© February 1989
"Oh, I was just so impressed by the temple." she replied, turning her head to gaze around at the rich tapestries, the huge sweeping arches, the pale marble columns, the magnificent vaulted ceiling and the mosaic on the floor depicting the ancient history of Mardona. Her eyes, the mirror of the soul, expressed a child-like wonder and innocence. Her voice when she spoke, was soft and unencumbered by any pretence of sophistication. "I've never seen such a beautiful ceiling before." she added, craning her neck to see it.
"Truly young lady, you would never find another like this in the whole of Mardona, for this is the richest and most beautiful temple in all the land." The priest smiled condescendingly to the girl.
"I never would have believed a place like this could exist. I've never been to Lithil before, but the temple is legendary. I've always wanted to visit ever since I was small." she held her hand out at waist level.
"Where are you from my dear," the priest indicated for her to follow him through the nave of the temple. "and your name?"
"Jenna. I was born in South Kiril but we've come to Lithil now Daddy's dead." her lower lip quivered. "My mother has relatives her and we're staying with them, but I miss all my friends." she was close to tears now, her voice breaking, unsettling the priest. All of a sudden, the tears began to flow and she sobbed pitifully.
"There there, it's alright" he patted her arm comfortingly. Without further encouragement, she threw her arms round him, sobbing into his richly woven robes. Astonished,the priest muttered soothing words and patted her back as though she were a fragile china doll.
"I'm sorry," she gulped lung-fulls of air and wiped her eyes. The priest offered her a handkerchief. She blew her nose loudly and dabbed at her eyes. "You'll think me an awful cry-baby."
"No, not in the least - it isn't easy getting used to disruptions like that. Here, come through and wash your face." he opened a big wooden door set into the wall which led into the private areas of the temple. His back was turned so he did not see the sly smile and the flicker of something other than innocence in her pale blue eyes.
Behind the door was a corridor with numerous doors leading off. They passed these by and came to a branch of the passage. To the left at the end of the passage stood a massive door, banded with steel but decorated with fine gold filigree and encrusted with colourful gem stones. Two monks stood before the door, faces hidden in the shadow under the cowls of their plain purple habits. Purple, the sign of high stature!
"What's through there?" Jenna asked. The priest, opening the door to the washroom, leaned close and whispered.
"That is where the temple's treasures are kept. It is one of the most heavily guarded vaults in the world. Those monks are trained to kill from an early age. It is said that even their glance can kill." Jenna's mouth formed a tight "O" of awe, encouraging him further. "Not only that, but the room inside is surrounded by a shell of poisonous gasses. There is only one way through it, and that is via the tube which can be extended from inside by two more monks at the inner chamber. Inside there is another room built in the centre of a mosaic. Only certain parts of the mosaic are safe to walk on - the rest, if stepped on, would trigger magical defences which would burn any intruder to a crisp. The route across the mosaic changes continually and it is only possible to cross it using a lens carried by the monks, which when held to the eye shows the safe path. The strong room itself is protected by a magical force field, which can only be breached by using a special code-word which changes every day and is known only by the High Priest of the temple."
"Oh my, but what needs so many precautions to keep safe?" Jenna was entranced. The priest wagged his finger at her.
"You must not tell this to anyone, but inside the strong room is the temple's most precious treasures: gold, jewels and a Griffin's Eye, the only one in existence. It is said that whoever hold the Eye can see the whole of the history of Mardona. Also, there is the spell library - the finest outside the Mages College in Zethus. Truly, riches beyond compare." The priest rose to his full height, trying to look authoritative to this young, innocent girl.
"My goodness - I never realised! Aren't you frightened of Thieves?"
The priest chuckled. "That is why we protect them so well. No thief has ever entered the strong room, let alone been able to steal anything. Many have tried, none have survived."
"Are you feeling better now?" Jenna came out of the washroom, her face cleaned, her eyes only slightly reddened from her crying.
"Yes, I'm sorry I was so soppy before. You must think me a complete ninny."
"Not at all." the priest smiled benevolently. "We all have our bad days. Was there anything else you wanted to see while you're here?"
"Yes, I'd like to see the costumes worn by the priestesses - when there were any."
"Very well, come this way." he guided her back to the temple proper.
"Can you deliver two dozen flasks of oil to my grandmother at this address?" Jenna was in the shop of the oil merchant in the street opposite the temple.
"Of course my dear - this afternoon?" he replied. The scatty brunette chewed her lower lip pensively.
"Yes alright." she said and turned to leave. "Oh, I nearly forgot," she stopped at the door, "have you got any of those draught proof night lights?"
