© June 1988
"Hello my pretty, have you got any news for me today?" the little old lady, hunched and stooped with age, sat by the well on the edge of the bazaar. She was dressed in faded black, face half visible in the shade cast by the shawl over the old woman's head. The boy was munching an apple he had just stolen from the fruit seller around the corner. He glanced at her nonchalantly and sat down by her feet, watching the people milling around this end of the market square. He was a scruffy urchin, feet bare under his patched and ragged tunic, knees scraped and dirty. His face, though, was strangely angelic, with big blue eyes and a cheeky grin.
"Bits and pieces. I saw some of the town militia gathering by that old storehouse near the harbour. They say it is used by smugglers. There was also a ship trying to dock this morning - from the south it came. Half the crew were dead from some plague. The harbour master did not want to let it dock, in case the disease spread to the town."
"Do you know where the ship came from?" the old woman prodded his shoulder. He shrugged.
"All I heard them say was it came in from the south."
"Mm, very interesting. Anything else?" she began to search for her small bag of coins.
"I heard from the others that Surac the moneylender had put out a reward for information about the disappearance of his son, Tormal."
"Really? Well my lovely boy, that is news. I think I'll give you a little extra for that information." she produced from her purse three silver coins and one gold one. The little boy's eyes bulged fit to burst. He accepted the coins which swiftly vanished into his ragged tunic. "Now if you see any of the others today, tell them I'll be here at the same time tomorrow morning, and I'd like to know where the ship came from and more about Surac and his son. Be off with you now, I've had enough of sitting in this hot sun." With that she leant over and kissed his cheek tenderly. The boy grimaced and wiped the spot with his hand. Without another word, he was off, diving into the confusing crowd in the bazaar.
Shaking her head, the old woman hobbled towards some decrepit, run down tenements behind the grander buildings that fronted the market place. The narrow street was close and shadowy, washing hanging from the many windows high up, stretched like ragged banners across the street. Glancing around, the old woman stepped into the doorway of one of the houses and disappeared into the darkness of the interior.
Another door opened a few yards away, some minutes later and out stepped a pretty young woman, blonde hair hanging down past her shoulders, face suntanned, shapely legs exposed by the short silken dress she wore. She glanced from side to side and headed towards the market place, a lively spring in her step and a faint smile on her lips.
She flexed her back, arching up and stretching mightily. "Ah, it's good to be out of that corset again. Thank Dravidi I'm not really as old as Maude is supposed to be!" she grinned mischievously as the little boy walked past her without a glance in her direction. "You, amaze me sometimes my dear Kallisti," she said to herself as she walked through the stifling heat, "Maude is perfect for getting the children on the streets to act as your very own spy network." She had had this idea some time ago when her master, the town councillor Triad Gaull had shown her a little of his own spy network. He had contacts in the militia and the guilds as well as a network of contacts throughout the numerous brothels in Urswell. Being a sea-faring town, there was always money to be made in that line of work. Kallisti had earned her living that way for a while a couple of years before. That was before Triad took her under his wing. Now she was building up her own spy network without his knowing. During her time in his employ she had learnt a lot, one of the more important things being not to trust him in the slightest!
"So, Tormal, you've got yourself into some sort of trouble eh?" she said to herself as she idly glanced at the crowd. Tormal had been an admirer of her's a few years before, although she had never liked him...
"Hello Kallisti, what's the matter?" Tormal sat down beside her on the coil of rope. He smelled of stale sweat and his breath reeked of ale. His arm went casually around her back and she stifled a snarl at his intrusion.
"You would never understand, even if you tried." she sighed, looking back out to sea. She could feel his hand inching around her back until it came upon the edge of her dress. He shifted his position in an apparently innocent way so that his hand slipped inside. With a sigh of resignation, Kallisti raised her eyes skyward to watch a seagull riding the updraughts effortlessly.
Taking her reaction as one of encouragement, Tormal moved closer and slipped his other hand into her dress. The seagull suddenly dipped its wings and dived out of the sky, splashing into the water to catch a dead fish on the surface. Something suddenly snapped inside her.
"What do you think you're doing?" she turned on him, dragging his hands out of her clothing. "How dare you touch me!" she snarled, suddenly furious. Tormal sat aghast - this was not the way Kallisti normally reacted! "You're disgusting." Suddenly her fist flashed out to strike his groin bringing a squeal of pain and making him double over.
