On Candara, Dumarest, the captain and Nimino the navigator (who is a pantheistic religious fanatic) are called upon to adjudicate at a hearing on a primitive world because of their off-world impartiality. Nimino’s encyclopedic knowledge of religious ritual and Dumarest’s hard-earned appreciation of human nature pay off. They end up satisfying the locals’ thirst for justice, rescuing a woman falsely accused of witchcraft and turning a decent profit to boot, and Earl only has to kill one guy in single combat (although that guy does happen to be a 7 foot tall mutant).
The woman they rescued, Lallia, has a “wild talent” – an untrained and mostly unrealized psychic ability. She can sense an object’s past (and sometimes its future) by touching it, although doing so subjects her to considerable psychic trauma, which is worse the older and more troubled the object’s history. Touching the ring given to Dumarest by Kalin is particularly unnerving to her.
The truth be told, her psychic ability has far less to do with the witchcraft accusations than her attitude: she is far too pragmatic, self-confident and cosmopolitan to fit in on the backward world where she was stranded. As they travel, Dumarest falls in love with her. Now, despite falling into bed with a lot of women Dumarest doesn’t fall in love with many, but it does seem that Earl has a thing for sensitives: first Derai, then his beloved Kalin, and now Lallia.
Eventually The Moray lives up to its lousy reputation and crashes on Shrine, a world where numerous pilgrims go to be healed. Unfortunately, they have crashed an unknown distance from the landing field, and the rest of the planet is off limits to off-worlders. Nimino, who had previously denied any knowledge of Earth, is mortally wounded and confesses to Earl that he has not only heard of it, but is familiar with a secretive religious sect called The Original People who claim to be descendants of the first wave of galactic settlers to leave Earth. Then he dies. Between the crash and the perilous journey, only Dumarest, Lallia and Yalung the gem merchant make it to the shrine.
The Guardians, almost incomprehensibly alien, treat them as they would apparently treat any pilgrims. Dumarest deduces the shrine is actually an alien artifact, but sees no harm in seeking its help. The shrine heals their wounds and relieves their hunger and thirst. More, it seems to sense what is “crippling” Dumarest: the loss of his homeworld. It tries to “heal” him by calculating the position of earth to the best of its ability, presumably based on clues locked in his subconscious mind, details about his childhood journey away from Earth that he no longer remembers.
Unfortunately, Dumarest fails to reveal his suspicions to his companions before they contact the shrine, and worse, fails to realize the implications it has for Lallia’s particular psychic talent. She reveals that it is indeed an alien artifact, unimaginably ancient, crash-landed here millennia ago after an even longer journey from a distant galaxy, possibly some kind of sentient medical computer. Then she slips into a coma from profound psychic shock. She seems to be recovering somewhat, but dies overnight. Earl senses foul play and discovers that Yalung has killed her in her sleep.
Revenge is not immediately forthcoming – the merchant turns out to be a Ta’chung fighter, hired by the Cyclan to apprehend Dumarest and secure Kalin's ring, and who has been following Dumarest and biding his time until they reached a world where transport out of the Web could be found. Since pilgrim ships come here from all over the galaxy, and they now seem to be in no danger, this seems like a convenient time. He is also one of the very few characters in this series who can flat out kick Dumarest’s ass in a fair fight (and he does so). However, Dumarest’s considerable physical prowess pales in comparison to his wits, and as he goads the bounty hunter into revealing the plot, he also maneuvers himself into a position from which he can stage an ambush. He kills Yalung, takes the gems that were both part of his cover story and his advance from the Cyclan, and waits for the next ship of pilgrims to arrive.