"Why thank you young man, put them down just here." a stooped old woman, barely visible under the dark shawl she worn answered the door tot he oil merchant's delivery boy. She slipped a silver piece into his hand. "Here's a penny for your trouble my boy." the old woman grumbled. The boy thanked her and swiftly retired.
The old woman unbent, stretching mightily and throwing back her shawl to reveal Jenna. She discarded the clothes which comprised her old woman disguise, picked up one of the two crates of oil flasks and carried it through to the to the next room. Ostensibly a bedroom, this room appeared to be cluttered with everything under the sun, from ropes, grappling hooks and a short ladder; a rack of bottles containing a variety of coloured liquids, two of which were stopped with lead; a rail of clothes of different sorts, including a robe almost exactly like the one the priest had worn. The twin of this robe was now safely hidden in the washroom of the temple. She had had two made as a precaution. Next to a mirror on the dressing table were two wooden heads, one with a short red-headed wig on, the other bare. Sitting before the mirror, Jenna reached up to remove the grips and removed the brunette wig, freeing her naturally blonde hair. She shook her head to get the kinks out and then proceeded to smear her face with cleansing cream to remove the makeup and putty which transformed her from the dark-skinned, pretty Jenna to the paler, stunning Kallisti.
"This is it my girl, its now or never." she took a deep breath and studied her reflection. Already her stomach was fluttering with nerves, as it always did before she was about to do a major job.
This was her first solo job for some time. Three years before, she had run away from her old master Triad Gaull, and been taken to Zethus by Deldus, a famous Mage of the Black Rose. there, he enrolled her into a school few even believed existed. It was a school entirely devoted to enhancing skills she already possessed, honing them to a fine edge. She had been schooled in all manner of subjects: armed and unarmed combat with the Warriors of the Black Rose, magic at the Mages College, locks, traps, stealth, forgery and disguise in the school's own classes as well as acrobatics and fitness. It had been a punishing regime. Her tutor and tormentor for the past two and a half years had been Drusilla, a cold heartless woman who had driven Kallisti to the point of collapse more than once. The only respite from the punishing schedule had been the few times when Deldus or the Knight, Hawkeye, whom she become friends with, came back to Zethus and she was allowed a few days off.
She had been studying in the Zethus library one day when she came across some documents about the Temple of Lithil which caught her attention and had driven her into further research which had finally brought her here.
She glanced out of the window. Dusk was already settling over the city of Lithil, the great city of Southern Mardona. The riches of the temple were famed around the world. In past ages, the city had been built by pirates and much of the riches of the city came from their various endeavours. In the hopes of appeasing the authorities and seeking legitimacy, the pirates decided to build the most magnificent temple to the gods ever seen. As a building, it was surpassed only by the Palace of Zethus, and the ancient, but now semi-derelict Palace of Xanthus, a few miles from Zethus, said to have been built by the Griffins themselves.
Her preparations for this job had been extensive, including long stints in the Zethus library, studying plans, old manuscripts, transcripts of other, failed attempts and a host of other details. She had also been forced to indulge in some preliminary burglaries to finance the main job. She had also persuaded the Zethus Spellmaster to give her access to the multitude of spell scrolls under his protection.
Now she had completed all the preparations she could think of. All that was left was to do it.
Cloaked in darkness, a shadow moved along the edge of the roof of the shops across from the temple. At ground level, a number of braziers were set into the wall to light the street. Each was alight now, casting their ochre glow into the darkness. Above each, hanging just out of sight from the street, flasks of oil were suspended by thin strings, the ends of which were held over the flames of the draught-proof night lights on the roof, hidden from view by the parapet at the edge. Kallisti had been very careful to arrange the night lights and strings so that they would all burn through at the same rate. It gave her enough time to cross the street by the rope she already had in place. Once across, on the ornate roof of the temple, she retrieved the rope and hid in it the shadows.
She had changed into her black hooded catsuit, which contained numerous pockets, along with the belts across her shoulders and round her waist, all of which carried pouches to allow her to carry everything she might need. Her mouth and nose were covered by thick layers of material, leaving only her eyes visible. At her forehead, held by the thong which served to tie her hair back, her magic pearl glowed faintly. Several daggers were hidden about her, including the magical one she prized highly.
