The dark passage was lit by flickering torchlight and a faint luminous glow as Kallisti moved silently from one shadow to the next. Nicknamed “The Sneak” by her friends at the Monastery, she had spent most of her young life learning how to fight the demons that rampaged across the world. Ever since she was orphaned during the Massacre of Oxford, she had been brought up by the Monks and Friars of the Order of Norton Folgate. Trained in the quarterstaff, magics had helped her learn to forge a quarterstaff from her own essence so she could never be separated from it. From an early age, it had been noticed she had an ability to get in places she shouldn’t – usually to steal biscuits and cakes! Her teachers therefore selected her for special training in stealth and concealment. Now she was one of the most important members of the Order’s scouts and assassins. The stone fortress was built on a tall outcrop of rocks on a hillside in the mountains far from her home in Albion, a place called Tyrol by the Arch-Prelate who had sent her on this mission.
There were sounds from behind her and she sank into the shadows created by a buttress in the wall as three large Demon Lords, glowing eyes oblivious to the blonde girl inches from their orange grotesque physiques, large wings on their backs almost scraping the ceiling, long heavily muscled arms, large hands with thick talon-tipped fingers. They spoke to each other in their guttural foul language.
“We should be eating their hearts not pandering to them, disgusting humans!” said the one on the right.
“Hush, you have not been on this plane long enough to understand the politics on this world. We need these humans otherwise we would be swept back to our pits of hell” replied the leading demon.
“Give him time, he’ll learn… just wait till you get whacked with one of those staves they use, stings like a hoard of insane chasme-flies, never felt anything like it the lower realms.” the third demon shuddered, reaching for a large suppurating wound on its arm. “Got banished once by a troop of them, took an aeon to recover and be able to return through the rift again.”
Kallisti frowned. That was not supposed to be possible – it was an article of faith that their quarterstaff was able to kill a demon outright, not just banish them! It was the founder of their martial order of monks, the Revered Norton Folgate who had discovered the magical technique to imbue the weapon with the ability to kill a demon. Normally to kill a demon you would need to know the demon’s name and perform a complex ritual on defeating it. The discoveries made by Folgate allowed this to be simplified and imprinted on the soul-bonded weapons they used. Demons were known to be vessels of lies and deception so maybe this was all lies to distract her… except they did not know she was there!
The three demons moved away from Kallisti, her instincts told her to remain hidden and silent for a while longer and her reward for the patience was to see a very faint disturbance in the air near one of the flaming torches. It was not much but the disturbance in the air current was enough to tell her that someone was moving unseen. Closing her eyes, she listened, stilling her own breathing to focus on the ambient sounds. Ignoring the hissing from the burning torches, she felt the movement of the concealed stalker as they moved onward, following the three demon lords. Was there another assassin on this mission that she had not been told of?
Gathering her wits, she carefully followed along, here senses alert as she stalked the stalker, through the stone passages of the imposing stone fortress. The translocation spell had delivered her to the heavily forested hillside above the castle in the depth of night and it taken her some time to find a suitable way to enter the heavily guarded structure, but some loose slates on the peaked roof of the square tower in one corner of the fortress was the route she had chosen. The passage turned a corner and ahead was a double-door with monstrous demonic guards standing either side. The three Demon Lords approached and were challenged by the guards. A brief argument erupted until a deep voice from the other side of the door interrupted and the guards opened the door to admit the three. At that point a slight shimmer in the air just behind them revealed the presence of the stalker and a tall man with greying hair, carrying a staff much like her own appeared. The startled guards immediately drew their own weapons and prepared to attack.
“CEASE!” came the roar of command from within the large room beyond the doors. “Do not attack our honoured guest!” The guards jolted to a halt and backed away from the man.
The man laughed and spoke in the guttural demon language “Your security is lacking, I was able to get through your guards without hindrance.” He looked around “Who knows who else might be here without us knowing?” Kallisti remained frozen. It was a classic tactic to try to panic a stalker into betraying their presence by reacting to the suspicion that they might be there. The man walked past the wary guards and into the large room along with the three demon lords. The double doors were shut again and the guards repositioned themselves, glancing at each other and muttering.
