Cold Moonlight Fire
Lukas Grant shivered as the cool night breeze struck him from one side and the heat of the flames washed over him from the other. The drummers played with an urgent drive, hands striking the hides stretched over wooden frames faster and faster. Half-clad forms swayed and pranced around the fires, singing and shouting, crying out to their god and thanking him for their joy. Never before had the young man felt so much like he was a part of something--accepted, supported, even loved by his fellow members, feelings he returned to them.
It had been, he decided, the best day of his life when he had been approached by the two members of the order. They had seen his despair and frustration and offered him hope.
Leaving Aiedo on his own would be difficult and more than a little frightening, but Lukas was sure he could face it. He was not the weak, timid boy he had been; he was ready to confront his destiny. And of course he wouldn't be alone; Lukas would travel under the protection of the Great Dragon, and with the spirits of Zio and his fellow members in his heart.
The drumming built to a frenzied crescendo and then, suddenly, there was an explosion of smoke and flame from the dais, and Zio stood revealed.
"Welcome!" he cried. "Welcome, my friends, fellow children of the Great Dragon!"
"We have come, Master Zio!" they chanted in response, Lukas among them.
"Tonight is a night of celebration! Tonight our brother Lukas prepares to go forth into the world. He came to us cold and alone, a victim of his past as we all were, but he goes out renewed in spirit, one with us forever in the Great Dragon of the Amber Eye!"
"Praise the Great Dragon! Praise Master Zio!"
The firelight flickered over Zio's handsome face, turning his skin to bronze brushed with shadow. His clothing seemed forged from liquid gold and living flames.
"Before he sets out, however, Lukas must receive the Blessing of Fire, so that he may carry with him the strength of will fitting for a Child of the Amber Eye, that when the world looks sternly upon him he can turn back to this day and know, without doubt, that he is one of us and strong in the blessings of the Great Dragon!"
"Lu-kas! Lu-kas! Lu-kas!" the others chanted, and a wave of warmth washed over the boy's heart.
"Let the rite begin!"
The drummers began once again, a steady, pulsing beat rather than the fevered pace from before. Simultaneously, the assembled Children took up a wordless chant, a song made up of sounds that conveyed emotion without the specific and limited meanings of language.
In his time with the Children, before becoming a full member himself, Lukas had seen this ritual only once before. Zio descended from his throne and escorted the boy to the fiery pit at the opposite end of the glowing coals. In the center of the pit stood the round platform, its top and the steps leading up to it covered with a heat-resistant ceramic so that the one who was to receive the Blessing could walk safely upon them.
As the chanters filled the valley with sound, Zio produced a delicate crystal bottle. He beckoned, and two attractive young women of the Children came forward from the crowd.
"Anoint his body with the sacred oil!" he commanded.
Lukas shivered slightly as they touched him, the oil cool on his fire-warmed skin, and he struggled not to be distracted by the tactile sensations. He instead kept his eyes on the firepit, where the flames leaped high. This was not hot coals, but a blaze that flowed around and beneath the platform. The one being blessed, he recalled, would stand there, in the center of the fire, symbolizing the flames of the Great Dragon that would wash over his soul as the rites were intoned by Zio. He trembled as the oil anointed his arms, chest, back, and legs until his skin glistened. The women returned the oil to Zio, and then withdrew.
"Step forth, Lukas!" Zio commanded. "Enter into the Circle, and receive the Blessing of Fire!"
The chanting rose in volume and speed both, backed by the insistent throb of the drums. His skin tingled slightly from the oil as he crossed the sand to the short staircase. He paused hesitantly at the base, the old doubts and lack of confidence rising inside him once more, but he conquered them himself, without needing the help of Zio. He set his foot upon the first step. His faith and will were rewarded; the surface was warm but no more than that despite the flames that licked at the metal underpinnings. He took the second step, then the third.
