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The Circle Cluster
The Circle Cluster
The Circle Cluster
Ebook2,474 pages38 hours

The Circle Cluster

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The Great Betrayer strikes to enslave the Proudhon on Troan. The Soul Slayer will try to seduce the Proudhon with pleasure and gifts, including a celestial virgin and a masterful slave. In the third book, the Proudhon surrenders to the Heart Harrower’s forces on Nuway, a planet with a punishing gravity to the Races. In the fourth, the Proudhon is taken to the secret society of Burydane on Edede, a planet in the Purze Sun System far from the Circle Cluster. In the fifth, the Proudhon acquires work in the Ministry of Essential Duty on Centre planet in the CentreRule administration. The decisive struggle takes place in the sixth and final book on Centre, in Photon Rain Forest, under the Huntuu Gilian Tree.

A stunning and gripping epic. By book three, I was so enthralled, I couldn’t wait to finish reading to the end of book six to follow the future of the characters and the outcome of the story. Strongly built characters with whom the reader will interact; there are some you cheer for and some you want to see get their comeuppance. I purchased this rather intimidating looking six book series with a healthy dose of skepticism. Since then I’ve been converted. Beautiful. It starts as a chase story and like a snowball rolling downhill gathers everything into itself faster and faster until it crashes into the Beginning One himself. A masterpiece a great epic with good characterization, a well developed universe and lots of action.

Release dateJul 4, 2010
The Circle Cluster
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E A (Edward) St Amant

E A St Amant is the author of How to Increase the Volume of the Sea Without Water, Dancing in the Costa Rican Rain and Stealing Flowers.

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    The Circle Cluster - E A (Edward) St Amant

    The Great Betrayer

    Chapter 1

    He was the Proudhon, supposedly a creature of strength and beauty, but he walked unsteadily, singing a song like a drunk whose brain refuses to focus, but especially today his mind tottered, confused, on the brink. It was snowing in the gleaming light, and icy specks melted on his face and hands. He sucked in the coldness, knowing that he should have been left to his bed, with Grey, his protector, snuggling beside him, their dreams commingling.

    He was late–he had missed his first lesson at the academy. Suddenly he had the impression of being followed. His subconscious tripped an alarm. Danger! flashed in his mind–not the word so much, but the image of an evil black-hearted creature from his dreams. The same thing had happened yesterday. No outer sense warned him, yet neither did he heed the inner one which did, that secret intuition, samasense.

    He looked at his gloves and a flash of his madness burned away his suspicions. He began to sing again, wrapping his great-winter coat around him and kicking up the snow, now the song was just a mumble to keep away the wraiths on a gloomy morning.

    Offspry was high in the horizon, partially hid behind thick purple atmospheric haze, and the smaller moon, Overspry, couldn’t be seen at all–the yellowish Mer sat low in the sky, almost completely obscured by clouds.

    It was cold, but the downfall was moderate. For a minute, he walked quietly through the silver snow, but the feeling of danger persisted. He picked up his stride on the walkway which ran parallel to an auxiliary droyrail. A huge white lypter, four or five times his size, alighted from a tree not ten paces up on the track.

    The feeling of approaching danger grew and he left the walkway and cut through a field of waist-high tawa-stalks, their great brown leaves frozen into positions of akimbo. When he’d climbed over the fence, he glanced back. Several dark shadows slipped in and out of the trees, as though they followed. He shook it off. Many said he was mad, more thought it, even some of his family believed it.

    An old-model passenger droy slid by on regular rail, maybe two hundred paces east. Its intermitted whirring noises came to him like a call. These images ricocheted off the core of his mind. They were like hammer-strokes hitting metal; always poking, never penetrating. He was both aware and unaware as though in a waking dream. He trudged through the snowy tawa-field. Suddenly, almost against his will, he turned on his heels. He was no longer able to ignore the danger-warning prodding his mind. There! At less than a hundred paces away, a diminutive slippery figure slithered behind a tree. He’d seen it. Clearly it wasn’t from a dream. It was real, black, and nefarious, like a sly master of the occult.

    Dark is the path of life, he whispered, imitating Grey’s distinct mellifluous voice, however, Alien, alien! flashed through his mind as well–the frightened inner voice. His innate sama-cunning was working without deliberately being invoked.

    No, he whispered, rubbing his eyes and adding, Nothing but a figment. A shiver went through him then; he had a devotion to the custom and tradition of Troan. In his mind, he wanted so badly to be normal and accepted–rational. Why then must he be an outcast? Was he not like everyone else here? Why did something underneath his mind say he didn’t belong? Conformity, like a false god, was his goal, but every day it pulled farther out of reach. In the distance, the winter-dead trees were bunched in with the coniferous ones to form a chaotic fancy in the snow. He knew without doubt that there was no lowly black killer creature from another planet there. Still, he stared at the jumble of trees for sometime to see if the entity might reappear. Finally, he turned away and rushed toward the academy’s property.

    The halls were quiet. He cringed, but then entered the busy cafeteria with long, graceful strides. He could be graceful when he thought no one was watching. Juice and hot cereal, he ordered at the counter, spilling the coins onto the floor. Chuckling began around him; they were all watching, waiting. He hated them, but he dared not look at them. He feared them.

    Here we go again, someone said loudly. More laughter followed as it always did. Their constant ridicule made him wish he was dead: everyone was always rude and the woman at the register had all but thrown the change into his hands.

    Damn them! he whispered to himself.

    He sat on a wooden bench at the back of the cafeteria and brooded. At length, he pushed away his half-eaten breakfast. Something extraordinary was bothering him. His DreamWorld was so close to the waking world today, and he felt both tired and agitated. He rubbed his eyes absently, only to find that he was crying. Startled by the tears, he jerked upright. The bench fell over with a crash. What’s happening? he asked himself with a whisper.

    More laughter followed; they were gathering around him – at least in his mind. Some were pointing. They seemed to expect some unusual trick from him. He heard – was quite certain he heard – What a clod! Did they mutter, Freak, or Fool? He wasn't certain, but others joined in now, and more still from the other side. Where were his brothers and sisters? They’d snuck out of the cafeteria in shame. He knew that every second, more students materialized as though from the walls to stare at him. He flushed dark red, an unnatural magenta that transformed him into an alien. He knew that his eyes were swollen and crimson now. He gasped, disoriented here among them, then he looked at them in anger, but they continued to watch him transfixed, growing, crowding.

