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Each breath was sharp, harsh. Every intake a rush of cold spiking through her lungs, each outtake forcing another ounce of heat out of her, evaporating into a puff of fog from her lips. The shivering had long since stopped, her body content to just curl up into itself, clinging to whatever energy it still had left. Energy to keep the thick blanket around her – the only barrier between a thin body and the snow. Energy to keep her eyes open even if her vision hazed around her, the white snow blurring into the sky until it was all a smooth gradient from white to blue. Energy to keep alive from a questionable amount of moments longer.

Another breath, another cloud of fog.

Another breath, another strained noise from her throat.

A nudge on her side.

She blinked, taking a long moment before she even realized the motion. Her thoughts came slow to her now, like everything about her was in slow motion, her eyes slowly focusing and drifting to her side, where a different compilation of colors moved beside her. Dark brown blobs, outstretched and nudging her. She blinked several times, struggling to get her eyes to focus.

And then, the blobs finally took the form of something. Someone. Her friend. A wooly.

“H…Hey…” her voice was quiet, barely audible even in the silence of the snowy field, “Y…You’re still…here…”

Just breathing the syllables was exhausting, taking too much out of her. But she fought to keep herself awake, her eyes struggling to stay focused on the one thing she still had in this world. A little wooly, sitting beside a monster like her.

The wooly nudged her again, making a few panicked noises. She could only put the breath of a smile on her lips, trying to calm down her friend as much as she could. While she didn’t know whether the wooly could understand such things, she could only hope that sentiment would reach them. After all, they needed to get to safety. It was much too cold out here for a wooly. And there were other monsters like her out in this area. They could get hurt. All because of her, stuck out here.

“You…have to…go…” she winced, a sharp breath stinging the back of her throat, “I’m…fine…”

Though even as she said it, she couldn’t find the energy to pretend. Not while her throat froze on the inside. Not while her head was swimming.

The wooly made another noise. And she blinked…and the wooly was gone, in its wake a few dark brown blobs getting smaller and smaller in the gradient.

She couldn’t help but smile, flecks of red hair brushing over her eyes.

Good.

They would be safe.

And what about her?

Well…she…

“H…”

Her vision slowly began to darken, eyes struggling to remain open.

”…okay…a…”

What about her?

”…I’m…h…”

Did it matter?

”…be alright. I’ve…”

What was that voice?

”…safe now.”

She didn’t know…but it sounded warm.

And then, it was dark.

--

She didn’t expect to wake up.

That was the first of a series of odd thoughts she had as she struggled to climb up from the depths of a deep fog. First, she was awake – and felt terrible enough that she knew she wasn’t dead. The second was that she was warm. Comfortable. Surrounded by a cocoon of soft blankets – softer than anything she had ever felt in her entire life. The third was that there was a particularly odd smell in the air, a mixture of something delicious and the rough scent of hot metals, though whatever smelled good was enough to make the hunger pangs in her stomach start up again in full force.

And when she finally fought to open up her eyes, her eyes immediately grew wide.

She was in a house. A human house.

The first instinct was to get up and run. But the second she lifted her head from the pillow, her body gave up and plopped it back down. This wasn’t good. She needed to go far away. Was she taken back? What were they going to do to her? Why wasn’t she in a jail cell where she belonged?

“You’re awake.”

She froze, blinking several times. That voice…it was the same as what she heard in the snow. A voice she thought was a dream.

There were footsteps, and her eyes locked onto an unfamiliar figure…and the pointed ears on both sides of his head.

He…wasn’t human at all. And he wasn’t anyone she’d ever seen her entire life.

The first thing she noticed after the ears was the large scar on his cheek, leading up to a point over an eye scarred shut. His other eye looked over her carefully with a kind of gaze that she feared – a gaze she knew would see anything in front of it, no matter how much she tried to conceal it.

She looked away from his face, her eyes soon falling down to a small bowl in his hands filled with steaming hot soup.

She could practically feel her mouth begin to water. How long had it been since she ate something? There hadn’t been anything to eat in the snowy tundra, at least nothing she could find, and she’d been surviving solely on ice and snow.

“Hungry?”

Her body moved on its own, her survival overriding her common sense. She nodded as much as she could, her eyes locked on the bowl of soup.