Moving across the roof, she came to the flatter roof over the private quarters to the side, and dropped another rope down the side. Suddenly she heard a noise and glanced over the edge. She could just see the street and watched as one by one, her oil flasks fell into the braziers, sending gouts of flame up the sides of the buildings and spraying out into the street, igniting the oil she had spilt earlier when she had 'accidentally' dropped a couple of flasks whilst passing the temple. The flames were spreading swiftly, igniting the wooden shop fronts. Few lived in this quarter of town, so the chances of hurting anyone were small. The destruction, though, should draw some attention away from the temple.
Quickly slithering down the rope, she found the skylight into the washroom she had unlocked earlier. She prised it open and quietly dropped inside. She bolted both doors into the washroom and closed the skylight again. Then she retrieved the robe she had hidden and put it on over the rest of her outfit. The hood shadowed her face enough not to draw attention, and her equipment made her look bulky enough to pass for one of the priests who tended toward corpulence anyway.
Unbolting the door leading to the corridor away from the monks, she peered out. She could hear some noise coming from the nave, but was nearly knocked over by a heavily-built priest dashing out of the door opposite.
"It's the oil merchant's shop - its afire!" he panted. Kallisti grinned to herself. It was working! The priest had left the door ajar so she automatically looked in. It was a comfortably furnished study come bedroom, lit by a candelabra supporting half a dozen flickering candles, perched on a parchment cluttered desk. It took only a few seconds for her to spill some oil from the flasks she still carried, and to knock the candelabra over. Fire spread across the desk and onto the floor.
"Fire!" she called in a deep voice, trying to sound like the priest. She ducked back into the washroom and bolted the door again. She went to the other door and opened it a crack to peek out. One of the monks passed to investigate, but the other stood by the big door. Silently, she cursed and reached for her dagger.
"Hurry, fetch water, there's a fire!" she heard the first monk call. The second monk came forward and with a shock she realised he was coming straight for her! The other door rattled as the first monk tried to open it. She ducked back behind the door as the second monk came through. She held her breath, but he did not see her. He moved across to the other door and while his back was turned, she slipped out. There was no going back now.
Suddenly it hit her: she had just cut off her escape route! She cursed herself and ran to the now unguarded door. The lock was simplicity itself, but remembering the poison gas, she did not open the door. Next to it was a bell pull with a bell hanging from the end. Obvious really, it summoned the tube, but how many times did she need to pull it? Damn, it was all going wrong, she thought.
Gripping the cord and holding the bell to silence it, she pulled once, twice and after a pause a third time. Putting her hear to the door, she heard a faint groaning sound. Smiling, she found where the bell-pull passed into the wall and cut it as far in ash she could, jamming the severed end into the hole so as to hide the fact it was cut.
There came a clunk at the far side of the door, followed by a scraping sound. Taking a deep breath, she tightened the coverings over her mouth and nose. She was already wearing nose-plugs just in case. Then she pulled hard on the door and it ponderously swung open. There, facing her was a flexible tube, made from some sort of coated material to make it air-tight stretched over round hoops at intervals. The floor was made up of collapsible panels linking the hoops. glancing behind her, she stepped in, pulling the door closed behind her. The door at the far end was closed, and she breathed a sigh of relief, but caught herself from drawing breath back in - just in case!
Quickly, she raced through the tube to the far side. There, a solid platform jutted out from the closed door. The tube fitted snugly around the platform, still forming an air-tight seal. The light was dim, but she could see an alcove to one side, under a strut which jutted out from the wall to support the tube. She just had time to duck into this before the door opened, swinging inward on the hinges just beside her.
"Anybody there?" a voice came from the opening after a few seconds. "Bring the tube back, false alarm."
"Watch for the seal then." came a second voice. "Wonder why they used the 'in a hurry' signal if nobody was there?"
"Maybe they changed their mind. You know what these priests are like." replied the first speaker. This was followed by a grinding noise. She glanced along the tube. The far end was constricting, the opening shrinking to nothing. When finally closed, the tube began to retract and to her horror she realised the alcove she was hiding in was to accommodate the strut now pivoting down towards her.
"All clear." said the first voice.
"Close the door then." She could see the shadow of the door swinging closed. In desperation, she jumped out and jammed her dagger into the hinge of the door. It creaked to a halt.
"Its jammed." said the first speaker after a grunt of exertion.
"Well unjam it." the other grumbled. There came another grunt.
"Can't open it either, hinge must be jammed solid. I'll have to go through."
