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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part IV


It might have been said that Cord was dissatisfied with the results of his visit to the Children of the Amber Eye. He wouldn't have put it that way, but then again, his choice of descriptive phrases would have made a sailor blush and cover his delicate ears.

Since it was evident that nothing short of violence would get the boy home without there being a major change in circumstances, Cord decided to take Mitch DeVan's advice and go to the Sands of Time bookstore.

It took quite a while to find the shop; it was located in Aiedo's residential district west of the great marketplace, tucked away in a back corner near the wall. It wasn't an easy place to find, and one look at the ill-lit premises choked with shelves of books told the hunter that the owner--and probably the patrons--liked it that way.

"Hello!" he called. "Is anyone home?"

"I'll be with you in a moment!" an indistinct voice shouted back from the depths of the shop. Cord waited, and a half a minute or so later a tiny woman popped out from around a bookcase. She wore a knee-length, sleeveless dress and elbow-length gloves, both a light gray color, and her hair was a short mop of chestnut. She could have been anywhere from twenty-five to fifty-five, and those were conservative estimates.

"Are you Mysta?"

"The one and only. At least, the only one I've met, though there are probably others somewhere. So who's sending the Hunter's Guild after me?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"On you, yes."

"That's the second time someone's said that today. I'm thinking about becoming an Academy professor."

"When a man is as at home in his job as you are, he shouldn't complain." She brushed dust from her gloves. "Now, what can I do for you?"

Cord shrugged.

"I'm Jason Cord. Mitch DeVan of the Cityguard told me to look you up."

"Oh, yes, I know Mitch. Smart man. He's like me."

"Smart?" Cord replied wryly.

"Yes," Mysta told him shamelessly, "but that's not what I meant. Like me, he retired from one job into another job because he was bright enough to realize he wouldn't be happy giving it all up at once. Plus, he gets just as much sleep this way as he would in any case."

Unable to help himself, Cord laughed.

"So, what can I do to help?"

"My latest job has brought me in contact with a religious cult, and Mitch said you might know something about them."

Mysta's smiling face grew serious at once.

"Yes, I do know a few things about cults. What's happening?"

"A young man ran off to join one, and his mother wants to get him back."

She tapped her gloved fingers together.

"Let me guess. Your young man is an adolescent. He doesn't have many friends or a serious interest in either a trade or education. Their home life isn't happy; either he's left on his own a great deal or there's abuse, probably the former."

Cord sighed heavily, then shook his head.

"Do you know, Mysta, that I'm getting really sick of that routine?"

"Excuse me?" she replied, a trifle affronted.

"The bit where you take one glance at me, listen to about a sentence and a half, and spit out an astonishing conclusion based upon some arcane process of deductive reasoning that leaves me feeling like a low-grade moron. You're the third different person that's done it to me today!"

Mysta looked at him, head tilted to one side, and then burst into a fit of giggling that made her seem much younger than her talk of retirement had made her appear.

"You poor man! All right, I promise: from now on, no more showing off. And, by way of apology, I'll get you a glass of sun tea."

"All right, I'll forgive you, but only if there's at least three spoons of sugar in the glass."

She laughed again, eyes dancing gaily.

"Done!"

Mysta vanished around a corner into the mazeworks she called a store, then reemerged with two tall glasses brim-full of dark amber liquid that glinted in the occasional shafts of sunlight that found a chink in the walls of bookshelves to shine through. She gave one to Cord and he sipped.

"Perfect," he sighed happily, letting the tea slide down his throat. "Now, I presume that you do intend to explain your little burst of mind-reading?"

"Do you have to spoil all my fun? Oh, well, if I must." She hopped lithely up onto a counter and crossed her legs all without spilling a drop. "Really, all I did was combine what you'd told me with the profile of the average cult member."

"Adolescent?"

"You were hired by his mother, which implies that she's in some position of authority over him. Besides, adolescents are one of the groups most often targeted as cult members. Cults seek out the disenfranchised, those left behind by society, and that often includes young people who haven't yet established who they are. That's why I assumed he was a loner. A strong social life with those his own age usually implies someone who is well-adjusted to society, or at least has adopted some counterculture ethos broad enough to include several other people. Likewise, if he was working towards the future, it implies that he believes in that future and doesn't need the alternative source of direction that the cult offers."

She sipped delicately from her glass.

"That was my weakest deduction, by the way. There are any number of cult members who have jobs or, even more likely, are students. It's all too easy to follow a path just because it's there, and the cult can offer an alternate route to take to those who never perceived that life offers a myriad of choices."

"All right," Cord replied. "That explains the abuse or neglect deduction as well. A strong family life gives someone a support network and guidance. Why did you assume neglect?"

"Two reasons. One is you."

"Me?"

"You're a friend of Mitch. That means that you are probably quite perceptive, and wouldn't take a job from an abusive parent. You might not be able to tell--it isn't, unfortunately, something that is obvious on casual inspection--but I give you credit for being able to spot the more evident cases, especially if you have met the young man as well."

