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The Initiate | Time Master Trilogy

Chapter 1

With the dawning of the spring quarter-day, the wet weather that had plagued Wishet Province since midwinter abated. Self-appointed sages who claimed to have predicted the change pronounced it a good omen, and the inhabitants of the province gave grateful thanks to Aeoris, greatest of the seven gods, for the respite.
            Today, following a centuries-old tradition, every town and village in the land would be celebrating the arrival of spring, and one small Wishet district, some seven miles inland from the province capital, Port Summer, had prepared well in advance for the lengthy ceremonies. As always a mass procession, headed by the Province Margrave with a train of local elders and dignitaries, would parade through the town to the river, where a ritual dressing and revering of wooden statues of the gods would take place. Everyone from the highest to the lowest attended the quarter-day rites—even the household of Estenya, an impoverished woman who lived with her illegitimate son in the poorest part of the town, and depended on the grudging charity of more fortunate members of her clan.
            Today, Estenya was more acutely aware than usual of her lowly status as she looked at her reflection in the fly-specked mirror. Her dress—the best she possessed—was old and had not been new when it came to her. Washing had shrunk the fabric until the hem was barely below her calves, and the embroidered shawl that she wore in an attempt to brighten the dress’s drabness was thin, and would do nothing to keep out the bite of the east wind. But today appearance mattered more than comfort; she would simply have to put up with the cold, if she wanted to avoid disgracing her relatives at the festivities. Not, she reflected bitterly, that they were likely to do more than curtly acknowledge her. She was the blot on their immaculate record, the pretty and promising girl who had inexplicably fallen from grace and had been paying the price ever since.
            Estenya worked her face into an expression that she hoped would disguise the lines which, at thirty, were now beginning to mar her skin, and silently railed against the events that had set her on this road twelve years ago. Then, exhausted by the birth, over-emotional, she had pleaded to keep her son against family pressure to pass him off as a servant’s child, and had won – at the price of her own prospects. The boy had no father from whom to take a clan name as was traditional for male children, and her family had flatly refused to bend the rules and grant the baby the privilege of their own name. So from birth he was clanless; and Estenya became, in effect, an outcast.
            She had submitted to the strictures willingly enough at first, but as time went by and the first bloom of her youth faded while the boy, growing, seemed to become less and less a part of herself, she began to bitterly regret the decision she had made. But even if she could have been freed from the burden of the boy, she doubted that any man would think her worth marrying now. There were too many younger, more attractive women; women without a shameful past to hamper their chances. If only, she thought to herself, if only I hadn't been such a fool!
            A faint sound suddenly impinged on her and she turned, then started with shock.
            The boy had opened the door and come into her bed­room so silently that she hadn't had the least inkling of his presence. For all she knew, he might have been standing there watching her in that inscrutable, unnerving way for ten minutes or more, and as always his look suggested that he knew precisely what she was thinking.
            Angrily, she snapped at him. ‘How many times have I told you never to enter my room in that way? Do you want to make me die of fright?’
            ‘I'm sorry.’ The brilliance of the boy's strange, green eyes was masked momentarily as he lowered his gaze. Looking at him, Estenya wondered how she could have given birth to such a child. The established clans of Wishet shared certain similarities of build and colouring, typified by the stockiness and sallow skin that Estenya had inher­ited from both father and mother. But her son already outstripped her in height, and his was a rangy, harsh-­boned frame. His jet-black hair curled in wild tangle to his shoulders, and the green eyes against his pale, thin face gave him a disturbingly feline look. Perhaps he drew his genetic heritage solely from his father… and always on the heels of that thought came its unpleasant corollary: if she had known who his father was. There lay the unhappy root of this whole unhappy affair; the fact that the identity of the stranger whose ardent advances at a long ago Quarter ­Day celebration she had been unable to resist was, and still remained, a mystery. One mistake had caused her so much misery. And she couldn't even remember his face.
            Now she looked critically at her son. She didn't mean to be irritable and impatient with him, she told herself; he could hardly be held to blame for her circumstances. None the less the resentment was there, and surely anyone with any heart could understand it.
            ‘You haven't combed your hair,’ she accused. ‘You know how important it is to look your best today. If you disgrace me…’ She let the threat hang in the air unspoken.
            ‘Yes, Mother.’ A flicker of near rebellion in the odd green eyes, but it was gone almost before she could regis­ter it. As he turned to leave the room she called after him,
            ‘And you’re not to associate with Coran. Don't forget!’
            Privately, Estenya hated having to impose that restric­tion. Coran, her cousin's son, was of an age with her own boy, and the only good friend he had. But Coran's parents disapproved of more contact than was necessary with a bastard child, whatever the blood relationship, and she dared not cross them. The boy didn't answer her though she knew he had heard, and a minute later his footsteps clattered down the uncarpeted stairs of the shabby and cramped house.