The screamed word was the incantation of a powerful technique for calling forth cold and ice, and in response to it a half-dozen bursts of violet-tinted light detonated in the firepit beneath Lukas. The chilling force snuffed the flames at once, even leaving the wood rimed with frost in places.
It was just in time, because as Lukas took the next step there was a great creaking of metal and the entire platform structure collapsed beneath him, tumbling the young man into the remnants of the fire. He took a few bruises and hard knocks from the chunks of wood, but no more. All around him the chanting and drumming stopped, to be replaced by screaming and shouts of surprise.
"Who dares disturb our sacred ceremony?" Zio roared.
"No one," a voice snapped back, a voice which Lukas recognized as that of the hunter, Jason Cord. "I will go so far as to confess that I did disturb your plot to murder your half-brother."
* * * * *
There was something to be said for a dramatic entrance, Cord decided. The cultists hadn't been particularly vigilant in watching for followers, so it had been an easy matter to creep up on them and observe the ceremony from the top of the rise. That gave him the chance to interrupt at the psychological moment.
"Murder?" Zio exclaimed. "How far have you sunk, hunter? Is that the best you can do, to make silly and melodramatic accusations?"
"I notice," Cord replied, "that you don't deny the other part of that. And, of course, you can't. You're Lukas's half-brother, born in Piata and raised in an orphanage there."
Zio scowled at him.
"It's easily proved from the city records. I confirmed it in one day. But then again, you don't even need that. Anyone can tell by seeing your eyes."
Cord beckoned, and his two companions rose to join him. Elaine seemed stunned by what had taken place, but coming face-to-face with a long-lost son as well as a murder plot against the second child would be enough to put anyone at a loss.
Lukas, too, seemed thunderstruck by the woman's sudden appearance. He looked back and forth between Elaine and Zio, as if trying to take in these new revelations.
"It was a brilliant and twisted plot, I admit," Cord continued. "First you tore Lukas from your mother, making him turn to you for guidance and protection. Not only does this put him at hand for the next step in your scheme, but it also gives you the chance to torment your mother all the more, as she sees Lukas drawn into your web."
"Torment?" Zio raged back. "I don't see a woman in torment. I see a woman who lost her prize possession asking for it back."
"Oh, Elaine's made her mistakes, I'll grant you that, but they weren't enough for you not to envy Lukas. You must have hated him, the child who was kept close to home and given everything while you thought of yourself as abandoned, discarded goods. And tonight you'd have had your revenge on both of them. Lukas climbs the platform, it collapses under him, and he falls into the bonfire. He might have survived that, but the oil he's covered in would have turned him into a human torch. You'd have destroyed the boy who got everything you didn't and torn apart your mother's family just as she did to you. A vicious plot, Zio."
"I'd have to agree with Jason," the hunter's second companion said. Sergeant DeVan was wearing his formal uniform, just so no one missed the point that he was there as a representative of the law. "I've known a few murderers in my time, but for pure, calculated cruelty, you're in a class by yourself."
Lukas was looking at his brother with an expression of stunned horror on his face.
"Zio...is it...is it true?" he stammered. Anyone could see what he was thinking: Please, Zio, tell me it's all a lie, a trick of my mother's and the justice she'd bought. "Are you really my brother?"
"The proof's right here," Cord cut off the cult-leader, not wanting to let him speak and spin a glib-tongued web. Though to be fair, Zio didn't look too smooth and plausible at the moment. "Adoption records sent by letter transmission from Piata." Cord waved the packet of papers, then tossed it down the slope with a flick of his wrist.
Zio pounced on the papers before Lukas could get anywhere near them, then ripped them apart.
"There is no need to listen to your lies, or to give them any more time than they deserve."
"Scared of the truth, Zio?" Cord taunted.
"It's true, isn't it?" Lukas whispered. "They're right. You do have Mother's eyes."
"Zio, please," Elaine said. "I never meant to hurt you. I just wanted you to have a life, a family, all the things I couldn't give you."