She had to get in, but there seemed no way past the guards – she could not walk through doors! Backtracking down the passage, she found a narrow side passage and followed it to a narrow staircase which led upwards. Halfway up it turned a corner and ended on a landing with a locked a bolted door. To the side of the landing was a narrow window looking out over the forested mountain. The glass in the window showed the wealth that was on display in this fortress that even such an insignificant window had glass fitted! It even had a mechanism to fold the window up into the embrasure. This had originally been an arrow slit which had later had the window fitted. Folding the window up, she leaned out and looked along the wall toward where the meeting room would be – there seemed to be another arrow slit-window further along. Looking down, the sheer cliff-face below the fortress wall stretch down into the distance. Sighing, she tightened the laces on the leather moccasins she wore and climbed up onto the edge of the window frame and looked along the wall. Thankfully, there were plenty of gaps in the mortar that held the stones together so this climb was nowhere near as hard as some of the practice ones she had trained on in the Monastery – it was just the height!
Inching sideways along the rough wall, she reached the next opening and carefully looked inside. It was a room which looked like some soft of store room. There was a large triangular wooden frame and several dusty cylinders on the floor. Then it struck her, these were drums and a harp! Testing the window, it seemed to be latched on the inside. She could just make out the fastening which seemed stuck. Wiggling the poorly fitting window frame did not budge it. Wedging the fingers of her left hand into the gap in the wall, with her right hand she withdrew her quarterstaff from its safe place elsewhere and gently nudge the window frame with the tip. Focusing on the material of her soul-bound weapon, she partly sent it back to the safe place, but kept it teetering on the edge of tangibility. This tricky balancing act meant she could push the partly incorporeal staff through the window frame and then pulsing the existence of the very tip it dislodged the window fastening with a faint clunk. Dismissing the staff once more, she carefully opened the window and slipped inside, closing the window but leaving it unfastened, just in case.
Now inside, she could faintly hear voices from behind the store room door. Listening at the door she could hear the voice of the man and the deeper commanding voice. She could not make out their words so she checked over the door in front of her and tested the latch. It was stiff but being very careful she could lift it gently. Her next concern was would the door squeak when she opened it? The hinges were just wooden dowlings embedded in holes in the floor and lintel of the door way. Pulling from her safe place her canteen of water, she took a mouthful and squirted the water at the upper and lower hinges so as to ease the movement of wood against stone. Only when she was satisfied did she try to open the door. It was stiff at first so she wiggled it a tiny amount and then the water lubricating the hinges worked and she could silently open the door a tiny amount. Beyond the door she could see she was on a raised gallery above the main hall – it would have been where minstrels played to entertain their lord. Sneaking out she could hide behind the wooden rail and listen to what was happening – the gallery was dark so it was almost impossible to be seen up here, even if she wasn’t stealthing! She listened to the conversation:
“So we are agreed My Lord?” It was the grey haired man speaking. “This quarters soul allocation shall be delivered from the Scandinavian provinces, alongside the usual tributes from other provinces.”
“That is acceptable.” rumbled the deep voice that had commanded earlier. She peeked over the rail to see the speaker. It was the largest demon she had ever seen! Dark red skin mottled with orange and with huge wings sprouting from its back. The head was fully as large as she was tall, with terrifying horns and red glowing eyes. It sat upon a large throne built from bones and skulls in front of a long dining table with the grey-haired man sitting at the far end. They were having a meal! The large demon held a golden goblet in its large hand and with a start she realised it was a gilded human skull, filled with a deep red liquid. Either side of the long table were other demons, sitting quietly watching the interplay between the man and the Demon Overlord. Only these two were eating, the table before the other demons was bare. She watched in horror as the man lifted a smaller goblet – a child’s skull gilded with gold and filled with the same dark red liquid.
