Lady Kallisti, Heroine of Mardona sipped her enjoyably alcoholic chilled drink and watched the youngsters playing in the bathing pond down below the veranda upon which her reclining chair was ensconced. She smiled at their antics and listened to their chatter, enjoying the cool breeze with its scent of pine coming down from the foothills above the villa she had shared with her husband, the Archmage Deldus and their children and now grandchildren for the last 40-odd years.

“Grandma, do you need a top up?” one of her multitude of granddaughters, a teenage picture of loveliness called Bianca appeared out of the house and stood beside her reclining chair. The skimpy swimsuit accentuated her stunning toned figure, a reminder of the gifts from the Goddess they had saved all those years ago. Kallisti’s long-lasting youth and good looks were one of the gift bestowed upon her by the Goddess SuoConna when she, Deldus and a small band of rebels freed her from the imprisonment of the false goddess Carina in the final battle of the revolution they had instigated against the ruling Theocracy of their country, Mardona.

Now, almost five decades later, she retained a great deal of her youthful beauty, but the years were still taking their toll. The aches and pains of old age visited her most mornings, along with pains from some of the supposedly healed injuries from the violence back then. The occasional screaming nightmares were another injury that was harder to treat and were most disturbing when the love of her life, Deldus had to be absent such as now.

“What a splendid idea my darling!” Kallisti smiled at her favourite granddaughter. Bianca grinned and topped up the tall glass from the pitcher she carried. The pleasant sound of the ice chips tinkling against the glass reminded her. “How much ice is left in the storage? If its getting low I’ll send a message to the Mages to transport another ice block from the mountains.”

“There is a little left Grandma, but at the rate you are guzzling these drinks we’ll run out soon.”

“Cheeky tart!” Kallisti laughed. “Come here and give this old tart a cuddle.” Bianca put the pitcher on the table and slid onto the reclining chair, snuggling up happily with the Matriarch of her large family.

Kallisti stroked her granddaughter’s tawny coloured hair – somewhere along the line Kallisti’s blonde hair, for which she was famous, had evolved into the glorious riot of russet curl worn by Bianca. She suspected it was the fault of her youngest daughter and her husband from the northern neighbouring country, Laar. It had been the war declared upon Laar 40 years ago that had triggered a resistance movement that eventually became the revolution that changed her country. Later, she had sent her youngest daughter, by that time a brilliant spy and negotiator to Laar as an envoy to the King during which time she had met and fallen in love with the son of the King’s seneschal, a relationship that had cemented the alliance between their countries that had stood them both well over the years.

Her reverie was interrupted by one of her grandsons running through the house shouting “Grandma it bonged! The Griffin bonged!” Seven year old Pitr was an energetic, excitable boy, fascinated by magic and determined to become a mage like his Grandpa, Uncle and Aunt. She looked at Bianca and rolled her eyes dramatically, bringing giggles from her granddaughter.

“In that case we should see what the message is shouldn’t we?” She stood up and brushed down the loose sundress she had been wearing. She winked at her granddaughter and held out her hand to Pitr, excitedly hopping from one foot to the other. He grabbed her hand and in his urgency to see the magic in operation almost dragged her into the house. “Woah, slow down my little tiger, we’ll get there in time without falling off the stairs!” Chastened, Pitr took a deep breath and calmed himself down, glancing up at his beautiful Grandmother with wide adoring eyes.

Hand in hand they moved through the villa and to a set of steps leading up to a balcony level above the central courtyard. Here stood a large bronze statue of a Griffin, the heraldic creature of Mardona, in a rampant pose, wings outspread and claws raised. The last surviving Griffin had sacrificed himself in the final battle against the forces of the false god Carina. This statue was modelled on the features of that hero. Held in the left claw was a gong which was tied into the magical communication system that allowed her to communicate with others across Mardona, the eyes were glowing to indicate a waiting message. Placing her hand on the chest of the statue, the magic identified her as the recipient of the message and a disembodied voice came from the statue:

“The Council of Mardona requests the presence of the Lady Kallisti to assist in resolving the most recent dispute with Bragor” came the deep, resonant voice. Her heart beat faster at recognising the voice of her husband who had created this messaging system many years back and used his own voice in the spell. She hadn’t seen him in several weeks and missed him as he was busy elsewhere – the exact location of which he struggled to explain to her, such was the nature of the magic he was involved in.