A frisson of excitement buzzed through her and her eyes glittered with the pent up frustration now finding release. Tormal uncoiled himself and looked at her, still clutching his painful private parts.
"Kallisti!" he croaked as she stood up, glaring. With a snarl of sadistic pleasure, her foot swung this time, crunching into the hands trying to protect the future generations of his family, and was rewarded by a girlish scream of pain. With a cruel laugh, Kallisti stepped over him and sauntered off, head held high.
"You'll have to try better than that to catch me." As she gloated, she saw - too late - the rock thrown by one of the others...
Her body felt like it had been pummelled and then put through a mangle. Her head was swimming in pain and she could see spots before her eyes when she opened them. It was dark, thankfully, but there came a trickle of light from under a door a little way off. She lay in some straw on a cold stone floor. Slowly and with great care, she sat up. She could feel dried blood on her face, and her right eye was swollen and puffy. Her arms and legs were scratched and bruised, as was her back. Slowly, her memory returned... the wall, the men, the rock! She must have fallen off the wall when she had been knocked out. Ouch! She was thankful she had been unconscious when she landed, it must have saved her life.
Where was she now? Had the men taken her somewhere? Who were they? She checked herself. She was not surprised to find that the three daggers she carried under her clothes were missing, as was her necklace with it's concealed razor and magic pearl, but they had left her headband with its concealed garrotte. Her belt was gone too, along with her money and the rest of her belongings.
"Well, how is our acrobat now?" the door opened to let a flood of light in. She screwed up her eyes, wincing at the pain in her head and chest. The figure was nothing but a silhouette in the light, but she recognised the voice instantly. It was Tormal. Her mind took her back to just before she left home two years before...
"No, I did not - he's lying!" she gasped.
"I'm not, you ask the fisherman, he saw everything." Tormal whined.
"It is true, I spoke to him." Surac glowered at her.
"I didn't expose myself to him Daddy." she turned to him appealingly. "He started touching me..."
"No more of your lies!" Surac shouted. "I want to see her punished for this."
"Yes you are right, she must be punished." Kallisti could not believe what her father was saying - he believed them and not her!
"Daddy no!" she wailed, grabbing hold of him. "You must believe me!" Her father glared at her. This was the last straw. He had watched her grow more and more indisciplined and wild over the past couple of years. She had been the cause of gossip and shame to him more than once before. Now she had lied to him once too often - this was his opportunity to give her the disciplining she had been needing for a while.
"Are you going to punish her or will I have to do it?" Surac stood before her, a dark shadow looming over her. Her father, small and withered as he was, grabbed her arm fiercely.
"You've lied to me again Kallisti. I'm tired of your lies - it is time you learned to tell me the truth." From the cupboard by his desk he produced the cane he had not lifted to her since she was ten.
"Oh no please Daddy..." she sobbed, turning towards him but Surac caught hold of her arm and roughly pushed her over her father's work desk...
"Really Kallisti, that is not a nice thing to say to your new benefactor." he moved over to her. "I think you ought to be more polite."
"Scum off!" she swore. Tormal's foot lashed out and caught her just below her ribs. Kallisti grunted in agony, doubling over and curling round her midriff.
"I warned you." Tormal sighed with contempt. "Be nice to me and I'll make sure you are treated nicely. Let me warn you that there are four tough, lusty men through that door who, if I let them, would find you quite entertaining for as long as you lasted. Now, are you going to cooperate with me?" He crouched down to be on the same level as Kallisti. He absently took a small purple leaf from his pocket and put it in his mouth, slowly chewing on it. She struggled to sit up again, folding her arms across her middle. She nodded silently. "Good. I've wanted to see you for a long time," he touched her dishevelled hair tenderly, "but my father would not have it. But that was then. Now, I'm a free agent, my own man and not in the shadow of that old bore." His voice sounded distant, his eyes glazed.
"What do you want of me?" she managed to croak. The pain was considerable, she must have damaged something in the fall, not helped by Tormal's abuse.
"There's a ship just arrived in the harbour. There is a very important package on board that I need. Unfortunately, the ship can't dock because it has the plague on board. The militia are not letting anyone get anywhere near it. I want you to get on board and bring the package back to me."
