Tarod had won his freedom; but the cold white jewel that contained the key to his sorcerous power had been lost, together with the girl he loved, in a supernatural storm. With a price on both their heads, he had to find her before the Circle did. Only then could he hope to fulfil his self-imposed pledge to confront the gods themselves—for they alone could destroy the stone and the evil within it.
But if that evil once touched him, Tarod would be forced to face the truth of his own heritage. A heritage that could trigger a titanic conflict of occult forces, and set him on the ultimate quest for vengeance...
May 29, 1952 -- October 21, 2009
Louise Cooper was born in Hertfordshire in 1952. She began writing stories when she was at school to entertain her friends. She hated school so much, in fact—spending most lessons clandestinely writing stories—that she persuaded her parents to let her abandon her education at the age of fifteen and has never regretted it.
She continued to write and her first full-length novel was published when she was only twenty years old. She moved to London in 1975 and worked in publishing before becoming a full-time writer in 1977. Since then she has become a prolific writer of fantasy, renowned for her bestselling Time Master trilogy. She has published more than eighty fantasy and supernatural novels, both for adults and children. She also wrote occasional short stories for anthologies, and has co-written a comedy play that was produced for her local school.
Louise Cooper lived in Cornwall with her husband, Cas Sandall, and their black cat, Simba. She gained a great deal of writing inspiration from the coast and scenery, and her other interests included music, folklore, cooking, gardening and "messing about on the beach." Just to make sure she keeps busy, she was also treasurer of her local Lifeboat station.
Louise passed away suddenly in October 2009. She was a wonderful and talented lady and will be greatly missed.
Prospect Town's justice house stood at the end of a broad, tree-lined avenue. A small crowd was gathered outside; they drew apart to make passage for the riders and many stared openly as they recognized the Circle initiate's badge at Tarod's shoulder. He closed his ears to the muted whispers at his back and slid down from the saddle, handing his horse's reins to one of the younger militiamen.
As they dismounted, the doors of the justice house opened and the elderly Margrave of Prospect emerged with three other men behind him. Tarod had met the Margrave before and knew him for a shrewd man, likely to have a good memory for faces. Tarod concentrated, allowing a small measure of power to flow through him. He saw the Margrave blink as though momentarily disconcerted, then the old man's face cleared and he held out a hand in greeting.
"Adept, I'm at a loss for words! I hadn't dreamed the Circle could respond so quickly to my message!"
Tarod frowned. "Message, sir?"
"You're not an emissary from the High Initiate?" The Margrave seemed perplexed.
"We encountered him on the road, sir," the militia leader explained hastily. "It was sheer chance that he was riding this way, and—in the circumstances—we thought he might help us."
The Margrave clasped Tarod's hands fervently. "Then it was a very fortunate accident! Have my men explained the nature of our problem?"
"They tell me you've apprehended a girl whom you believe is the Chaos creature's accomplice," Tarod replied. "You'll forgive my bluntness, but this is the fifth or sixth such claim I've had to investigate since I began my journey, and not one so far has had any foundation."
The Margrave shook his head emphatically. "Believe me, this is no false alarm. I understand your skepticism—we've had our share of hysteria here, and there have been any number of accusations without evidence to back them. But I'm not a fool, or at least I don't believe I am. And neither is Sister-Seer Jennat Brynd."
"A Sister of Aeoris? I'm sorry, I don't quite follow."
"It was a party of sisters who discovered the girl's real identity," the Margrave told him. "Apparently she had been traveling with them for some days, and Sister Jennat's suspicions were aroused. She used her talents to investigate the girl, and learned the truth." His mouth worked into an expression that could have been either distaste or unease. "The girl had been calling herself Themila something—I can't recall the clan name—but when the sisters discovered a jewel she was carrying hidden about her, they were certain they had found the fugitive."
Tarod's skin crawled. Themila— the coincidence was too great to be dismissed. He had told Cyllan of Themila Gan Lin, his one-time mentor; it was a name she would remember.
Forcing his voice to remain even, he asked, "And what of the girl herself? Has she confessed?"
The Margrave shook his head. "No. She has refused to speak since she was apprehended. She simply sits and glares at all who approach her." He shuddered delicately. "It's not a look I wish to see too often. If half the stories surrounding her are true, I don't like to speculate on what she might be capable of." He paused. "But there'll be time enough to explain the rest later, and I've neglected the most basic of courtesies. You must be parched after your ride, especially in this dusty weather. Allow me at least to offer you a cup of wine."
The offer was difficult to decline; if he seemed overly eager to see the prisoner, the Margrave might suspect his motives. Tarod forced himself to smile. "I'd appreciate it, sir. Thank you."
