The Flames of Love
by
Andrew Prentis

© May 1991
Revised © August 2021

The frigid wind swirled about her, tossing her long blonde hair around her head. The cold penetrated the furs she wore and chilled her to the bone. She had long since ceased to care though. Her lips were chapped, her face raw from the winds.

The view from where she stood was spectacular. To her right she could make out the multi-hued green canopy of the Xanthian Forest, reaching its arms up into the foothills below her. The city of Zethus lay within that forest, the starting point for the journey which had brought her here. To her left, the mountains swung distantly around towards the north, receding to a purple-tinged band of green pine forest and tawny plain. Ahead of her, almost due north, a sheer drop marked the abrupt end to the immense mountain range. They dropped away rapidly to become a narrow band of rolling hills which blended into the forest and the dull tan plains further north.

This was Mage’s Tor, the north-easternmost peak of the gigantic Kiril Mountain range which dominated central Mardona. The Tor itself was behind her as she stood at the edge of the precipice. Eyes blurred by the wind, she gazed out over the countryside seeing little of it – feeling nothing but the misery which enveloped her.

It had all come down to this. Kallisti’s face was expressionless. Her formerly unmatched beauty was now ravaged by the elements and by the inner conflict which had left her gaunt and hollow-eyed. Her feet took her one step closer to the edge, close to that ultimate oblivion…

***

“Why does it hurt so much?” Kallisti sobbed as another fit of retching shook her body. Deldus mopped her sweating brow and held the bowl up for her to vomit into. Again she retched noisily but all she was able to bring up was bitter bile.

“The muscles of your stomach are bruised and strained from all the spasming.” he said, his voice soothing. Kallisti looked at him from red-rimmed eyes, sunken in a face once pretty but now pale and haggard by weeks of sickness and suffering brought on by her addiction to the to purple leaves of the Ambre flower. They had been forced on her by her then captor time, Marik Quorat, a smuggler whose body now hung from a gibbet on the far side of the city.

“You’ve always got an answer haven’t you?” she said, her voice contemptuous. Deldus sighed and mopped her brow again as a further spasm wracked her body. Kallisti was very ill. She had been close to death several times in the past few weeks, once by her own hand. Only Deldus had been able to stop her from killing herself and had thus become the target for her contempt – contempt at herself as much as anything.

A nurse came into the room, carrying clean sheets and nightdress. Kallisti’s condition had worsened over the past few days, her body growing weaker as dehydration and malnutrition set in. She seemed incapable of keeping anything down. She had also lost control over her bodily functions, much to her shame, and required constant changes of bedding.

“How is she?” the nurse asked in a hushed voice. Deldus shrugged.

“Same.” he replied, that single word invested with a wealth of feeling – concern, anger, frustration, love and impatience. At this, Kallisti began to cry, feebly reaching out for the hand that always seemed to be there to reassure, strengthen and care. Deldus kissed it gently…

***

…Kallisti lay enveloped in the warm darkness, listening to Deldus’ breathing as he slept. She shivered although it was far from being cold. Her body ached, she was exhausted but could not sleep. Their lovemaking has been so energetic, yet still sleep would not come. It never seemed to be enough. No matter how much Deldus tried – even resorting to magic to satisfy her sexual appetite, nothing could satisfy her anymore.

It did not matter how hard she tried to take her mind off it, there was always that ache, an ache that could only be relieved by those purple leaves. Sex was a temporary distraction. The empty bottle of wine at the bedside evidence of another distraction she had tried. Alcohol, though, was just as temporary as sex and the after effects were much worse.

There was only one thing her mind craved. It haunted her waking moments and walked like a colossus through her dreams. Ambre! The ache she felt was not of the body, but of the soul. The craving had not diminished over time. It was six months since her recovery from the physical effects of the addiction. There were no bright colours now, no light, no joy. All was grey, a seemingly endless void with nothing before her but the never ending longing for those narrow purple leaves…

Deldus woke with a start. “Kallisti?” he whispered, reaching out for her. Silently she allowed him to hold her close. His devotion and unceasing love and patience had given her something to cling to in the miasma of her sickness. A resentment was growing, though, a contrariness which made guilty. Yet the resentment fed on that guilt, making it worse.

“Why do you bother with me?” she said suddenly.