    He sensed they detested him as much as he hated them. Standing alone in the center, he looked childish, inferior. Was he red? His skin took on a blue cast, the light glowing out from him in an unnatural manner. He stumbled forward and tottered. He heard their collective gasp, then passed out and fell to the floor.

    Why do they let him out? someone asked above the laughter. He makes a bloody fool of himself every day. Somebody should do something.

    One of the students shouted in agreement and walked back to his seat. Then they all stopped laughing. They suddenly seemed sorry, and expressions of pity replaced their scorn. Words emblazoned on a red pendant on the wall, as if silently waiting before, now cried out, ‘There is also love within these halls.’ And, abruptly, there was.

    But Arck Bolkant, the supposed magnificent and beautiful Proudhon, was not to see the storm lull. He remained on the floor like a half-extinguished ember. He was a slight glow of energy without motion. As he lay there unconscious, his mind withdrew into his flowered DreamWorld, a wondrous garden of incredible floral abundance. The color of his skin was white now, and it gave his face the soft, sculptured aspect of a religious statue.

    The others looked on, glued there by curiosity, but they kept back as if he were contagious. Only one dared approach.

    Stand back, will you, she urged impatiently.

    It was as though she were being directed by a force beyond her control–as though another power was impressing its will upon her. She had watched this strange boy many times, drawn perhaps by morbid fascination, and many times she had been overcome by pity. Arck, she whispered, wanting to be away from him, but still fascinated. Crouching down, she called him again, gently: Arck.

    In his DreamWorld, the fields of flowers were faultless in every infinitesimal botanical detail. Every flower was an affirmation of the power of the Greywheter Druid — Grey — an alien female Ariste leader who had woven potent and secret knowledge into his subconscious mind from the time of his birth. Each flower was delicately raveled, only half unreal. The garden had been constructed by her within his dreams over the past sixteen years; it now encompassed thousands of vivid flowers blooming in utopian fields and forests. It was his dream, his haven, and safe in the DreamWorld — where he could always retreat — he walked through his vibrant flowers, Bleeding Heart, Thorned Crowns, Hazel Lilly, Solo’s Seal were surrounded by countless others. A handful of bright purple blooms caught his eye. He descended to the black earth and knelt, then he saw the one–it sang with the voices of birds, and shone with the beauty of a lavender flame–the radiant, poisonous larkspur. Abruptly he plucked it from the ground, knowing as he did that it was forever gone from the DreamGarden. What have I done? He was aghast and an intense feeling of guilt flooded through him, as though he’d committed some unforgivable act. He had never picked a flower before. Why now?

    As if in reply, the soft female voice called lightly to him again.


    Did he have to go back so soon? His eyes opened. He stared up at a slim girl with braided hair and a cotton crewel top. His brown eyes looked into her green ones. At first he thought she was from his dreams; then he realized she was Strom, the girl he had been fantasizing about. He jerked his body to a sitting position, and banged his head on the heating vent behind him. A sudden smile warmed her lips, but pity showed in her eyes too. He tried to smile but couldn’t. He was too nervous. She looked at him and he suspected that she was calling herself a fool for doing so, but she continued to smile. With a tissue, she wiped his forehead. He looked at the red stain. He realized that he must have cut himself when he fell.

    Are you all right? she asked. He continued to stare into her eyes. Are you okay, Arck? she repeated even more softly.

    He was so helplessly bound by his demon that he could only hold her hand, and this he did while she watched him with increasing embarrassment.

    His tongue no longer existed. He prayed that he would be granted one single word: nothing. The vents behind him gurgled with steam. A puzzled expression played over her features.

    Arck, she whispered, trying once again to communicate, and moving her slender body closer.

    He could almost feel her.

    Arck, get up please.

    At length, he rose to his feet. The dance, he mumbled, terrified by the sound of his own words. He might never have another chance. I mean, well, the dance– He started again but could say nothing else.

    She groaned. It was as if her pity had bewitched her, but she knew to what he referred. The Charblind Youth Dance.

    She smiled and nodded.

    Breathing hard in amazement, he responded, Really?

    She nodded again. Her smile was gone.

    He withdrew his hand and released hers. He stood and straightened his clothing. She breathed a sigh of relief.

    Grey’s magnificent voice sounded in Arck’s head, Give her the flower, she said.

    Swinging his other arm around from behind, he answered her frown with a deep-purple flower glowing in a most extraordinary manner. It had flowing petals of perfect symmetry on a green fragile stem, the larkspur. It startled him as much as it did her. She smiled, spontaneously this time, impressed, before she could control her expression.

    It’s beautiful, she said softly, So unreal.

    Grey had created it with Arck’s help, or he had created it with Grey’s help. Strom accepted it like a reluctant virgin accepts a suitor’s bouquet. She knew he was alien, but the Larkspur’s doleful purple seemed somehow meant for her. She blushed, sensing she had done something foolish.

    Hard is the way of the spirit, he whispered to her.

    What did you say? she asked softly, but shocked as well.

    Nothing–it’s a saying.

    Her face took on a puzzled expression. I’ve heard it before, though. Someone keeps saying it in my dreams.

    Maybe Grey comes to your dreams as well.

    She shook her head in disbelief, but he could tell she knew who Grey was–that she had seen his alleged pet in her dreams.

    I’ve got to go, she said. She hid the larkspur in her bag and joined her companions. They were giggling. He could feel the flower already webbing its net of power over her. She had no inkling that a quirk of fate had just changed her life irrevocably, but he did. Grey followed his instructions, or he followed hers. He wanted this girl, and so did Grey. However, he wanted her for a completely different reason than the Ariste Druid.

    He looked out on the cafeteria as everyone turned away, and then at Strom. The deed is done, he whispered to himself.

    He thought then of Grey again. He appreciated her help, but he was concerned too about Taff Hart. He wasn’t in Gat right now, so Grey and he were safe from his judgment–free to charm the natives, but Taff was on Troan, and Grey was nervous about it and so was the Proudhon. Taff might ruin their plans. Not that Arck knew what they were; besides, it was all just a craziness and would soon pass. He didn’t even know what he was thinking. He didn’t even know if Grey’s voice was real. He didn’t know anything.


