Kallisti sat peacefully on the inner wall of the cloister quadrangle, watching a nest of ants that had been disturbed by the lay brethren tending the monastery garden. The disturbance had exposed the ant eggs and so workers were scurrying here and there to move the vulnerable white eggs to a new place of safety. In the meantime, larger winged ants were patrolling and forming a protective perimeter to defend the nest. The organisational competence of the ants reminded her of a few months before when she and many of her fellow monks formed a protective cordon around a village under attack from the hell-demons to allow the safe evacuation of the inhabitants. Considering there was no Arch-Prelate to arrange the tactical plan, the ants seemed perfectly capable of coordinating their activity in a very similar manner. The thought then struck Kallisti: Maybe the ants DID have their own Arch-Prelate to do the tactical planning, they just didn’t wear the cockade hat like Arch-Prelate Horsa! She smiled to herself at the thought of a giant ant wearing the gold-trimmed cockade hat.
At that moment the bell rang for supper so she shifted her soul-bound quarterstaff to its hidden safe place from across her knees and stood up. The late afternoon sun was settling down behind the peaked roof of the refectory beyond the other side of the cloister, so she moved toward the pathway that led through the garden, joining up with her fellow martial friars, looking forward to their supper. Although shorter than most of her brothers and sisters in the Order, she made up for that with a fierce passion when wielding her quarterstaff so that many underestimated her abilities. With her long blonde hair – something she took pride in considering how much effort it took to maintain it under the circumstances – she was often misjudged. Dressed in her favourite leather trousers and buckskin waistcoat, she walked with a confident stride, glancing over at the younger male novices who watched her with greedy eyes. So preoccupied, she almost walked straight into the tall figure of the Arch-Prelate standing at the arched gateway from the garden.
“Ahh Friar Kallisti, I am so pleased to see you.” The tall man said, looking down at her shorter figure. His face was pockmarked by a childhood disease and his left ear had had a chunk ripped out of it at some point in the past. Arch-Prelate Horsa was one of the longest serving members of the Order of Norton Folgate and had an intimidating manner with most people, but for some reason Kallisti found his presence reassuring. “I noticed you in deep contemplation just now, I hope it was a rewarding moment?”
“Yes Your Grace, the ant’s nest reminded me of our recent defence of Wokingham.” The Arch-Prelate raised an eyebrow questioningly. “The ants seemed to automatically know what each one should do without, it seemed, anyone giving them orders. It made me wonder if they have an antish version of an Arch-Prelate.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she regretted them – comparing the second-in-command of their martial order of monks to an ant was not the best way to impress your superiors!
The Arch-Prelate pursed his lips and rocked back on his heels for a moment. “I think that may be so. I believe Deacon Bartholomew has been studying the hierarchies that develop in societies, not just human but animal, insect and most importantly for our work in Demonic societies. He postulates that some of these societies don’t conform to the same pyramidal structures that our own monastic society follows, but are often more communal. Very good, I am pleased that your contemplations have born intellectual fruit wouldn’t you say?” He smiled at her, his lips drawing thin but his eyes remaining judgemental. She bobbed her head in supplication.
“Thank you Your Grace, I was never a particularly good student…”
“Except with the quarterstaff thankfully!” he interrupted her. “And it is for that I have been seeking you out. I have a special job for you that needs your particular skills.” He noticed Kallisti’s eyes glancing at the retreating line of monks heading towards the refectory. “You will have your supper in good time, for now come with me and we shall discuss the nature of this task.” His crooked finger beckoned her away from supper toward the administration wing of the cloister. He explained as they walked. “You were a novice when the Great Schism occurred a few years back so you are familiar with the revelation that the church authorities had been in collusion for centuries with the demonic forces that had invaded us in the distant past. That the apparent stalemate our seemingly never-ending war with the demon invaders was a deliberate ploy, arranged generations ago by the leaders of the church who had negotiated a pact with the demons to allow them to co-exist on this Earth, while bolstering their own authority and maintaining their hold over the populace.”
Kallisti nodded, trying to ignore the rumbling in her stomach as she caught the faintest aroma of cooked meat drifting from the refectory. This was going to be one of the Arch-Prelates interminable lectures, but at least she was walking with him and unlikely do doze off like she had done multiple times in the seminary classrooms!