“I am pleased you retained the vineyards around Castel Tyrol, My Lord, they produce some of the finest wines in this part of the world.” he said, taking a sip.
“I may be a demon but I’m not a barbarian!” laughed the Demon Overlord. His voice made the room vibrate. “Now High Lord Gregory, I have something else to discuss with you…”
Kallisti recognised the name, this was High Lord Gregory, the second in command of the ruling council of the Arcanium!
“I wish to make a trade with you – there is a particular outpost of those annoying Folgate Friars that I want to deal with. They have caused me no end of trials and tribulations over the centuries after their founder discovered that annoying trick to kill my people. It is only thanks to your predecessors that we managed to staunch that troublesome discovery. They are still a formidable enemy and their recent defeat of my army at Wokingham is causing disquiet among my people!”
Kallisti’s blood ran cold at these words. They were being betrayed and sabotaged by their own people! The Arcanium were in league with the demons!
“Hmm so what trade do you propose?”
“We have a next of Clagger Demons who are threatening to violate the accords in Iberia – they have an aversion to salt water so stay in the hot interior of that region so if you could arrange for their disposal I would consider that a fair trade and give your people a significant success you can boast about to distract from the destruction of the Folgate Friars in Oxford.” Kallisti had to fight her self-control at the mention of her home monastery. This was urgent, she must get this news home as soon as possible!
“The first thing you must do however My Lord Baphoment, is deal with the spy who is lurking in the gallery above us!” Her anguish at this discovery had revealed her to the empathic magics of High Lord Gregory! With a leap that defied the High Lord’s apparent age, he jumped to the gallery next to her, his staff already swinging. Summoning her own staff she blocked the attack and the riposte that followed a fraction of a second later. Jumping to her feet she tried the leg sweep but the High Lord evaded and came at her with an overhead blow that caught her on the shoulder before she could spin away.
Facing each other, staves ready they assessed each other. He was older but had more experience, she was young and fast but smaller. They both waited for each other to attack, each making small feints to draw the other out and then the door to the gallery burst open and two demons joined him on the gallery. His brief distraction by this movement behind him allowed her a swift attack which his parry failed to stop and she struck him on the knee causing him to wince. A swift exchange of blows and Kallisti used the Guarded Spin manoeuvrer to deflect her opponents attacks and then at the end land one of her own on his upper arm. He stepped back, scowling and trust at her but she was able to sidestep the blow that would have hit her midriff. Her speed and agility was her advantage in this fight, but his experience told when he cast a quick spell which made her trip backward, following up with a leap into the air to bring his staff down in a skull-splitting blow. Kallisti noticed a flaw in his technique and instead trust her staff up which caught him in the chest as he tried to land his blow. His staff missed her head, striking the floor with a crunch. He staggered back, winded while Kallisti found her feet and landed a numbing blow to his left arm.
The demons also in the gallery started forward but the gallery wa too narrow for them to get past the High Lord and instead got in his way as he tried to regain his footing. Spinning in place, Kallisti swept her staff around catching all three of them painful blows on their legs as she then leapt backward through the narrow door to the store room which would prevent more than one of them following. She glanced back at the window behind her, her only escape route… she calculated the odds and the answer was not promising but better then facing a whole castle full of demons and the High Lord! Sending one last Serpent Reach attack at the High Lord which he deftly avoided, she turned and ran at the window, holding her staff out in front to break the window as she launched herself off the ledge and into the empty space beyond! The wind whipped past her as the ground fell away under her feet. She angled her body around as she sailed toward the forest on the mountain – this was going to hurt, but she’d been trained to jump and the magic that lived within her would protect her as best it could.
The trees resolved from a dense green shroud into individual trunks and she tried to direct herself between them but she was going to fast. Branches whipped into her as she held her arms up to protect her face. The ground came up to meet her in a bone jarring crash and she rolled to lessen the jolt. Even still, she felt her ankle turn and her head slap into a fallen branch, stunning her for a moment. Once the stars had cleared from her vision, she tried to get up but her ankle sent bursts of pain up her leg. Summoning her staff, she used it as a crutch to get to her feet and move away from her landing spot in case she had been seen. Now she had to try to find the portal trigger that she had left behind when she first arrived that would take her back home.