"I have, and you're right, I don't see abuse there. Coddling is more like it."

"The second reason is that you were hired by the mother, not the parents. That implies that the mother is raising the victim on her own. That can be a very hard job, and the easiest mistake to make is to not spend enough time with the child."

"Well, you were right on every particular," Cord said, then finished off the last of his tea.

Mysta took another delicate sip of her own.

"I'm glad to be able to show off my wits instead of falling flat on my face. How is it, though, that you believe that I can help you?"

"I had hoped that you can tell me what to make of these people. The fact is, their leader confuses me. A young man's future is at stake, maybe his life, and I don't want to make the wrong choice."

"I see what you mean. Please, tell me everything you know about this cult, its internal workings, and most of all the leader, and I'll see what I can do for you."

Cord couldn't see any harm in it, so he told Mysta everything he'd learned about the Children and Zio, from what Elaine and DeVan had told him to what he had observed and what his conversations with Zio had been like. She didn't interrupt, merely nodding her head occasionally to acknowledge some point and sipping her tea.

"And as far as I know," he summed up, "that's all of it."

"Hmm. Well, I definitely would say that you have a cult on your hands."

"Not to be too blunt, Mysta, but I didn't really need expert advice to tell me that."

She laughed lightly and shook her head.

"No, what I mean is, you aren't dealing with a genuine fringe religion. I admit, I only have a sample of two to judge from, but these people don't worship the Great Dragon, they worship Zio. That's the difference. A religion won't go away if it loses its leaders; new leaders will rise from the faithful. A cult--"

She snapped her fingers loudly.

"--would go away like that."

"So it's a sham, then?"

"I didn't say that. Your Zio may believe in what he preaches. In that case, if he lives long enough to instill that faith in his followers, the cult may grow into a legitimate sect."

Cord's lips twisted in displeasure.

"Is that what you think of Zio?"

"I don't know; I've never met him, and I certainly haven't got enough information to state my conclusions with confidence. But I'd guess not. At least, the odds are on my side that way. He certainly seems to fit the profile."

"Does he? What's he after?"

Mysta dropped down from her seat, again not spilling any of her tea.

"That's not so easy to say. Generally, though, it's a power trip. The cult leader, in essence, becomes a god to his or her followers. Emotionally, they become dependent on the leader, whose approval completely controls their will and self-esteem. You'll get cultists who would kill their own children without blinking an eye on their leader's say-so, because their ideas of right and wrong have become so completely twisted out of balance. Sexual abuse is common in such situations, too--who wouldn't be honored to become the mate of their god?"

Cord snorted.

"I can think of a few better options, thank you."

"Well, so can I, but we're basically normal, if there is such a thing."

"You'd have to be crazy to begin with to get involved in this."

Mysta grinned.

"Exactly! Now you understand."

There were any number of replies Cord could have made at that point, but he didn't bother. Besides which, smart-aleck humor aside, he really was starting to understand what she was driving at.

"You're saying that the average cult member is someone who was a bit unstable to begin with?"

"Right. Most members are looking to belong to something greater than themselves, to find something that makes them feel worthwhile. They include young people who have had trouble at home and haven't found themselves, and the other major group is the depressed and poverty-stricken, the ones who have become hopeless. The cult offers these people a direction in life, a parent figure, and a sense of self-worth, and all it demands in return is total, blind loyalty. For someone in such a desperate situation, it isn't so large a cost to pay."

It was a sobering thought, and it made Cord stop and think. In truth, it wasn't so different from why anyone did anything--what was war, for example, but soldiers willing to kill because of their patriotism, loyalty to a "greater" entity to which they belonged? The only difference was that kingdoms and towns were bigger, included more people, so it was more acceptable to kill for them than for a tiny cult.

"Your story has one intriguing point, though. You genuinely believe that Zio was angry at your client's neglect of her son?"

Cord nodded.

"Yeah, I do. He was mad at her, all right. I think if she'd been there he'd have belted her in the mouth. There was a completely different intensity to it than in the rest of what he was saying. Frankly, it's what made me think the rest of his routine was a put-on. He's smooth."

"He'd have to be. It goes with the position--but genuine concern for his followers does not. The usual cult leader sees his followers as pawns and puppets, objects to fulfill his commands, not as people for him to protect."

"So why the anger? Zio fits the picture of a cult leader in every other way. Why the break in the pattern?"

Mysta shrugged helplessly.

"I don't know. Maybe it just happens to be something he can relate to. Even cult leaders are people themselves, with their own emotions and past hurts."

"Yeah...maybe..."

When it hit him, it was like a thunderbolt, or perhaps a breath of flame from the amber-eyed Dragon. It was all a web of speculation, woven from the sheerest thread, but yet it all held together. Cord knew it all, if only he could confirm it in time.

Unfortunately, time wasn't something he had a great deal of to waste.

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