Randrik woke as the first hint of daylight crept between the
curtains and a finger of torrid air drifted over him. The room
smelled of costly perfume and sex, and he felt sticky with both.
The woman beside him was deep in satisfied sleep, her
silver-streaked blond hair falling over her shoulders and lying in
pale silky ribbons against his skin. She had surprised him a little
with her willingness to experiment -- sturdy merchant-class widows
tended to be conservative in bed. Or maybe she was just hungry for
the company of a lover who gave the impression of wanting more from
her than just a warm body.
Ordinarily he wouldn't have given her a second look last night,
not with half a dozen eager "music-lovers" waving their charms
under his nose. She had come in with a couple -- her brother and
his wife from the resemblance -- and she had sat listening to his
songs while they drank and talked with friends at nearby tables.
She wore lavender, so she'd been widowed at least a year, and the
fact she wore linen rather than silk or satin said she was
comfortable and no more.
He took a break for a glass of wine, and as he stood to stretch
his legs she turned and smiled at him, and it was such a sad,
lonely smile that his feet took him over to her table almost
without his volition.
An hour later, when the three of them left, she dropped a note
in his guitar case along with a silver ducat. She was waiting for
him when he tapped on her door, dressed in her long hair and
perfume she probably couldn't afford and frightened by her own mad
impulse. He carried her to her bed and showed her how to drive away
He was tempted now to wake her the same way he had sent her to
sleep, but duty called. He was already late for his meeting with
his Aunt Callisa, and if she had waited up for him last night she
was not going to be in a particularly good mood. So, instead, he
slipped out of bed and into his clothes, wrinkling his nose at the
stale smell. If he decided he was feeling cooperative, he would
stop at home long enough to change and wash. On the other hand, it
could probably wait until after his meeting. He had a feeling it
wasn't going to take long for him to turn the Prime Seeker down.
The marketplace was just opening for the day as he strode
toward the sprawling Temple complex. Housewives and kitchenmaids
who wanted the pick of the day's offerings were wandering from
stall to stall and arguing over prices and quality. Wagons and
carts loaded with fresh milk, meat and produce from the outlying
farms rattled and rolled along the lanes kept free for them. The
sun came up as he neared the wide main gate where the Temple guards
in their black cloaks and red tunics were in the process of
changing the watch. Veering to the right, he followed the wall
until he could see the top floor of the Master's Residences.
Stepping back four paces, he ran and leaped for the top of the
wall, giving himself the least push. He gripped the top and pulled
himself up, walking along the top until he reached the back of the
Seekers' block. Jumping to the grass below, he crossed to the arch
that led to the stairway and ran up the three flights to Callisa's
The door was open, and the small table in the bay window was
set for breakfast. Callisa herself was seated behind the big
honeywood desk signing papers -- she did not look up when he came
in. She looked well rested, so evidently she hadn't bothered
waiting up for him.
Older than her sister by two years, Callisa nevertheless looked
at least five years younger -- the result of easy living in the
Temple, no doubt. She had the same dark-walnut hair as Elissia, but
her eyes were lighter, almost mist-colored, and her complexion was
the color of caramel with just a hint of gold.
"I'll assume you haven't eaten," she said as she sanded the ink
on the last sheet and set the document on top of the finished pile.
"The cuisine here is the only good thing about the place," he
replied as he slid onto the window seat and helped himself to a
biscuit. Callisa joined him, pouring glasses of poleberry juice and
filling his plate from the various bowls and platters. She ate
little -- a piece of fruit and a bit of cheese. When he finished
eating, she refilled his glass and waited for him to ask why she
had insisted he come. He let her wait.
"You're not going to make this easy, are you?" she said when
the silence had dragged on for long enough.
Since she already knew the answer to the question, he didn't
bother responding. Still, now that he had made his point, it
wouldn't hurt to give her an inch or two. She wasn't one to take
"So tell me about this dire emergency you can't resolve without
Pulling her back straight Callisa wrapped herself in her office
and gave him the full brunt of her Prime Seeker's glare.
"Don't flatter yourself, nephew. Dealing with emergencies is
the job of Temple Initiates, a position you refuse to consider. I
do, however, have a small task I believe you are the one best
suited to handle."
