Lessons Learned
By: Stephanie Bardy

They rode in silence for days. After the day of the daemon's and the destruction of the village, Celeste had just stop speaking. Merrik tried, even went so far as to goad her, tried to anger her, but she remained silent. A blank look on her face. He would catch her every now and again, when she thought he wasn't watching, and she would look lost, broken.

They stopped for the night, she tossed the small block and as always, the cabin appeared. She dismounted her horse, let the reins fall, and walked into the cabin, without so much as a glance at Merrik. He dismounted and settled the horse's in the garden, removed the saddles and readied them for the night.

As he entered the cabin he saw her retreat behind her curtain. Food had been left on the table and a fire burned in the hearth. He ate alone, banked the fire down and stretched out onto his cot. This was the only time he ever heard a sound from her. It was always the same sound since that night with the Elders. Since the village. The sound of her crying softly. As if her heart was breaking into a thousand pieces. He knew that sound, he knew the feel of a broken heart. It had ripped through him when his family had died, leaving a hole that he never thought would ever be full again. The ache as he lay each night, alone, tears silently falling. Turning at her voice, and realizing that it was just a memory, wanting to hold his babies, arms aching for it. His heart had screamed every night, his mouth silent. He knew what had caused his pain, but Celeste never spoke of her life before she became Divine Keeper. When he asked, she said she was a huntress. Nothing more, nothing less, and had been for so long anything before that no longer mattered. Yet, each night, she disappeared behind her curtain, curled onto her cot and cried, almost silently. Each day, her eyes haunted, she stayed silent, avoiding any contact with him, and refusing to meet his gaze.

He could stand it no longer, and rose from his cot slowly approaching her side of the cabin.

"Celeste?" he said softly "Please, talk to me. Let me help you."

He heard her shift and the floor creak as she pulled the curtain back. Her eyes, red and swollen, stared angrily up at him. She pushed past him and moved towards the door. Frustration got the better of Merrik and he grabbed her arm. She screeched, like an animal wounded, her eyes wild now. Fear came off her in waves. Merrik dropped his hand and stood in stunned silence.

Slowly she pulled her emotions back in. He had caught her at a weak moment. In her heart she had known she had wanted him too, but now she was terrified. Terrified of her feelings, of his. The past. It all crashed in on her. Dancing in her head like colored ribbons. This life, that life, her life. The life before she became Huntress. He danced in her head. Tore at her heart. His memory. Giggles of a small child echoed through her mind, and the shattered pieces of her heart. Her husband, her child. Lost. All part of a plan she had been told. To bring her to this place. The frustration, the pain, the anger and overwhelming grief had almost been to much for her. It was crashing down on her again, now. That desperation, the feeling of breathing but never taking in air. She kept backing away from Merrik, she was in flight mode, she needed to be outside, away from him, so that she could pull herself together. Regain control before she hurt him. Her back hit the door and her hand grabbed the hasp and she was gone. Out into the night. Fleeing the pain inside her, knowing that she would never get far enough. Blindly she stumbled into her Garden. The one she always cautioned Merrik to stay away from. Her Garden of Souls. She collapsed to her knees and screamed. Pain pouring from her mouth. Her hands tore at the earth beneath her. This was the reason she suffered. This Garden. The Elders had created this Garden, had created her. They caused her pain. Took everything from her, to serve their "higher agenda". She cursed them. Screamed for them to face her. Begged them to release her. But they never came, and they didn't come now. Her screams faded and her hands stilled. Her breathing was harsh and quick, and she stayed on her knees in the dirt, head down, trying to calm herself. She could feel her magic seeping out in bits and pieces, and she knew she needed to regain control. It was wild and powerful, and she never let it slip until she had met Merrik.

He approached quietly. She had gone still all of a sudden and he didn't want to startle her. He had made that mistake in the past and paid a slightly painful price.

"Celeste?" he said quietly. "I think we need to talk. Maybe you need to talk and I need to listen, but we have to do something. We can't continue like this."

"Do you know what this is?" she asked as she waved her hand over the small plants in front of her. "Do you know what this whole Garden is?" He opened his mouth to answer, but she continued, so he chose to remain silent. She was finally speaking and he didn't want her to stop.

"It's my Garden of Souls. Each plant is the soul of someone I ended." She slowly rose, and began walking through the rows. "Each soul was black. Dark and filled with evil intent. Each one the bringer of terror to innocence. They called me Huntress, but to look at this you would think I was more a gardener," she said with a sneer. " I was tasked with reaping the souls of those who harmed innocence. Most had harmed a child in some form or another. Many had killed their victims. Those were the lucky ones. They didn't have to live with the nightmare, the fear, the pain. I couldn't save the ones harmed, but I could stop those who did it. The Elder's trained me to become detached, emotionless. I would destroy a man without a second thought. Each deserving. My only emotion was one of satisfaction. They made sure of that."