Kallisti shook her head. "How? Look at me, I can't do anything like that!" she groaned. Tormal stood up, looking down on her.
"Mm, yes, a pity about that little accident this morning. I told them to be careful. It is difficult to hire anyone useful who is also cheap. Never mind, if you can get this package for me, I shall never have to worry about money again."
"I can't do it Tormal, no matter what you do to me, I just can't do it." she coughed and spat phlegm. The light from the door showed that there were traces of blood in the spit. Kallisti looked up at her tormentor. "If you weren't so hooked on those damn leaves you'd have realised that." The purple leaves were from the Ambre plant and contained a powerful and highly addictive hallucinogenic drug. "Help me please, get a Healer..."
"Do you know how much money the Healers charge for this sort of thing?" Tormal growled.
"I don't care - if you want me to do this for you, then you'll have to get me well again."
"Humpf, I suppose you are right. Very well, I shall call a Healer for you." He turned to go.
"Water..." she gasped.
"Damn you, if you must!" he tossed a water flask into the room before slamming the door. Three bolts clanked into their slots. Even in her weakened state, the very sounds of the bolts told her exactly what condition they were in, and exactly the right way to fix them. She knew that if she could get well again, she could escape. Then she would see to Tormal!
The darkness was oppressive. It closed in around her like a shroud, exaggerating the aches and pains of her body. With nothing else to concentrate on, she began to imagine the damage to her insides, the blood seeping through her body. She curled up into a foetal position and shivered, even though it was not cold. Time ceased to have any meaning. The only way she had of measuring its passage was to count her heartbeats, but even they seemed to have slowed down so that there were long gaps between them. Was she dying? If she was, would anyone wonder what had happened to her? Would anyone miss her?
The door opened again, a bright shaft of light spearing into the pitch darkness of the prison. There were voices, but she could not bring herself to listen to them...
"She is very ill. What have you done to her Tormal? I am relieved you called for me, only just in time by the look of things." one voice said. It sounded feminine and somehow familiar.
"It was not my fault Suki. She fell off a wall - she was trying to avoid my friends." the second voice sounded petulant.
"This is going to cost you a lot of money. My services are not cheap and I will have to work hard to get her back to strength again. Let me warn you that if anything else happens to her, I'll see to it that you suffer for her."
"How dare you..."
"Tormal! You dare to threaten a Healer? Are you that foolish? The Ambre really has gotten hold of you hasn't it? Leave us while I heal Kallisti. Go, now!" Suki's tone was harsh. "And leave the lantern." she added just before the door was slammed shut. "Kallisti, can you hear me?" Kallisti felt a soothing touch on her face. She opened her one working eye. Dimly she saw the face of her old childhood friend bending over her. Suki was a small, dark haired girl. Her skin was dusky and her almond-shaped eyes testified to her foreign origins - her parents were immigrants from the north. She and Kallisti had gone to school together and the smaller dark girl had always worshipped the taller blonde girl like a goddess. They had drifted apart, though when Kallisti was first disowned by her father then found her way into Triad's service, while Suki had joined the Church of Marianne, Goddess of Healing and Peace.
"Kallisti, can you hear me?" Suki repeated. Kallisti nodded slowly. Suki shook her head. "Why do you always end up in so much trouble?" she sighed, opening the bag beside her. "Here, smell this." she held a small jar under Kallisti's nose. The smell was pungent and disgusting, but suddenly Kallisti found her head swimming and the pulse in her temple pounding just before the whole world seemed to go out like a snuffed candle.
Suki looked like a freshly animated corpse. Kallisti sat up slowly, gingerly moving her limbs and flexing her muscles. There was still some stiffness and there were a few dark patches left from the bruising, but she felt an awful lot better. Suki though...
"Are you alright?" Kallisti moved to her old friend's side. Suki smiled wanly.
"This is the punishment I must take for my talent." she said. Her voice was frail. "It is ever thus when I am called upon to cure wounds like your's. I cannot accept the wounds themselves, instead I must take the hurt as illness. Curing disease is so much easier." she shook her head. Kallisti frowned.
"I don't understand. What has happened to you?"