    There was not one anthem sung in this building during the planet-wide celebration on Troan, a holiday called Charblind. Years ago the ground had been turned over and there arose a great dark monolith exuding mystery, or evil, or fear, and here it stood in the stretching, yawning city, one skyrocket of architecture among a great many more before it; some far more fabulous, but none more sobering, than this dark, thin building. But it was here, later that same day, that Arck’s second protector, Doctor Taff Hart, also felt a nebulous sense of danger on Troan.

    The cry of war was still far away; a civil war in the distant star system, the Circle Cluster. War, where as yet no one fought openly. He was the leader of one of the largest factions in this impending war, and he sat more than a hundred floors up in this skyscraper, some forty light years away from the conflict about to begin in the Circle Cluster. It seemed an infinity from Troan. Yet war had been declared, and in an important sense, Taff Hart had been the one to start it. He had found the One Noloyd and he was himself a Kiji-Noloyd Holder.

    He thought of the war and of Arck, the intended leader he had helped generate and then hide, on Troan. Arck had been created to unite Taff’s allies against the regime of the Beginning One, the Being who ultimately oversaw all aspects of life in the Circle Cluster. Not that the rebellious factions wouldn’t unite without Arck–it was not that simple, but one fact overrode all others. They wouldn’t be victorious without the Proudhon.

    Taff sat alone paled by the moonlight of Overspry. His gaunt figure was a shadow in the glass behind him, and he pondered this and many other things. He was to visit Arck Bolkant tomorrow, in the northern village of Gat where Arck had been raised, a place once thought secure from detection by the enemy. Now, that assumption appeared false. He groaned to himself. Tomorrow would not be a regular visit. This must be the end of the Proudhon’s time on Troan.

    So Taff rose, fidgeting. He had thirst on the tip of his tongue and a headache threatening. He went to the water cooler and grabbed a paper cup from the dispenser.

    Tilly, he called down the hall, throwing back cool water and some pills. A stout, bald man ambled toward him from down a darker hallway. He was monkish and muscular, and looked like he might have been from another race altogether, which he was, a Tutan from the planet Echo in the Geehreels Star System.

    Taff returned to his big, bare office with its windows looking out over the city. His stout friend drew close, and waited behind him. The silence grew.

    Something is wrong? Tilly asked at length.

    Taff shrugged, not turning. It is pretty tonight across the city, hmm? he said, The lights are splendid. An array of bright colors sparkled over the huge city on this, the evening before the beginning of Charblind. Charblind was a celebration of the birth many centuries ago of a pivotal moral leader on Troan.

    We should not have come to Troan, Tilly. The Proudhon should have been hidden on the planet Goldage, on one of the islands protected by only non-sama warriors. We could have just left him, hmm? He turned looking to his longtime friend. We should have hidden him on Coldfire. Just you and me, and the crew. I uncovered the noloyd amulet. I had the right, didn’t I? Damn!

    What is it? asked Tilly, growing more concerned every second.

    I do not know. Nothing. They’re here, the servants of the Great Betrayer, I have felt them on the planet tonight. They sense the Greywheter Druid, hmm? Perhaps the Betrayer himself comes?

    Let us take the Proudhon and go. How hard can it be?

    You haven’t met him, Tilly. It is complicated. And the Druid alone is more trouble than she’s worth. You know that we and the Druids are like water and oil. Frankly, I can barely tolerate the sight of her. She has tinkered with him too long as it is. Tinkered irrevocably, I fear, especially with his mind. She might even have tried to destroy him for her own purposes. Why did we go before the Council? Damn. Why? He is flawed now. We were to nourish him in this place, but he’s been turned over to the Greywheter Druid’s keeping, that anarchist priestess!

    Taff, we did the right thing.

    No, I think not. Anyway, prepare to cover our tracks, Tilly. I would like to come back some day, you know, maybe after the war. I have spent too long among the Troaneans; you fall in love with them after a while. Anyway, you know what to do. After a night’s sleep, I am leaving. He paused a moment. Yes, I am sure that tonight I felt the Great Betrayer's lieutenants on the planet. They’re here, searching. If we’re lucky, it's no one powerful and they search blindly, but as soon as they sense the Druid or me, they will know. So pack up. After Charblind, I will be back with the Proudhon. It’s too late to negotiate Greywheter out of this arrangement, so expect the Druid as well. Hopefully, there is no other. Arck doesn’t understand much, some times he thinks it’s a dream. Grey has put him in such a fog that he could quite possibly demand to bring his whole Troan family. And they know as little of the Cluster as he does. Damn, why did she keep him so ignorant? Why did we go along with it? If anything happens in the interim, seek out Fern at the Fault.

    Tilly nodded, turning and leaving as quietly as he had come.


    All through supper, story-time, and the whole night, Arck Bolkant dreamed he was lost inescapably in a somnambulic, dissipated life; he dreamt sexual, violent, and frightful dreams filled with illusions visionary in their elaboration and untroanliness; dreams which always harked back to a single, simple entity cradled in an inception where everything is one with the whole. The dreams were real in every respect, except for the fact that he slept. The dreams were of power, unsought and untold power, dreams magic and rational, some world-rending, others, indifferent. Finally, he dreamed of a thousand flowers in fields and forests — FlowerWorld — and slept calmly in a haven from thought.

    Arck, his mother called to him the next morning, Arck. She made her way through the pendants and the array of dirty clothes of his damp basement room to shake him out of his nightly trance. Every morning, this was the ritual necessary to rouse him. Whomever took him from FlowerWorld, he cursed without thinking, even his wonderful loving mother.

    He slept completely naked. In FlowerWorld, there was no shame. The covers were on the floor, twisted as though from a struggle. Fonny gathered back her black hair and studied him, his naked pale body. Arck, get up, she whispered.

    He stumbled to his feet, cursing her in what she certainly took to be gibberish — the languages of the Cluster — and what his brothers and sisters called the tongues of demons.

    She closed the door softly as she left. She said he had a sickness of the mind and a sleeping malady. She prayed for him that it would pass–he hoped it would too. She only had a vague suspicion that her natural son died at birth; she didn’t know this as an absolute fact and neither did Arck. She was a good mother, instinctively loving and protecting him–he loved her dearly.

    Rem, his father, and the rest of the family, except his younger brother, Tob, were far less compassionate toward him.

    Let him remain sleeping, Arck had heard them say. He’ll awaken soon enough, or, Let him go hungry, he’ll come for dinner sooner or later.