“Once this arrangement was revealed a great many of us who had sacrificed the lives of loved ones and colleagues rebelled against their authority and broke away. Since then we have managed in our fight again the demons to achieve vastly greater success once we discovered the debilitating weaknesses built into the magics that bound our soul-weapons to us. The belief that our soul weapons destroyed the demons on defeat was a cornerstone of our teachings for hundreds of years, when in reality all that happened was the defeated demon was transported back to it original home plane of existence, ready to be summoned back to the fight again. In all those years we had barely whittled down any of the enemy’s vast hoards, while they had preyed upon us mercilessly.”
Kallisti nodded again, remembering the last sight of her father and mother as they threw her to safety from the riverbank where they had been trapped by a pack of demons. A rowing boat had rescued the six year old girl from the water and delivered her into the care of the Order of Norton Folgate where she had spent the last 20 odd years training for and then becoming a demon hunter.
“Since then, we have learned how to overcome the deliberate sabotage of our teachings and your quarterstaff and those of your cohorts in the martial orders are fully capable of dispatching the demons permanently meaning we are finally driving the demon hoards out of our lands.” His eyes lit up with the zealous passion he felt when discussing the war with the demons. “However, a situation has come up that concerns me and I believe I need your particular talents…” he smiled at her beneficently.
* * *
Crawling through the foul smelling, muddy ditch Kallisti cursed silently under her breath… “Walk in the park, easy in easy out… its never them who have to crawl through the filth!” Finally she reached the culvert that meant she could climb up onto the road that would lead her to her destination. The twilight masked her appearance from the ditch and she climbed out onto the deserted roadway. Off in the distance she could see a ruined church spire poking above the trees along the road that curved around to the village. She had been forced to dress down from her privileged clothing in the monastery and now wore the ragged homespun garments of the local peasantry. She had rebelled when the surgeon had approached with shears to cut her hair short, threatening him with her quarterstaff until it was agreed she could use a glamour spell to hide her hair instead. She was going undercover in this village across the other side of the country to the monastery in Oxford for this important mission that the Arch-Prelate had entrusted her with.
Hunching over, she shuffled along the road to the village as if worn down by the harsh peasant toil. A farmer’s horse and cart approached from the direction of the village and the farmer glared at her as he got nearer. “We don need nun o yur kin round these pards” he cursed at her with his thick accent. “Damn reffergees!” he cracked the whip to drive the horse onwards. It was going to be one of those days, she just knew it!
As she approached the outskirts of the village, she became aware in the gathering darkness of a crowd assembled at the crossroads at the middle of this small village. Imaginatively called Crossways, the village had grown up around an important crossroads between two major roads. Now it was on the ragged front line in the war between the demons and the forces of good. Getting closer, she could see the focus of attention was a cart with two people stood in the back. One was hunched, hooded and had a rope tied around their neck, the rope leading up to the bough of a sturdy oak tree that grew on one corner of the crossroads. The other was a fat man with greasy hair and an overcoat with metal buttons. This marked him out as a wealthier villager and likely the head man. He was speaking quietly to the assembled crowd, gesturing violently toward the hooded person and waving in the direction to his right toward the ruined church.
Suddenly the village elder grabbed the hood and ripped it away from the other standing in the cart to reveal a bewildered looking older man, with thinning grey hair and rheumy eyes who looked around rather confused. “Behold the consort of devils!” Kallisti could finally hear what was being said having approached unnoticed.
“Bur thas the ol curate, he ain’t no arm to naybody” said a man at the front of the crowd, grinning and looking around to the rest of the crowd for support. The other villagers shuffled away from him, looking guiltily in any direction but at him.
“You defend him, Marcus Braithwite?” The village elder glared at the speaker.
“Um well now is not like that Reg, mate, its jus I dun know if he dun any harm to any folks – was he dun then?” he shuffled his feet.
“I told you, consorted with demons he has!” Reg, the village elder shook his fist at the captive on the cart.
“Consorted how? Invite em for tea and honey? he makes some good honey does the curate there” There were some suppressed chortling in the crowd of villagers. Kallisti suddenly realised that the curate on the cart about to be hung for “consorting with demons” was the target of her mission. All because the sodding Arch-Prelate wanted some of this special honey!
“You dare mock me Marcus Braithwaite! You dare question my authority?” The village elder’s face was turning red with rage and his voice was getting louder.