“Oh dear” she sighed. “Can you go find Isabel and tell her I have to go to the city?” she crouched down to Pitr’s level and held both his hands. He nodded solemnly and raced off to find Isabel, the housekeeper who kept the whole household running smoothly. Glancing in the full length mirror hanging next to the Griffin statue, she pursed her lips and decided that the casual sundress was not appropriate attire for a council meeting. Concentrating on the image in the mirror, she mentally checked through a set of outfits she kept in her mind and selected the long formal dress in peach with the low cut d├ęcolletage she preferred. Focussing the magic she had accumulated over the years, she felt the material around her body shift and change and her heels lifted from the floor as the shoes that matched the outfit materialised under her feet. Looking again in the mirror, she nodded at the changed outfit that had appeared around her. Clicking her fingers she invoked one of the earliest cantrips she had ever learned and her hair writhed as if it was alive as the magic brushed, fluffed and cleaned her long blonde hair so that it draped around her shoulders. Finally happy with her appearance, she walked around the balcony toward the magical waystone that would transport her to the city. Isabel the housekeeper appeared in the courtyard. “Please keep an eye on the children – let them have sorbet today. Hopefully I won’t be away for long.” She leaned over the balcony rail.

“Should we expect any guests?” Isabel asked. Kallisti shrugged.

“Your guess is as good as mine, I’ve no idea what had got them all worked up THIS time.” Isabel nodded and waved.

Kallisti stepped onto the patterned sandstone plinth on the balcony and felt the image of the map appear in her mind. The map showed all the possible destinations accessible to the waystone. Selecting the one in the centre of the city closest to the Palace of the Council, she felt the magic take hold with a head-spinning feeling of vertigo. Resisting the instinct to close her eyes, she glimpsed the null void of the space between spaces before the portal hall of the Council palace appeared before her. The four guards permanently spaced around the waystone, reacted cautiously but respectfully to the new arrival. The officer in charge recognised the newcomer immediately and saluted her.

“Lady Kallisti, welcome, you were expected. If you would care to accompany me to the Council Chamber?”

“Thank you Relgton, how is your grandfather?” She smiled at the young officer, smartly dressed in the deep blue ceremonial armour of the Mardonan Praetorian Guard, a maroon sash denoting his rank and status.

“He is well, thank you, although he grumbles about his missing leg still. He still believes he has an itch on his calf and insists that someone scratch the wooden leg as it relieves it.”

“Well who knows, the magical chaos at that time was intense, strange things happened during the final battle and my husband is still trying to settle some of the after effects even after all these years. Who knows what other lingering effects have been left from that time.” She followed the smart young man through the marble hallways, grandly restored after the destruction of many years before. They arrived at the large steel doors of the council chamber, flanked on each side by three guards dressed in similar armour, standing to attention holding gleamingly sharp halberds. All six guards saluted the newcomers and the two inner guards opened the double doors into the council chamber.

The sound of voices raised in argument was immediately apparent but hushed slightly as she appeared at the top of the stairs of the amphitheatre-shaped hall. In the middle of the semi-circular lower level a raised dais showed a row of eight large chairs, styled to avoid looking like thrones, but very obviously made for important people. Behind this row a further raised platform had three plinths for speakers, of which the middle and left hand ones were occupied. The serious looking man at the middle plinth looked toward Kallisti and banged his gavel for attention.

“The council recognises the Lady Kallisti’s arrival and welcomes her to the Council.” he announced formally, nodding towards her. “We hope she can refrain from misusing her SuoConnan gifts in the discussions in this council chamber” He held her gaze with a steely determination. Kallisti paused at the lowest step and narrowed her eyes at her eldest son. The hall hushed at this sudden contest of wills. After a moment, Kallisti nodded and smiled.

“Your request is noted and WILL be remembered.” she raised an eyebrow at her son, who could not help but blush at the trouble he knew he would be in later. There was a quiet snicker from the left of the council chamber. She looked around, smiled and winked at her eldest daughter, Pitr’s mother, sitting in the ranks of councillors. Crossing the floor of the council chamber she approached the row of chairs. Of the eight, three had black sashes draped across the seats and arms and she felt a lurch at the reminder of her friends who had been lost since the eight of them had been declared as heroes or heroines of Mardona. She moved to the fourth chair, the left of two middle chairs that were for her and her husband, honoured places on the council that ruled Mardona.