    Theirs wasn’t the silver and gold of unconditional love. They were set against his madness. They could see that his mind was upside-down, but that he possessed some mysterious cunning, not normal, but effective in its way–and they were right, he supposed.

    Half asleep, he walked across the cold basement floor. His feet felt like concrete. His mind was a fog. He let the shower head spit scalding water along his body. Grey, he groaned from the shower, but she didn’t come. He thought of facing another endless, boring day at the academy.

    How can I make it through even one more? he whispered to himself, towel-drying.

    As he stepped out of the bathroom, he looked carefully around the large basement. Arck, Fonny called down. Breakfast is ready. Will you eat?

    Ta-de jaye, he shouted, nona, novnaa!

    Like all the other mornings, he spoke the Naja, his home-tongue, but not a language of Troan and therefore no language at all to his family. He thought he saw a shadow flicker across one of the windows into the backyard as he made his way upstairs, yet he was sure it wasn’t Grey. This didn’t alarm him as it should have. Half impressions taken half asleep were a deadly brew for him. Fonny looked over with her motherly attention even as he came up to her in the kitchen. She thought he was getting worse. He could see it in her eyes. She hugged and kissed him, tightening her arms around him. Oh Arck, what will happen to you?

    He kissed her back, pecking her cheek lightly, and imagined he was a summer prince trapped in some winter palace long forgotten; he was the ghost of a vanquished king.

    You look nice, she whispered in his ear.

    He knew she was lying, but he didn’t mind. She desperately wanted better for him–she was a good mom and he was pale, sometimes, he looked bloodless, a being from the moat instead of the castle. Was the Bolkant family not wealthy? Were his brothers and sisters not well attended, well adapted, and just plain well?

    Lav-ta ra mourne! he said softly. Loooala malohoaooa! This was from the Maullers and it meant, I understand everything and I understand nothing.

    He threw on his winter over-garments and left. She shuddered as she watched him go–as she always did. As his feet fell into more or less even paces along the snowy sidewalk, sudden fear made him stop, but then he chastised himself, This is the same madness as yesterday and the day before. He looked for Grey.

    The night of his birth — or so he had been told — sixteen years before, during a windy, rainy storm, the strange feline-creature had come to the mansion. Grey was half-drowned when Keaton, his oldest brother had rescued her from out of a violent disdrone, a hail-lightening storm prevalent in these parts of Troan in the late summer. She looked starved, and she was injured, though how or by what, no one then or since had discovered. She had large, protruding eyes, and a finely-shaped, oblong head. She had been a pathetic feline creature that had come out of the storm, an animal that looked caught in some evolutionary transition. Trained, though; the family could see that at once. From a circus maybe. They inquired later, but in vain, and their inquiries had been half-hearted at best. Grey’s milky grey fur and wide kitten eyes captured the affection of the entire family, and so this secretive, adroit being had been received into their household without reservation.

    As Arck got older, he had known there was more to Grey than they could guess, some mystery beyond their grasp, well, Arck didn’t catch on too fast either, he was born as everyone else seems to be, ignorant of everything but how to suckle. He remembered the stories Fonny told him of how the gray, furry creature had lain claim to him as a new baby, so that he was never out of her sight. As he slept and grew, she, a rogue lying under his crib, would enter his dreams, building, constructing, always rearranging his thoughts, raising beams to support the columns of what would be his future lunacy, creating an edifice without egress, structuring the architecture of his mind without a flaw, except that it was built around a maze without a key.

    The Bolkant mansion was old and grand, a quiet, rambling sort of place, which he knew contributed to his expanded dreamscape. Always, the DreamWorld was fabulous, while the waking world had become, over the years, no more than a necessary evil to him. He hated it. The DreamWorld was so clear and precise in his perception that reality paled by comparison.

    His allies, the Zoraselmains — Zoras — had transplanted him on the coldest and largest continent of Troan in this secluded, far Northern culture for protection from his enemies, the Chrisarmains. These thoughts were vague impressions, though, which he saw only through the dreams–volscyl dreams. He knew that some of the Zora’s leadership thought he had gone mad and that Grey goaded them. Arck laughed at it all. He wondered seriously if he had gone mad. Always the same mad dreams, and still dreaming yet. Mad. What wasn’t mad?

    He knew through these dreams that his lineage somehow protected a science, sama, first founded by Hittiteans. It was the study of subatomic activity and led to the invention of annujet weapons. The Ariste Druids and Freeguard Wizards had refined this study and crafted noloyds, devices of great power and destruction.

    Like yesterday, Grey had again left him on his own, but why was he alone when he felt such pressing danger? Even though the snow was deeper than ever, he took the shortcut through the field–again he was late for lessons.

    Then it happened. A black krywolf shot out toward him, some three hundred strides or so away, running with a great, swift gait. No. It wasn’t a krywolf nor canine-looking in any respect. His mind reeled as he focused harder. The illusory creature of yesterday had suddenly become real. It rushed toward him with its black teeth in either a grimace or a grin. A coal-colored creature, it was two-legged, bent over, swift and gruesome to behold. He knew at once — from his volscyl dreams — that the chilling creature was real; it was a cloned-artificial creature, Bonelve, a servant of the evil, powerful Great Betrayer, who was Power–Dread Power.

    Now it was only a dash and leap away. He tried to shake off his paralysis, but couldn’t move. He was fixed to the spot as though bolted there by fear, yet the thing drew up at the last instant, no more than a breath away. There was a second of a silence between them.

    The Bonelve’s naked body was covered by a protective winter cloak–an ynklet. He was half a Troanean’s height, perhaps shorter, covered with thick shiny grease as though the ynklet was inadequate. A malevolent expression distorted his face. Sinewy muscles quivered and rippled throughout his short body.

    What do you want? Arck asked in Troanish, his voice shaking with fear and loathing, but knowing enough not to speak any of the Cluster languages.

    The creature spoke then, Is it you Proudhon?

    It was an eerie gibberish to Arck’s ears, yet somehow he knew that it was a dialect of Ace, the official language of the Cluster, and he understood every word, although he pretended not to.

    The Bonelve sneered, You cannot be the one who has been hidden; you shake before me like I was the Master himself. You can’t be Freeguard. He chuckled with a ruthless grunt but looked completely perplexed. Should I spare you in case it is the other?

    He paused, considering this question and Arck stupidly nodded encouraging him.