“Reg, you are my little brother, o course I question yer authority coz you are an intolerant bugger whose always causing trouble, now stop being a total wanker and let the curate go, or I’ll tell our mam and she’ll take a belt to yer!” There was a chorus of laughter from the villagers as Marcus stepped toward the back of the cart and mounted the box that had been placed to help climb up. His first attempt to get onto the cart failed and he struggled with his balance, making a big play of waving his arms about as the villagers laughed at his antics.
“You are making me a laughing stock! This is serious business, I saw him meeting with strangers from beyond the river they were obviously demons!” Reg continued to argue, his voice turning more wheedling and less authoritative.
“The-they wanted to buy my honey! They were from Salisbury, they weren’t demons, they were solicitors!” The curate pleaded.
“Blimey, that makes em worse’n demons” laughed Marcus, “Hang the bugger for consorting with lawyers!” He finally climbed on the cart and lifted the loop of rope from around the curate’s neck. “Reg, who the bloody hell tort you to tie knots? This is bloody useless!” he said, showing the badly knotted rope to the villagers who laughed again. Only Kallisti noticed the difference in Reg’s face as the crowd mocked him… a slight swelling of the forehead and a shudder passing through him.
“Here we go!” she muttered, summoning her soul-bound quarterstaff as the demon masquerading as Reg the village elder exploded from within the fleshy disguise, showering the crowd with the grisly remnants of the late village elder. With a roar, the huge winged and brimstone shrouded demon reached out for the curate, the local representative of the church and its most dangerous enemy – or so it thought. Reacting instinctively, Kallisti unerringly leapt into the space between the demon and the curate, knocking the demon back, over the side of the cart and away from the villagers.
The quarterstaff spun in her hands creating a moving shield between the demon and the villagers, protecting them as it spat poisonous green icor that was mostly harmlessly deflected. A spattering fell on the homespun Kallisti wore so with a fierce tug, she ripped it away, revealing her leather trousers and waistcoat. With a single word, she dropped the glamour that concealed her hair – she always believed that appearances in a fight were all important, so for an oh so mighty demon to be bested by a pretty girl with long blonde hair seemed so much more humiliating for the demons!
“Friar! Ha, you think you can beat m…” the demon’s words were cut short as the quarterstaff spun again and broke its jaw. Spinning again it was rammed into its midriff and again into the side of its head, the blows coming fast and accurate. Bellowing in pain, the demon tried to get up but its feet were swept out from under and it watched in horror as this small blonde girl leapt high into the air bringing her quarterstaff down with a mighty blow that split the demon’s skull and buried the end a foot into the brain of the demon. The magical energies that bound the demonic flesh together dissipated and the demon’s body liquefied and then evaporated. The butt of Kallisti’s quarterstaff was buried several inches into the packed dirt of the roadway, so with a tug she pulled it out and turned back to the shocked villagers.
“Yup, I think I can beat a demon.” She said, sending the quarterstaff to its safe place. She swing herself back up on the cart landing lightly beside the curate and untieing the ropes that bound his hands. “Hello I’m Kallisti, Arch-Prelate Horsa asked me to come and get some honey from you.” she smiled. “He also told me he thought there might be a demon trying to infiltrate the village, seems he was right!”
“Bugger me, wot the hell did Reg av to go and get himself et by a sodding demon!” There were tears in Marcus’s eyes. Kallisti hugged him.
“I’m sorry it had to be like this, they are sneaky buggers with glib tongues and tempting whiles. He probably didn’t even know it was a demon he was dealing with.” she explained. “That is why the demon went after Curate Patterson here, as he is your first line of defence against the evil, aren’t you curate?”
“Um well yes, thank you young lady, it was um fortunate you happened to be here!” the curate fumbled in his robes to pull out some wire framed spectacles. “Ah Mortimer, would you be so kind as to um, clear up this , um… mess” The curate spoke to a tall young man in the front of the crowd, awkwardly holding his hat in his hands, with several gobbets of pink flesh still stuck to his clothes. With a start the man realised he was being spoken to
“Oh yes, soir, I’ll get that dun right away.” he replied, looking around again as if a spell had been broken.
“Come along Marcus and Friar Kallisti, I think a nice cup of tea and some honey will do us the world of good.” He patted Marcus on the shoulder and moved to climb down from the back of the cart. “Oh whats this?” Suddenly at the front of the cart a swirling black eddy of nothingness had appeared. Kallisti felt it pulling at her and resisted, grabbing the curate’s arm as she felt herself dragged toward the rift in space.
