounty-takers, and adventurers who belonged to the Hunter's Guild were useful for a wide number of jobs, not all of which could be carried out by a trader's own employees. Cord thought he was a fairly good specimen of the breed, slightly above average in height, square-jawed, with broad shoulders tapering to narrow hips. In battle, he was fairly competent with his axe and while he was no scholar he could back up the brawn with a decent number of techniques. The Eight-Stroke Sword, Alys Brangwin herself, had once described him as "competent."

Elaine, too, apparently decided that he looked competent, because she decided to continue with her story.

"As you may know, Mr. Cord, I worked hard in my youth to build myself up in business and because of that I married late and started a family even later. I have one child, a son named Lukas."

The facade of the genial host started to crumble at that point. The more she talked about her son, the more tension showed in Elaine's face, the more the worry lines stood out around her eyes, the tighter the catch in her voice became.

Like she'd told him, this wasn't business; this was personal.

"Lukas is fourteen years old. It's a terribly impressionable age, an age where a parent's word means very little."

That was certainly true. Often, adolescents rejected the values of their parents in a desire to prove their own identity, mistaking rebellion for choice. On the other hand, there were also plenty who rejected those values on their merits.

"The older he's gotten, the more...withdrawn he becomes. I've tried to give him a good life, but it's not easy, and his father died when he was only a boy, which couldn't help but have an impact. Now, though..."

"He's gotten involved with something dangerous?" Cord prompted, having a pretty good idea of where she was going. Drink, drugs, unsuitable friends, or all of the above, maybe with a dash of the illegal.

"That's it exactly. A couple of weeks ago, he started to associate with a group of people. I guess you'd call them a cult--the Children of the Amber Eye. I don't know how he met them, but he attended a couple of their meetings. After that, he couldn't seem to talk about anything other than the cult, their beliefs, and their leader, a man named Zio. I warned Lukas against them, but he didn't listen. They were his friends, he said, and they knew things, that this Great Dragon they worshipped was the true god of Motavia and that he blessed his followers with wisdom and strengthened their spirits through faith."

"All the usual crap, in fact," Cord noted dryly.

Elaine's eyes flashed with sudden anger.

"You may think this is somehow funny," she snapped at the hunter, "but it isn't to me. This man Zio is intelligent and charismatic and he is using those qualities to take advantage of my son! I don't know what they want from him, but they've turned him away from family, friends, everything that was once important to Lukas!"

"I don't find it humorous at all," Cord replied, keeping his voice soft but still firm. "I find it ironic that cults have been handing out the same line for centuries and they keep finding new victims to pad their ranks. That's all."

Elaine took a deep breath, fighting for control.

"I'm sorry. I only have one child, and he is very precious to me. I don't know if you're a parent--"

"I'm afraid not."

"--but when you are, the welfare of your child means everything to you. I know that I've made mistakes, but I couldn't stand to lose him forever--and especially not to those people. Now...now he's gone off to join them, and he refuses to come home!"

"They're holding him?"

Elaine shook her head.

"No...not unless you mean through his mind, through coercion. The first time, he ordered me away. The second time, they wouldn't even let me see him! That Zio told me that Lukas didn't want to talk to me and the Children would not subject one of their members to traumatic suffering against their will. That's what he called it--'traumatic suffering'! To speak with his own mother!"

This Zio definitely knew how to twist the knife, Cord decided. Just ordering Elaine Grant away would have angered and frustrated her, but having Lukas do it not only increased the chance that she would actually obey, but also tortured her all the more with her son's rejection. Cord wondered how much of it had been thought out, and how much coincidence. Was Zio acting out of self-protection or sadism?

It made a big difference in how he'd need to tackle the job.

"How long ago was that?"

"Two days. I considered using my own employees to resolve the problem, but decided to hire a professional hunter instead. The first hunter who took the job was, I'm afraid, completely unsuitable--a fighting man through and through."

"I'm a fighter myself," Cord replied.

"You may have to be, but you strike me as having a certain amount of intellect as well. I may be at my wit's end, but I do know that brute force won't free my son from those cultists' spell."

Cord nodded.

"That's true. Their power is over the heart and mind, not just the body, and if we can't free Lukas from their influence it won't do any good to bring him home."

"That is exactly it. I want you to keep him safe, but also to show him what sort of people these cultists are!" Her eyes flashed again, like glittering black sapphires, then grew wet. "Jason, my son is within a few short steps of being lost to me forever. I...I can't face it. Not ag--no, I couldn't!"

Cord nodded. It was clear to him that the boy's abandonment had brought home to Elaine the mistakes she'd made as a parent. He was determined that she'd get the chance to take advantage of the lesson.

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