Kallisti saw an arm and leg push through the narrow opening. She dashed across the platform to hide out of sight. With a gasp, the monk squeezed through the narrow gap. He did not look quite as impressive as those at the front door.To start with, he seemed a bit overweight and older than she expected. His hair was greying and thinning and she felt a surge of relief that he would not be so difficult as she had feared. When his back was turned, she silently moved forward, swinging a small club, aiming for the base of his skull. Before it could connect, his fist came up to punch it out of her hand. He span round, crouching into a fighting stance. Damn! She was in position too, crouched on the balls of her feet, arms spread in balance and readiness. The monk lunged like lightening and caught her in the side as she dodged. She brought her foot up to his groin, judging his speed too great to avoid it. He twisted and it caught his pelvis instead, but it hurt him still. As she spun, she reached into a small pouch and took out a handful of pepper. As he moved again, she cast it into his face. He gasped, his hands going to his face to clear the stinging powder from his eyes.
"Have you cleared it yet?" the other monk called. Kallisti leaped forward before her opponent could recover, aiming a kick at his midrif. It connected, winding him and knocking him back. She pirouetted on the spot, her kick aimed for his head this time. He tried to dodge from where he thought the blow was coming, but she was too quiet for him to hear her so he misjudged and her kick felled him.
"Larthan, what are you doing?"
Kallisti was breathing hard, but each breath hurt her side. It could be a cracked rib, she thought. Pushing the pain aside, she rolled the monk over, swiftly searched him and removing the habit. She was mildly surprised to find he wore nothing beneath it, but donned the purple habit anyway, screwing up her nose at the smell of stale sweat permeating it.
By this time, the tube had completely retracted and sealed off the outer edge of the platform completely. Kallisti dragged the unconscious monk into the shadows. Removing her dagger from the door, she shrugged when she saw it bent out of all recognition. Almost as soon as she discarded it, the door started to swing open. Retrieving the club, she positioned herself to surprise the monk.
"What was it Larthan?" the monk appeared in the opening. Instantly she sprang, flying through the air feet first to kick him back. Surprised, the monk could not avoid her and was kicked back against the wall. Kallisti cushioned her fall with her hand and bounced up again to follow through with the club. The monk, though winded, dodged. The hood of her habit fell back.
"A thief! We haven't had one of your kind for some time." the monk wheezed, backing away. Around his neck, she could see the lens she would need to cross the mosaic hanging on a chain. He unhooked it and held it out to her. "This is what you need isn't it?" he grinned. She crouched defensively. Suddenly he tossed the lens over his shoulder. It flew across the plinth which abutted the door and gave a safe area, raised up from the mosaic covered floor. As it crossed over the mosaic, light beams shot down from the ceiling and it exploded into a thousand shards.
"No!" she wailed.
"A girl eh? We've never had a girl try before." the monk stepped around her. In the wall by the door was a lever and a bell pull the same as on the outer door. The monk pulled the lever down and yanked the bell pull. "Now we'll see how you deal with the other two when they get her shall we?" he sneered.
"They won't be coming - I cut the rope on the other side." she replied. The monk scowled and leapt at her, but he was a little too slow. Part of Kallisti's training back in Zethus had been reaction timing and improving it. She had eventually come top of her class, after a dismal start. She ducked to the side and as he passed struck him a backhand blow to the back of his neck. He grunted and tottered, but turned to face her again. His eyes glittered menacingly. She grabbed another handful of pepper, but before she could use it, he struck without warning. She fell backwards, rolling to the side as he followed her down. She managed to scramble away and kicked his side. He slumped and lay still.
Cautiously, she moved to his side. Suddenly his hand flashed out, his fingers held straight in a killing blow to her throat. She twisted and put her shoulder in the way. Even still, it hurt like hell. Jumping to his feet, he grabbed her arm and jerked it back, trying to dislocate it, but she twisted with it, head-butting him in the chest, knocking him back to the edge of the plinth. He swung his arms to regain his balance, a flash of terror in his eyes as he began to topple back onto the deadly mosaic.
"No!" she cried, catching hold of his habit and yanking him back. Confused, he glanced at her. It was long enough for her to club him unconscious.
Panting, she crouched by the prone monk. It had been a close thing. She searched him to see if there were any more lenses. There were none. She slowly stood up and pushed the lever back to close the tube again. She leaned against the wall, her shoulders slumped in weariness. She shrugged out of the smelly habit and the priest robe. The habit she tossed out onto the mosaic. As it travelled through the air, the light beams shot down and burnt it to a cinder. A sprinkling of ash fell to the floor. She had come so far and now she was stuck. She had planned to take the monks out and retrieve the lens, not thinking that he would deliberately destroy it.
