Aftermath
By: Stephanie Bardy

Celeste sprang from her bed. She remembered. She remembered everything.

The pain she endured at Ren Daul's hand, the little girl, her tortured beaten body. She remembered the guard and his smug expression, the fear and surprise in his eyes as she cut him down.

As she paced by the hearth, her body shook with the rage she felt. The anger. Each memory flooded back like water. What had started as a trickle, became a flood. She remembered her husband, her child, the agony of their loss, she could picture each moment, each day, each century she spent as The Huntress. She remembered her life before, how free, how innocent it was. As she remembered all the pain, all the loss, she recalled the greatest one yet. The loss of Merrik. She had loved him once, from a distance, beyond words. Ren Daul had taken that love and twisted it, turned it into a weapon against her. One she wouldn't let him use again. She stopped her pacing. She had a plan. One that even The Elder's couldn't foresee.

Merrik had sat still on the edge of the bed, watching her. Seeing every emotion run across her face. When it went cold and blank, his heart skipped a beat. Something was wrong. He too remembered every moment since that first incarnation. How The Elder's had manipulated them both to become what they were now. Warrior and Divine Keeper. He watched her and his heart filled with the fear he had the night he had died. When she had raced out the door to confront Ren, Merrik had raced after her. He couldn't let her face him alone. He had to protect her, because in protecting her, it protected him. To lose her, would destroy him. He had loved her from the moment he saw her in the window of Ren's chamber. He knew she wasn't there by choice, but by obligation. He had wanted only for her to be happy, but Ren ruled all.

He had loved his wife and all of his children. They had been everything to him, and nothing could diminish that. The pain he felt over the loss of them was very very real, but he knew that The Elder's had placed Shannia in his path for the very purpose of taking her away from him. This sent a jolt of fiery hot rage through him. Those were innocents. Celeste, under the guidance of The Elders, had taught that the innocent must be spared. Yet, they had taken his family, taken Celeste's. They had manipulated the love they had for each other, to bring them to this place. For what, he still wasn't sure. Obviously to defeat Ren Daul, but that had all been tried before, why, how was this to be different?

As he sat watching her, lost in his own thoughts, he felt a sudden wave of intense sadness wash over him. He looked closer at Celeste and realized she had started to glow. She was very still, eyes closed, and a shimmering white light had begun to surround her. The brighter the light around her got, the more the void inside him grew. He could feel her, but it was like her energy was now moving out of him, instead of in. Her energy had always just flowed between then, swirling around inside him, like a warm blanket. Now it was like it was being ripped from every cell within his body. He dropped to his knee's, and his hands hit dirt. He looked up and realized the cabin was gone. The garden, the fence, all of it, gone. She was gone.

He couldn't breath over the immense feeling of emptiness that filled him. He tried reaching out to her, using his energy to find her, but he felt nothing. Just a blank void. His heart felt empty and cold. He got to his feet and looked around. It was just a normal forest. Birds sang, the sun, shot through the tree's here and there, creating a magical quality, but there was no magic here. She had taken everything.

Celeste stood and watched him from the safety of the cabin. Tears slowly trickled down her face as she held all her energy within her. She had closed the connection between them. It was the only way to ensure that he would be safe this time. She wouldn't lose him again, even if it meant that she would never feel the bond between them. She had shielded the cabin because she just didn't have the strength to move it. She cut the connection, but she just couldn't leave him. With all the memories, with all the emotion, her love for him had come crashing back the strongest. She had already loved him as they were now, but to have what she had felt for him come back on top of that, had almost overwhelmed her. She knew that she had to severe the connection to protect him. Without it, Ren Daul would not be able to harm him.

"You need him to complete this." said The Elder's.

"You have no power here. You have no say. Not any more. We know everything." Said Celeste flatly.

The Elder's stood quiet for the first time ever. Celeste knew them well enough to know that they were talking. They just weren't doing it so she could hear. If she tried hard enough she could, but she allowed them their shock, and their privacy. It was more than they deserved, but she was enjoying the silence. She knew it wouldn't last.

"What do you know?" They asked, trepidation lacing their words.

Celeste turned slowly to face them. Her eyes blazed with anger, turning them the almost black. "You created Ren Daul. You made him and allowed his evil to be released into the world. You are the reason everything has happened. You keep trying to fix things, to make everything better, and you keep making a bigger mess. You inflicted the pain that created The Huntress, you destroyed pieces in me to transform me into Divine Keeper. You did the same to Merrik. You went so far as to kill him! All for what? To undo what never should have been done?" She was gripping the table between them so hard it creaked under the pressure.

"The Death of The Warrior was not in our plan. We had to change the original method when he threw his life away on the emotional notion of saving you." they replied, with what seem to be slight disinterest. "The Huntress was never strong enough, she, you, needed to be pushed to the breaking point for the true magic to come through. Divine Keeper is not for the weak or the sentimental. Decisions were made for the greater good." They turned as if to dismiss any further conversation.

"Don't you turn away from me. DO NOT ignore me. Not now. You have taken more than you should have ever been allowed. You have twisted my love for a beautiful man, destroyed the lives of innocents, while you teach that I must defend the innocent at all cost, even with my own life. You have manipulated and abused your power for the last time. I am not a pawn in your game. Merrik is not your pawn. We are people. Something you don't seem to understand. Ren Daul should have been your first indication that you understand very little of human nature. With great power comes great responsibility. You taught me that, but you also taught me that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Which is why you have never let me fully embrace my power."