"In other words, all that desperation last night was just
another trick to get me here to listen to another recruiting
speech," he snapped. "Thanks for breakfast."
He stood up and started for the door. She held out until he was
one step from the sill.
"Randrik, wait! At least hear me out."
The pleading note he'd heard in her voice the night before was
back, and his curiosity was piqued. He turned around and leaned
against the frame, his thumbs thrust into the waistband of his
Callisa got up and started pacing back and forth, staring at
the carpet as if it contained some coded advice that would help her
get past his resistance.
"Very well," she said finally. "But before I make my request, I
have to explain something that we have labored very hard to keep
from getting out to the public. I want your word you'll tell no
Curiosity turned into real interest. He nodded once, and she
sighed and closed her eyes as if praying for a long moment. Then
she got up and bolted the door before returning to the chair behind
"About three months ago, as I expect you already know, all
travel between here and Estlin stopped completely," she told him.
"Since then, to our certain knowledge, no one from there has left
the country and no one who has gone there from here has ever
returned. They cross the mountains and disappear."
He nodded. That fit in with what the Beggar's Guild knew, or
rather, didn't know. For a moment something twitched in his memory
-- something he had seen or heard recently. It slipped away before
he could get a firm grip on it. Oh well, it couldn't have been too
important or he would have remembered.
"Why not use your Seers?" he asked. "There has to be one of
them good enough to find something out."
She closed her eyes a moment, her lips pale and tight.
"Just before this started, one of our best Foreseers told us he
sensed a new danger in the east, something he did not recognize
which he felt was deadly. Later, our Seers said there was a dark
shield over the whole country, like a great negative blanket. We
asked our best man to try to get through it."
She stopped again. Randrik was definitely becoming interested.
Whatever she had on her mind, it upset her enough to break down
twenty years of Temple training in emotional self-discipline. Nor
had he ever seen her hesitant in all his twenty-five years.
"And?" he encouraged, straightening up and moving closer.
Callisa started to answer, then stopped and stared at him for a
"I think it will make a deeper impression if you see for
They went from her quarters down a gravel path to a long, low
building behind the infirmary, far from the bustle of the center of
the complex. At a desk in the lobby, Callisa exchanged a few quick
words with the Healer doorkeeper, who handed her a ring of keys.
Motioning Randrik to follow, she turned down a wide hall and led
him through three sets of double doors to a section of the building
with a locked entrance. She opened the latch on the heavy,
ironbound door and stood back to let him precede her.
The impact of the aural energy behind the locked entrance
slammed into him and he staggered until he met a convenient wall to
"Gods, Randrik, I'm sorry," Callisa cried, throwing her arm
around his waist and supporting him until he could strengthen his
mental shield. "I should have warned you."
He didn't blame her. Like most non-empaths, she had no way of
knowing the effect all that insanity would have on him if he
weren't prepared for it. Even now he could feel it buzzing just on
the other side of his shield and he knew that he would end up with
a splitting headache if he had to stay here very long.
Assured that he was all right again, Callisa led him down the
hall and unlocked one of the doors. Inside, a man lay curled in a
ball in one corner of the room. He stank of urine and feces where
he had soiled himself and the light from the hallway fell on eyes
glazed with nowhere.
"His name is Simeon and he was the finest Seer the Temple has
seen in nearly a century. He volunteered to see what he could learn
about Estlin and told us he found a dark barrier all around its
borders centered in the Great Temple in Darmain," Callisa
explained. "He tried to go past it, and then he started screaming.
He went into a seizure, as if lightning were striking through him.
When he stopped screaming, we brought him here. He's been like that
Randrik looked at the ruin in the corner and winced. It was
alive, but nothing else. Whatever it was that made a human being
had been sucked away.
"And you really expect me to volunteer for this?" he asked in
Callisa went back into the corridor, summoning an attendant to
see to the patient before she closed and locked the door.
"No, of course not. We would never be permitted to ask that of
someone not associated with the Temple."
"I've heard that before, too. What do you want then? I can tell
you that the Guild is as ignorant as you are about what's going on.
Other than that, I don't see how I can help you. And would you mind
if we continue this discussion somewhere else?"