Glancing up through the tree cover, the sight of winged demons heading her way spurred her into action, hobbling uphill while looking for cover. The crashing sound of large bodies landing in the forest behind her encouraged her onward. Voices up ahead… she had to hide! A rock over to her left showed promise, but was too obvious – the pine forest ont he slopes of this mountain was conspicuously devoid of undergrowth, just a thick layer of pine needles and some fallen branches. A plain, nondescript tree was to her right, she hobbled to it and crouched down on the shadowy side, drawing her perception around her and fading into the background, unexceptional and unnoticed.
One of the smaller demon types came into view, a red-skinned female oozing sexual allure, leading another dog-like demon by a chain. This was bad news, they had heard of these tracker before, they seemed to be able to detect humans and run them down. Looking closer, it had no eyes or ears, but its pointed face scanned this way and that as if seeking. It must be psychic! This she could deal with… focussing her breathing she entered the calming trance and through of nothing but tree. She was the tree, the wind blowing her branches and leather, her root burrowing slowly into the mountain. She had no blood, it was sap, her heartbeat was the cycle of the seasons. The tracker demon pulled its handler down the slope, away from Kallisti’s hiding place. One of the larger demons strode past, a foot away from her without seeing. Another voice came closer.
“She will be skilled in concealment… get that creature away from me!” The High lord exclaimed as the tracker demon zeroed in on him.
“Your presence is a distraction, it senses your humanity.” the female demon’s voice sounded like a sensual honey bath.
“As is yours to me! Begone Succubus, your charms do nothing for me!” the High Lord protested, rather too vigorously thought Kallisti. She caught herself and returned to the trees and leaves. They moved away and the forest grew quiet again, but she remained hidden, immobile, undetected.
Suddenly she realised it was dark. She had sunk so far into the trance that she had not noticed the time passing. Either that or she had dozed off! Listening carefully, there was no sign of her pursuers so she carefully moved. The stiffness in her limbs told her it had been several hours. Her ankle was no longer as painful as before – the healing magics that suffused her were doing their job. She tried to orientate herself with the direction to the castle and the location she had started out from but it was too dark. She could see the flickering light from the castle down through the trees, but she had no idea how far up the mountain she was. Once more she focussed her awareness but this time pushing out out over the mountain side, looking for that faint tap tap tap in a particular rhythm that would locate her target. There it was, faint, almost like a bird tapping at a tree – what it was designed to sound like. The irregular pattern was supposed to mimic natural sounds, but its vibrations passed beyond the normal world to where it could be detected with the mind.
Still favouring the sore ankle slightly, she started off toward the signal, keeping her movements in tune with the forest around her, making only sounds that would be heard naturally in this type of forest. Slowly she crept across the mountainside until the rock formation that she recognised came into view. She breathed a sigh of relief that it was deserted. She had feared that the High lord might have worked it out but it was habitual for different monasteries to keep to themselves some of the techniques the scouts used, this being one of them. Climbing to the first flat rick about halfway up the formation, she felt the slight tick of the portal as she waved her hand through where it was supposed to be. With relief she activated the portal and stepped through…
The burning timber crashed to the floor missing her by inches, the heat was tremendous and she felt her hair singe. The Hall of Scouts was ablaze! Her heart thudded at what this meant and she ran through the burning wreckage to escape the inferno. Bursting into the open, she saw across the way the rest of the Monastery burning fiercely, several bodies lying in the roadway leading up to the main gates and off in the distance the sounds of demonic chanting. She crossed the road, trying to avoid looking at the grossly mutilated bodies of people she recognised, the anger and hatred welling up inside until she saw the demon hoard ahead. Hanging upside down from trees were some survivors from the monastery but the demons were toying with them – one demon brought its bade down and split the survivor from crotch to head, the two halves of the body singing back and forth as the demons chanted their victory chant.
