"How strong are you? That's all that matters, you see. Your strength. Your ability to look on the face of Chaos and stay sane. That's how we're all judged, here."
Twelve years as a Chaos Rider had taught Benetan Liss the truth of those ominous words. Yet despite the terrors and demands of his work, he was loyal to his masters and devoted to Chaos's seven formidable gods… until a new First Magus came to power. For Lord Vordegh was far worse than a mere tyrant, and the obsession that drove him was one in which sanity had no place.
On the first bitter night of the new reign, the mask of compliance that Benetan had worn for so long began to crack. And behind the mask lay a road to nightmare.
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.
When the expected summons came, they were ready. Forty-nine fully armed warriors—seven times seven—ranged in silent ranks before the stable block. Inside the stable Benetan could hear the horses stamping restively. They had caught something of the pervasive atmosphere and were alerted. But the Chaos riders would have no need of them tonight.
The sky was beginning to agitate now. The spires no longer spat their shivering bolts of energy, but the lightning far to the north was almost continuous and an uneasy spectrum of dim colors marched slowly across the heavens, blotting out the stars. Though the first moon still glared down, it was haloed with a pale, ghastly corona; minutes more and its face would be obliterated as the supernatural storm, known to the cowering world as a Warp, gained power.
Benetan's senses were straining involuntarily to catch the first eerie and far-off sounds that would herald the Warp's onslaught. He was sweating again, and the black silk of his shirt and trousers clung to his skin with a cold, faintly repellent touch. He had put on the silver circlet with its ornate embellishments that made a fearsome half mask around his eyes; it kept his unbraided hair from blowing across his face but couldn't hold back the perspiration beaded on his forehead. Each time he blinked, droplets of it glittered on his lashes, breaking and refracting the moonlight on silver wristbands and on the glinting gems at his waist and shoulders. His teeth were clenched, and try as he might he couldn't stop the reflex as he listened for the first shrieking herald out of the north, and waited for the summons that he knew must come at any moment.
Then a sound alerted him—the scrape of wood on stone, followed by a creak of hinges—and he looked toward the double doors at the castle's main entrance. A shadow fell across the steps before the doorway, and a solitary man emerged. Disquieting patterns of light from the moon and other less discernible sources distorted his figure and made him impossible to identify, but his bearing, and the long, heavy robe that enveloped him, told Benetan that he was no mere servant. For a moment the newcomer surveyed the scene, then a hand rose, gestured; and with his heart quickening painfully Benetan hastened across the courtyard and up the steps.
"Captain Liss." The voice was dry, slightly clipped, and old, shrewd eyes regarded Benetan from under hooded lids. In the fine embroidery of the magus's robe strange shapes writhed and shifted with a life of their own. "You are to be commended for your prompt response."
"Thank you, my lord." Benetan's own eyes were unfocused; he touched a hand to his breast in formal salute, and somewhere overhead felt rather than saw the sky shiver. Footsteps sounded softly on the flagstones as the magus moved back from the steps and into the silent, lofty entrance hall beyond, and Benetan followed at a respectful distance. Then the dusty voice spoke again.
"We require a full harvest tonight. Satisfy that requirement and your diligence will be commended to those whom we all are privileged to serve."
"I'm grateful, my lord. And I will discharge my duties to the utmost of my ability." Benetan fought a tic that threatened to make his cheek muscles twitch.
The magus nodded. "We ask nothing more, and demand nothing less. Now: you have a full complement of riders?"
"Very good. Then you are ready to take the sacrament."
"I—" His voice cracked; he forced it back under his control. "I am ready, my lord."
Now he could hear the first thin, screaming wail far out over the sea as the Warp began to move in toward the peninsula. Ten minutes, perhaps fifteen, no more, and the huge forces unleashed by the gods would come shrieking out of the night in wild and deadly celebration. And he must face the Warp, and lead his riders out into its howling heart.
He heard the magus turn away, heard the crisp snap of his fingers, the light, hesitant feet of the servant who had been waiting in the shadows and now came forward at his summons. She held a pewter tray on which were set a flask and a tiny chalice carved from a single diamond. Averting her gaze she dropped to one knee before the magus and held the tray out. As the sorcerer filled the cup to the brim, Benetan tried to quiet the pounding of his heart. He could see the faint, darkly phosphorescent gleam of the liquid, and against his will he found himself starting to crave it and the effect it would have on him. It was a bulwark against fear, a shield for his sanity in the face of what was to come.
Shrewd, relentless eyes focused on him, seeming to see beyond the physical contours of his skull and into his inner mind. The magus smiled thinly and held out the brimming chalice.
Yandros, greatest lord of Chaos, strengthen my resolve tonight! Benetan shut his eyes as the silent prayer went through his mind, then drank, draining the chalice in a single mouthful. The taste of the draught burned his tongue as he swallowed, and he felt its heat pervade to his stomach. Then he set the tiny vessel back on the tray, aware that his legs were not entirely steady.
"The Maze stands open and waiting, Captain. I would advise you not to delay." The magus gestured toward the doors. "Search well, and reap a good harvest."