Taking her seat, one of the council clerks handed her a sheaf of documents that summarised the current situation and argument. Discussions continued in the chamber and for a while she dived into the problem at hand, the arguments and counter argument buzzing around her. She gradually became aware of a shadowy figure standing in front of her at the foot of the stairs. Looking up, her blood ran cold as she recognised the figure, the left side a beautiful naked woman, while the right side a semi-skeletal, diseased corpse – a figure she had not seen outside her nightmares for over 30 years! The Avatar of Carina glared at her with hatred and loathing.

Long buried instincts kicked in and without thinking the daggers appeared in her hands, summoned from their magical home and she leapt out of the chair in a fighting stance, spinning in the balletic fighting style she had learned decades ago to repeat the deadly attack she had performed years before, plunging the enchanted daggers into the evil goddess in the final act of the nightmarish battle that claimed so many of her friends. As the daggers sank into the flesh of the goddess, the figure evaporated and Kallisti fell forward, collapsing to the floor in the suddenly silent room.

“Mama!” she heard her daughter’s voice as if from a distance, the blood pounding in her ears and she slumped to the cool marble floor. She looked up at the shocked and terrified faces of the councillors and once again it stuck her how young they all looked. Few of them were old enough to remember the nightmare years when the true nature of the patron goddess of Mardona was finally revealed and the sacrificial orgy altars spread across the land where so many were murdered in horrific orgies of slaughter and perversion to feed the goddess’s cruel appetites.

Looking around, she saw her daughter, Modesta had rushed down from her council seat to be at her side, tears streaming down her horrified face. This made her realise that her SuoConna gift was projecting her fear and terror across the Council chamber. One of the gifts from her Goddess had been an empathic ability that had helped the survivors of the revolution recover from the horrors of before, a power that allowed her normally to project an aura of love and calmness but which at present was projecting her fear and horror at the vision she had witnessed. Closing her eyes and focussing inwards she damped down the powerful emotions spilling out and pushed forward an aura of calm in its place. She reached out for her daughter’s hand and drew her into the aura. All her children had inherited a little of the power she had been gifted and had learned to use it for the good of their people.

“I’m sorry, I saw something… ” she tried to explain but the words dried up in her throat.

“Mama, its okay let me help you.” Modesta helped her to her feet. “Kaldus, call a recess while Mama recovers.” she called to her brother on the podium while helping her mother off to a side office of the council chamber. The clerks in the office jumped to their feet on seeing the two women stagger in. Modesta shooed them away and led her mother to a chair. “Call the steward and get us some refreshments quickly!” she ordered the nearest young man with ink-stained fingers. She knelt beside her mother, looking at the drawn face before her which seemed to have aged considerably in the last few minutes. She had grown used to the idea that her mother now looked younger than she did because of the gifts of SuoConna but now her mother looked much more like the almost eighty-year old that she really was.

The door from the council chamber banged open and her older brother stood in the doorway, an angry scowl on his face. “What on earth was that!” he demanded furiously.

“Who the hell do you think you are talking to?” Modesta leapt up to stand before him, equally angry. “Did you not FEEL the horror she experienced – that was not normal, that was more like the nightmares she used to have when we were little! You KNOW what those nightmares were about don’t you?” she stood right in front of him, her high heeled shoes allowing her to meet him eye to eye.

“Children! Behave!” the argument between her two eldest children was a reassuring presence, repeated so many time as they grew up that grounded her back in the present. Seeing their startled reaction to her “Mother!” voice made the horror recede a bit further. “Oh my darlings how can I tell you how much I love you both, even when you are being a complete prick Kaldus!” She embraced them both letting her love for them flood the area so that even her stern eldest son melted and hugged her fiercely. After a moment he pulled back, scowling again.

“You see, you did it again! You ALWAYS get your own way!” Of all her children, Kaldus was the one who could resist her power the most and was a constant levelling presence to prevent her misusing it. “So let me repeat the question… what just happened?” This time his tone was much kinder. Kallisti sighed and stepped away from her children, suddenly aware of the awe-struck stares from the remaining clerks in the room. “It was Carina – I saw her avatar – it seemed so real and I just reacted without thinking.”

“Where did those daggers come from – you are not supposed to be able to bring weapons into the council chamber – the protections are set up to prevent that.”

“Firstly who do you think helped set up those protections originally and secondly I didn’t bring them them in with me, they are ALWAYS there when I need them, I just haven’t used them for all these years as they were never needed since the last time I plunged them into the body of that evil creature.” The reminder of what she had done before sent a shudder through her aura that was felt by all those nearby.