"Because of the way I am, I can recover from illness and hurt much faster than the rest of you. So, in order to heal or cure those who cannot do it for themselves, I draw the illness or damage out of their bodies and make it my own. I cannot draw out broken bones, though. They are re-formed by my other skills, but I must accept the damage even still."
"But how long will you be like this? You look so ill."
"I feel it, believe me. It will only last a few hours, then I will be back to normal, although I'll be as weak as a kitten for a day or so. You, though, you'll have to take it easy still for a couple of days, until the last stigmata of the wounds go away. I can't totally cure, I can only draw off the worst of the hurt and pain."
"But how will you get home - what about those out there? Will you be safe?"
"My Collector is with me. He will take the money and make sure I get home and look after me until I can manage by myself again. The Church looks after us, we are a rare breed!" she smiled at Kallisti's concern. "Now be careful, I'll not have you make a mess of yourself again after all the trouble I've been through. I don't want to have to go through all that again. Come, help me up, I must go home and rest." With Kallisti's arm around her, Suki limped to the door. "At least you'll be free from any illness for the next few weeks. That's a helpful side effect of the cure." Suki smiled ironically.
"Open the door!" Kallisti banged on it with her fist. Tormal opened it and gaped at them. "Get out of the way!" she snapped, pushing past him. Standing by a door was a tall man in white and red robes. His face was pinched and hawk-like, but Kallisti could see that the limbs under the robes were well muscled and strong. Suki had a good protector!
"Here, let me take her." the man said, moving to the small girl. Effortlessly, he picked her up in his arms, cradling her like a child. Wearily, Suki put her arms round his neck and lowered her head to his shoulder.
"Take care Kallisti." she said as they left. Kallisti waved pointlessly, an empty feeling in her heart. The sound of Tormal moving brought her back to reality. Turning, she saw he had a sword levelled at her.
"Oh put it away, dung-face, I'm not going to attack you." she groaned and slumped in a chair. "I'm not going to forget this though." she shot him a look of contempt.
"Are you ready to get the package for me?" Tormal moved so as the table in the middle of the room was between Kallisti and himself, making sure that he was nearest the door.
"Suki told me to rest for a couple of days to get my strength back. Can it wait?" she sighed, leaning her head on her arm to make it look as though she was still very weak. Tormal screwed his eyes up.
"Not long. Tomorrow night at the latest. I've heard that the harbour authorities want to burn the ship. We don't have much time left."
"What time of day is it? How long have I been in there?"
"Just about a day. I brought Suki to you last night." Tormal looked over his shoulder as the door opened to let in one of the thugs who had ambushed Kallisti.
"Gods!" Kallisti shook her head. "Alright, tomorrow night. Now all I want is to sleep - and something to eat, something decent if you want me fit enough to do this job for you." she said, deciding that if she was going to be here for another day, she might as well demand some comforts.
"There it is." Tormal pointed out the ship resting at anchor several hundred yards from the harbour entrance. A short distance away were two fighting galleys belonging to the Swords of the Black Rose, the ultimate military authority in Mardona. They were on station to make sure the ship was kept in quarantine.
"Humph, this is not going to be easy." Kallisti muttered. "I don't like swimming in the open sea much at the best of times, but at night, without letting anyone see me... This had better be worth it!" Quietly, she slipped away to the edge of the sea, where some rocks jutted out from the cliff. The sea was calm tonight, although the swell was strong. Slipping off her clothes, she checked the daggers on her arms. Looking around to see if anyone was close by, she stepped onto the jutting rock and dived into the inky blackness of the sea below. She tried to remain underwater for as long as she could before surfacing for air. Once she was certain of her bearings, she stayed low in the water, swimming smoothly and watching for anything close by. Slowly she neared the isolated ship. Once she froze as a rowing boat passed close by. She could hear the grunt of the men on the oars and the hushed whispers of the warriors in the boat.
After what seemed an eternity of swimming in blackness towards the barely perceived ship, Kallisti found herself by the barnacle encrusted rudder at the stern of the sailing ship. That was handy, she thought to herself as she saw a set of foot and handholds jutting out of the wood of the ship's hull not far off. There was some light from the torches on the ship's rail, but she would have to be careful going up. The two fighting galleys were positioned fore and aft of the sailing ship, so if she was quick enough, she would be able to get to the deck before anyone spotted her - hopefully. Clinging to the ladder like a leech, she began to crawl her way up the side of the ship. It was not easy - the handholds made a perfect platform for all sorts of algae and mould to grow on, all of which made them very slippery.