“What the fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu……” lifted off her feet she was bodily dragged into the void, her scream fading into a vast distance. With a pop the rift vanished.
“Well bugger me!” Marcus stood astonished. “I always said them Friars had some funny ways!”
* * *
Coughing, Kallisti woke up on her back on some grass beside a stream. To one side were trees and further along she could see a wooden bridge crossing the stream. What was that awful smell in the air – a sort of burned, oily smell. Getting unsteadily to her feet, she checked herself over – everything seemed to be in its right place. She reached for her quarterstaff in its safe place… after momentary hesitation, as if reaching a bit further than normal, she felt its reassuring sturdiness in her hands. She closed her eyes and focussed on her inner core, checking for any signs of sneaky demonic corruption… everything was fine. So where was she?
Moving forward, she came out from under the tree cover and stood open mouthed at the sight of huge blue shimmering walls reaching up into the sky. What brand of demonic trickery is this? Then she noticed the shambling mounds of ooze loitering just upstream – hmm a new type of demon! This was familiar territory so her instincts took over and her quarterstaff spun whirled and leapt into action, scattering lumps of gelatinous ooze everywhere. Having defeated the demons, Kallisti moved further downstream toward the bridge and the lake that came into view. How many ooze demons were there here? This place had a serious infestation problem! Then she heard the voices:
“Somewhere over this way!” she heard a female voice say. The accent was very refined, almost aristocratic, although different from what she had heard on the few times she had been privileged to visit the Royal Court in Windsor. Looking up Kallisti saw a golden flash above the trees and then landing lightly on the ground a few feet away a blonde girl dressed in golden armour! “Well hello and welcome to Paragon City, although it might be a bit different from the one you are used to!” she said smiling. With a shock Kallisti recognised the girl – it was her own face! It was obviously a demonic trick! Without thinking her quarterstaff appeared and she leapt to fight this evil demonic doppelgänger, swinging her quarterstaff to… CLUNK!
The familiar sound of quarterstaff against quarterstaff brought her back to the endless hours of training and she reacted immediately with a counter-thrust – CLUNK A spin and a sweep to knock them down – CLUNK
Standing before her with a serious frown and a very familiar looking quarterstaff was another doppelgänger. This one however was dressed in a green strapless bustier with a skirt cut short at the front but with an interesting flowing longer style behind. Briefly Kallisti wondered how the other one managed to keep everything inside the strapless corset without having wardrobe malfunctions. Bah, the demon was distracting her from the fighting! Dropping into the defensive combat stance she watched her opponent while trying to block out the voices from others that were gathering.
“Hey its another Friar, oo this could be interesting” this from a small flying fairy-like demon also with her own face but weirdly coloured hair.
“Hmmm another alternate similar to Friar’s I wonder what might be different” This from one that was very obviously a demon, with horns and bronze-coloured skin.
“Anyone bring the popcorn?” This from a wanton creature wearing black fishnet stockings, an extremely short skirt and wearing some sort of black reflective eye coverings.
Her opponent watched her carefully then made a move which she countered easily – she knew exactly what this evil doppelgänger was trying to do – it was as if it was reading her mind! She focussed on the metal blocks and felt a peace descend over her, as if she was in another place, watching on and controlling the actions. There was a flurry of fast blows, each of which was parried by the other. They both circled warily.
“The fighting styles are remarkably similar.” The black clad demon said. “Well not surprising they probably had the same teachers if their timelines were close enough together” replied the horned demon. She heard their words but they were meaningless to her. All that mattered was the flow of the fight – the lunge, repost and counter attack. It was as mesmerising as one of the best training exercises with the staff mistress. That gave her an idea…
She stumbled and ducked forward to draw her attacker into range – this always worked! It was a tricked she’d discovered by accident during one of her sparring practices with Peter. She felt a glow at the thought of Peter – she hadn’t seen him in months! Instead of trying to take advantage of the stumble, her opponent instead skipped to one side and thrust her quarterstaff between Kallisti’s feet and twisted round. She leapt into the air to avoid being tripped – nobody had ever done that before!
“You learned that with Peter” said her opponent, obviously reading her mind. “Did he die in your world too? Eaten by the Demon Lord when Oxford fell?”
For the first time she faltered. “Oxford will NEVER fall!” she snarled. This time it was her opponent who faltered.