Maybe he finally realized that he couldn't lie to Lukas any more and so gave it up as pointless, or maybe he simply couldn't hold in the rage any more. For whatever reason, he turned on Elaine in a frenzy.
"You didn't even give me a name!" he roared. "I was nothing but a burden to you, so you threw me away as soon as you could just as if I were a bundle of rags or a broken jar! I was nothing to you, less than nothing, just an obstacle in your way! An accidental mishap from your pleasures! I should have been him," he screamed, pointing at Lukas, "showered with the benefits of your success, not scratching out a life on the streets and alleys along with the garbage and the beggars and the stray dogs!"
Tears filled the merchant princess's eyes, and Lukas shrank away from his half-brother's rage.
"That sounds to me like a mighty poor justification for murder," DeVan said.
"Murder?" Zio laughed. "What murder? No one is dead."
"It's still a crime to attempt murder."
The cult leader spread his hands.
"Come, Sergeant, where do you see a murder? All I see is an accident. The platform was obviously made of poor materials that gave way under Lukas's weight. We've done the Blessing of Fire nine times before without incident. The sacred rite is hardly a death trap."
Of course, Cord knew that was exactly what it was. Perhaps a loosened bolt, perhaps a rod of soft metal substituted for a key support, perhaps some kind of catch that held it all locked together that could be opened--a man with a background in sleight of hand and illusion had many options. There was almost certainly no way to prove an intent to murder. He'd have thought of that, for the inevitable Cityguard investigation that would follow Lukas's death. You couldn't put a man in jail for being an illegitimate child.
But, Zio had forgotten one of a performer's basic rules: know your audience. He'd let the ex-convict in him win out over the showman, played to the Cityguard instead of the crowd. The net result was that over forty members of his cult had watched their lord and master snivel before the law and wriggle through a loophole of "proof" rather than declaring his innocence and calling the whole thing a plot against the loyal followers of the Great Dragon. He didn't realize it yet, but Lukas did, because he felt it too, even more keenly.
"Then it is true!" he accused. "All of it! You just used me--even wanted to kill me--to hurt our mother. You twisted my mind against her, made me believe in this god of yours. There is no Great Dragon, is there? The entire thing was just stage dressing for your murder plot!
Not a half-bad speech, Cord thought. The kid's got some of Elaine and Zio's spirit in him.
A shocked murmur ran through the crowd. On the faces of some were growing doubts, while others were glaring with anger. The majority, though, were looking at Zio with an almost terrified desperation in their expressions, as if silently pleading with him to deny it all, to restore their faith in him.
"We may not be able to arrest you, Zio," Cord said, "but we can sure as heck run you out of town on a rail!" His axe still strapped to his back, he charged down the slope at Zio. Seeing the hunter coming for him, Zio bolted and ran.
Seeing their leader running like a coward, the faith of the cult broke completely. They charged after him in a pack as he ran towards the dais and, presumably, his hidden entrance. Cord didn't bother joining them--they'd make sure Zio kept on running for quite a while. Instead, he stopped next to Lukas.
"You ready to go home now?" he asked.
"Home?" the boy said ruefully, kicking at the sand. "After today, I'm not even sure I know what that is."
"I don't know. I mean, when you add it all up, you gained an enemy, but you also opened your mother's eyes a bit to some of what's been going wrong. All you really lost were some comfortable illusions, and what's so great about believing something that's not true, anyway? I wouldn't call it fun, but hey, if growing up was easy, everybody would be doing it."
Lukas looked up at Cord in surprise.
"You know, Jason, you're nothing like I assumed you were."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Just make sure to point it out to your mother when she's sending my commission fee over to the Guild."
"Hey, Jason!" DeVan called from the top of the rise.
"Can we get going, here? I'm missing my beauty sleep--and unlike you pups, I need it!"
"Darn right you do, Mitch. Remember, it's not too dark for me to see your face!"