She took a drink from the water flask at her hip and chewed a few raisins, gazing across the colourful mosaic at the glittering cube raised above the floor in the centre of the room. The magical shell around the strong room was opaque and slightly reflective. Light came from a number of braziers raised on pillars in various places round the mosaic.
An idea began to form in her mind. She opened one of the pouches on her belt. Inside were a number of small plaster capsules. Moving across the plinth to the steps which led down to the mosaic, she hesitated on the bottom step. Taking one of the capsules, she tossed it onto the floor a little before her. It burst to release a cloud of smoke. At first it drifted randomly, but then she saw it forming into bands which ran from floor to ceiling. They seemed to connect the tiles of the mosaic with tiles in the ceiling. In amongst the bands was a gap wide enough for a person. Smiling, she took the priest's robe and carefully placed it so that most was in the gap, but let some of the sleeve cross a band. A beam of light shot down where it crossed and set the sleeve alight. The rest was untouched.
"Yes!" she howled with joy. The smoke had been one of her first experiments in magic under the guidance of her old master Triad Gaull. It was specially treated to be attracted to the static magic of locks, traps, shields and any magic which was localised in one place like this.
The smoke lingered long enough for her to take a couple of steps forward. Then she had to break another capsule to locate the path again. Obviously, the lens worked in a similar way, showing where the light beams were and where they were not.
Slowly, foot by foot she made her way across the mosaic. The route, though, did not go straight to the strong room, but meandered about like a lost snake. A sudden thought chilled her: what if she ran out of smoke capsules half-way across the mosaic? What if she did not have enough to make it back? She pushed the idea to the back of her mind, but tried to cover as much territory between the capsules as she could. Agonisingly, the strong room would come closer only for the route to turn away again.
She was beginning to despair when suddenly it turned again and led straight onto the raised platform which surrounded the strong room. She had done it!
Now all that remained was the magical field between her and the strong room itself. This field was only passable with the code word which would normally have been obtained from the temple's High Priest. her extensive researches in the Zethus library had borne fruit though. She had found an old document about this temple, describing the store room and the precautions taken for its safety. The store-room field had been created as a gift from the then High Mage of the Black Rose. She had looked up the life of this High Mage and found a further reference to the strong room, one which mentioned how he created the field and the code words. The first one he ever used had been his own name. When she looked for the spell, hidden away in one dusty corner of the Spellmaster's library, she found its scroll, in the hand-writing of the same High Mage, and discovered the key - the first code word was always valid,even though the subsequent ones changed constantly.
Kallisti smiled to herself. "Bastion." she said. The field shivered a little and with a pop vanished. She whooped with delight as the strong room appeared, a solid stone cube with a single opening in one side.
Still cautious, she looked into the opening before entering. Her acute eyes could not see anything that could constitute a trap. Even still, she dropped her club and a smoke capsule onto he floor inside the dark alcove, commanding her pearl to give more light. The smoke dissipated without forming any pattern. Only when she was sure, did she proceed. Another door was before her, a single handle beckoning her. Her heart pounded as she reached out to open it, but before she could touch it, the door swung inward.
"Drusilla!" Kallisti screamed in shock as she recognised the woman in the doorway.
"Congratulations Kallisti," the tall heavily built woman said, smiling. It was one of the few times Kallisti had ever seen her smile. "You have passed your final test with flying colours."
"What?" Kallisti could barely control her voice, her nerves strung out to breaking point.
Drusilla gestured about her. "This is all a test to see how resourceful you are."
"But how could you know... I didn't tell anyone..."
"No, but we encouraged you to take up the challenge by putting certain documents in the right places for you to discover them."
"Well done, you have just graduated." another voice came from beyond the door. Drusilla stood aside.
"Deldus!" The surprises were coming too fast for her. She could feel a tautness growing in her throat. "But what about all the traps - the poison gas?"
"Sleeping gas - not poisonous I'm afraid, but the mosaic would have given you a nasty burn. The monks are real, trained for combat, and ordered to try to disable their opponents, preferably without killing them." Deldus explained.
"But..." Kallisti was trembling, the tension building up over the past few days now being released. She was unable to stop herself bursting into tears. Drusilla and Deldus looked at one another in amazement.
"Well, I've never seen anyone cry before - curse, swear, faint and try to hit us, but never cry!" she said.
"All those fires..." Kallisti sobbed.
"Yes, very resourceful, apart from the one which might have blocked off your escape, albeit a little destructive. Don't worry," Deldus put his arm round her, "the Order will rebuild and compensate the shop owners."
Kallisti looked, swollen eyed at Deldus. "You bastards!" she said and burst into tears again, burying her face in his shoulder.
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