He didn't wait for an answer, just got away from the pitiful
wreck in the cell and out of the building as fast as he could. He
felt as if the miasma of the place had settled on his skin and was
clinging to both nose and brain. He knew Callisa was right behind
him, but he was tempted to just keep walking for the nearest exit
and hope she didn't follow him.
He wasn't too jangled to notice that she still hadn't told him
all of this had to do with him. She didn't need information; she
had plenty of other sources for that. On the other hand, he had no
interest whatever in ending like the poor bastard lying in his own
piss in that hospital cell. That kind of outcome was a better than
average possibility to anything she might involve him in, whatever
scruples the Templars might claim to have about using civilians.
"So," he said when she had finally caught up to him. "Is that
all you wanted?"
She grabbed his arm and dragged him to a stop, panting from her
efforts to catch up.
"Of course not," she managed at last. "I told you I needed your
particular knowledge. I have someone I want you to seduce."
A chime signaled the end of a class period and the quadrangle
where they were standing quickly filled with students and teachers
moving on to their next task. The interruption gave Randrik a few
minutes to convince himself he hadn't misheard. His loving aunt,
the woman who never missed an opportunity to criticize his
"undiscriminating" love life, really had said she wanted him to
seduce someone. He found he didn't like the implication.
"Were you planning to offer money, or just a nice little place
in a quiet part of town where no one will recognize us?"
Callisa winced at the bitterness in his tone.
"Please, Randrik, hear me out. I didn't mean it as an insult.
It's just that I know I can trust you to handle an extremely
delicate situation with some degree of consideration for the young
woman involved. I don't want her hurt."
"Why don't I feel flattered by your trust?"
She opened her mouth as though to explain, then closed it when
she remembered where they were standing. Slipping her arm through
his, she steered him back to her apartment, then closed and
relocked the door. Randrik leaned against the front edge of her
desk, arms folded and legs crossed at the ankle.
"You were saying?"
This time she didn't hesitate at all.
"Do you remember the young Adept I had with me last night?" she
"The Nomad with the poker up her backside? Vividly."
She sighed at his tone and gave him one of her "exasperated
"Her name is Perian, and she was found by the Militia hiding in
a hollow log near a Nomad encampment destroyed by bandits. She was
adopted by a childless couple in a village two days north of here.
The records show she was thought to be about five or six at the
"Her adoptive parents were violently prejudiced against Nomads
and were determined to 'save' her from the 'flaws' in her nature.
She grew up so indoctrinated with the belief that her people are
evil, immoral animals that she would have rejected them and her
innate abilities entirely if Nature hadn't insisted otherwise."
Randrik knew enough about Nomads to understand what she meant.
All of them had Power, and it manifested the moment they reached
puberty no matter how hard someone might try to prevent it. What he
didn't know -- and wasn't sure he wanted to know -- was what any of
this had to do with him.
"How did she get here?" he asked.
"A gang of local village men decided to find out if the rumors
about Nomad women are true. They waylaid her one afternoon and
would have raped her if she hadn't been able to outrun them. She
has been here five years, long enough to have reached First-Level
Master status despite the effort made to suppress her Talent."
She paused and looked at her toes, biting her lower lip. It was
the first time he could remember seeing her that uncomfortable.
"But? " he encouraged.
"But -- she is so terrified of falling into moral error that
most of her Talents are going undeveloped. She is an extraordinary
Healer, but lacks the empathy needed to fulfill her obligations.
And we are certain she has other, equally strong abilities that she
refuses to even consider."
He'd heard enough.
"So you and your fellow saints, in your infinite wisdom, have
decided that the best way to loosen her up is to have her get laid.
Wonderful. Too bad she runs to fast or those country clods would
have saved you the trouble."
Apparently, even a Seventh-Level Master still had some shards
of conscience left. Callisa blushed before she could stop it. He
Touched her, felt her embarrassment, and knew how desperate she
really was by the simple fact that she let him do it. She was
opposed to this plan, but she had been outvoted by the other
members of the Council of Elders.