Screaming with pure rage, her mind blank from any thought but revenge she leapt toward them summoning her staff, knowing that this was it, this was when she would die… The sky opened up in a jagged rip as she moved through the air and an inky blackness descended on her, swallowing her whole.
One of the demons looked up. “Hey did you just hear something?”
The inky blackness fell away and Kallisti found herself landing roughly on a strip of black stone that went off in a dead straight line on either side of her. A white line ran down the middle and coming toward her was a metal monster with a single eye in the middle of its face. Kallisti leapt again and brought her staff down on the nose of the roaring monster, landing on it and kicking at its eye. The eye was hard and only cracked slightly from her kick but it hurt her foot. She then realised that it was not an eye but a window and there were two people behind it looking at her in open mouthed shock. She glanced around at this new environment, swiftly taking in the strange vehicle she was standing on, others that were screeching to a halt ahead and behind, the strangely coloured tall buildings and most strange of all the blue glowing walls in the near distance.
“Hey lady what the hell you dented my hood!” The man who had been behind the window had opened a door in the side of the box and was shouting at her. His accent was peculiar and his language was almost unintelligible. “You damn hero types just think you can do whatever you want!” he yelled. There were others getting out of the nearby metal boxes also shouting. Not knowing what was happening, Kallisti leapt away, seeing some green grassland and trees that she could hide in. What manner of place was this? Where was the monastery? What magic had translocated her here? She was assaulted on all sides by noise from the boxes large and small that moved along the black strips which must be roads. The smell was awful, a gritting oily smell that made her want to sneeze.
Wrapping her stealth around her, she crouched by a bush in the small forest, but this wasn’t right, there was no undergrowth, no fallen branches or logs and there was much too much grass. The patch of forest was small and bounded on two sides by the black strips with the metal boxes moving along them and on the other two side by grey paving stones and… fountains? There were people walking around dressed in very strange clothes and what the hell!!! The biggest statue she had ever seen of a crouching man with a huge ball on his back! Was she in hell? Was this a reminder of the punishments that would be delivered in hell? Cautiously she crossed over the grass to the paving stones and walked up some steps. There were a host of very strange people here, all dressed in the most outlandish garb.
Distracted she failed to notice someone come close and bump into her. She span round, staff ready “Opps sorry didn’t see you there!” a young man with bright yellow hair and blue clothes stepped back and walked around her “You do realise it rude to stealth with so many around?” he added. “Guys watch out there is a stealther about!” he laughed pointing in her direction. Several of the others looked toward her but lost interest and looked away again. Several of them were jigging about to the sounds coming from a silver box at their feet. Someone over to her left was shouting about “DFB” whatever that meant! She looked up at the giant statue and realised there were people flying up there! These must be some sort of demons that look like humans! Well mostly like humans – she noticed one small female who looked like a cross between a girl and fox, with long white hair, pointy ears and a long bush tail that twitched. She wore long black boots and a short white skirt and stood on the upper level of the plinth the statue stood on, with her arms folded, looking around.
Kallisti realised she would need to be very careful if she was surrounded by demons… but if she was already dead and in hell, how could they kill her again? This was so confusing!
“That was very definitely the shape of a staff in the hood… I mean bonnet of that car.” she heard a voice behind her, for once without a funny accent but using strange words.
“Well you should know my dearest Friar! How many cars was it when you arrived?” came another voice, similar to the first but with a different accent. Coming up the steps she saw a girl with long blonde hair dressed entirely in gold and next to her an almost identical blonde wearing a green strapless top, short skirt and tall green boots. She also carried a familiar looking quarterstaff in her hand. Friar? She called her Friar!
“Well I didn’t know any better back then!” protested the girl dressed in green, looking rather embarrassed.
“…and that is why we need to find the newcomer quickly and help her acclimatise.” the one in gold stood on the top step and looked around. “Chi!!!” she exclaimed and jumped into the air and flew over to the fox-like demon on the plinth. She approached the smaller female as if to hug but the white haired girl stepped back avoiding the embrace.