    I should, he continued. We would not want to tip off the druid, would we? No. Yes, it must be the other one, the younger one, she protects, not you. You’re often together, so it is hard for poor, poor Lyck. Lyck serves Vupec–he’s a cruel Vilemarc. Vupec serves Bandor, who if you don’t know, serves Eft himself. Do you see the vortex?

    He knew who these creatures were. Eft was the Great Betrayer, whom Grey called Dread, or sometimes, Power. In his dreams the Great Betrayer stood as a giant descended from a race of giants, the Spurls. The Proudhon’s enemies had found him but he continued to look baffled, after all, he was fairly certain he was defenseless.

    I leave you here unharmed for just now, Lyck continued in Ace. Do you mind? Ha, ha, ha! I will come back and have you both together and I’ll enjoy it much better– He stopped and stared at Arck’s hands. Oh look at you quake? Ha, ha, ha!

    Laughing still, he took out a cylindrical-scanner and waved it near Arck’s head. Arck knew it was an etecc-kloacer, a device which creates a scepter-mirage on brettiscreens or can be made to erase memory, but it wouldn’t work on him. Arck forced an empty smile, and after a minute of applying the etecc, Lyck turned and ran with astonishing speed until he was out of sight. In a moment, Arck could breathe again. He looked back at the field. Only white silence remained. His heart was still pounding. What had the creature meant by his insane rambling?

    Did that really happen? he asked himself.

    He looked at the tracks the Bonelve had left and realized he had absolutely no idea. Would the Great Betrayer, if there was such a creature, personally come after him? He certainly hoped not. His Bonelve slaves were scary enough.

    Chapter 2

    Taff Hart had left some hours ago. Tilly Croft walked over to the gigantic pane of a window looking south and watched black sedans propel themselves furiously from underneath the Continental Towers, on last minute errands. Behind him there was a shuffle of noise, and he turned back to the tasks at hand.

    What is it? he asked the nervous male who approached. It was Reed, one of Taff's assistants, who, like Taff, was a Hittitean from the planet Hittite in the Maje Star System of the Circle Cluster.

    Nothing, I was taking a break from packing, the young man said timidly, in the same language Tilly had spoken, an interracial tongue called Naja. Why the sudden rush?

    The Captain is pulling the Proudhon out of Troan.

    The young man looked shocked, but then smiled. Whatever for?

    Tilly looked back sternly, trying to find out if Taff’s apprentice was putting him on. He knew that he should never have let his fondness for Reed affect his objectivity. A smile like that from one of his Tutan troopers and he would have taken punitive action. You are a devil, are you not, Reed? Figure it out then.

    Tilly, you are such a bad-mouthed fellow, Reed said jokingly. You Tutans do not travel with your lovers and so you are always burning-up. He smiled broadly.

    Tilly’s stern expression lightened at this. His half-concealed grin, combined with the look of youthfulness that all Tutans retain, and the tremendous body strength all Keatra-Warriors develop, made him look more like stone than flesh. Oh go again to work, he said, turning back to the window.

    Tutans, both male and female, were hairless. Their solidly rounded bodies held small processing-stomachs, making them constant eaters. They had large eyes which were often covered with veils, glasses, or protection of one sort or another. Troan was ideal for them, as Echo, their home, was similar in climate and gravity. Here, they survived more comfortably than their Hittitean companions.

    From the beginning of his training, all the way to a full-fledged warrior as a SelmaKeatra Captain, Tilly had suffered little from loneliness. Many worthy people followed him. And he knew that some day, with their help, he would be standing beside the Proudhon, and be sworn the Tutan leader of Echo.

    Tilly had no army and had no Pulsarite ally; but he had Taff Hart as his trusted friend, and he had wealth and connections– he was in the enviable position of being part of the Proudhon’s original entourage.

    He knew that the esteemed SelmaKeatra Warriors from the Tutan race would be the Proudhon’s personal bodyguards in any new order. This too would help his prestige.

    Yes, one day on Echo, he would be the Tutan’s freely-chosen leader. That is, if the Proudhon overthrew the Beginning One and the Freeguard defeated CentreRule–to say nothing of whether the Zoraselmain rebel movement ousted the ruling Chrisarmains. So many possibilities existed and so many levels of oppression to overcome.

    ‘Good God,’ he thought, ‘Taff is afraid the Proudhon is mad. Perhaps I am mad.’

    If this, he said aloud in Tremun, one of the Tutan’s main languages, if that. Bah! But who can stop wondering?

    He stood in the pale silver light coming through the window. If it were true, if Arck Bolkant was insane, it was the Druid’s doing. Tilly had no doubt on that score. The mere thought of Greywheter stoked his anger. Tilly loved many things, but Druids were not included. He hadn’t trusted one single one he had ever met, especially not the one with the Proudhon. A tribal heritage of animosity intensified his dislike.

    The SelmaKeatra Captain turned from the window and went back to supervising the task he had set out for Taff’s Freeguard troopers.


    That afternoon at school, Arck had to sit in the auditorium with schoolmates and listen to the choir sing anthems befitting the planet-wide celebration of Charblind. To Arck, it was better than classes. He looked for his beautiful Strom, but didn’t catch sight of her. He felt like letting his mind drift into FlowerWorld. The seats on either side of him were empty– as usual. Grey had once told him that there was some danger while he was in FlowerWorld that the Beginning One might detect him, so he resisted as often as he could. It was hard. When the choir ceased, the students were all dismissed for holidays.

    That afternoon when he came through the porch side-door of the Bolkant Mansion, he was absolutely elated. Charblind was here and he had a date with Strom. His sister, nine-year-old Jan, was playing some little game on a pile of boots and scarves in the coat hall.

    Hi, he said.

    What’s with you? she said crossly perhaps surprised at his apparent happiness.

    Nothing, he mumbled turning red and leaving her there. He made his way into the warm-scented kitchen. His seven-year-old sister, Grace, the youngest, came running toward him.

    Taff is here, she yelled. Taff is here.

    Her mother smiled down at her. Doctor Hart to you, she said smiling.

    Arck felt much trepidation at the sound of Taff’s name. Taff knocked quietly but all the family had spotted him coming up the driveway as soon as he reached the door. He was received with a great fanfare and a cold wind swept up behind him as the door closed.

    At once he was surrounded by Di, Jan, Larska, and Grace. He threw his luggage aside in trade for Larska, who was suddenly in his arms. Di, the oldest of the girls at eleven, was brimming with expectation, but Grace and Jan skipped and shouted with joy.