“Ump?” Deldus surfaced fully from the borders of sleep. “Sorry?”

“Why do you, still bother with me?”

“Because I care for you.” Deldus raised himself on one elbow, stroking her arm.

She shied away from his touch. “I’m tired of it.” her voice was rising. “I can’t do anything without you interfering. You never let me do anything by myself. I’m sick of it- I’m sick of having to feel grateful for everything you do. Can’t you just leave me alone?” she was out of the bed now, almost screaming.

“I’m sorry my darling – I didn’t intend to smother you. Far from it my love, I only want the best for you believe me. I want to see you on your feet again just like you used to be.” he tried to calm her down.

“Like I used to be? You mean whoring for you? I did it for Triad and I’ve done it for you and look where I’ve ended up! Is that all I’m good for? Fucking and whoring? I’m sick of it – I’m sick of you all!” She snatched up the robe lying at her feet and pulled it round her as she thrust her way out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Deldus sat on the edge of the bed and sighed, holding his head in his hands. Her tantrums were getting worse. After a few moments he heard the outside door slam at the same time as the magical alarms he had set on it went off.

Quickly he opened the shutter on the bedroom window. He muttered a few words and formed a circle with his thumb and index finger. A transparent sphere formed in the gap and at his command sped off after the shadowy figure moving down the street. The eye would let Deldus keep watch over Kallisti’s movements.

The dark. She had always felt at home in darkness. She remembered her training here in Zethus – the night time rooftop chases she and her companions used to enjoy. She glanced up at the roofs over her head and smiled wistfully. How innocent that Kallisti seemed. How things change. Her feet led her on, not really paying much attention to where she was going.

Deldus had a town house in the western quarter of Zethus, not far from the Mages College and the central enclave of Zethus, within which was the heart of the Order of the Black Rose as well as the Temple to Carina, Goddess of Beauty, Love, Music and by a quirk of fate, patron Goddess to the Order of the Black Rose. This area was heavily patrolled, but Kallisti always wore the enchanted ring given to her while at the school, which identified her to the patrols as a friend.

The Temple was an impressive construction, fronted by a large portico comprising seven massive columns in the form of beautiful men and women. Steps came down from the portico to the large square, dominated by the Temple on one side and in the centre a fountain shaped like a Griffin rearing on its hind legs, wings outstretched. Torches were mounted around the square and in the entrance to the Temple, which lit the area and drew her towards the open doors of the Temple.

There were always priests and acolytes serving the Temple, no matter what time of day or night. She entered under the portico, passing the tall hulking figure of the mute acolyte-priest acting as door warden. As with everyone who served Carina, Goddess of Beauty, he was handsome, yet unlike many of the others it was a strange beauty, almost unearthly. He watched Kallisti pass silently down the central isle of the Temple, sensing the turmoil which boiled within her.

Without knowing how she got there, Kallisti suddenly found herself kneeling in front of the altar to Carina, her face pressed against the stone, crying bitter tears, opening her heart to the goddess, begging her for help as her mind replayed those dreadful moments in Marik Quorat’s dungeon…

***

Ratty pushed the leaf into her mouth and held her jaw shut as her saliva acted on the leaf, releasing the drug. It was absorbed in seconds. The effect was terrifying. Suddenly the world began twisting and distorting, parts of the room shrinking to pinpoints, other parts growing enormously so that she could see the individual grains of sand in the mortar. The sound of her breathing became a shape endlessly shrinking and expanding.

“Now you know how it feels.” Ratty’s works appeared as coloured clouds twisting and swirling around the room. “Just imagine what would happen if we were to have you raped in this state.” The words suddenly became sharp edged knives, transforming into ugly demons, swimming round her just out of reach, waiting to bury themselves in her defenceless body. The whole room was nightmarish – she screamed once, but the sound tore into her body, battering her just like the whip had slashed her. She cried, tears of blood running down her cheeks to burn into the welts on her body. Her hands! She had lost her hands – they were gone…

***

… her hands were in front of her face, pressed against the unyielding stone of the altar. She felt a hand touch her shoulder gently. “My child you need not suffer.” a tender female voice reassured her. Kallisti turned toward the priestess. She was old, but her beauty remained. She helped Kallisti to her feet and took her into her arms. Kallisti sank into the embrace, fresh tears bursting out as she poured out her pain and anguish. Gradually, she calmed down and the priestess led her off into a side room.