Aware that the last words might be either a blessing or a threat, Benetan repeated his formal salute. The servant stepped forward and handed him the tray; the magus nodded once, satisfied, and walked away as Benetan turned numbly back to the courtyard.
Two sergeants were waiting at the head of the line of men. One took the tray, and Benetan said curtly: "See that each man takes his share."
"Sir." The sergeant nodded, understanding. With a queasy sensation that could not yet be due to the effects of the narcotic Benetan watched him carry the flask down the line, watched each man drink in his turn. Overhead the sky spat crimson lightning, and the distant singing sound swelled like a tidal surge, counterpointed by a far-off rumble of thunder. Without warning the scene before Benetan warped, as though he were viewing it from another dimension. The illusion lasted only a moment, but it made him realize that the narcotic was beginning to work. He drew several steady breaths, counting, hearing air rasp in his throat. The sounds in the sky were augmented now by a singing in his brain, an unholy, unhuman choir of joyous voices, and an arrhythmic vibration thrummed through his bones. He felt as though his body were the stone of the castle, and the breaths he took tasted of fire and of wine and of other, subtler things that he couldn't name.
He looked to where his sergeant was administering the magus's draft to the last men in the line. The ranks of riders looked alien silhouettes etched by the night's feral glow, and the world was turning, turning, the huge, dim spectrum of the Warp gaining strength as it wheeled across the sky high above. Benetan felt laughter shake itself into life deep inside him and he turned, moving in a fluid, dreamlike way to the stable, past the nervous horses and towards the iron door with its heavy bar. The grooms, meaningless shadow-men, not worthy of his notice, backed away from him, and the dimensions of the stable seemed to stretch into impossible distortions, walls rearing and lurching, floor undulating beneath his feet. Benetan knew he was hallucinating but the earlier dread was leaving him now as the drug took hold of his mind and body, and he welcomed the illusions, gloried in them. The door loomed like a mouth; he stopped before it and pulled from his belt a pair of long, black gauntlets, each finger tipped with a silver claw. His hands tingled as he drew the gauntlets over them and smoothed them on his forearms. Under the moons the claws glinted and he flexed them, feeling the power and the control they granted him as they transmuted his hands into something unhuman.
The door's metal bar gave under his grip; he wrenched it aside and let it fall. Then he bunched his fist and the laughter spilled from his throat as he pounded on the door's surface.
With the seventh blow the door smashed back onto a tunnel of utter blackness. Benetan swayed backward as a vast breath of air belched out of the dark: then a heavy, phased clopping echoed in the confined space, and something huge, blacker even than the tunnel, moved beyond the door, treading toward the physical world.
Even in his drug-heightened state Benetan could not fully assimilate it. It was a monstrous thing of iron and dark, horselike but not spawned by any creature of flesh and blood, quartz hooves shimmering, cold silver glittering in its eyes, the shadows of great wings rising from its back. It opened a crimson mouth, and its breath was like the touch of fire on his face as he reached up toward it, grasped the mane that writhed like snakes in his hands, coaxed it, caressed it, urged its sleek, sinuous form out into the courtyard. Behind it more were emerging; huge silhouettes, things born of Chaos, demonic and powerful. Benetan was laughing again and his men joined in as they, too, fell prey to the sacrament. The laughter, mingling with the voices that howled their weird harmonies in the sky and in his head, was tinged with insanity. The entire world was turning to black and silver as Benetan's perceptions altered. He saw beyond the dimensions that physically held him, into places where other consciousnesses moved in dark and formless undercurrents, feeding on his excitement, imbuing him with sensations that made his blood burn and race in his veins.
In the stable someone was screaming. A young groom, unprepared for the things he was witnessing, unprotected by the narcotic that gripped the minds of the riders and held them steadfast in the face of Chaos. Another Benetan felt pity and regret for the youth's horror, but that Benetan was a stranger, an alien being. The Chaos captain who swung himself up on to the smoke-dark back of his mount could know only contempt for such weakness.
A jolt of raw power slammed into him as the terrible fusion between man and demon beast engulfed his reeling senses. The courtyard turned and toppled about him and he uttered a high, ululating yell that was taken up by his fellow riders, a hungry and feverish celebration of energy, desire, madness. He raised his left arm high so that the gauntlet's claws caught the angry moonlight, and in his altered, churning vision they seemed to flash five searing bolts that spat upward into the night. Lightning answered from the heavens, and the northern and eastern spires crackled and sang again. Benetan felt the moment coming, felt the Warp's awesome power building to a crescendo, thrumming through his bones. On the far side of the courtyard the great gates were opening—
A titanic howl smashed against his eardrums, and the sky split open. Blinding light turned the courtyard to an inferno, and the Chaos creatures shrieked a wild challenge in harmony with the voice of the storm as the mass of riders surged forward like a black, breaking wave, with Benetan screaming at their head. Possessed, inspired, deranged, his mind was no longer his own; the gates within him had opened, as the Chaos Gate was even now opening far below him, and humanity was drowned in the dervish joy of the warrior, the hunter, the reaper, as the demonic riders streamed through the gate to be unleashed upon the world.