Chapter 1

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The Circle Cluster

Book One

The Great Betrayer

Chapter One

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.

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