    Can we help with the parcels Uncle Taff? they asked. Did you bring your cane and the cards that glow?

    Taff laughed, already beginning to weave his magic. Arck caught his eyes and saw his concern–maybe there was anger there as well.

    Arck’s brothers were all older and shyer than his sisters, but excited nonetheless. Taff exchanged smiles with them. Arck caught his secretive look at Pom, the live-in housekeeper. She was tall, pretty, and pale, and for nearly sixteen years, she had been with the family– no one had yet noticed the coincidence.

    Ah, my sweethearts, Taff said. How are you? His voice was full of love and kindness. There was no reply distinguishable in the commotion. Keaton, he continued, smiling, See to the gifts in the black seat, please? No shaking or peeking! He nodded toward the door, and as afterthought, said, Don’t touch anything inside the droy.

    Uncle Taff, can I go? Tob asked with an innocent twelve-year-old grin.

    Can’t see why not, hmm?

    He looked up at Fonny and embraced her gently under loran-ivy wreaths. She hugged him, tears springing to her eyes. The joyful faces of the older family members began to take on a more sober aspect. Irresistible warmth emanated from Taff’s face and softened his lips with tenderness. Fonny’s moment of making strange faded. She smiled again as she looked into his eyes.

    Arck could tell, Taff was glad to see them, and knew that he had always cared deeply for Fonny, but suddenly he had the fear that it wasn’t anything like concern he had seen in Taff’s eyes, but pity–Taff had come to take him away and felt sorry for everyone. Arck had a sinking feeling and wondered how Taff was going to do this.

    As the family congregated, the good humor and noise grew, spreading the joy through the mansion. The Charblind-ivy plants dangled in the archways, lavishly tangled, its white berries hung in webs from beams and cornices — all was a web — the hanging vine was a custom of Charblind. They moved as a group into the large, pine-paneled living room. The sound of bells and chimes rang from another door, which allowed the cold afternoon air to enter, along with Tob and Keaton, respectively the youngest and eldest of the boys.

    Mal turned on a huge Charblind decoration which lay waiting like a giant toy. It spun slowly in the corner with its tiny lights flashing. Stearn, the second eldest played an odd thumping reproduction of a choir which sang of the glory of a greater past, the melody and verses such as this celebrated all over the planet this time of year.

    All around were well-being and good spirits. Photographs decorated the Bolkant’s varnished wooden walls. A large placard hung with words embroidered on it, asking the Supreme Being to bless their home. Above this was a photograph of Tob and Arck.

    Taff studied it a moment. In the photograph, Arck’s arm was clasped firmly around Tob, three years his junior. They were standing front of large broad-leafed trees, jasps and poples. Tob, though Arck’s brother, was also his only friend. The quaking jasps in the picture didn’t completely hide Grey’s eyes. She peeped out from behind at the photograph’s edge. The Ariste Druid was an inheritance gift that as the Taja Proudhon, Arck had been promised by his real father; a promise kept by Taff.

    Grey had told Arck it was a promise that Taff regretted he had ever kept. Grey thought that was funny — Druids have a strange sense of humor — but Arck didn’t get the joke.

    Taff, Fonny said, pulling the Wizard’s attention away from his scrutiny of other family pictures on the wall, Will you have a drink with us?

    A drink is fine, he said. Sko, in that goblet I like so much. Is it still to be found?

    Mom and Di hurried out of the room to look. Taff put Larska on her feet and patted Jan with his other hand.

    Tricks? he asked with perfect composure.

    Gifts, was the answer shouted back. Gifts now, tricks after supper. Everyone shouted with excitement, including Arck.

    Gifts, he said. Who’s first?

    Me! Me, Uncle Taff, Larska cried out.

    Larska it is, he announced, giving them all a smile full of mischief. His height and slim body allowed numerous nooks and crannies in his baggy suit to be filled with surprises. As if out of thin air came a bundle of crimson and sapphire pick-up pegs, a chocolate egg, a necklace with a gold heart, a deck of cards with gold trim, a small stuffed animal that looked surprisingly similar to Grey, and a bright green and black Betty Beetle Bug.

    Larska laughed, enraptured. The gifts were presented from behind Taff’s back or around his ears, from up his silk sleeves or from under his feet. Presents appeared from everywhere, from nowhere. Arck noticed Grey was nowhere to be seen.

    Taff rose above them like a man bred to dispense magic. His eyes flashed and his smile was rich. His thin face wore an expression of kindness and happy optimism–a cheerful little speech introduced each presentation. Grace watched her treats appear, squealing louder and louder and jumping at each one. Jan, torn between the abandon of her younger sister and the reservation of Di, tried to copy the older girl, but sounded more and more like Grace. Di smiled quietly, and stared at the mysterious splendor as the spectacular gifts were handed out.

    Are Troaneans not wonderful creatures? Grey said in Arck’s mind. Arck turned around and she was behind him, peeping from behind a key-tone music-box. The boys circled the room, hovering just out of reach. Among Keaton’s gifts was a coin called in the Circle, a catsluug, inscribed with The Racer’s Athletic Prayer:

    Bring Forth the Fruit of Troan

    So that Troan is Served:

    Plant the Seeds in its Orchards

    So that the Tree is Preserved.

    For Stearn, a studious boy, there was a medallion of pink gold, a bust of antiquity’s greatest thinker in a circlet of laurel. On the back were engraved the words, ‘Heart, soul and mind as one. - love, Taff.’ Stearn smiled shyly and then, flustered and turned red.

    Taff continued. Here we go! For Mal, he produced from his cupped hands an emblem intricately carved in gold, in the shape of a sickle-quartered moon. Arck immediately moved up and took a closer look. It was the emblem of a most secret society–an amulet of protection from a group of provocateurs and assassins so powerful and cunning that even one of those beings on Troan would be an army. Its brilliance was reflected in the pleasure on Mal’s face. Arck knew that Taff particularly liked Mal who was silent, taciturn and well mannered.

    It’s beautiful, Uncle Taff, Mal said quietly. It’s, hum, like . . . something from another world.

    That’s it, Taff said, laughing. From another planet, hmm? His laugh sounded like chimes. That’s it, Mr. Mal Bolkant. You have guessed it so well, I must give you another gift.

    The irony hung in the air unnoticed. Troaneans have no awareness of other worlds. They thought they were all alone in the universe, that their God was the only God, their religion, the only way for right living.