“Here drink this, it will help calm your nerves, and replace all the tears you’ve shed.” In spite of herself, Kallisti smiled. “And maybe you would like to wash your face? I’m sorry to say that with your complexion, crying does not suit you at all.”

“Why do you care?” Kallisti said, her voice quivering.

“You carry a great burden of pain my child, pain brought about in the service of the Order – yes, I know who you are and what has happened.” the priestess smiled at Kallisti’s questioning look. “It is only natural for us to try to heal the harm done to you.”

“What of Carina? Does she want me healed?” Kallisti snapped back. The priestess moved to her side.

“Carina can be a capricious mistress sometimes. It is not always possible to know what She wants or means, but I am sure that in your case She would only want the best for you.” a wistful smile played across the priestess’ lips. Kallisti scowled, biting off a bitter retort. Instead she drank from the cup she had been given. It was a sweet cordial which refreshed as well as satisfied her thirst.

“I opened my heart to Carina and what good did it do?” Kallisti said finally. “She doesn’t care about us. We are nothing but playthings for the gods. They set up the hoops for us to jump through and then laugh when we fall! They are parasites!” She was angry again.

“My child it is not so…”

“And you – all you priests just pander to their whims. All this piety and devotion! What does Carina do for you?” The priestess began to answer but Kallisti was not ready to listen. She threw the cup across the room and stormed out, running back down the aisle to the darkness outside. The mute door-warden reached out for her as she passed, but pulled back his hand as he saw the fierce expression on her face. His face showed compassion as he watched her disappear into the dark, her face a mask of grim determination.

Somehow Deldus’ spying eye managed to loose her not long after she left the Temple. It was possible that she had deliberately lost it, using some of her own magic to hide herself from him. She was capable enough of doing that.

The next day found her in travelling clothes and warm furs, heading westward out of Zethus. She was on foot – her long-standing nervousness around  horses making it easier to choose to go on foot even though it would make the journey longer. The road west was well used, the forest having been cut back some distance either side of it to reduce the chance of ambush by the roving gangs of bandits who managed to exist even this close to the centre of the Order. About a mile from the city, she left the main road for a lesser track which headed back into the forest. It was the road to the ancient ruined Palace of Xanthus. Legends held that it had been built by the Griffins long ago for the Lord Mages who had ruled Mardona and the lands further north before the Order of the Black Rose. The Palace was a ruin now, but still retained much of the awesome majesty in must have once commanded.

Kallisti skirted the partly overgrown courtyard surrounding the Palace. It was so neglected that several trees had managed to grow up between the paving stones, and just in front of the Palace itself, one had been blown over by a storm, uprooting a large crater which was now thoroughly overgrown. The Palace of Xanthus itself looked sadly neglected. Vines and weeds sprouted all over the once proud facade. Niches which had once held statues now contained nothing but crumbling ruins and the occasional birds nest.

She continued on into the forest, following a logging track which kept to the side of the valley carved by the River Urs. She knew not what drove her on nor where she was going, she just knew that Zethus was no more for her.

At night she camped by a fallen tree, lighting a small fire and eating some of the meagre rations she had brought. As darkness fell, the flickering flames sent dancing shadows into the gloom all round her. Although some of her time at the school had been spent in wilderness training, she had spent most of her life in cities, so was not naturally attuned to the forest about her. The sounds were eerie – the calls of night hunters, the creak and rustle of wind in the treetops, the buzz of insects and the croaking of frogs in the distance. A long mournful howl suddenly broke through the background noises. An eerie silence followed it as if the forest held its collective breath of a moment.

Kallisti hunched closer to the fire, slipping her long bladed dagger out of its sheath. The howl had been quite close by. The fire should frighten off any prowlers, Kallisti thought to bolster her confidence, but she knew sleep would be hard for her this night.

The sound of something caught her attention. She could not be certain what she had heard, but there at the edge of the firelight – a shape lighter than the surrounding shadows. Two silver eyes reflected back the light from the fire. Kallisti swallowed and braced one leg under her, dagger held ready.