            Estenya sighed. She didn't know whether he would heed her warning; he had always been secretive, but lately his mind had become a closed book to her. All she could do was hope, and try to get through the day as best she could.
A large crowd was already gathering in and around the streets of the town as the boy made his way towards the main square. He was glad to be free from the stifling confines of his home, where he never seemed able to do anything right, but at the same time he felt no enthusiasm for the day ahead. Despite the supposed festivity of the occasion, a Quarter-Day tended to be a solemn and dull affair. People were so preoccupied with their status and dignity that it seemed the true nature of the celebra­tion was lost. And today, with the sun tracing a low arc in the sky and the last of the heavy-bellied clouds still hanging far away inland, the rite promised to be gloomier than ever.
            The procession itself was just forming up as he reached the square, and the ritual drums had begun their funereally slow and grave beat. The long crocodile of local  councillors, religiouses and elders, with the portly figure of the province Margrave at their head, was bathed in a dull red radiance that was the best the heavens could provide at this time of year, and even in this prosperous sector of the town everything looked mean and small. The seven garlanded statues of the gods, swaying on their litters above the heads of the procession, seemed grotesque and tawdry, showing the wear and tear of age through the touched-up glory. The boy moved slowly among the crowd, aware of his mother's earlier admonition not to make himself conspicuous, and took up a stance at the entrance to a narrow alley that led into a maze of back streets. Restless and uninterested in the proceedings, he was relieved when, as he had half hoped, a voice hailed him.
            The boy's face broke into a smile. ‘Coran!’ Instantly­ Estenya's warning was forgotten as he shouldered his way through the press of people to join the auburn-haired boy. The contrast between Coran's fine clothes and the handed­-down shirt, jerkin and trousers of his cousin was some­thing that the boy tried, usually with success, not to notice. The differences had never been a barrier to friend­ship, and now Coran stood on tiptoe to whisper in his taller cousin's ear.
            ‘Dull as ever, isn't it? I tried to find some excuse for staying away, but Father wouldn't hear of it.’
            The boy’s green eyes narrowed, and he smiled a wolfish smile. ‘We've attended, as we were bidden. Isn't that enough?’
            Coran looked round hastily to see if anyone had over­heard this invitation to rank disobedience. ‘We’ll both be for a whipping if anyone finds out,’ he said uneasily.
            The other shrugged. ‘A whipping's soon over.’ He had suffered enough such punishments for them to mean little to him now. ‘And if we go to the river, no one will ever know we didn't follow the procession all the way.’
            Coran hesitated, less inclined to flout authority; but the temptation was too great to resist. Together they slipped into the alley, weaving their way through the narrow lanes until they reached the river jetty at the eastern end of the town. Here the main rite would take place; the statues would be ceremonially washed in the sluggish current to symbolize the rebirth of life within the land, and interminable speeches would be made before the celebra­tions ended with music and stiff, formal dancing.
            Now though, the jetty was deserted. Several small cargo boats, newly come upriver from Port Summer, bobbed on the ebbing tide, and the black-haired boy squatted near the water's edge gazing speculatively at the craft. He had often dreamed of escaping from his present life, secretly boarding such a boat and sailing away to another part of the world where no stigma would attach to his existence. No one would miss him, for no one cared about him. He was an embarrassment, unwanted even by his mother, so much so that he had no clan name and the forename Estenya had given him was rarely used. In the solitude of his room he had invented another name for himself, but no one knew of it, for he never spoke it aloud lest it should be discovered and taken away. Yet the boy felt in his bones that he was, somehow, special. It was the one lifeline that had kept up his lonely spirits as he grew towards adolescence, and lately it had begun to goad him more and more towards a half-formed idea of running away.
            He would have given much to see the world. He often walked the seven miles to Port Summer on errands, and had been told that if he stood on the Port's high cliffs and strained his eyes hard enough, he might just see the Summer Isle, home of the High Margrave himself, lying in the hazy distance offshore. He had tried but he had never glimpsed it. Nor had he ever seen what was said to be the most breathtaking sight in all the world—the White Isle, far to the south where legend had it that Aeoris himself, highest of the gods, had taken human incarnation to save his worshippers from the forces of Chaos.
            The boy had an insatiable appetite for the mythology of his land; an appetite frustrated by the fact that no one ever had the time or the patience to tell him what he wanted to know. Oh, he had been taught to worship the gods, learned his catechisms, said his prayers each night. But there was so much more he needed to know. Sometimes the Quarter-Day festivities were attended by Sisters of Aeoris, the religious women responsible for maintaining all the traditions of worship, but he had never spoken to one of them, and anyway, they could not fulfil his hunger for knowledge. What he truly longed for was to meet an initiate.