The Margrave led him through the cool corridors of the justice house to an ante-room set aside for receiving important guests. Tarod had to quell his impatience when the old man ordered a servant to bring not only wine but also food, and made the best effort he could to eat delicacies that his stomach did not want while the Margrave elaborated on the circumstances of their prisoner's arrest. The sisters, he said, had intended to turn north and take their captive back to the Star Peninsula, but as soon as the news reached his ears he had insisted that the undertaking was too dangerous. It would be safer to send word to the Circle so that they could arrange a secure escort. But the message had only been dispatched via one of the new courier birds that very morning; hence the Margrave's astonishment at the prompt arrival of an adept in the town. Tarod listened courteously to the flow of words, occasionally nodding or murmuring agreement, but inwardly he felt close to breaking point. If the captured girl was Cyllan—and, he reminded himself, that had yet to be seen—then time was running short. A messenger bird would deliver the Margrave's letter to the castle tomorrow at the latest, and Keridil wouldn't waste a moment in acting on it. He had to cut across the Margrave's vociferousness without making the tactic too obvious.
He had been lost in his own thoughts and realized suddenly that the old man had asked him a question which he had not taken in. He looked up quickly. "I'm sorry; what did you say?"
"I asked, sir, if you have ever seen this girl for yourself? I gather she was held for some time at the Castle of the Star Peninsula."
"Yes… I saw her once or twice."
"Then you'd recognize her again?"
"Certainly." Tarod took the opportunity which the Margrave had unwittingly offered him. "In fact, sir, I think it would be as well if I were to see her without any further delay."
The Margrave rose, and led him out of the ante-room and along further corridors towards the rear of the building. As they walked, Tarod asked suddenly, "Margrave, what has become of the jewel the girl carried? I trust it's in safe keeping?"
"Indeed, yes. Sister Liss Kaya Trevire has it in her possession, and I understand she has taken precautions against its influence."
"Very wise of her. And where is Sister Liss now?"
"She and her companions are lodged here at the justice house." The Margrave looked unhappy. "It's hardly suitable accommodation for Sisters of Aeoris, but they insisted on staying close to the prisoner."
Tarod nodded and made no further comment. They reached a barred door under which bright daylight showed; a man stood on guard, and at a gesture from the Margrave he hastened to lift the bar and pull the door open.
They emerged into a small, walled courtyard, flooded with sunlight. A flowering tree in one corner had shed a carpet of white petals over the flagstones and over the roughly constructed wooden cage that stood by. In the cage something moved, but Tarod's view was blocked by two white-robed figures who stood before the cage and seemed to be pushing something through the bars. At the sound of the door grating the two Sisters of Aeoris looked round, then, recognizing the Margrave, straightened and turned to face him.
Tarod hung back, unable to bring himself to look more closely at the cage. The old man was explained the circumstances of the adept's arrival, then turned to Tarod and said, "Adept, may I present Sister Liss Kaya Trevire, and Sister-Seer Jennat Brynd."
Both women bowed, and Tarod looked first at the fair-haired, middle-aged Liss, then at the younger, darker Jennat. He knew instantly that the seer was skilled. Unlike many whom the Sisterhood promoted for political rather than spiritual reasons, she had a true talent. He would have to be careful.
"Sisters." He nodded to them both in turn. "The Margrave tells me that you've apprehended one of the fugitives. If it's true, the Circle will be very much in your debt."
Jennat was watching him carefully and he detected a challenge in her eyes, but it was Sister Liss who spoke. "I believe there can be little doubt of the girl s identity, Adept."
He couldn't put off the moment any longer. Turning, Tarod looked directly at the wooden cage. And a hand seemed to close tightly round his heart and lungs and squeeze them, so that he couldn't breathe.
She was bedraggled and dirty, her hair a bizarre skewbald of blonde and copper-brown, but the small, pinched face and wide amber eyes were so painfully familiar to him that recognition was like a physical blow. Their gazes met, locked, and her hand flew to her mouth in disbelieving shock. Then she covered her face and he heard her gasping, indrawn breath. Anger surged in him, and he knew that unless he took unremitting control of it, the rage might overwhelm him. Fighting it down, he became aware that the Margrave and the two sisters were watching him.
"Well, Adept?" The Margrave licked his lips uncertainly. "Is this the girl the Circle are seeking?"
He couldn't deny it. The sisters had proved Cyllan's identity beyond all shadow of doubt and they were waiting only for his confirmation. Slowly Tarod approached the cage, and as he did so Cyllan let her hands fall. from her face. He allowed his left hand, visible only to her, to make a small, warning gesture, and he hoped she understood.
"Yes," he said, his voice even. "This is the girl." Stepping back, he turned to face the two Sisters. "As I explained to the Margrave, I saw her during her captivity at the castle, and in for all her disguise I'm not in any doubt. However, there is still the matter of the jewel. I'd like to see it for myself."