She had reached the back of the Garden and stared down at the small green leaves at her feet. "This was my first. The one who made me Huntress," she said softly as she gently touched the plant. "I had a life before…" she looked around, anger on her face now, "before all this."

She walked out of the garden towards Merrik. He stood as still as he could for he could feel the waves of magic rolling off of her now. It prickled along his skin like small needles. Her shields were long gone and although he was still cautious, he knew she needed to get this out. He could feel her pain in each wave, the weight she carried in her heart. The marks it had left on her soul.

She stopped beside him. "I will tell you this once, then you will let it rest," he nodded, still not willing to speak and break whatever control she still had left.

He followed her into the cabin and sat. She paced between the table, hearth and door. She sat, then jumped right back up. "I don't even know where to begin, it's been so long since I have allowed myself to think of them." she said

"Tell me about them. Start there." Merrik said

Celeste took a deep breath and he watched her eyes slowly go out of focus. A small smile curved her lips. She sat in the chair by the hearth, her hands automatically reaching for her herb bundles and as she wove, she talked.

"Her name was Celaine. His, Falwen. They were my life. My husband and child. She was the perfect combination of the two of us, his green eyes, my red hair. We were happy. Our little farm wasn't much but it provided all we needed. Celaine would chase the chickens, giggling as they scurried away from her. Falwen would scoop her up onto his shoulders and the two would terrorize those poor birds." Celeste had a far away look on her face, as she remembered. "When Celaine turned 12 she wanted to go to town on her own to fetch our supplies. We lived near a small village and we felt it safe enough, we knew all the townsfolk, and they us. So, after her morning chores, I gave her some coins and sent her to the butcher."

The soft look was gone from Celeste's face and it was now blank. Her emotions tightly reigned in. Merrik could no longer feel the waves of emotion or magic. It was like he was plunged into a void. He felt nothing. She had risen from the chair and was pacing again. Her hands twisting the herb bundle like she was wringing out a wet cloth.

"Celeste, if this is too hard…" Merrik said

"No," she cut him off "What has started must be finished. It is what The Elder's have wanted since this all began." She stopped at the window and looked out over the Garden, almost drawing strength from it.

"By evening meal, Celaine still hadn't returned so Falwen set out to look for her. Night fell and neither had returned. I paced, Table, hearth, door. Still no sign of them. At the first streaks of dawn I set out to find them. I got halfway to town when I saw the break in the reeds that lined the river along the roadside. Something inside me told me to stop. I thought maybe they were at the river's edge, cooling off, watering the horse. They were there, but not as I had thought."

Celeste squeezed her hands tighter, white mottling the knuckles. Her voice shook slightly and tears began to silently weave their way down her cheeks.

"I saw Falwen first, laying on his side, curved around something. He wasn't moving, and remained so as I called out , as I reached him, I saw the small body of our daughter cradled in his arms. Both looked like they were asleep, and had it not been for the blood on Falwen's face, I would have thought they were. I pulled Celaine from Falwen's arms, shaking her, trying to wake her up. Her body was bruised, limbs broken. Her face was still perfect, but the rest of her told a tale far worse. Her legs were covered in blood, her dress torn. I screamed and cried for a long time, cradling my child. At one point I must have reached for Falwen as I held her, because visions began racing through my mind. The tale of what had happened to my innocent child. How she had met a stranger on the road to town, the lies he used to lure her to the riverside, the terrified screams as he broke her body, and her spirit. Falwen, seeing the man coming through the reeds, covered in blood. The fight, each slash of the blade as Falwen fell. He had enough strength in him to find Celaine's tattered body and cradle her as he died. I will never forget that man's face. The man who stole my family. As I held each, my heart shattering, I vowed to hunt this man, to make him pay for what he had done. I vowed to take his life. That was when They appeared for the first time."

She sat at the table with Merrik, rocking slowly, arms wrapped around herself. He wanted to reach for her, comfort her, ease her pain in some way, but he knew that the loss of love was a pain that could never be eased. Not when it has been ripped from you.

"I can't tell you this next part, I don't know how. I can only show you," she said as she reached for his hand. A cool breeze whirled around them and Merrik found them standing by a riverbank. Celeste tugged his hand and he turned to face her. She raised her other arm and pointed. He looked to where she was pointing, and watched the scene before him unfold.