The creature, whatever it was, came no closer and after a few moments disappeared back into the forest. Kallisti sat down again, leaning her back against the fallen tree trunk, the long dagger resting across her legs. The next thing she knew was sunlight slanting in from the east as she started awake. With a gasp, she groped for the dagger. There sitting beside the burnt out remains of her fire was a large grey-muzzled wolf. It watched her calmly, its ears twitching. Kallisti gripped the dagger – her knuckles turning white as she tensed, trying to get herself ready to spring.

The wolf sat calmly watching her, unafraid. Suddenly it yawned, displaying a wide mouth filled with teeth and a bright red tongue. Having yawned, it settled down with its head on its paws, watching her intently. Somehow, she felt the wolf was not a threat. It eyes, dark brown but bright and alert watched her, but the body was relaxed and not threatening. After a few minutes another wolf approached from the undergrowth, younger and slightly smaller than the first. This one padded around to the other side of her, sniffed the air toward her and casually sat with its back to her. It looked at her over its shoulder and then bent it head down to nibble at something irritating its paw.

Two more wolves appeared from the forest and also settled themselves down nearby – she realised that  they had surrounded her. Even so, somehow she felt she was not in danger. The first wolf, who she surmised must be the pack leader lifted its head, sniffed the air again and stood up. The other three wolves glanced around but then went back to grooming themselves. The elder wolf moved closer to Kallisti, within touching distance and taking the risk she held her hand out to it – like she would have a dog. The wolf looked at her hand and gave a little ‘whoof’ and sniffed her hand closely, its cold nose brushing against her knuckles.

Two steps later the large grey wolf was beside her and she knew if it attacked her now she was done for, but she cared little – it would be a fitting end to her life to become a meal for wolves. Instead of attacking, the wolf sat down beside her, it fur brushing against her leg. This seemed to be an invitation so she reached out and touched the wolf’s fur. The wolf leaned slightly towards her and she stroked the fur, a tingling sensation moving from her hand up her arm. Suddenly she was aware of the other three wolves watching her intently as she stroked the pack leader’s fur like she would stroke one of Hawkeye’s hounds.

She felt the tension in her limbs relax from this simple contact with another living creature. Without thinking she reached out and hugged the wild wolf, not caring what might happen but simply relishing the warmth and softness, feeling the tears come again as her body was wracked with sobs. Suddenly she felt the other wolves at her side, surrounding her in a furry cocoon of comfort and musky warmth. It seemed they could sense her distraught and were there to comfort her.

Eventually the tears subsided and she composed herself. She realised she had four wolf faces watching her – there were no words but she somehow knew they cared for her, it was uncanny. The pack leader stood up and moved across the clearing, the other three joining him – they were leaving her! She felt a moment of loss and then the pack leader looked over his shoulder at her as if to say “You coming?”.

Quickly she gathered up her possessions while the wolves waited for her and when ready she followed them into the forest. They kept their pace slow as she could not move as quickly as them through the undergrowth – she had to crouch quite a bit to get through the places where the wolves easily passed but they kept pace with her, never letting her fall behind, stationing themselves either side of her as guardians and guides.

The wolves led her to a place where some time back a large tree had fallen and there was a natural shelter beside its giant tree trunk. Here she saw several other wolves who were watching them approach warily. Kallisti held back from the sheer number of wolves she could see and could sense there were others she could not see. The pack leader, however, just loped into the den and sat, a commanding authority of the pack. She moved over and knelt on the ground beside him, the other three wolves that had accompanied her moving around the den sniffing their pack-mates. One by one the other wolves came toward her and sniffed until a wolf with darker fur and obviously female having had a recent litter of pups stood beside her and sniffed her face, the dark wet nose brushing her cheek and then a dark red tongue licked her cheek and she felt she had been accepted by the pack.

A quiet high-pitched growl caught her attention and she suddenly found herself pounced on by a small fluffy bundle as a wolf cub leapt out of the bush beside her and tackled her arm. “Ouch!” she felt its needle sharp teeth on her wrist and quickly pushed it off, but the wolf cub seemed to take this as a challenge and pounced again but she drew her arm away quickly and the cub chased after – this was a game! Leaping up the wolf cub tried to catch her hand as she wiggled it around until it was able to grab on and nibble at her fingers. Laughing, she prised the wriggle cub off her hand and plonked him down further away which just became another challenge and game.