            The word initiate sent a shiver of excitement through him. Those men and women were the embodiment of power in the world; mysterious, unreachable, occult. They lived in an impenetrable stronghold on the Star Peninsula, far to the north at the very edge of world, and any man who defied their word brought upon himself the full wrath of the gods. The initiates were philosophers and sorcerers, but fact was clouded by rumour and hearsay; stories, he had been told, not fit for a child’s ears. Whatever the truth, the initiates command­ed respect and fear. Respect because they served the gods; fear because of the manner in which they served them. It was said that the initiates communed with Aeoris himself, and from him took powers that no ordinary mortal could comprehend, let alone wield. A cauldron of speculation and half-truth and fable: but the little he had learned made the boy hunger for more. Fancifully, he imagined running away and away, over plains and through forests and across mountains, until he found the initiates in their stronghold.
            It was that thought that triggered everything else. He and Coran had been idly skimming stones into the river while in the distance the clamour of the procession drew slowly nearer. The spearhead would not arrive for some while; there was time enough to give rein to the idea that had suddenly fired his imagination.
            When he suggested the game to Coran, his cousin was appalled.
            ‘Pretend that we're initiates?’ Coran whispered. ‘We can't! It’s heresy!’
            Even to speak of initiates without due reverence invited ill luck. but the black-haired boy had no such fears. The knowledge that he was breaking taboos excited something  within him, adding spice to a feeling already half­  formed and half recognised. He knew nothing of what powers initiates possessed, but he had a free and ferocious imagination. Coran was less adventurous, but malleable to his cousin's stronger will, and at last—though in trepidation—he agreed.            
            ‘We'll be rival sorcerers,’ the black-haired boy said, ‘and we'll battle, using our powers against each other!’
            Coran nodded. He was still hesitant, but even his timid spirit entered into the game as imagination began to take over.
            Then it happened.
            The boys were so intent on their play that they were unaware of the vanguard of the procession as it rounded a  corner and came into full view of the jetty. Leading the long human chain came the Margrave; behind him the statue of Aeoris towered—and the god and his bearers saw everything.            
            Coran, by now as caught up in their fantasy world as his cousin, had called down a thousand curses on the head of his rival. Not to be outdone, his rival raised a hand, pointing with a dramatic gesture. A stray shaft  of watery sunlight glinted with shocking brilliance on the colourless stone of a ring he wore on his left hand. An ornate ring, a strange possession for a child. For an instant as the sun struck it, the stone seemed to come to ferocious, blazing life­—
            A bolt of blood-red fire smashed from the boy’s pointing finger with a crack that momentarily deafened him. For an instant Coran's face was frozen in a mask of astonishment and disbelief.  Then his charred, broken body keeled sideways and fell with a sickening thud to the flagstones.
            The black-haired boy reeled back as violently as though struck by a monstrous, invisible hand, and though he tried to scream, not the smallest sound came from his throat. For a moment as the procession ground to a chaotic halt there was utter silence—then pandemonium broke out. Rough hands took hold of him, spinning him around, punching and slapping and kicking him in a rising tide of  horror and outrage. Women shrieked, men shouted, until the cacophony resolved into words that beat like waves in his ears, cursing him, damning him, naming him blasphemer and desecrator, unfit to live. In moments the veneer of civilisation fell away to reveal the face of naked fear in full, primitive flood, and amid the mayhem the boy cowered, too shocked and numbed to understand what was happening to him or what he had done. As if in a waking nightmare he felt his hands being bound, the cords cutting deep, and he was manhandled into the middle of a circle of hostile, shouting faces. Stone him! they said; hang him! they cried, and he could only stare back, uncomprehending.
            The Provincial Margrave, white-faced and shaking, moved unsteadily forward. Somewhere behind him a woman was screaming hysterically; Coran's mother, who refused to be dragged away from her son's corpse. As the Margrave approached the boy, seeming afraid to come too close, the town elders set up a fresh clamor. Heresy—blasphemy—a demonic power at work—possession....Bastard son of the woman Estenya; unfit to live…             Spurred on by his Councillors, the Margrave pointed accusingly at the child who had brought horror to the celebrations. ‘He must die,’ he said in a voice that quavered. ‘Now—before he can do even worse!’
            As if in anticipation, a stone flung by someone in the crowd missed the boy's head by a hairsbreadth. Some semblance of reason was beginning to return to him after the initial shock, and he thought he was going to be sick as an image of Coran's face, before he fell, flashed into mind. What had he done? How had it happened? He wasn't a sorcerer!
            ‘Stone him!’ a voice yelled, and the cry was taken up again. He tried to protest, tell them he had not meant to harm Coran, they'd been playing a game, he had no power to kill anyone. But the words meant nothing to the mob. They had seen what they had seen, and in their fear were determined to stamp it out mercilessly. Without understanding what had happened to him, he was going to die.