Celeste cradled her child, gripped the hand of her beloved. "I vow, my darlings, with everything I have, I will make that monster pay. He will not go free for this, he will not hurt another. "

The Elder's watched from a distance, unseen to Celeste. They exchanged looks, and nodded in unison. They did everything in unison. In a blink they appeared before Celeste. She screamed and scrambled backwards, dragging her child and husband with her.

"Fear not child. We have waited a long time for this day. We do not come to harm you, only to help."

"Who are you?" she asked, her voice raw from her tears. They responded in unison. "We are The Elder's. We have been waiting for this day to come so that you may take on your destined role as The Huntress."

Celeste was confused, and had no interest in anything else but the vow she had made. The Elder's continued to speak to her, and after she had laid her family to rest, days later, she finally agreed. Her training began in earnest then. Always under the condition that the man who stole her family would be the first to die.

It was a long time before she found him. The Elder's had kept her trapped in the cabin, unable to leave the yard beyond the fence. The day finally came, and she set off. She used all the knowledge and ability she had and eventually tracked him to a small village, much like her own. He was plotting his next conquest. His next child. She slowly drained his life force, savoring each moment as she watched the fear and life ebb and fade from his eyes. His was the first soul to be planted in her Garden. A place that was created not for harvesting or beauty, but to keep such dark energies from escaping into the world to cause harm.

It was many years before she became aware how very much involved The Elder's were in the loss of her family. She had been born to be The Huntress. Each milestone in her life, was a task that had to be completed in a grander plan. The loss of a love so true was the final part. Her heart had to be broken completely, her spirit shattered, before they could remake her into what she was meant to be.

Celeste released Merrik's hand. They were standing in the Garden, surrounded by Soulweeds.

"I shut The Elder's out for a very long time. Doing things on my own. Ignoring their calls. They'd appear and I would vanish. It was foolish of me, for they always knew where I was, they were always watching, as they are watching now. I thought Huntress was what I was supposed to be, my final task, I ignorantly thought they could ask no more of me, that taking my family, my child, was the ultimate price that I would have to pay," Celeste gave a harsh laugh. "I was wrong."

She turned to Merrik. "You were born to be Warrior. The Elder's have been guiding your path since your first breath."

"Celeste. Stop," The Elder's said from the other side of the Garden.

She spun to face them. "Now? Now you show up? Why? Why must I stop? Why shouldn't he know that you are also the cause of his pain? His loss? Just as you are mine! He deserves to know what you have done," she turned back to face Merrik. "Your children, your beloved wife, was destined to die from the moment they met you. You can't become what The Elder's claim is your destiny, if you still retain worldly ties. They must break you completely before you can do their bidding. I never wanted this. Never wanted another to suffer what I have. To feel that pain. What I want, what you want, is nothing to The Elder's. We are just pawns in a bigger game. I am sorry Merrik," she waked towards the cabin, leaving Merrik standing in the Garden with The Elder's.

"If you must tell him our transgressions, then you must tell him yours. If he must know this, he must know all," they said, in their eerie voice of one. Celeste stopped in her tracks.

"Celeste? What are they talking about?" Merrik asked

"Tell him. Tell him about the village. Tell him the way to defeat Ren Daul." The Elder's said.

"No," she said. Magic crackled through the air, and she fell to her knee's. Merrik moved to help her but The Elder's were suddenly in front of him.

"She seems to enjoy sharing our secrets, but you now must know hers," They whispered in a voice that traveled on the air, and seemed to be all around him. Celeste screamed in frustration from her prone position where they held her.

"The village you encountered when you left the shelter of the cabin, the daemon child, Celeste created that all. She brought you to that village, she fashioned a daemon into the image of your hearts truest desire, she wanted you to feel that pain again. As a lesson. To force you to abandon your quest. When you didn't attack her immediately but gave her warning first, she knew she had failed. She refuses to accept that there is only one way to defeat a magic like Ren Daul. A love born of mutual pain, true in it's honesty, not blind to pain, willing to accept that it may be ripped from you, a love willing to be sacrificed to achieve the ultimate goal. A love deeper than anything you have felt before. She is not willing to allow that. She is not willing to allow her heart to feel that love. She thinks there is another way, and in her arrogance she has doomed you both, as every Divine Keeper and Warrior have been doomed before you."

Merrik opened his mouth to speak but they were gone. In front of him, Celeste still knelt, although now she had been released from their magic.

"Is what they said true?" he asked flatly.

She nodded.

"You created that child, to turn me from this?"

She nodded again.

Merrik did not speak another word, but strode past her into the cabin. She could feel the waves of anger roll of him as he passed. She hung her head and finally let herself cry in earnest.

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