Celeste found herself standing in front of a broad burbling river next to an enormous sprawling tree, and on the other side of the river were vast, beautiful mansions. Light filled the air, casting out the smallest shadows, but when she looked up, the sky was white, and she couldn't see the sun. She blinked, tilting her head, trying to remember how she had gotten here.
“Celeste, my darling,” said a female voice behind her. Celeste spun around and froze. There stood a woman with short blond hair and crystal blue eyes. Celeste’s own eyes filled with tears.
“Mom?” She whispered, not understanding, not believing her mother could really be standing there. With a tear-stricken smile, her mother spread her arms, and Celeste ran to her and they wrapped each other in an embrace. “But how are you here?” Celeste stuttered. “You- you died and-“ then she realized. Pulling back from her mother, Celeste looked into her eyes and whispered, “am I dead?”
With a mixture of sadness and joy, her mother nodded, “yes, my dear Celeste, but don’t worry, you will return to life in a few moments. You’re not done living yet.”
“What? But how do you know?”
“I just know. Listen, we don’t have much time.” Her mother pushed Celeste’s hair back and cupped her face. “There’s something I never told you.” She swallowed, “this is difficult for me to say.”
“It’s ok, mom. Just tell me. What is it?”
She nodded. “There’s no easy way to explain this, so I’m just going to say it.” She took a breath then rushed on. “The man you know as your father—he’s a wonderful man, but he isn’t… Well, he isn’t your birth father.”
Celeste pulled back from her mother, staring at her, incomprehension written on her face, while she absently touching her chest, feeling a strange pulling sensation. “What? What do you mean? How- how can he not be my father?”
“I’m so sorry I never told you, my dear child. I always meant to, but Jeremy was a friend. When I got pregnant he married me to save my reputation. He was so good to me, to both of us. He always treated you like his very own flesh and blood. But your birth father—his name was Hezekiah Blackstone.”
“Hezekiah…” this didn’t make any sense. How could this be? Celeste clutched her head in her hands, trying to understand. The pulling sensation intensified, and she took a few steps back before she caught herself.
“You’re returning to life,” her mother said, stepping closer to her. “I met Hezekiah before I knew Jeremy was in love with me, and Hezekiah showed me things nobody else ever had or could. I was swept away by him and fell for him.” Touching Celeste’s cheek, she said, “and that’s how you became a possibility.”
With a strangled cry, Celeste took a few more paces back, gasping for breath. Her mother briefly embraced her once more and kissed her cheek, crying, and saying “don’t fight it, Celeste. It’s time for you to go. You must return to life. I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you! One day, I will see you again, but not yet! Go!” Her mother gave her a push, and Celeste stumbled back, tripped, and was falling, tumbling, in slow motion. She fell down and down, and she felt as if she might never stop falling.
With a gasp, she opened her eyes to darkness, a stark contrast to where she had just been. She started coughing, sending daggers of pain through her chest where it felt as if someone had been pounding on her. She felt hands help her into a sitting position as Joshua’s voice said, “Oh thank heavens you’re alive.” A moment later a match flared in the dark, and Joshua re-lit one of the lanterns. The light fell on Celeste as she held her chest and took shaky breaths, her throat feeling raw.
Then she remembered the Prophesy Stone and the pain and screaming. She leaned her head back on the wall behind her as Joshua kneeled in front of her with the lantern. “I thought I had lost you there for a few minutes,” he murmured. “Are you ok?” Though she was shaky, and her body felt like a punching bag, and she had found out her father was not really her father because her dead mother had just told her, Celeste nodded. Joshua looked down. “Good.” He paused, seeming as if he had something else to say. “Um, listen, I know this is a bad time, but I have to ask you something… Your name… would it happen to be Celeste Mariah Teal?”
She looked at him and croaked, “How do you know that?”
With a sigh- Celeste couldn’t tell if it were a relieved or worried sigh- Joshua said, “Because you’re the girl who’s going to save Forellia.”
Celeste had had enough insanity for one day. She couldn’t take any more. Shaking her head, she stood on shaky feet, Joshua immediately helping her rise. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “I need to go back to my room.”
“Woah, wait a sec. Take a breather. You don’t have to walk back this second.”
“Yes, I do,” she shook off his helping hand.
“Hey, you need to relax a minute. You’re not ready to be walking around.” She took a step and almost collapsed, catching the wall just in time. Resolutely, she kept walking. “Celeste, sit down. You don’t have the strength—“
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.”
“You were dead, Celeste! I think anybody would need to rest a moment before walking half a mile.” Ignoring him, she made her way steadily to his front door. Taking a breath, she brace herself and pushed the door open, the chill hitting her like splash of water in the face. She froze for a moment from the intensity of the cold. Something warm draped around her shoulders, and she glanced back to see Joshua draping his coat around her, a frown on his face. “Thanks,” she muttered and let him help her up the stairs.
They didn’t say anything during the walk back to the Tipsy Tankard, but when they got there, Celeste turned and murmured, “I just need to think. So… goodnight.” She didn’t look at him but pulled his coat from her shoulder and gave it back to him. She just couldn’t explain right now, and she couldn’t take any more madness.
“I understand,” he said, taking the coat. “But listen, I’m going to get a room here too, so if you need anything…”
“You don’t have to do that, Joshua. I’m alright.”
“Well, I’d just like to make sure you stay safe.”
With a sigh, Celeste snapped, “Joshua, I appreciate the sentiment, but I’ve told you before that I can take care of myself. And anyway, who’s going to attack me in the middle of the night? Nobody knows who I am and nobody cares. I’m in no danger.”
“Just the same, I’m going to stay.”
Celeste just didn’t have the energy to fight anymore. Shaking her head, she said, “Fine, do what you like.” She knew she was being too hard on him. He was just trying to help, but she felt like her world was crashing down around her. She couldn’t practice patience and civility right then.
Turning, she went up to her room and sat on her bed. She needed to think, like she’d told Joshua, but her mind just wouldn’t function properly. Whatever that stone had done to her- other than killing her- it had drained all her strength and she could barely pull off her boots. She had a sense of déjà vu from the night before and sighed once more. However tired she was, she didn’t think she’d be able to sleep, but she lay down anyway.
Moments later, she was drifting away.
Joshua sat crossed legged on his bed in his room at the inn considering. On one hand, he knew why his brother Damias had sent Celeste here. She being the courier made a lot more sense now, but on the other hand, Joshua wished Damias had just kept Celeste there in Forellia, safe. Someone else could have taken the Prophecy Stone to her, another courier. Damias must have thought the imminent war with Korelia was reason enough to get Celeste to the stone as quickly as possible.
A little warning would certainly have been nice, though. Although, Damias probably assumed Joshua would ask the girl her name, but obviously, his brother underestimated Joshua’s talent for stupidity. Joshua shook his head at himself, wondering how he could have waited so long to simply find out her name, the most basic piece of information one human could learn of another.
Celeste Mariah Teal. The name suited her, but he couldn’t believe that the girl he had saved from bandits was the girl from prophecy. He had never thought Celeste seemed ordinary, but neither did he think she was going to save Forellia. It all just seemed… unbelievable.
Sighing, Joshua thought about the conversation he’d have to have with Celeste in the morning and shook his head, thinking he probably wasn’t going to get any sleep at all that night.