The Flames of Love

by

Andrew Prentis

May 1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why do you bother with me?" she said suddenly.

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

"Why do you, still bother with me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Now you know how it feels." Ratty's works appeared as coloured clouds twisting and swirling around the room. "Just imagine what would happen if we were to have you raped in this state." The words suddenly became sharp edged knives, transforming into ugly demons, swimming round her just out of reach, waiting to bury themselves in her defenceless body. The whole room was nightmarish - she screamed once, but the sound tore into her body, battering her just like the whip had slashed her. She cried, tears of blood running down her cheeks to burn into the welts on her body. Her hands! She had lost her hands - they were gone! Had they chopped them off? Time was distorting now, sometimes running fast so that Ratty and Artur moved like puppets, other times running slow so that they barely seemed to move, their words slipping out inch by inch.

Her hands! She forced her head back, the world swimming past her eyes as she did. She barely had any control over her muscles, so the effort to lift her head was herculean. There, she could see her hands. They were red from the restricted circulation, but were still on her wrists...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My child it is not so..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do not fear little sister - one means you no harm." It spoke! Well, it was not so much speech as a combination of body language, soft growls and something else more indefinable.

"Wha - you can talk!" Kallisti spluttered.

"Assuredly. We saw you yesterday and felt such a sadness in you. One has taken it upon oneself to assure you that we shall be watching out for you." The wolf rose to its feet as if to leave.

"Wait, what do you mean?"

"Should you need us just call out and we shall be there to help."

"We? Who are you?" The wold inclined its head, tongue lolling out one side of its mouth - wolfish laughter.

"The Pack of course. One is the pack-leader. Fear not little sister, we shall be your guides" And with that he vanished into the forest. All through that day as she travelled, Kallisti was aware of movement around her at the periphery of her vision. It was reassuring yet strange - adopted by a pack of wolves!

At night, the emerald eyes were back, but this time she was not frightened and slept undisturbed until dawn. So was the pattern set for the next few days. Occasionally the pack-leader would appear when she stopped to rest or at the end of the day, but never staying for long after asking if she were well. Kallisti longed to ask him a host of questions, but somehow knew it would be rude to show such inquisitiveness.

Gradually the forest changed from lowland broad-leafed forest to pine as she crossed into the foothills of the mountains. It was cooler now and she was glad of the furs she had had the foresight to bring. The ground was getting steeper and she found the going much harder than before. She was not in the best of shape and the climbing exhausted her, slowing her progress drastically.

On the second night in the hills, the pack-leader joined her at the camp fire.

"One regrets that we must leave you tomorrow. We are not permitted to go further since it is not part of our territory."

"Oh, I didn't realise..." Kallisti replied, a lump coming to her throat. She had grown used to the comforting presence of the pack.

"We shall travel together again, one is sure of it." the pack-leader sensed her sadness. He moved to her side, closer than he had ever been before and lifted his muzzle to her face. Kallisti felt the draught as he inhaled her scent. His brown-black eyes gazed at her solemnly. Kallisti reached up and stroked his neck.

"Mm, most pleasant." he murmured as she stroked him behind the ears. Kallisti smiled and hugged the wolf, much to his surprise. "Rest now little sister," he said finally, "You must conserve your energy - you have a difficult road ahead of you." and he departed again, but not before rasping a rough tongue over Kallisti"s cheek.

That had been two days ago. Now she stood alone on the edge of Mage's Tor, her journey's end, though she only realised once she had reached it. Now what? She glanced over the edge at the long drop. One more step will end the misery - forget the ache and the longing for Ambre...

The brown-black eyes of the pack-leader appeared in her mind. "We shall travel together again, one is sure of it." he had said. She had missed the companionship of the Pack over the past couple of days. The longing for Ambre had grown stronger since they had left and it occurred to her that while the Pack had been with her, she had barely thought about it. The ache was still there, but there was something new - a feeling of belonging to something important. She had never felt this way about anything - belonging to the Order or even being with Deldus. They were important, but not the same. She belonged with the Pack - she was a part of them and they a part of her.

"My child, you have been greatly honoured by the Pack." A voice! Kallisti span round. A shimmering figure materialised by the Tor. It was the priestess from the Temple! No - this was a much younger woman. Then again, the woman's radiant beauty seemed ageless. The truth struck Kallisti an almost solid blow.

"Carina!" she gasped.

"My child you know me. You opened your heart to me and I came. I have never deserted you, my sweet Kallisti, I have always been with you, even when you offered your fealty to my mischievous nephew Dravidi. A part of you has always been with me."

"But why..."

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

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

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

"My mother?" Kallisti looked up at the goddess.

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

"I never knew."

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

"The Pack - they are part of you too!" she gasped as the flames of love washed through her.

"As much as they belong to anyone, yes. My sister Hazel gave them to me as a present a while ago. They are a part of you as you are a part of me. They will always be with you, should you need them - as I will."

"Mother!" Kallisti cried.

"Daughter." Carina embraced her.

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

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

"Kallisti!" he cried.

"I'm back my love, and I'm cured." Kallisti smiled, looking more beautiful than ever.


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