“But Mama we saw nothing, you just jumped from your chair and attacked thin air. I’ve never seen you move like that it was so fast!” Modesta took her hand again – the touch allowing them a deeper sharing. Kallisti could feel the concern from her daughter but also a tinge of admiration. Like all her children, Modesta was a trained fighter as well as her more intellectual skills. Growing up in the unstable years after the revolution Kallisti had felt it necessary to equip her children with as many of the survival skills she had learned in her youthful criminal career on the streets of Urswell, then later as an adult, a spy, infiltrator and assassin for the Order of the Black Rose before turning on her masters as one of the leaders of the rebellion.

“The training never goes away, although the limbs are not quite so flexible now.” Her muscles were aching after the burst of exertion they hadn’t performed in a long time. “Did the mages detect anything?” she turned to her son who was now standing in the doorway talking to others she could not see.

“Yes they detected a summoning spell, a burst of transformation and then a banishment spell – to me that sounds like the daggers appearing in your hands, whatever it was that allowed you to move so quickly and then you sending the daggers back to wherever they came from. Kallisti nodded.

“So no sacred magics?”

“It was all sacred magic, your gifts from SuoConna!”

“I meant OTHER sacred magics!” she was testy now the adrenaline had faded and her body ached from the exertions.

“No just those.”

“Then they need to try fucking harder – there was something there! I saw it and I felt it, don’t you dare tell me it was nothing!” her anger suddenly burst out, shocking those around her who were accustomed to her usual kindly, peaceful nature. “If necessary call your father, he’s better than all these finger wagglers put together, he’ll work out what it was.” she slumped slightly, the anger draining from her as quickly as it arrived. “He always knew what it was…” she could feel the tears building up – it had been such a long time since she had seen him, she missed him terribly.

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry – lets get back to work, I’m obviously a silly old woman seeing things.” She tied to lighten the mood but she did not feel it, something was wrong and she had not felt like this for such a long time it unnerved her. Modesta was not fooled.

“No Mama, lets go home and make sure everyone is safe. I trust your instincts even if others” she glanced over her shoulder at her brother, “think they know better!” Kallisti allowed her daughter to lead her out of the side room back to the council chamber. The councillors who remained were clustered together in groups, all trying hard not to stare at the seemingly frail woman they had grown used to being a strong, wise and reliable presence, leaning for support upon her daughter.

“We shall resume the meeting in fifteen minutes once the Lady Kallisti has been looked after. Please do not be alarmed by these events, investigations are underway.” Kaldus tried to be reassuring to the rest of the council members.

“Prick!” muttered Modesta as she helped her mother to the steps leading up toward the Portal Room. Kallisti hesitated at the foot of the stairs, at the place the apparition had appeared. Closing her eyes, she sought for any remnant of the monster but her aura found nothing untoward. With a sigh she looked to her daughter and shrugged. Her daughter’s expression seemed oddly surprised and then Kallisti realised the room was frozen and something was manifesting directly in front of her!

Trying to react she felt sluggish and disconnected from reality – her mind reached out for the daggers but there was nothing to grasp – the air seemed heavy and thick as a shadow grew in front of her – solidifying into the horrific split visage of the hated goddess.

“After all these years, you thought I’d forgotten?” the silky seductive voice rang out in the council chamber. “I still feel the pain of those cruel daggers penetrating my avatar’s body, but it shall be nothing compared to the pain you will suffer as my vengeance takes you! Finally I have broken through the veil that protected you and can do THIS!”

The surrounding blackness did not stop the feeling that she was falling forever through an intangible void. The falling sensation was not physical, there was no feeling of the air she was passing though, no visual clue that she was moving, but she knew she was falling from a great height and that this was the end, this is how it would all finish for her after all these years. She would never see her beloved Deldus again, never feel the love of her children and grandchildren, never get to see Pitr grow up into the powerful mage he would become, never see Bianca become the most beautiful woman in Mardona never feel the warmth of the sun on her skin, never smell the earth scent after a rain shower, never taste the sweet honey from the beehives of her youngest son…

She gradually surfaced from unconsciousness again, feeling a tremendous pain in her arms and back, struggling to draw breath as the dry heat struck her. She opened up gritty eyes to see the dead expanse of a desert stretching before her, the scorching sun blazing down mercilessly. Her arms were bound tightly to a wooden crossbeam and were all that supported her weight – she was being crucified naked on a cross in the desert…

 

Continued in Kallisti and the Desert: Hyborean Exile Part 2