A gust of wind blew cold night air from the garden, carrying with it enticing scents of overripe fruit and blooming flowers.stood before the garden's entrance, where stone transitioned to soil and narrow labyrinthine caves opened to the sky in a deep caldera. Thickets of trees and brambles grew wild beneath the moonlight while flowers bloomed in lush abundance. Ahri hesitated, knowing well the twin nature of danger and beauty. She had heard legends of the sacred grove since childhood, but had never before traversed the southern caverns to find it. According to the stories, those who stepped over the threshold of the garden began as one person and left as someone else entirely, or did not leave at all.
Whatever the truth might be, Ahri had made up her mind. As she stepped into the garden, the back of her neck prickled as if someone were watching her. No figure was visible amongst the trees, but the garden was far from still. Everywhere Ahri looked, new flowers bloomed with each passing second. Ahri walked a winding path through the tangle of plants, stepping over roots rumbling beneath the soil. She ducked under hanging vines that reached out to her as if clamoring for affection. She could have sworn she heard a hush from the soft rustling of leaves.
Moonbeams shone through the canopy above, revealing trees bearing leaves of silver and gold. Flower stalks entwined around their trunks, curling to display dazzling buds brighter than any gemstone. Plump spicecherries coated in a layer of frost chimed softly as they swayed amid an untamed thicket.
A snow lily stretched toward Ahri's face and caressed her cheek gently. It was too alluring to resist. Ahri pressed her face into its petals to inhale its heady scent. Her nose chilled and she took in the faint smell of oranges, the summer breeze, and the tang of a fresh kill. The blossom trembled as it blushed with color, and Ahri's breath caught in her throat. She swayed, dizzy at the flower's perfume.
The snow lily fell to the soil, severed at its stem. A viscous liquid seeped from the cut. Ahri let out a breath, her nine tails twitching as her head cleared.
Ahri startled as a woman with wisps of gray-white hair stood before her, shears in hand. She was wrapped in colorful shawls and her eyelashes sparkled with dew.
As the woman turned her sea-green gaze to Ahri, Ahri felt a strange unease, as if this woman could slice through her gut just as easily as a fibrous stalk. The woman's face, wrinkled like tree bark, was impossible to read. But Ahri was no longer concerned for her own safety.
"You startled me, Ighilya", said Ahri. In the stories, the old woman was known as the Eater of Secrets, the Forgotten, or the Witch Gardener. Wanting to show respect to one with such power, Ahri decided to call her Ighilya. Great grandmother.
"The flowers want something from us", she said. "Just as we seek something from them. It would be wise to keep your nose to yourself. I would know. I have to feed these hungry babies myself."
"So you are the Gardener", said Ahri.
"One of my kinder names, yes. But quite beside the point. I know why you're here, Iminha."
Little one. Ahri felt uncomfortable at the word, often used in a familial relationship, though she was not sure why.
"You seek absolution. Freedom from your pain", said the Gardener.
She stepped over a shrinking fern and beckoned to Ahri.
As they walked through the moonlit garden, flowers turned to face the old woman as if she were the sun itself, warming their leaves and helping them grow. Or perhaps the flowers did not wish to turn their backs to her.
The old woman waved Ahri to a bench in front of a gnarled cloudfruit tree, and sat opposite her.
"Let me guess. You were in love", the Gardener said, a smile crinkling the corners of her lips.
Ahri's brow furrowed.
"Don't worry, you're far from the first", said the old woman. "So, who was he? A soldier? An adventurer? A warrior in exile?"
"An artist", said Ahri. She had not uttered the syllables of his name in over a year and could not bring herself to say them now. They were like swallowing broken glass. "He painted... flowers."
"Ah. A romantic", the Gardener said.
"I killed him", Ahri spat. "Is that romantic enough for you?"
As she spoke the truth aloud, Ahri could not disguise the sharp bitterness on her tongue.
"I sucked thefrom his lips as he lay dying in my arms", she said. "He was kinder, more selfless than anyone had a right to be. I thought I could suppress my urges. But the taste of his dreams and memories was too enticing. He urged me on. I did not resist. And now - now I cannot go on knowing what I did. Please, Ighilya. Can you give me the gift of oblivion? Can you make me forget?"
The Gardener did not answer. She stood and picked a ripe cloudfruit from the tree and peeled it slowly, carefully, so the rind remained in one piece. The flesh fell into six vermilion segments, which she offered to Ahri.
"Care for a slice?"
Ahri stared at her.
"Don't worry, this one doesn't want anything from you. Not like the flowers. Fruit never does. Fruit is the most generous part of a plant - it strives to be luscious and juicy - and tempting. It simply wants to attract."
"Food turns to ash in my mouth", said Ahri. "How can I feed myself when I am no more than a monster?"
"Even monsters need to eat, you know", the Gardener said, smiling gently.
She placed one of the cloudfruit segments into her mouth, and chewed before making a face.
"Tart! In all my years in the garden, I've never gotten used to the tang."
The old woman ate the remaining pieces while Ahri sat in silence. When she was finished she wiped the juice from her mouth.
"So you stole a life that was not yours to take", said the Gardener. "Now you suffer the consequences."
"I cannot stand it", Ahri said.
"To be alive is to be in pain, I'm afraid", the Gardener said.
A vine dripping with snow lily buds wound its way around the old woman's arm. The woman did not flinch.