    Taff spun his hands slowly. Suddenly at the tip of his index finger he produced a rugged gold chain, rotating and spinning it. Its color was a perfect match to the quartered-moon medallion. He tossed it to Mal.

    Arck watched in wonder. He had never before seen the full effect of Taff’s showmanship. Tonight, Taff had obviously decided he would excel, and this concerned Arck more than everything. He could feel Taff’s magic–Arck was afraid that his time was at hand. His brothers and sisters began laughing. He had always known it would come to this that in deception or madness, there would be either truth or sanity.

    Mysterious are the matters of magic, Grey said in his mind–Arck realized it was a joke, but he didn’t laugh.

    Taff made an exaggerated bow and returned to his magical presentations. Now, just a while longer, he continued. He grinned and gave Tob a wink. I believe someone has been missed?

    In the space of a heartbeat, he spun his hands then curled them together. From nothing but the empty cup of his hands, a spark started to glow, behind slow rising smoke, like a distant meteorite. There was a sudden bright flash, then it flickered to green and yellow, an alien flame, and his fingers held a large, radiant gem. Everyone gasped and Arck fell back on the floor, nearly landing on Grey.

    What is it? everyone asked, laughing but shocked as well.

    Standing in an archway, Fonny watched from under the hanging ivy vines. She looked as nervous as Arck.

    Here then, Taff said, holding the gem out to Tob. It’s called the goregem.

    Tob was so eager for this astonishing supernatural glowing object that he tripped on his own feet and fell face first. Everyone laughed and with one hand Taff picked him off the floor and set him to rights.

    Someone will think you are Arck, Stearns said.

    Arck didn’t retort with anything other than maybe just a quick half-frown.

    Taff opened his hand and placed the stone, now turned opaline, into Tob’s palm. Trying to make it glow as Taff had, Tob held it up in a clenched fist above his head. His eyelids were squeezed shut and his teeth were clenched in concentration, but the goregem remained unlit. Its power was evidently hidden from him.

    Tob, don’t, mom gasped from the doorway. Taff, should he really have such a gift? There was fear in her voice.

    Why not, Fonny? Taff said, shrugging. The power of the magic trick is safe without the key. He laughed. Now, what does the magician have for Mom? Yes, what’s for Mom?

    Arck certainly noticed that he had been overlooked and that scared him as well–if fact, to no end.

    His four younger sisters took up the chant. What’s for Mommy? they yelled. What’s for Mom?

    A trifle, Fonny, Taff said and paused. Look. It is for you and Rem, and for all of the family.

    He looked at her affectionately, then headed for the top of the staircase which spiraled down from the lobby. Boxes of carefully wrapped larger gifts had been deposited there by Keaton and Tob and he pulled out the largest one. An ebony, almost velvety tissue hid its contents, and a gargantuan red bow anchored by crimson tape sprung from the center.

    Oh Taff, you shouldn’t have, she exclaimed. What is it? Excitement replaced her usual composure. Quickly, she tore through the wrapping, repeating, Taff, what is it?

    He shrugged and smiled broadly.

    She heaved a sigh as she peeked inside. Oh! Taff, she cried. The family immediately surrounded her–Arck hung back.

    The gift was unique, part-sculpture, part-painting. It was colored, three-dimensional, and so realistic it looked alive. The heart of its beauty was in the ten faces it captured. They were the faces of the family–Arck was not in it–in an exaggerated tableau of close ties, standing out on a three-fingered promontory which jutted from their summer house at Unity Farm. They were well above the bay which sprayed the rocks as it rolled below them. Arck felt as if the picture was a perfect representation of how Fonny would picture her personal paradise: a happy family.

    In spite of its vivid realism, the family portrait seemed masked in some strange subtle fashion. She held it high in front of her, at an angle, so that everyone could have a clear view. Grey slipped downstairs. Arck could see she was angry about it.

    Fonny shot a look from the portrait to Taff, and then back to the portrait. Arck could tell that she was touched by his extraordinary gift, but what he felt was something like gut-wrenching fear that this was the end of his life with his family.

    Mom, Tob said, shocked, look, Arck isn’t there. His reedy voice croaked. They stared at the magnificent, incomplete collection of faces. It was as if the picture were a fantastic mirror which suppressed all faults and showed only what was a beautiful family–without Arck, maybe even a perfect family. Even the ruddy face of Arck’s father, reflected a handsome aspect that he seldom reached in life. The representation was so engaging, they had all at first missed the omission of Arck, or were even happy for it for all he knew.

    Fonny was verging on tears. Arck felt sorry for her and studied her image in the picture. Deep within her own face he saw the mystery of her girlish youth, the twelve-year-old girl who had run away from her village to find a life in the wider world, then, the sixteen-year-old who decided to live by the principles of self sacrifice and justice–the twenty-two-year-old dark-haired beauty who married a man lost to the world of business and wine. He also saw there, the thirty-year-old. Already a mother of eight children, her sharp beauty by then had been dulled by the serrations of life and her monumental efforts to give each of her children her own spirit. Nor could he see in that face, the woman of forty, a spiritual warrior struggling for the best in her soul, which was now the soul of her family. The artist had missed it, perhaps because Arck so required her constant vigilance.

    As she was now, she was being undone by her ‘supposed’ hardest birth: her mad son, Arck. Had God given her a weight which couldn’t be carried? For isn’t that what madness is? Now Taff had come back to their small town. But for what purpose? He was beyond comprehension, this absurd and dynamic being, this Taff Hart who never aged, who talked like a foreigner – was he an alien leader; a great warrior; a Pulsarite captain? Arck was afraid the dream was becoming real.

    Mommy’s crying, Larska screamed, frightened. Mom’s crying! The family gathered on all sides to offer comfort, but Arck stepped back. The awful truth was in his heart. He was going to have to leave Troan, that’s why he wasn’t in the picture. Some sickening greasy-black spittle-drooling elf-creature had found him, and some giant byzantine alien with almost God-like powers was determined to have him as his own or kill him trying

    Supper, mom said. Thank God for things that need doing. She put the picture down. Let’s go do them.

    Chapter 3

    Arck went down stairs with Taff. No one followed, but at that same moment, Grey glared defiantly up the stairs as they came shuffling down. The noise of the family receded in the background. Taken aback, Taff stopped short. An annoying, bright light from below, shone directly in his eyes and Arck reached over and turned it off so that it became quite dark. Taff’s eyes never left Grey.