“Alright,” the man chuckled, pulling up a chair beside the bed she was in and sitting down, “Is it alright if I feed you? Dr. Marjorie said you were pretty weak.”

She nodded her head, eyes still locked on the soup. It looked so good! She wanted it!

“Alright. You can’t have too much, though. Let’s just take it one at a time.”

The man offered her a spoonful of soup, which she snapped up the second the spoon was close enough. And, honestly, it was the best soup she’d ever tasted in her life. It could have been the starvation talking. It could have been bland compared to the kind of food normal people got to eat. But it was the best damn soup she’d ever had.

It was after several spoonfuls for the amazement to finally wear off. And for her to come back to her senses.

And the next time a spoonful was offered, it was smacked away from her, right out of the man’s hand.

She took in several breaths, her hand stinging from the hot soup splatted on the palm. The man in front of her blinked several times with his open eye.

And then chuckled.

“Alright…you’re done, then?” the man bent over to collect the spoon, “Might not want to do that again. You could have hurt yourself if it was much hotter.” He pulled out a napkin and wiped away the soup from her hand – and she didn’t have the energy to smack it away. And then…he got back up from the chair and walked out of the room.

Why wasn’t he mad? Why wasn’t he kicking her out?

Those were the last two questions in her mind as she drifted back asleep again, body not able to handle so much excitement yet.

It was morning when she awoke again, and she was presented with the same man with the same meal, which she unfortunately couldn’t refuse. But when she smacked the spoon out of his hand this time…he didn’t leave.

“So…” the man bent over, picking up the spoon and looking at her soup-splattered hand, “What’s your name?”

She glared at him, unsure why he was asking to begin with.

He waited for only a few moments before he chuckled, awkwardly scratching the scar on his face, “Oh…should I introduce myself first? Maybe explain a few things? By the elder dragons, I forgot how scary this must be for you.”

Scary for many reasons. None of which he was thinking about, probably.

“Well…” he set down the bowl of soup, reaching over to her hand to wipe away the soup, “I’m Gaius, and I’m the blacksmith here in Sharance Village. I found you in Vale curled up by an icy rosebush. I don’t usually go there…but this wooly wandered into the path while I was on my way to the desert, and – ”

A wooly?

She struggled to get up, eyes wide and frantic. No. No no no no no. She knew what happened when humans found monsters. Her friend was in trouble and she had to go save them! She needed to go now or –

“Hey!”

There were arms on her shoulders, forcing her back down to the bed. She fought back with as much strength as she had.

Which wasn’t much. And it turned out that the man was pretty strong.

“L…” her voice was strained, throat practically burning, “Let go!”

“I can’t, you’re injured! What’s wrong?”

“My friend’s in trouble! Let go!”

“What friend? If you tell me what’s going on, I can help!”

“No, you’ll kill them!”

“Kill them?”

“Yes! You kill monsters!”

“W…What?”

Her body finally gave out, collapsing back onto the bed. The man, Gaius, slowly lifted his hands from her shoulders, looking at her with a mixture of emotions that she couldn’t manage to process with the low amount of energy she had.

“Nothing happened to the wooly,” Gaius spoke, keeping an even gaze on her, “The second I saw you, I was focused on getting you back to town. Harming that wooly never even crossed my mind. It looked…kind of like it wanted to lead me somewhere.”

She blinked. What? Why would they do that?

There was a part of her that believed that he was lying. That he was hunting down her friend and just so happened to find her first while she looked human.

But…the look in his eye…it made her think otherwise.

A long period of silence passed by, the two of them uncomfortable in their respective places.

“I…” Gaius paused to scratch the back of his head, “I’ll let you be for now.”

He took several steps away, intent to get to the door.

She took in a deep breath.

“R…Raven.”

Gaius stopped, looking over at her.

“That’s…my name,” she spoke quietly, turning her head before she could see the expression on his face, “It’s Raven.”

There was silence, and then footsteps walking away.

--

“How did you end up out there?”

It was another session of Gaius attempting to feed her, with her stubbornly refusing. Raven was looking away, her shoulder-length red hair falling over her eyes.

“I don’t know,” Raven answered dismissively.

“Do you have amnesia?” Gaius chuckled, “Apparently they’re a dime a dozen around these parts. At least, that’s what my friend says.”

“I don’t have amnesia.”