“Ah its the Kallistis, now what?” she said, her accent different once again. Kallisti jerked with shock at the mention of her own name. The green-clad girl hopped up the sloping buttress of the plinth to the upper level, passing close enough to her to get a good look at her face. She had practised enough in front of the silver mirror in the Hall of Scouts to recognise her own face. What manner of devilry was this – to create copies of her and with such hair it was… well it looked quite nice really, it would be nice to grow it like that… no stop that thinking! Focus!
“Well my space rift thingy spidey sense has been going off for a while now so we are looking for a new Kallisti who should have arrived just now. We came as quickly as we could, you can never tell what might happen or how many cars get dented!”
“It was only two… maybe three..”
Kallisti felt something in the back of her head a whisper and looked around. Another lookalike was standing behind her, this time dressed in skin-tight black leathers and looking directly at her.
“Don’t be afraid we aren’t demons or nightmares.” she said with a very familiar accent. Kallisti could bear it no longer and swung round her staff appearing in her hand in the Assassin Strike. The black clad demon duplicate in front of her stood and accepted the blow, stepping back with an “oof” but standing with barely a mark on her from what should have been a killing blow. She swung again but this time there was the clunk fo her staff meeting another. Again and again she struck, a red mist descending and each attack no matter how cunning or how hard just met the clunk of the other’s staff. Tears of frustration and anger ran down her cheeks until suddenly the other girl sent her staff away – she felt it go from her own connection to her staff – and reached out to grab her in a fierce hug that finally broker her and she sobbed uncontrollably, her confusion and grief overwhelming her.
“Well thats a different tactic!” said Gold.
“Well Monk is a tank and she can take those hits, but that’s going to sting in the morning! This is another one of us but she’s been trained as a scout assassin and they are deadly!” Friar jumped down from the plinth to join Monk and the new Kallisti.
“They betrayed us!” the new Kallisti buried her face in Monk’s shoulder, “They wiped out the monastery, they killed them all!”
“We know.” Monk soothed the newcomer. Friar approached from behind, touched her shoulder and whispered the monastic signum. The newcomer looked up at her.
“But how can this be?”
“Its complicated and I don’t fully understand it, but we are all the same Kallisti but from slightly different worlds.” Friar began
“But you know of the demons?”
“Yes we four are all from very similar worlds, you trained in the Monastery of Norton Folgate in Oxford?” The new comer nodded and then noticed another blonde girl carrying a staff standing behind Friar, this one dressed in brown leather trousers and tight fitting bodice. The newcomer could feel them all – their connection to that ‘other’ place where they kept their quarterstaff. One after another they reached for their staff and she felt the tug, then she sought her own. The comforting solidity of it in her hand as she looked at her three sisters in arms. Without a word they touched their staves together and a ripple of recognition passed through them all, a shared bond.
“Does it always get this mystical when a new Kallisti arrives?” Chi asked Gold still standing on the plinth watching the 4 staff wielding Kallisti bond.
“Not usually but these 4 are different. I have a feeling things are going to get a bit weird from now on.”
“Kallistis and weird, no you don’t say!”
“So I am known as Kallsiti the Friar, this is Kallisti the Monk and Kallisti the Templar. I know we are all friars but its confusing enough to all be Kallisti, so we had to come up with suitable alternatives. So we could call you Kallisti the Scout?”
“How about Kallisti the Ghost?” suggested Gold, approaching the 4 Kallistis. “After all she does go sorta invisible.” The new Kallisti turned her nose up at that.
“What about Kallisti the Holy Spirit?” Chi suggested, following along. The new Kallisti looked from one to the other of her newfound sisters.
“I can’t say I’m particularly Holy but Kallisti the Spirit sounds about right.”
“Well I’m glad that at least one of us passed the test to get into the Hall of Scouts. Was the food really better?” Kallisti the Templar slapped the newcomer on the back.