Somehow she managed to reach the deck-rail without slipping off or raising any alarm. Next, she cautiously peered over the rail. One guard lounged by the entrance to the cabins at the stern, otherwise there was nobody in sight. Taking aim with a dagger, she sent it flying straight at the man's heart. It hit with a crunch, but the man did not react. Normally, even if he had been asleep, he would have given some sort of sound or convulsed. Lithely, she swarmed over the rail and padded across the deck, crouched low. When she got to the dead guard, she realised why he had not moved. His eyes were open and bloodshot, foam flecked his lips and his flesh was flaccid. He looked as though he had been dead for hours. Shivering, she pulled her dagger from his chest. There was no blood.
Tormal had said the package would be in the captain's cabin. It looked as though the ship was dead. She was the only one moving on board. She carefully descended the steps to the cabins at the stern. Several were occupied, but all the occupants were dead, all in various states of decomposition. The smell was revolting. The hairs on the back of her neck were tingling now. The whole atmosphere aboard this ship was dark and threatening. She felt exposed and vulnerable. Now she wished she had brought her clothes with her. The first cabin she looked in had a chest open in the middle of the room. The bed was occupied by a corpse which had been dead for some time. The smell was horrendous, but she quickly pulled out the clothes in the chest until she came to a tunic which fitted her with a bit of ingenuity. With her nose screwed up against the smell, she closed the door again and slipped on the tunic.
The captain's cabin was at the far end of the passage, right at the stern of the ship. The cabin door stood open and a lantern still burned in the room. She crept in, looking around at the charts and tables scattered across the large desk. The bunk was occupied, but she did not look too closely at its occupant. Instead, she went to the chests by the desk and began to search through them for a package matching Tormal's description. A noise distracted her and she glanced round.
"Help me!" came a weak voice. Kallisti nearly screamed in fright as she saw the bunk's occupant raise its arm. He was still alive! She was trembling violently, her heart pounding in her chest. She remained where she crouched while she gathered her wits about her again. Then she moved to the side of the bunk. The man was shrivelled and his eyes were sunk into his skull. He must have once been a handsome man, but was close to death now, taken by the plague on the ship. Kallisti thanked Suki for the gift of health she had bestowed on her the day before.
"Help me," he groaned, reaching up to her with a skeletal hand. "Kill me, kill me... release me from this torment." His eyes were wild with pain. She touched his forehead - it was red hot! The man was literally burning with fever.
"What has happened here? Where have you come from?" she stepped away from his grasp.
"It started when IT came on board. At first I thought it was scurvy, but then the whole crew started to go down with the fever. I always thought it was a legend, a story to frighten children with, but it's true, I saw it!" he croaked.
"What? What did you see?" she demanded.
"Them, the dead, I saw them walking!" He was obviously mad.
"Where have you been? What did you bring aboard?" she shook his shoulder. The man cried out feebly.
"The box - it was that! I warned him, but he wouldn't take heed. I didn't want to take it, but I needed the money. He'll never get it now."
"What, come on you useless dog, talk sensibly!" Kallisti was getting angry.
"I never wanted to go there..."
"Ramal." he gasped.
"Ramal!" Kallisti stepped back. Ramal, the city of the dead to the far south of Mardona. The city where it is said the dead walk, where they never rest. Travellers had told of the city for centuries, of how the city was decimated by a deadly plague accidentally created by an alchemist who then tried to save the inhabitants by creating a life-preserving potion. He failed, though. The disease killed them all the same, but the life-preserving potion kept their bodies alive. Now, they possessed a life of their own. The dead continued to walk the streets of Ramal!
"Gods!" Kallisti breathed. The man gave a weak cry and arched his back, eyes staring, mouth wide. He shuddered and then was still. "Damn you!" Kallisti fumed as she realised he was dead. Turning back to the chests, she pulled everything out, scattering it carelessly about the cabin. There! She picked up the leather bound box, a brass lock keeping it shut. She cursed herself for leaving her lockpick behind - the lock was too small and intricate for a makeshift job with the point of a dagger. It would have to wait.