“So you do know.”

“I don’t.”

“Then what is it?” Gaius chuckled, trying to bring a spoonful towards her face.

Raven turned her face away from the spoon, “It’s nothing.”

“Well…alright.” A weary sigh escaped him as he set back down the spoon in the bowl. “But…just letting you know that the town doctor will be stopping by tomorrow. And I’m sure she’ll have a ton of questions.”

Raven rolled her eyes. Like a doctor would seriously try to interrogate her.

And unfortunately, she was wrong.

“Ms. Raven, how old are you?”

It was the seventh time the old woman asked.

Her name was Dr. Marjorie, according to Gaius. And unfortunately, she was a stubborn old woman at that. Part of Raven wished that Gaius was still in the room with her. But apparently Gaius had to keep someone occupied downstairs. A young apprentice named Marian who wanted to experiment with everything in sight.

Based on the few noises Raven heard from downstairs, even she knew she would rather deal with the old woman than that. She even thought about feeling sorry for the guy.

“I don’t know.”

“And your parents?”

A breath of fire in front of her, a bird of flame, flapping its wings. Flying far away. Leaving behind a man bewitched by monsters and a freak of a child – her, the monster’s spawn.

“Dead.”

“Relatives?”

“I don’t know.”

“Any guardians who may be looking for you?”

“None.”

A long sigh escaped the old woman as she looked over Raven again, “You must have somebody, Miss. Raven. Though…if you are running from something, then you can tell me. If you’re running away from a bad home situation, then I’m here to help.”

”Is that a monster?”

Cries of fear, all looking up at her. Her body, engulfed in flame. Her arms spreading like wings as she showed them who she was.

Her monster screams breaking the silence as they unleashed their weapons on her.

“I don’t know,” Raven’s voice had an edge to it, glaring at Marjorie.

There was a pause, and then Marjorie sighed, “Fine. Just give me one thing for now. You can’t travel as you are, so this is all I need, so I can at least medicate you properly. And then I’ll be off for now. How old are you?”

Raven looked away, eyebrows furrowing as she gazed towards a window. So she couldn’t travel.

Just how long until she could?

There was a pause. And then Raven tensed up.

“Fifteen.”

--

“So you’ve seriously been taking care of her all this time? No wonder I haven’t seen you around.”

Raven sat up in the bed, eyes glued to the window and her ears tuned into the conversation behind the door. From what Raven could remember, it had been a couple weeks since she was found. She’d been gaining strength slowly and surely. She was starting to feel just short of normal…which was strange for her.

When was the last time she felt this normal? When she wasn’t starving or struggling? When she wasn’t running from danger?

Of course…the only reason she was like this was because she didn’t look like a monster.

“Yea…it’s been pretty busy recently,” Gaius chuckled from the other side of the door, “Thank you for doing this, Evelyn. I really appreciate it.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all! This is good practice, actually. You have to master the basics before you can really make the special stuff, right?”

“R…Right.”

Raven didn’t know who this Evelyn was, and she was dreading finding out.

There was a giggle from the other room, “Don’t worry, I’ll ease her into my style of clothing.”

“Thank you for that,” Gaius chuckled, “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing at all!”

“Evelyn, I can’t just – ”

“Gaius, calm down. You’re a good friend. I’m happy to do it for free. Plus, I can’t exactly let the poor girl walk around without any good clothes, right?”

There was a long pause.

“Right. Thank you.”

Raven rose an eyebrow. Clothes? Seriously?

She looked down at what she was wearing. Right now, she was borrowing a shirt and pants a little too big for her – as Gaius was a lot more broad than she was. And that was enough for her. Raven didn’t need anything else.

The door slowly opened, and Gaius walked in beside possibly the loudest-dressed woman Raven had ever looked upon. She looked to be in her early twenties, and she was dressed to the nines in the weirdest looking clothes Raven ever saw. And based on the conversation Raven overheard and the bag in the woman’s hands, Raven was ready to fear for her life.

“So you’re Raven, right?” the woman smiled brightly, “I’m Evelyn de Sainte-Coquille. I live in town. It’s very nice to meet you.”

Raven just stared before dismissively looking away.

Gaius merely chuckled, reaching over to pat Evelyn on the shoulder, “I brought Evelyn here because we figured you’d need some clothes. And Evelyn is a seamstress – ”

“The best seamstress in town,” Evelyn corrected, grinning at Gaius.

