The Beginning
By: Stephanie Bardy

Merrik knelt on the cold hard dirt of the road. He sucked at the air like a babe at a breast, trying to fill his lungs and steady himself. His head hug low, heavy with the knowledge that had just been opened there, his body ached with the magic that had filled it. He was still himself, still retained all the memories of his life, but now so much more danced within him.

Darkness shrouded him like a blanket, the Woman and the Wolves having long since faded. He rose slowly, feeling a bit more steady. He ran his hand down his leg and found the tear, but the skin underneath was perfect, unmarked. As the pounding of his heart began to recede and calm, his other senses came back. He could smell the smoke coming from the village, see it rising slowly as an orange glow covered the area. The wood still snapped and popped as the last of it burned. Panic seized him and while his rational mind screamed they were gone, he raced towards home anyway.

*****

She stood hidden, both by tree's and by magic, watching the man. The Warrior, so The Elders had said. The Chosen. She remembered the last Chosen she had encountered and decided caution was best when approaching this one. She had watched The Elder fill him with his magic, his knowledge, and knew that he was one of the old ones, placed in a new body, time after time, but still she remained unseen. He felt different than the last, purer of heart. He had never done harm to a child, but she felt that shame within him as they did and it confused her. His shame held none of the darkness of the others, but he carried it just the same. She had tried to push further into him when he had suddenly taken off running towards the fire. She was sent to teach him, as she had been taught, to guide him, and although she had finally been deemed ready to ascend to Divine Keeper, she would always remain The Huntress. Cautious, wary, and merciless to those darkened by evil.

She followed at a safe distance, watching him weave between the burning buildings until he left the village and headed down a dirt path. Here in the open she had no cover, so she pulled her cloak around her, whispered a few words and became unseen. His speed seemed to pick up the closer he got to the gutted remains of a burned house. A sound close to a wounded animal escaped him as he saw the charred remain. Making an abrupt turn he sped off towards what was left of the barn. She arrived to see him pulling timbers out of the wreckage oblivious to the burns he was sustaining to him hands. His movements were frantic.

"Shannia?!" he screamed as he pulled at boards. "Cortyn!"

She approached him quietly. "They are gone."

He spun around pulling his dagger. It hit her in the breast, enough to dent her robe but not pierced skin. His eyes were wild, his breath came in fast gasps.

"Who are you?" he ground out. She placed a finger on the edge of the blade and gently pushed it away.

"Celeste." she said. He scowled at her. "And that means what to me?"

She sighed. For a man who was just given the knowledge of centuries, he was pretty dense. "The Elders sent me. I am The Divine Keeper."

"Go away." he grumbled and returned to his task.

She knew she would have to tread softly with him right now. He was in pain. Placating words would only anger him and she was the only one around for him to lash out at. She didn't want to hurt him. She would let him keep digging. Keep searching. He needed to see for himself.

After about an hour, his paced slowed as he reached the floor of the barn. She could see, inlaid into the floor, some kind of door, charred and still smoldering. He fell to his knee's, almost afraid to lift it.

She came and stood beside him. "You do not want to see what lies beneath."

His head hung low. "I have too. I have to know for sure." He lifted the trap door and sunlight illuminated the small space beneath.

She saw a woman, huddled around four children. The flames had burned their clothes, and much of the boards around them, but they seemed untouched, almost asleep. Hope flickered across his face as he crawled down into the space. He touched the woman's face and that hope shattered.

Merrik scooped his wife into his arms. Tears rode freely down his cheeks as he mourned his family. He held each in turn. Cradling them, whispering to them.

She stood quiet. Patient. This was not a time to rush. Finally he raised his eyes to her.

"How? How are they untouched?" he asked.

Celeste reached down and touched the smallest child. Images flew past her eyes and she found it. The spell.

"She placed a sleeping spell on them, embedded with a protection spell. She was not strong enough to save life, but enough to save the body."

He stood with Katya in his arms. "I have to bury them. I have to at least give them that."

Celeste nodded. She understood that. She hadn't let herself feel human emotion for a long time but she still understood loss.

They spent the rest of the day digging graves, side by side. When the last marker had been placed Merrik was finally still. He knelt among the crude graves, no longer able to cry. Numbness had set in by the third grave and he let it keep him going. Now it was done. Now he could let himself feel, grieve, but all that filled him was rage. He clung to that. Held it close. Rage would be the one emotion that would, could help him do what he now must.

"Ren Daul will pay for this. No matter what I must do, I will not stop until I see him dead." he said flatly.

Celeste knelt beside him. "Yes, he will, but not yet. You are not ready to face him. Face his magic. Come, we must go." She stood and started walking towards the woods.

"No." Merrik said

She stopped and looked back at him. "No?" It was not a word she encountered often and it puzzled her now. "What do you mean no?"

Merrik stood "Just that. No. This is not your fight. I don't know who you are, or why you are here, but I won't put another innocent in harms way for my own battles." He turned and walked towards the house. Halfway there he stopped and just stood, staring.

Celeste sighed in frustration. The Elder had filled him with all the knowledge of who he was, what he was, and the centuries of battles, but not who she was. Typical of them. They always did make her work for every thing she had. Even now, when that knowledge mattered the most, when knowing her would have helped their cause, they withhold that.

"Merrik." she said. His back stiffened at the use of his name from a stranger. "Look at me."

He stood stoically with his back remaining to her.

"Merrik!" she said with more force. He stood ramrod straight now.

"How is it you know my name?" he ground out. "You speak to me with a familiarity that is afforded to friends, and yet, I do not know you. I have all these memories, centuries of them now, and you are not in one of them. Who are you?" He had finally turned to face her and she could see the rage etched across his face. She approached slowly, cautiously. He had blank spots in his memories, like holes in cheese. She had to get his magic to fill in those holes. To recognize her. She knew this was another test from The Elder's and she resented it.