He became aware instantly of Sister Jennat's sharp scrutiny, and warning bells rang deep in his mind, Something—he couldn't judge what, though it hardly mattered—had alerted the seer, and he could sense a sly, subtle attempt to probe his thoughts. Quickly he blocked them, saw her flinch, and realized that, although she could not tell what he was thinking, his retaliation had made her all the more suspicious. An unpleasant sense of urgency began to worry at him. Sister Liss might be intimidated by the authority of a high-ranking adept, but Jennat was another matter. He had to get Cyllan away before Jennat’s doubts could take root and grow.
Liss bowed her head, acquiescing. "Of course, Adept. If you wish to see the gem, I have it here in my pouch. Though—forgive me—I wonder if it might be unwise to expose it? We took certain precautions, you understand, and—"
Tarod's unease increased, but he tried to keep it from his voice. "I appreciate your concern, Sister Liss, but I need to be sure that it is the Chaos stone."
"Sister!" Jennat hissed the word involuntarily, then blanched as Tarod turned a swift, angry glance on her. Liss was fumbling in her belt-pouch, her movements infuriatingly slow, and it was all Tarod could do to stop himself from physically shaking her into greater haste. He needed the stone, wanted to touch its familiar contours and know that once again he controlled its power. Yet the fear that he might succumb to the jewel's ancient influence, that the servant might become the master, was all too strong.
"Here it is." Liss finally drew out a closely folded piece of white cloth, and Tarod saw the lightning-flash sigil of the lords of Order embroidered on it.
"Thank you, sister. If I might see the stone?"
Jennat was biting her lip, glancing nervously from Tarod to Liss and back to Tarod. Liss began to unwrap the cloth. Through its folds something glittered coldly, and Tarod felt a surge of raw emotion, of power; a sensation he had all but forgotten and which struck him so unexpectedly that he didn't think to control it—
"Sister, no!" Jennat's frantic cry cut the quiet like a sword-blade, and at the same moment the final fold of cloth fell away to expose the Chaos stone in Liss's hand.
Tarod swung round, and his gaze locked with Jennat’s. Her face was a frozen mask of horror—and in her eyes he saw stunned recognition of his true self.
Liss was turning, alarmed but not yet comprehending what her seer had understood. Without pausing to think, Tarod snatched the jewel from Liss's grasp—and a massive physical shock jolted through him, as though he had been struck by a thunderbolt. His left hand clenched round the gem, and an atavistic, titanic sense of power flooded his mind, wiping out all reason and setting fire to instinctive fury. He couldn't think as a logical, mortal man—Jennat’s face was a blur, the Margrave's querulous cry like a distant, meaningless bird-call—he flung his left arm out towards Jennat and the power surged within him.
The flowering tree in the corner erupted in a column of white flame, and light blasted across the courtyard. Burning branches whirled down on to the cage, and the wooden bars blazed up like torches. Tarod saw Cyllan reel back, and he screamed her name, summoning her to his side. She regained her balance, then flung herself through the roaring arch of fire. She reached him and his right hand locked on hers, the clutch of her fingers ferocious. Then through the mayhem he heard Sister Jennat shrieking.
"No! No! Sister, help me! Stop them!"
Men were bursting from the door to the justice house, the Margrave was trying to block his path, and he saw Jennat, a blur of white robes and flying dark hair, hurling herself towards him. He didn't think; he couldn't think; the instinctive fury was too great. A gesture, and Jennat screamed like a tortured beast, her body twisting about in a gruesome dance before she crashed to the ground, her bones smashed and all traces of life obliterated from her eyes.
Through a red daze Tarod saw Sister Liss backing away on all fours and heard her wailing on a high, insensate note. He dragged Cyllan to his side, swung round, and came face to face with the Margrave. The old man's features were distorted by terror but he was trying to bar the way, his militia behind him. Tarod raised his hand again and the old man reeled sideways, buffeted by a force that punched him across the courtyard. The militiamen fell back in horrified confusion and Tarod clove through their midst, only dimly aware of Cyllan at his side. The door split, burst apart by the insane force erupting from within him, and they were running through corridors that warped and fragmented before them. Faces loomed and fell away crying out in fear, the double doors at the main entrance were ahead—
The crowd outside parted like leaves before a gale as the dark, demonic figure ran from the justice house. To Tarod's twisted consciousness the scene was a nightmare of crazed shapes and howling sound; the Chaos force had control of him and the milling bodies and screaming voices had no meaning. Black light flickered about him, lighting his stark face and possessed eyes.
His horse waited at the edge of the crowd, and he was dimly aware of lifting Cyllan, flinging her astride the animal and springing into the saddle behind her. The sensation of the powerful, bunching muscles beneath him brought back a measure of sanity. He screamed a command and the horse spun about, launching into a standing gallop as it raced towards the town walls and freedom.