“Right,” Gaius spoke, “And she made some pieces that might fit you.”

“I don’t want them,” Raven’s words were blunt, to the point as she glared at Evelyn, “I don’t need them, either. I’m leaving soon enough.”

Evelyn blinked, unsure how to even react.

“Raven…” Gaius took in a deep breath, looking over at Evelyn for a moment and then back at Raven, “You know…you could stay. You don’t have anywhere else to go, do you?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Raven snapped, sitting up a bit more, “I’m going to be leaving.”

“And where do you intend to go?”

“I don’t know!” Raven’s voice was rising despite herself, “Anywhere!”

“And why is that?”

Why?

Because everyone who got close to her cursed her name the second they knew who she was. Because she knew the second Gaius knew, he would hunt her down. Because she knew all the smiles on the villager’s faces when they saw and met her were reserved for only the normal people of the world, out of reach for someone like her.

Raven abruptly swung her legs from the bed, standing unsteadily on her own two feet.

“H-Hey, Raven…?” Evelyn timidly asked.

“I’m leaving,” Raven spoke.

“Raven, you aren’t fully healed yet,” Gaius spoke, putting up his hands to try to calm her down, “Dr. Marjorie said – “

“I don’t care what she said! I’m close enough.”

“Raven.”

“I’m. Leaving.”

And she ran, avoiding Gaius and Evelyn as she tore down the building, running by a lower level caked in the scent of metal before slamming the door to the outside, looking around wildly in confusion.

She needed to go.

Raven kept running. Past the buildings. Past the villagers she didn’t recognize. Past every sign of civilization because she knew the further she ran, the closer she was to a border. The closer she was to an exit. The closer she was to an escape.

She was panting by the time she made it to a crossroads, the road split between a path leading to a desert and…

The snow-covered area.

Raven took in a deep breath, stumbling back into a run as she headed for the ice and snow.

That’s it. She would hide and it would be like nothing happened. She would run far away from this place and to somewhere she could be alone. Somewhere where nobody would hurt her or be hurt by her. Somewhere where freaks like her belonged, separated from all parts of humanity and monster-kind. Because she didn’t belong in either category.

There was a noise, a soft bump on her hand.

Raven looked down, seeing a familiar wooly. Her friend.

“You’re here…!” Raven couldn’t help but smile, stopping and bending down to pat her friend on the head, “He wasn’t lying…was he?”

The wooly made another approving noise, nuzzling her hand with a pleased look on their face. Raven patted them some more, but froze when she heard footsteps.

“Raven…?”

A voice calling from the distance. Gaius’ voice.

Raven froze, looking down the path to see the distant figure of Gaius, not yet seeing her but on the hunt nonetheless.

“Come on, let’s go…!” Raven whispered to her friend, quickly rushing further and further into the snow.

Beside her, the wooly made several noises reminiscent of worry. Raven ignored them for now. It had to be because they were worried about the man who wasn’t a human but was near humans nonetheless. It was fine. Raven would run far away and never return. Because that’s what she always did. Because either the humans hurt her or she –

Raven was scared.

Her feet really hurt, but she needed to keep running. Because a bunch of mean adults came to the house and they did something to Daddy. Raven didn’t understand why. But she was really scared and she just wanted to go home!

“There she is!”

Raven ran more and more and more but her feet wouldn’t go fast enough. She felt like she couldn’t breathe and she just wanted to see Daddy again and –

A fist grabbed her hair, abruptly pulling her back. Raven screamed, reaching up to try and free herself.

“There we go. Not getting away now.”

“Are you sure that’s the one? She just looks like a regular kid.”

Raven was pulled back, wide eyes wildly looking up at the adults emerging from the woods, surrounding her. She breathed in and out and in and out at an alarming pace. She was scared and she wanted to leave and she didn’t want to be here and she wanted to see Daddy again and she wanted to…

Raven closed her eyes, thinking of the image of her mother, burning brightly in the sky.

She wanted to fly away.

Immediately, her body began to change, morph. Raven wasn’t sure what happened next. One moment, she was a scared little seven-year-old. The next, she was big. Powerful. On fire. And the adults were coming at her and she tried to smack them away but she was too strong and then there was fire everywhere and –

Everything burned.