All the while she was aware that the other wolves were watching her as if this was some sort of test, but somehow she felt their approval. Then there were three other cubs appearing from nowhere who joined in the game, chasing her hands and jumping over her, leaving her with a few scratches from their claws but she did not mind. Eventually though her fingers were sore from the sharp teeth and she lifted her hands up out of reach and said “No!” The four playful cubs sat looking up at their prey – her fingers – until one of them decided his neighbour was more fun and jumped on them instead.

Kallisti’s stomach rumbled and she realised she hadn’t eaten since waking up. The wolves had stopped watching her by now and had moved off in various places around the den. The pack leader was still sitting at the centre of the den. She reached for her backpack and looked through it for her rations, finding some jerky. Eating it she became aware of they eyes of the first wolf cub watching her curiously. Breaking off a small piece she offered it to him. He sniffed it cautiously and then licked it. Finding it acceptable, he took it from her fingers and proceeded to chew on it. Finding it too tough, the wolf cub spat it out and turned toward his mother looking for some proper food! Taking her waterskin, Kallsiti drank but it was almost empty. Remembering they had crossed a stream in the forest close by she stood up and retraced her steps to the stream. As she refilled the waterskin she was aware that there was at least one wolf nearby who had followed her from the den.

Returning to the den, it seemed that the wolves this time paid her little attention, just accepting her as part of the pack. There appeared to be fewer of them around and the pack leader was nowhere to be seen. She felt tired and got her bedroll out of her backpack, cleared a space to one side of the den and lay down, feeling a lethargy from the tension and then relief of the day. Within a few minutes the wolf cub padded over to her looked at her curiously and then curled up beside her and fell asleep. Inexplicably, this brought a tear to her eye, but a tear of happiness for once. Closing her eyes, she felt protected and safe.

Several days went by with Kallisti living with the wolves. She set some rabbit snares and surprisingly caught some which she shared with the pack, although there was some disquiet when she lit a fire a little way away from the den so she could cook the raw meat. The wolves hunted and brought back a deer to the den of which she was allowed a share that she cooked. After the rains came a few times she constructed a crude shelter using some fallen branches and ferns woven together as a canopy. After the first night alone in her shelter, the next time the rains came, there were several wolves taking shelter with her and she had to extend it.

Then came the day when something was different – she could feel a tension in the air and the wolves were nervous. The pack leader sat before her, his eyes holding hers intently. Then he turned around and took several paces off to the side of the den and looked around at her with that look she had seen before. It was time to go somewhere and the pack leader knew where. Gathering her things she realised there were several wolves watching as was her favourite wolf cub. She felt a lump in her throat at the thought of leaving her friends, wolves who had sensed her hopelessness and adopted her as one of their own!

She could not help herself though and she had to hug the wolf-mother who had first licked her face, cementing her acceptance into the pack. The wolf cub leapt at her as always and she picked him up hugged him and kissed his nose, placing him down by his mother “Thank you all for…” words failed her as her tears came. She knew they knew so she picked up her backpack and followed the pack leader, resisting the urge to turn back again.

Accompanied by several wolves on all sides they travelled onwards. Gradually the forest changed from lowland broad-leafed forest to pine as she crossed into the foothills of the mountains. The ground was getting steeper and she found the going much harder than before. She was still not in the best of shape and the climbing tired her out, slowing her progress drastically. She felt a sharp pang of longing for Ambre and realised this was the first time it had come to her since she had met the wolves. All that time with the pack and she hadn’t thought of it once. The ache was still there, but there was something new – a feeling of belonging to something important. She had never felt this way about anything – belonging to the Order or even being with Deldus. They were important to her, but not the same. She had belonged with the wolves – she was a part of them and they a part of her.

They stopped at night by some rocks that provided a shelter from the cold wind that blew from the north. Feeling her disquiet, the pack leader stayed close beside her while the other wolves patrolled to keep them safe. The discipline among them was instinctive and natural and she felt safe in their care. The next day was more arduous, the route was steep and treacherous underfoot – it was all right for her four legged friends who skipped over the rocks with relative ease, but her feet were sore and her legs ached and the desire for Ambre to dull the pain grew stronger as the path grew steeper. Eventually the reached a rocky plateau with an astonishing view over the forest below stretching into the misty distance. She knew that somewhere down there was Zethus and her home but it also contained the den of the wolf pack, her other home.