"Did you find it?" Tormal's voice came out of the dark. Kallisti slipped her clothes back on.
"Yes. Do you want it?"
"NO!" cried Tormal. "Don't bring it anywhere near me! Was there anyone on the ship?" he was extremely nervous, she could hear it in his voice.
"Yes, but they were all dead, the plague has taken them."
"Don't come near me then in case you have it." his voice was coming from further away.
"You bastard!" Kallisti swore at him, acting as he would have expected her too, all the while working at the lock on the box with her lockpick. She was intrigued as to what it contained, although she had her suspicions. "What have you done to me!" she wailed, keeping up the pretence.
"If you do one more thing for me, I'll pay for another healer." came Tormal's reply. Kallisti scowled. The lock on the box was more complex than she thought, and she was having to do it in almost total darkness.
"Dammit, light!" she whispered. On command, the pearl at her throat started to glow, shedding enough light for her to see what she was doing. Silently she thanked once more the worshippers of the Sun god, whose temple had furnished her with the magic pearl when she had robbed it a few months ago. "Alright, what do you want me to do now?" she replied to Tormal. Hah, got it! The box opened for her.
"Take the box to my father and leave it with him." Tormal called. Kallisti's eyes widened in horror and she almost dropped the box. Inside was a mummified, shrivelled hand, severed at the wrist. As she watched, the fingers jerked to life, twitching and moving. It was the hand from one of the Ramal dead! So that was what the captain was ranting about. Tormal must have paid him to get this.
"Why do you want me to give it to your father?" Kallisti closed the box again. "Dim." she whispered. The pearl obeyed. Hanging the box from her belt, she began to creep forward, stealthily like a cat.
"Because I hate him. Ever since I was small he has been promising me I would take over his business when I was grown up. Well now I am an adult he keeps putting me off, saying I'm still not experienced enough. In the meantime, he's taken on an apprentice. He's grooming the little catamite to take his place and leave me out in the cold without a penny of what is rightfully mine. I want both of them dead and out of the way so I can inherit what is mine!" The Ambre had, as was usual with addicts, addled his wits. While he had been speaking, Kallisti had crept up to where she could see him. Tormal was so engrossed in his madness that he failed to notice the fact that her voice was nearer.
"So what can this box do to them?" she began to unlock the box again, much easier now she knew how it worked.
"The box contains something infected with the Ramal plague. It will kill them all stone dead and then I can get my hands on the money, and all those others who sneered at me will now realise who they were ridiculing." He laughed a cruel sadistic laugh. He was obviously mad - the plague would kill everyone, not just his father.
"Why not use this hand?" Kallisti stepped out of the darkness at his side and placed the mummified hand on his shoulder. Tormal looked around and screamed in terror.
"NO!" He screeched like a woman. "Take it away! What have you done! You'll kill us both." He fell to his knees, the hand dropping to the ground. He stared at it in horror.
"Oh no my dear Tormal, I'm immune to the plague. It is a side-effect of the treatment Suki gave me yesterday. I ought to thank you for having me beaten up, it seems to have saved my life. Your's though..." she smiled cruelly.
"No, please don't kill me, I'll give you money, lots of money." Tormal pleaded on his knees.
"Oh no, I'm not going to do anything to you, I'll leave that up to the plague. You are gong to die Tormal, in agony you've never imagined, like you sentenced the people on board that ship. You have nothing left Tormal, not even revenge - that belongs to me."
"No!" he cried, staring at her with disbelief. He had sadly miscalculated this seemingly naive young girl, not the first either. Kallisti smiled.
He still had one last chance... Turning from her, he leapt out of her reach and raced over the rough ground. Kallisti saw too late where he was heading, but by the time she caught up with him, he was over the edge of the cliff. His cry ended abruptly with a sickening thump.
"Damn!" she ground her teeth. The waves took the crumpled body from the jagged rocks below her, sweeping it out to sea to be washed up who knows where. Turning from the cliff, she retrieved the grisly hand, still twitching, and secured it in the box again. Gathering some bracken and twigs, she lit a fire with her tinderbox. When the fire was large enough, she dropped the box into the flames.
"Pity about the box, it was well made - it would have been worth a bit." she said sadly to herself, warming her hands by the fire all the same.
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