A roar snapped her out of her thoughts, and Raven felt something smack right into her, knocking the wind right out of her. She hissed in pain, rolling into the snow and looking up to see a wolf standing tall in front of her, claws bared.

“W…We mean you no harm!” Raven called out, coughing as she struggled to stay up, “Let us go!”

The wolf growled again, its teeth showing clearly now.

Raven gasped, putting up her hands to defend herself.

And the contact never came. She opened her eyes just in time to see her friend – the wooly – smack the wolf right in the face, keeping it from reaching Raven.

“H-Hey! Be careful!” Raven cried out, “You’ll get hurt!”

The wolf was growling at the wooly now, who was standing in front of Raven like a guard.

No. She didn’t need to be defended.

The wolf took a step towards the wooly, a growl filling the air.

No, her friend was going to get hurt.

Raven tensed up, reaching within herself. She was useless as she was. But if she was her true self…then she could save her friend.

It took seconds for her to transform. To attack the wolf. To send it running with fire still smoking on its fur.

And when she was done, she slowly transformed back, her human form trembling as it stood on a patch of wet grass – the snow having melted from her monster form - her mind hazy. Raven took in several deep breaths as she looked down at the wooly, who was looking up at her with a grateful expression. The only monster to have done that so far.

“You’re…safe now…” Raven huffed.

“Raven?”

She froze, slowly turning her head with wide eyes. And right there, looking positively stunned, was Gaius.

No.

Raven took off running again, the wooly running off somewhere else in the snow, and her body wasn’t obeying like it was before. It was like all her energy was spent in the transformation, and she was just running on fumes again. She was running and running…until her legs finally gave up on her.

She collapsed in the snow, hot tears stinging her eyes. She was afraid. Gaius saw, so he was going to hunt her down. He was going to hate her and kill her and she couldn’t even run.

No, she still had to run. She needed to. Raven struggled to get back up. Looking up to see an icy rosebush before her.

“Raven…”

She froze. It was too late.

There was a long pause where nothing happened. He said nothing. She didn’t move.

And then, footsteps.

And Gaius sat down beside her in the snow, taking in a deep breath. Raven only looked over at him in confusion. Why wasn’t he drawing his weapon? Why wasn’t he trying to kill her? It was only natural, right? She was a monster and he saw it!

“Quite an interesting day, huh?” Gaius softly spoke, looking up at the icy rosebush, “Did you see that phoenix? That was quite the spectacle, wasn’t it? Haven’t ever seen a monster like that before.”

“W…What?”

“Oh, you must have missed it,” Gaius continued, “But it was quite a brave one, at that.”

What was he talking about? She was the monster! He saw her transform! And what was he talking about being brave? Raven looked at him with a frustrated glare, but he didn’t look at her one bit, his eye locked on the icy rosebush.

“You know…” Gaius held his hands together in his lap, “When I came to Sharance, I was definitely the odd one out. The people there are nice, but they don’t take to difference all that quickly. I’m a dwarf, you see. And back then I was the only non-human in the entire village.”

Raven rose an eyebrow, unsure why he was talking about this.

“But they’re all good people,” he continued, still not looking at Raven, “They’ve been very kind towards me, though it took them a while to warm up to me. Honestly, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

“So I’m sure that no matter who you are, Raven…they’d offer the same kindness towards you,” he finally looked over at her, a gentle smile on his lips, “And my home is yours for however long you want it.”

Raven didn’t understand.

She stared at him, tears slowly dripping down her face. Why was he offering that? She was a monster. A freak. Nobody wanted her around. She was destined to live alone forever, no matter what.

Snow began to fall from the sky. Gaius looked up, several snowflakes falling from the air.

“Ah…” Gaius spoke, “The weather’s getting pretty bad. I hope that phoenix found somewhere to take shelter. Wouldn’t want her getting sick.”

Raven got up, quickly wrapping her arms around him. Tears were falling freely from her eyes and she didn’t want him to know. She didn’t want him to know how happy that made her feel. For anyone to say anything like that.

Gaius was stunned for a moment, but soon easy, comforting arms wrapped around her in turn, giving her a gentle pat on the back.

“Come on…” Gaius spoke, “Let’s go home.”

Home?

Maybe this could be home.