Celeste spread her arms, palms up. "You can not stop me from becoming who you created me to be. To embrace my powers fully. It is not something you can stop, because it comes from me, within me. It is already a part of me." She tilted her head back, face becoming bathed in the light that came through the window. The glow about her turned an almost blinding white and the air seemed to crackle with electricity.

"Celeste, you must stop." The Elders said.

Celeste took a deep breath, drawing in the magic, the power, opening up the place within her.

"Celeste!" The woman spoke now. Only her voice came through. "You must open the connection to Merrik before you do this. Please. Open your eyes and look at him in the yard. Really look at him."

Celeste paused. She lowered her arms, turning towards the window she walked over and looked out.

Merrik lay in the dirt just outside of the garden. He had begun walking, but had quickly collapsed. Without Celeste's connection, without her energy bonded to his, as it had the night she found him outside of his town, he was dying. Every wound he had sustained since that first night, was now laid bare, bleeding and raw. Every blow he had taken in training, when he had her magic mixed with his, now yielded the full impact of the damage that one who was only human would sustain. His breath came in short gasps, his color had faded to the palest of white. The soil around him had soaked up the blood that poured from his body and every Soulweed in the garden swayed and danced in the breeze. A soft whimper escaped Celeste as she pressed herself against the glass of the window. She had done this. She was killing him. She closed her eyes and opened the connection between them again. She reached out to him and found his heart, cold and closed off. The walls that had sprung up around it in the short time the connection was broken were immense. She had to use all she had to push through them. To make his heart beat for her again, with her again. She poured all she had into him, all the love, all the strength. She ran out into the garden and knelt down beside him.

"Merrik please, I am so sorry!" she pulled him onto her lap, stroking the side of his face. A face she had longed to touch for so long. Her hand knew every curve, every dimple, every indent. She traced his cheekbones, combed her fingers through his beard, kissed his forehead, willing him to open his eyes.

The Elders had joined her, and stood silent.

"You must tell her." said the woman.

"Not yet. Not until he lives." Said the others.

"She needs to know. He is slipping away, she needs a reason to fight harder."

"She has all the reason she needs. The greater good. What is best for all. That is what she fights for."

"No." said the woman. "No, she fights for love. She fights for the love of this man. Without him, she has no reason to continue. She is right. We do not understand the ways of human nature. But I am starting too. To have this man, to have his love, to live within that love, gives her life purpose. It doesn't matter if they can be together or not, just knowing she is loved by him is enough, that itself makes her fight for all. She draws strength from that love to protect those who need it most. She needs to know so that she can fight. You know there is only one way to defeat him, and it is not like this."

The other two looked at each other and then back at the woman. They nodded in unison.

The woman moved towards Celeste and knelt down beside her. Celeste was startled to see her in such a human position. The woman reached her hand out and laid it on Celeste's shoulder.

"He is fading. His energy. I can feel it, and I can see it. You need to fight harder." she said.

Celeste looked at her, tear stained cheeks, eyes desperate.

"How? I have given all I have!" she cried.

"No. You haven't. You have to give him everything. You have to give him life. Your life. Your essence. That is how we brought him back the first time. We used part of your life force to save him. Your love for him, and he for you, is what saved him the first time. It will be what will save him this time."

Celeste pulled herself together, gathered all she had, grounded herself and let herself feel her heartbeat. She then reached out for his, and pushed all she had into it, until it beat in time with hers. She felt him stir in her lap and she looked down into the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen. Eyes that she had loved for centuries. He reached up and touched her cheek as she collapsed on the ground beside him.

Merrik pulled himself up as each wound began to knit it self back together. Within moments his skin was perfect. His color returned and so did his strength. It was his turn to kneel beside Celeste. He looked up at the woman.

"What have you done!?" he screamed at her

She stood, returning to the others. "She has given to much of herself to you. She saved your life, at the cost of her own. That was a choice she made."

Merrik picked her up in his arms, resting her head on his shoulder. "She still breaths, so there is a chance you can save her." said the woman.

"How?" he asked.

Suddenly the cabin, garden, and fence line reappeared. Celeste was fading and her magic with it. Merrik moved swiftly towards the cabin and placed her gently on his bed by the hearth. He stoked the fire back up until her skin was warm to the touch. He took her hand in his, rubbing his cheek against the back of it. He felt a spark, like an electrical charge. His head shot up and he looked at their hands. They glowed. White swirled together with a dark indigo blue. As he drew back he realized that blue was the color of his energy. He pulled it back and it pulled away from her. He pushed forward and it seemed to seep into her hand. He looked up at the woman.

"How?" he said again.

"Slowly. Feel the love you have for her, let it flow with your energy, into her. Find that love within her and combine the two." she said.

He closed his eyes and reached out. He felt her pain, the centuries of torment, everything she endured at Ren's hand. He had never felt any of this before, she had always shielded him from it. Now she was open to him, He found her secret place, where she kept her love for him. It was strong, waiting for him, and it accepted his energy like it was part of it to begin with.

Her heart began to beat faster, in time with his and she began to stir. She slowly opened her eyes and again, looked into the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen.

"What have you done?" she asked.

"Loved you." he said as he kissed her.

She slowly sat up and the two looked at The Elders.

"How do we defeat Ren. Each incarnation has failed. They have loved, and they have lost. Love is not the way to defeat him."

The three spoke in that eerie way they had. "Love is not the way, and it is the way. We have much to talk about."

Before Celeste and Merrik could ask them to explain that cryptic answer, they were gone.

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