    As you see, he said to her in Naja, the time is closer than you might have guessed. A shiver went down Arck’s back. Taff’s voice held some bitterness as he went on. You think just thunder passes through the Cluster. His face grew more gentle. But it’s lightning too. The Betrayer is wild for his service.

    Arck could see that Grey’s huge eyes were angry. You are a fool to come here when they are so close, she said, speaking aloud suddenly, in a low smooth vibration of sound which shocked Arck. She normally mindspoke to Arck, and of course, not ever aloud or to the mind of anyone else, and it spooked Arck too, especially to hear it inside the mansion, where for all these years, it had never been used. Go back! Take Fern, Tilly, Ruby, and the rest of your followers–get off Troan!

    Taff laughed softly, as though to anger her–it had an acrimonious quality. You’ve drawn them here on purpose.

    I have not. They are Bandor’s Bonelves, and he has spies everywhere. If they knew for sure the Great Betrayer would already be orbiting Troan–even Bandor is not here yet. It’s only one of his greedy lieutenants who acts on his own.

    How dare you play this game with the Proudhon? What else have you done without permission, you fiend? You use Arck to draw in the Great Betrayer.

    I most certainly do. When were you going to engage him, after he kills even more of us?

    We must leave Troan together!

    I say when we will go.

    He’s no longer safe anywhere on the planet. This house may seem a sanctuary to you, but they will strike, be sure. As he leaves, they’ll be waiting in ambush. If you should stop them, a force greater than yours will come. You can’t hold him here indefinitely, even if you could make Arck understand his complete danger. His power is too untrained to assist you yet. Yes, Aristean priestess, tonight I give to him what you have long waited for, but I also tell you that you have contributed to his perplexity. His voice grew more confident. He’s the Proudhon. You were forbidden to attach yourself to his spirit. I didn’t know until recently the depth of it. Now the danger is doubled and redoubled. He looked wearily at her; she was crouched, rigid, on her haunches like a predator about to pounce. She grunted at him half-heartedly, and suddenly raced past him on the wide side of the passage, deliberately banging against his leg in anger.

    She’s a jealous, inveterate enemy, Taff said, shaking his head. Against the Zoras Rebels’ wishes, she’s coveted you for herself. Dreams of love and loyalty are her faith. We might be those who think the unthinkable–that is, ending CentreRule’s reign, but I’m starting to understand that she now represents anarchy, and plans to win against everything and everyone, including your very own forces–do you see the complexity?

    Arck shrugged and went to his bedroom. Taff followed. Three beds were scattered randomly–one single, one double, and a roll-away that was tossed on its side. Arck used it as a chair. He often slept under the beds or made a tent between them with the sheets. All were unmade, with old and worn blankets lying here and there. Drawings of flowers and half-naked women adorned the walls at odd and quirky positions–Arck had drawn them all. Some of them lay on a floor which was covered by a dim, though thick, turf-like carpet. Posters clung to the small, half-hidden basement windows.

    Smells of lotion, body odor, must and mildew, clashed in an olfactory miasma. The room belonged to another world altogether, not to this grand old house. It was like a cave, and in the background, the music system, an oobb, produced low sounds such as wind, hail-rain, thunder and explosions–most of the time these sounds comforted Arck.

    In a corner of the room stood two large figurines in brass, half as high as a man. The forms seemed to be an abstract representation of two birds from northern Troan, Fions, each an exact duplicate of the other. Surrealistic, they had double spreading wings with long stretched necks, slender stick legs, and a lazy, indolent beauty. But they were not abstract art, and neither were they indolent; they were Vulcet Vultures, vicious scavengers from Stolern, the Ariste Druid’s home planet.

    Arck had a severe headache now and took several pills.

    Well, Taff said. How are you? His open smile changed to a sly grin. Abruptly, he lunged toward the bed that held the Proudhon, hugging and tickling him in a hurricane of affection.

    The Proudhon’s heart lifted at once. He laughed and looked up at Taff.

    Well, Arck, another year will have passed soon, the Wizard said.

    So this must be, he returned.

    I was not able to make it sooner.

    I can’t blame you for avoiding this place. One day I’ll spend my life on a sunny beach with clean cold water and beautiful girls like Strom.

    Taff smiled as though he was a child. Arck despised that smile. This will pass, Taff said and rubbed the top of his head. Who is Strom?

    A girl.

    There is no time for girls. Taff sat on the edge of the double bed and watched Arck for a minute or two. Neither of them spoke. I have a gift, Taff said quietly, a gift that will end all things as you know them. I will let the present tell its own secret.

    Arck sensed danger in his words. For several seconds, he stared hard at Taff, studying his mentor for some clue to what was about to happen–he wasn’t completely blind to his fate.

    Taff reached into an inside pocket pouch, and brought out a flat, circular gold disc. It was smaller than a child’s fist, molded into a saucer-shaped wafer, and chained like a bracelet charm. A filigree of tiny diamonds formed a five-pointed star on one side of its surface. He turned it in his palm and studied the other side for a moment. Arck could see he was reluctant to give it up to him, he thought Arck was some unstable boy who was lost to Grey’s stratagem and who was Arck to argue with this logic. The back of the case had crossed swords engraved in dull silver against a frieze of an individual with his weapon raised against the Centre Star-Binary. The metal glowed pure silver and gold, though it was neither.

    A second later, Arck gasped in pleasure. As soon as he looked at it, he was mesmerized. His eyes watered, and something caught in his throat. A warm sensation eased through his heart, but at the same time, something he had read in the Academy flashed through his mind, ‘Fear especially the gods when they bear gifts.’ He held out his trembling hands, and Taff dropped the object into them.

    It was what Grey had coveted for him for so long. He knew at once. A fire of white light burned at the back of his head. Cunning and sorcery shook him. For another second, a strange sexual feeling took hold of him. He envisioned Strom having sex with him in an open field in the snow. Power surged through him like an orgasm or a fire. Pregnant with new power, he gasped and labored back, giving birth, at the point of the amulet, to a sharp blue spark which shot through the entire length of the room.

    For one more second it completely enveloped him in flame, and at once the noloyd disc dropped to the carpet with a bright blinding flash as if shattered. It burnt cobalt blue for another heartbeat, then rebounded to its normal luster.

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