“You stopped the Great Demon Plague? Your timeline is different!” then she said the phrase that marked her for death – the secret signum phrase known only by the schismatic, the old phrase that had been used for hundreds of years for the hunters to identify each other but had been corrupted by the Anti-Pope.
“Die Spawn of demonic corruption, you and all of your Arcanium followers will die when we finally drive out the corruption!” With a fierceness she had not felt since the battles of the schism, she launched attack after attack against her opponent who started backing up parrying each blow as it came until a loose stone under her foot made her hesitate fractionally and Kallisti’s staff swept her feet from under her. With a cry of triumph she launched her Sky Splitter attack, leaping into the air to bring the staff down in the killing blow but the attack never landed, instead bouncing off a blue opalescent globe that exploded from her fallen opponent and knocked her back.
“Hey, when did you switch to Barrier Destiny!” The demon dressed in gold said. Her opponent got to her feet, still surrounded by the shimmering blue globe. She dismissed her quarterstaff and stood over Kallisti.
“We are not demons who have stolen your face – I thought the same when I first arrived.” She knelt on the grass at her side. “My name is also Kallisti – we are all Kallistis, but we are from different worlds. You trained with Peter and Simon and Grace and Amanda. You loved Simon like a brother but loved Peter in a different way? I miss them all, their memory will be in my heart forever. Their sacrifice never forgotten.” There was such tragedy in this girl’s face that Kallisti felt a lump in her throat.
“They can’t be dead I was with Simon yesterday, he helped me get my gear.” The girl jerked back, shocked.
“My Simon died when we lost the battle for Wokingham when we lost so many brothers and sisters.”
“What are you talking about, we won the battle for Wokingham.” This was obviously another demonic trick to get her to lower her defences.
“Interesting, the timelines diverged somewhere recently.” The demon with horns spoke again. Kallisti braced herself for another demonic attack.
“So we didn’t have popcorn, anyone want an ice cream?” the demon dressed in black shrugged and turned away. The small flying one clapped her hands excitedly and buzzed around at high speed. “No sugar for you Fae, I’ve seen the mess you leave! Come on I know a place that does vegan ice cream, should be okay for you!”
“Oh do stop that, we’re not demons and not going to attack you.” Her opponent shook her head irritably. The gesture was so familiar she found herself doing it in sympathy. “We are from worlds that are very similar – like you I was trained by Staff Mistress Anderson to fight demons, but there are differences. You must tell me what happened – why did you attack me so violently when I gave you the signum phrase? What is the ‘schism’?”
“This is nothing more than a demonic hallucination to confuse me, to get me to deny the schism and fall for your Arcanium tricks! We know the schismatics plotted with the demons for centuries, paying sacrifices to keep the demons from taking over, maintaining their own power over the people and preserving their authority!” Her words had a profound effect on this other girl. She rocked back on her haunches as if slapped, the colour draining form her face.
“You are telling me that the Arcanium authorities on your world conspired with the Demons?”
“You should know, you are a schismatic – your use of the signum proves that! We stopped using that a dozen or more years ago during the Great Schism, when we drove out the Arcanist conspirators and began our reconquest of the demonic territories!”
“I – I… they conspired against us… is this what Mercedes found with my staff…”
“The lie about the soul-staff killing demons? We fixed that sabotage – we now kill them, not just banish them. Show me your staff!” She felt the girl beside her reach into the safe place and her staff was in her hands. Kallisti looked at her. The girl nodded, allowing her to touch the staff. Closing her eyes she felt for the staff’s essence and there it was the tiny twist that reduced its effectiveness. She adjusted the twist and felt the staff become alive with energy. As she did so she touched the soul of the other girl… it was… it was HER! This wasn’t a demon it was her own soul – but what overwhelming tragedy and sadness it held! She pulled away quickly and returned to the real world suddenly aware of the tears running down her cheeks. “They did it to you… they did it to you…” she whispered, the memory of the evil sacrifice the other Kallisti had suffered broke her heart – the ultimate evil perpetrated by the authorities before the schism, the innocent souls sacrificed to appease the demons!
Now she knew that this was not a demon, whatever it was this was herself, a version who had gone through unimaginable loss. The two demon hunters held each other tightly, the emotions washing over them both. She felt another hand touch her shoulder and opened her eyes. The Kallisti dressed in gold smiled at her, the smile of an angel.
“Welcome to the Kallistiverse!”