            Though always a solitary child, he nonetheless felt more alone than he had ever done in his life. Even Estenya couldn't help him now.  He had seen men carrying away a woman who had fainted, and had recognised the colour of his mother’s shawl. There was no hope of reprieve. For a moment his gaze locked with the dead, wooden stare of the statue of Aeoris, then he shut his eyes tightly, praying in silent hopelessness that the god, who alone must know the nature of the appalling power that had struck his cousin down from nowhere, would come to his aid.           
            The men holding him had moved back, and the boy saw that stones were being gathered from the detritus around the jetty. Every muscle in his body tensed­—then suddenly a lone voice among the mob called out in horror.
            ‘Aeoris preserve us!’
            A hand was pointing northwards, far beyond the town, and as one the crowd looked. In the distance, the sky was changing. Bands of faint colour were marching slowly across the empty bowl of the heavens, and, fascinated, the boy had counted green, scarlet, orange, grey and an eerie blue-black before common sense returned and he realised what he was witnessing.           
            ‘A Warp!’ There was naked fear in the Margrave's voice. The boy felt a faint tingling from the earth, transmitted through the cold stone of the jetty. He sensed an electric tension in the air, and his nerves began to crawl with something that terrified him far more than his impending fate; something that evoked the worst nightmares any human being could experience. A Warp—and the town was directly in its path.
            Warp storms—the horrifying forces that racked the world at unpredictable intervals—were the deadliest phe­nomenon known. Some said that Warps were a manifestation of time itself; that the powers unleashed could shift and change the fabric of the world. When a Warp struck, the wise shuttered themselves in their homes and covered their heads until the rage was past and the elemental forces exhausted, and no one knew for certain the consequences of being caught in such a storm, for no one had ever returned to tell the tale. The boy recalled a neighbour who had braved the full fury of a Warp, and vanished. They had searched for some trace of him for a full seven days, but had found nothing. He had apparently ceased to exist.
            The weird aurora marching towards them out of the north was coming rapidly. Now it had all but eclipsed the sun, and some refraction was distorting the solar orb so that it looked like a squeezed, overripe fruit, sickly and aged. Strange colors swept across the buildings and the faces of the throng; people looked bizarrely unhuman and two-dimensional, and to the boy's fevered imagination it seemed that the statue of Aeoris had come to a terrible semblance of life.
            From the sky a harsh singing note now emanated, drown­ing the frightened shouts of the townspeople, as if some­thing unhuman rode high and fast above the wind and cried out in torment. The boy remembered tales of damned souls lost to the Warps and doomed to fly with them forever, and for a wild moment he thought: better that than an agonising death at the hands of his human judges!
            But the death promised him wasn't to be, yet. Already people were scattering, running for shelter as the weird, ululating sound in the sky drew inexorably closer. Some­one snatched at his bound arm, almost pulling him off balance, and he found himself being towed along in the midst of a group of Councillors who were making towards the Justice House a short distance away. This building, which combined court of law with counting house and a bargaining centre for out-province traders, was the most secure structure in the town, with massive doors and shuttered windows, and as the boy was hustled up the steps and under the great portal he saw that half the townspeople had chosen it for their haven.
            ‘Bolt the doors! Hurry—it's nearly upon us!’ The Mar­grave had lost his dignity and was on the verge of panic. Still more people were pouring in, and in the huge recep­tion hall some had already fallen to their knees and were earnestly praying to Aeoris for their souls. The boy, now trembling violently from shock, wondered why they should pray, when surely Aeoris himself must have sent the Warp in the first place.
            Aeoris himselfand the Warp had come mere moments after he had sent his last, desperate plea silently heavenwards.
            It wasn't possible, he told himself, He was a murderer—the gods would have no reason to save him­.
            But the Warp had come from nowhere. with no warning…
            Deep down, he knew that his sanity must have deserted him. But it was a chance; the only chance he would have before punishment was meted out and he died the ugly death he had been promised. If he worked his hands surreptitiously behind his back he thought he could free them; whoever had tied the cords had failed to fix the knot properly, and it was coming loose. The last stragglers were entering the Justice House now, and in the confusion no one was paying him any attention. One more effort, and his left hand came free. The doors were closing,  he had only moments­—
            With a speed and agility that took his captors by sur­prise, the boy dived for the doors. He heard someone shouting, a hand snatched in an attempt to stop him but he evaded it and half stumbled, half fell out onto the steps. His headlong rush carried him down—and as he emerged, the Warp came screaming overhead.
            The outlines of houses, boats, the jetty, twisted into an impossible chaos of howling colour and noise. The ground was falling away beneath his feet, the sky crashing down to meet him, spitting tongues of black brilliance. Then, with a deafening crack, the world exploded into the image of a seven-rayed star that seared into his mind, before­—