"I can't go on knowing that I killed him", Ahri pleaded.
"There are greater consequences to losing yourself, Iminha."
The Gardener reached for Ahri's hand and squeezed it. Her sea-green eyes glinted in the moonlight, and Ahri detected something she had not seen before - longing, perhaps?
"You will be broken", said the old woman. "You will never again be one."
"I am already in fragments", Ahri replied, "and every second that passes, I split myself anew. Please, Ighilya. I must do this!"
The old woman sighed.
"This garden will not refuse a gift freely given, for it always hungers."
With that, the Gardener offered her arm to Ahri, still entwined with the vine of snow lilies. Buds unfurled like outstretched hands.
"Give your breath to this flower as you think on the memories you wish to be rid of", the old woman said, gesturing to the bell shaped lily. "The flower will consume them. Do not inhale again until you feel nothing."
Ahri held the flower gently between her fingers. The Gardener nodded. Ahri took a deep breath and exhaled into the flower.
...Ahri stood next to a raven-haired man at the edge of a lake. Together they leapt into the water and screamed as they frolicked over endless waves.
Ahri's suffering dissolved like a cloud along with the image in her mind.
...in a forest silenced by winter, Ahri watched a raven-haired man painting a single blossom. "Am I not your flower?" she asked, pulling the strap down from her dress. He lifted his brush and smeared paint over her bare back. The bristles tingled as he recreated the flower atop her spine. "You are, you are", he repeated, kissing her shoulder with each word.
Ahri knew she should dread what would happen next, but her heart was growing cold and numb.
...she stood at the center of a lake, holding the lifeless body of the man she once loved. He dipped beneath the water, becoming contorted through its glassy refraction.
Once, this vision would have caused stabbing pain, but Ahri felt no more than a dull ache.
...Ahri leaned over a fallen woodcutter in a stone cavern, consuming his life. At the sound of boots crunching on snow, she startled. The raven-haired man stood, watching. Ahri despaired: she had not wanted him to see this.
"I can't be good enough for you", Ahri said. "Look at me, greedy for the soul of a dying man. Please, leave me. I am not good. I cannot be good."
Her raven-haired love responded. "I don't care." This was the first time Ahri remembered someone loving her wholly, in spite of her nature. His voice was warm and deep with emotion. "I am yours."
The memory caught in Ahri's throat and she stopped breathing, breaking the flower's spell.
No, she thought. I can't lose this.
Ahri tried to inhale, but the air felt like a noose around her neck. It choked her and stifled her throat, as if she were breathing poison. Her vision blackened, but she gasped until her lungs were nearly bursting.
Losing this would kill him all over again.
Ahri's knees gave out and she collapsed on the ground, still gripping the snow lily. The unnatural perfume she inhaled from the flower percolated through her mind, conjuring strange and disturbing visions.
Ahri hallucinated. In a snow-silenced forest, she envisioned each of her nine tails ripped from her spine, only to grow back so they could be torn off again.
In a stone cavern, she saw dozens of portraits of herself painted in inky black brushstrokes. In each of the images, her face was blank and cold.
She floated, weightless, at the center of a lake, and looked down to see that the lake was filled not with water, but blood.
Where are you?
In her mind's eye, she saw a face warped by the endless folds of her memory, one she was already forgetting. The face was blurred, like a painting of a man rather than the man himself. He looked at her, stared into her, but she could not meet his gaze.
Ahri opened her eyes. The Gardener was standing above her, holding the vine of snow lilies, which had turned raven-black.
"Can you still see him?" asked the old woman.
Ahri focused on the hazy shapes in her mind and focused until they materialized into a face. His face.
"Yes. It's cloudy, but... I remember", said Ahri. She fixed the image of his face in her mind, memorizing every detail. She would not let it dissolve.
The old woman's eyes flashed - not with longing, but regret.
"Then you did what many had not the strength to do. You did not succumb to peace", said the Gardener.
'"I couldn't", said Ahri, choking over her words. "I couldn't give him up. Even if I am a monster. Even if each day I fall apart and each day I must bear the pain a hundred times over. Oblivion is worse. Much worse."
Oblivion was a thousand blurry faces staring at her with empty eyes.
"You cannot take back what you gave, Iminha", the Gardener said. "The flowers do not relinquish what was freely given. But you may keep what remains. Go, go. Leave this place before it takes hold," she whispered. Vines coiled around the Gardener's shoulders, revealing lilies of a deep sea-green. "As it's done to so many others."
Ahri tried to stand, but a vine of snow lilies had wound its way around her tails. She struggled against their tightening clutches, prying barbs from her fur, then scrambled to her feet and ran. Knotted roots broke loose from the soil, trying to ensnare her as she leapt between them. A tangled curtain of thorned moon roses swerved to block Ahri's path, but she held her breath and dove beneath the flowers, which caught wisps of her hair as she tumbled.
The path from the garden was overgrown with snow lilies of all colors. Their leaves, sharp as knives, slashed at Ahri's skin, while thick stalks coiled around her face and neck, binding her mouth. Ahri bit down and ripped through the fibers with her teeth, tasting sour blood. She tore through the archway to the stone caverns beyond.
She could just make out the Gardener's voice.
"A piece of you lingers here, always", the old woman called. "Unlike us, the garden does not forget."
Ahri did not turn back.