The wind was cold and sharp at this exposed altitude and the travelling clothes she had chosen were not suited for this weather. The sun was close to setting and the temperature was dropping. She hobbled over to some rocks that provided some shelter from the wind. Her ankle was sore from a slip on the rocks below that had almost sent her tumbling down the steep path and she gratefully sat leaning against the rock. The wolves clustered around her, sharing their warmth. She fell asleep with their musky scent surrounding her.

With a start she woke up again – the sun had risen again but she was alone against the rocks. Her wolves had gone! She suddenly felt alone and bereft, they had abandoned her! The Ambre longing took her, her body shuddering at the thought. No! She would not let it take control. She found herself standing at the sheer edge of the cliff. Now what? She glanced over the edge at the long drop. One more step will end the misery – forget the ache and the longing for Ambre…

“Goddess, why me – why do I have to do this all alone, why did they abandon me?” her heart was drained, it wasn’t just the pack she spoke of but it was all the things she had experienced, her Mother, her Father, Triad,  Deldus, they had all used and discarded her.

“My Child, you are not alone, you have not been abandoned I am with you!” A voice! Kallisti span round. A shimmering figure materialised by the Tor. It was the priestess from the Temple! No – this was a much younger woman. Then again, the woman’s radiant beauty seemed ageless.

“Carina!” she gasped.

“Not quite but you can call me that for now, you are not ready yet.”  the kindly voice was soothing. “My child you opened your heart to me and I came. I have never deserted you, my sweet Kallisti, I have always been with you, even when you offered your fealty to that mischevious scoundrel Dravidi. A part of you reached me long ago and has been with me ever since.”

“But why…”

“Why did I let all those things happen to you? Why Quorat? Why Vastur? Why Triad Gaull? I need a weapon my Kallisti. A weapon must be forged, drawn and honed. How many men have faced down a god? A god like Vastur at that? You resisted the God of Death’s tempting and shut him out of this world again. How many can say they’ve tasted Ambre and retained their sanity? You are my weapon for what is to come. I am sorry for the suffering you have undergone but you have weathered it well, I am proud of you my daughter.”

“But how… why me?” Kallisti found herself on her knees before the goddess. The goddess’ fingers ran through Kallisti’s tangled hair, untangling and shining it as she did so. Where she touched, Kallisti felt a warm glow suffuse her being.

“Why you? Because you are the best. You have a spark within you. A spark few other could even comprehend. Deldus has it too, hence why he is so drawn to you. He is different though, a different weapon. It was your mother who chose you.”

“My mother?” Kallisti looked up at the goddess.

“She was a priestess before she married your father. She left the temple to be with him. He was a different man from the one you knew. Sadly your mother’s death changed him for the worse. He was unable to see that which she had given you – apart from your looks that is.”

“I never knew.”

“My daughter, can you forgive me for making you, suffer so?” The goddess drew Kallisti to her feet and held her hands. There were tears in the goddess’ eyes. Kallisti nodded, unable to find the words. They embraced. Kallisti felt a surge of love like a flame burning through her.

“The Pack – they are part of you too!” she gasped as the flames of love washed through her.

“They are a symbol of love, cooperative and fierce, they look after each other and cared for you at your time of need. They will come to you again when you need them most as you surely will one day. Remember them and remember that mischievous cub, one day you will understand what you have done.”

“I don’t understand – you are the goddess of love but you are not Carina, you are different.”

“Ahh my sweet daughter, how perceptive you have become! Bury that knowledge deep and keep it secret. All will become clear in time, but now is not that time. Just know that SuoConna watches over you, but keep it between us my dearest one.”

The house was quiet as she opened the door. Her old thief skills and her newer magical abilities allowed her to open it without setting off any of the magical alarms she knew were set. It was dark inside but she could see a light under the door to the room used as a study-library.

She opened the door slowly and silently. Deldus sat at the reading desk, a book unrolled before him. He looked up and nearly knocked the chair over as he stood up.

“Kallisti!” he cried, a look of surprise and relief on his face.

“I’m back my love, and its over – I have found myself again.” Kallisti smiled, looking more beautiful than ever.