"You have all this, yes, but there are holes. Think. Blank spots during training, fighting, empty conversations that seem to have two sides but you only recall one." She continued to approach him. " Think on the journeys you have traveled before this life. You were not alone. Who taught you control, who taught you how to wield your magic. The Elders, in their infinite wisdom, filled you with everything but the memory of me. I have been with you always, but not always in this form. I am the Divine Keeper, this incarnation of it in this lifetime. You have always had a Keeper. We have come as male, and as female. We are sent to guide you, train you, aid you."

Merrik stared at her, a myriad of thoughts and emotion raced across his face. He recalled all the things she said, but still not her. Her face was strange, but the energy she radiated felt familiar, comfortable. He began to see the holes she spoke of, but when he turned his mind to see who it was beside him, it was dark. He was alone.

"I see the holes. They appear empty. Dark. Why is it I can not place your face. The energy you hold is not new to me, but when I look at you, you appear as a stranger."

She smiled, this was going easier than expected. "The energy you feel has always been with you, we have just worn different forms. It is now my turn to carry this mantle." she muttered a few words and her face changed into many different ones. Old, young, male, female. Each incarnation of the Divine Keeper. As she did this, Merrik stumbled. The holes in his memories began to fill like ruts in the road during a heavy rain. Faster and faster the memories came. Always was there a Keeper, the one who kept him safe, sometimes even from himself. As he remembered, the rage came crashing back. The Divine Keeper had always been there, and he had always failed.

"I remember." he said. "I also remember that you have never been a help to me. I have always failed. Every time. Centuries of Keepers and not one could bring me to victory. What good are you to me this time? Where do you think you can do better than those who came before you?" He stormed the last few feet between them and glared down at her. "None of you have ever led me to defeating Ren Daul. Ever! Each time I have failed, I have died. Many others, many of those innocent, have died in our efforts. I don't need, nor do I want your help." He shoved past her and continued towards the road. Abruptly he changed direction and headed towards the remains of the house.

Celeste gave him his space. He was right. Each Keeper before her had failed, for various reasons, and she wasn't sure she was any different. She was new, having just gone through the Rights of Ascension, and she still clung to her Huntress ways. That was still very much a part of her, and she did not have the experience of past Keepers. Her magic, at times, was still just as wild as it was in the beginning and now she had to teach another the control she herself hadn't fully mastered. She turned to walk away and she heard the voices.

The three always spoke as one. "You are the difference this time child. You still move by instinct, you still follow your heart, much to your ire, and ours. Let that heart guide you now. Together you will be the new beginning and new ending to an old tale. Be the heart that leads him through the darkness."

Celeste turned to ask them how and they were gone. Again, leaving a cryptic message, and being no help at all. "Damn you. Damn you all." she muttered as she approached the house. "Elusive and asinine as always."

When she found Merrik at the house he was tearing through the wreckage and cramming things into an old sack. She knew she couldn't reason with him, untrained, fighting him would be unfair, so she did the only thing left. She moved them. Merrik stood abruptly as the scenery changed from charred wood and shattered dreams to a cool dark forest and a lush green garden.

"Wha…NO!" he screamed as he spun looking around him. "What have you done? Take me back! I wasn't finished! I don't need you!"

Celeste spoke calmly as she climbed the stairs to the porch of her small cabin. "You do. When you realize this I will be inside waiting. Hunger is gnawing at me and I must eat." She entered the cabin and closed the door. She watched him from he window and he attempted to leave the yard. After a while she turned towards the old stove and began preparing a hearty stew. He would need it.

Merrik paced the length of the fence. Each time he tried to climb it or exit one of the gates he was suddenly back in the same spot. Over and over the tried, different spots, different positions, over, under, through, around, and each time the same result. He was back in the garden. He had watched squirrels and birds come in and out and just now a rabbit. Frustration finally over took him and he threw his hands out and screamed. Flashes flew from each finger, white hot, and tinged with red. They went in all directions, bouncing off rocks, shattering through tree's. He heard a small squeak and saw the rabbit lying a few feet away. He slowly approached and saw a burn hole in the head. Had he done that in his anger? He dropped to his knee's and gently picked up the rabbit. In that moment he knew he needed her. Or at the very least her training. He could not let this power hurt another. He had hunted rabbit all the time, but that was to feed his family, he had never killed in anger.

He entered the small cabin still holding the rabbit. "I didn't mean too." he said in a small voice, much like a child's.

Celeste looked at him. "Rabbit for the stew. Lovely." she said taking the rabbit from him. She began to prepare it as Merrik stood gaping at her. "What are you doing? Fix it! We can't eat it!"

Celeste still her knife, laid it gently on the cutting board and motioned for Merrik to sit at the table. She sat across from him. "I can not restore life. No one can. We can animate things that are dead but only for a short while. We can not undo death. Your magic is wild and dangerous. Which is why I brought you here. My home. Where the most you could harm was a rabbit or bird. Imagine if you had of been within a town and your anger took over. Who would you accidentally catch in that outburst? You say you don't want to hurt any one innocent, and yet, you say you don't need my help. I dare say that poor rabbit begs to differ."

She stood and continued preparing the rabbit. "Now, lets not waste it."

Merrik sat for a long while, silent, lost in his thoughts. He ate the stew but did not taste it. He helped clean up but his eyes did not see, so inside his head he was. They sat by the fire, Merrik silent, Celeste weaving herbs together.

Finally he spoke. "When do we start?"

"We already have." she said meeting his eyes.

-

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