"That is exactly why I need your help," she snapped. "As much
as I deplore your ‘romantic' exploits, I know you would never force
a woman. Unfortunately, I can't say I would trust anyone here to be
as considerate. I'm sure I needn't tell you the stories told about
Nomads. I can't stop the Council from doing this, but I can at
least try to prevent them from doing any more damage to the girl
than has been done already by giving her into the hands of someone
more concerned with obedience than with the girl."
There was still a great gaping hole in the story, and Randrik
suspected it was the point of the discussion.
"What does any of this have to do with Estlin and the zombie in
"I can't tell you that."
"Then I can't help you."
He stood up to go.
"All right! But only if I have your word what I tell you will
go no further."
He refused to answer, only looking at her steadily until she
had to drop her eyes. Whatever their differences, he wouldn't
believe she thought so little of him as that. He might be a
less-than-model citizen, but he didn't betray family.
"It has to do with the Book of Jeraltham. The last canto."
She knew he'd know what she meant. His mother had been
insistent on that part of his education as well, although he still
failed to see the relevance of much of it.
"You mean the prophecy of the end of the world?"
Just that quickly he made the connection. A great darkness
arising from the "House of the Sun" that would destroy every living
thing unless a "lost Child of the Forest" could be found to defeat
it. He tried not to laugh. He really did. For about half a second.
"And you think you just happen to have the Forest Child right
here in your hot little hands," he said finally, wiping tears from
his eyes. "If you can just get her to loosen up enough to let her
Power out so she can do it. You're telling me you need me to help
you save the world by romancing the Ice Virgin."
He sauntered over to the bay window and stood looking down into
the courtyard that abutted the Academy buildings. As if on cue, a
small, slender figure stepped out of the main door and descended
the stairs, obviously on her way to Callisa's office. Several
novices greeted her with respectful bows as she passed them, but
her only response was a stiff tilt of her head. Her feet seemed the
only part of her capable of movement.
She had her hood down, giving him his first clear look at her
in the light. Even from this distance, her large green eyes were
vivid splashes of viridian in the ivory-cream of her face, and the
sun lent gold glitter to her tidy braided crown. He still had no
idea about the rest of her -- her robe had to be at least two sizes
too large -- but when she happened to glance up and he got a good
look at her, he realized she would be a real beauty if someone got
all the starch out of her.
It might be an interesting challenge at that.
Callisa joined him at the window, and he caught a bit of the
affection she had for the girl before she locked him out again. It
surprised him, a little. He had never known her to become attached
to any of her proteges -- it went against every principle of the
Temple Rule and rules were usually very important to her.
Despite her insistence that she had asked him to take on the
job because she trusted him not to abuse the girl, though, he
wasn't in the least flattered by the idea that he was wanted for
his skills as stud and ladykiller.
If the boot fits . . ., sneered a nagging little voice in the
back of his brain.
The door rattled in its frame and Callisa hurried over to throw
the bolt. The Adept -- Perian, was it? -- glided in with only a
tiny moment of hesitation when she saw him. If she thought it was
odd that the Prime Seeker had her door locked in the middle of the
morning, she hid it admirably. The same couldn't be said for the
contempt in her eyes.
"If you are busy, Prime Seeker, I can return later," she said,
staring fixedly at a bare spot on the wall behind the desk.
"No, Perian, that won't be necessary. Randrik and I have nearly
finished our talk. Please sit by the window for a moment."
She obeyed immediately, and Randrik grinned. She moved as if
she were constructed of wood with a little wheel under her robes to
propel her instead of feet. They appeared, though, when she sat on
the edge of the windowseat, placed side by side and flat on the
floor. She folded her hands primly in her lap and fixed her eyes on
the back of beyond. As far as she was concerned, he was just
another piece of furniture.
"If I agree to help you, I do have a few nonnegotiable
conditions," he said, never taking his eyes off Perian.
If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn he heard a
quiver of tears of relief in his aunt's voice. Telling himself he
was every kind of fool -- and had no pride to boot -- to be
agreeing to any of this, he continued to watch the girl while
Callisa waited anxiously.
"I'm listening," she prompted.
"I will not stay in the Temple."
"I follow my own rules and I will come and go as I please."
"Neither you nor any of your Council will question my methods
or attempt to tell me what to do."