Violet didn’t know where she was going, but she ran anyway.
Bare feet pounded against the hard, frozen ground—there hadn’t been time to find her boots. Her shirt, half pulled over her head in a vain effort to hide her face. Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes and her heart thudded in panicked rhythm.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. She was all wrong.
The only good thing was that it was dark, and her pursuers were human. With a new moon and an overcast sky, Violet was able to sprint across an open field into a thin strip of timber that acted as the boundary between one farm and the next before the mob could light its torches.
Of course, only monsters and beasts could see in the pitch black night. Even if one could look past the claws and teeth, her eyes were proof enough to show that she belonged in the shadows like some dark, creeping thing.
Violet tried to push the thought away as she gasped for breath, her back pressed against the trunk of a tree. She didn’t have to look to know it was elm, the life she felt under her clawed fingers muted in the winter cold. Even the trees had their chance to sleep. So why couldn’t she find rest?
And what have you done to earn such a luxury, you ungrateful brat?
Violet clutched her head with her hands, shrinking down as her knees threatened to buckle beneath her. She needed to think, needed to move. She was not safe here. She wasn’t safe anywhere, but it was especially true now. The farmer who owned the barn she’d spent the last week calling home would soon raise his neighbors. Depending on how much he hated her, he might even send a message to town. As she wiped the tears from her cheeks, Violet remembered that he’d had dogs.
Frigid air made the teartracks sting. There was no snow on the ground, but it was cold, and she’d left her shoes behind like an idiot. Without a good disguise or money she’d be forced to steal, proving once again her duplicitous, criminal nature.
But she could only do that if she lived through the night. Violet was terrified to leave the cover of the wood, but the sound of baying dogs made that choice for her.
Bending low, Violet whispered the spell that would hide her tracks and scent. Assuming the farmer and his friends didn’t have any spells of their own, it would confuse the dogs long enough for her to escape, provided that she didn’t leave behind any damning evidence. As Violet moved, branches and shrub brush instinctively pulled away, letting her pass without scratching her face or pulling at her clothes.
Too soon she was in the open again, the wind cutting through her layers. Violet didn’t dare call on her magic to warm herself—heat too often brought light, and she wasn’t practiced enough to call one without the other.
For a moment, helplessness almost swallowed her whole. Violet knew she needed shelter, but there was no safe place for her to go. Even the environment was hostile and unwelcoming, the magic of spring and growth unsuited for the barren fields and cold, unfeeling winter.
There was something almost ironic at the thought of dying of exposure to the elements after the exposure of her true nature, but Violet didn’t have time for morbid self-deprecation. She took the only path available—forward—crossing a plot of uncut pasture until she reached a small creek bed. It wasn’t quite cold enough for the water to freeze, and she followed its winding path until it ended in a small pond meant for cattle and horses.
The pond marked the end of Violet’s knowledge of the local countryside. Everything that lay behind was unknown, and therefore frightening. She paused a moment to listen, extending her magical senses.
Relief washed over Violet when she realized she was alone. That relief quickly turned into dread that settled like lead in the pit of her stomach.
There was no one she could count on but herself. And the voice whispering in the back of her mind made it very clear that she was not up to that task.
Swallowing hard, Violet ripped two pieces of cloth from her shirt to wrap around her feet and took her first step into the unknown. The nauseating buzz of apprehension and anxiety pushed her forward another step, and then another and another, until she was almost running. Violet’s lungs burned with the cold even as her face flushed hot, sweat rapidly cooling at her neck and temples.
She alternated walking with running to preserve energy. Every once in a while she would stop at a strip of timber, try to orient herself without the guidance of the moon or stars. A cave elf’s night vision wasn’t anything like how she saw during the day, and it didn’t take long for Violet to become disorientated. All she knew, all she could hope, was that she was getting away.
The fields blended with one another, some large harvested crop ground, others overgrown pasture for free range cattle. Packed dirt roads and humble homesteads were avoided like the plague, Violet moving as best she could away from any signs of civilization. Wind whispered through the grass and the trees, but beyond that was the silence of desolate emptiness. Exposed and in the open, Violet only became more aware of her own smallness.
But as the miles past and the first promise of sunrise pierced through the oppressive blackness of night, Violet knew she needed to stop. Thin cotton strips were poor protection for her aching, bleeding feet, and the cold that she’d once been able to force away was starting to seep into her bones. Everything felt heavy, from her eyelids, to her legs, to the effort it took to expand her lungs.
The acute jolt of energy that came with being discovered had long-been expelled, leaving a deeper, more primal fear that left her slow and jumpy. Hazy fog clouded the edges of her vision and thoughts dripped sluggishly from her mind like frozen syrup. Violet forced her aching knees up one, final hill, promising herself that once she reached the other side she would stop for the night.
Only that promise made her go forward, and she wasn’t sure she’d have the strength to set up adequate shelter after she made it that far, or lay the spells that would protect her before falling asleep. At that moment she didn’t particularly care. Anything for a blessed moment of rest.
Lazy, stupid, do you want to be found…
Violet huddled against herself as she crested the hill, unsure if she was trying to protect herself from the wind or the Echo whose voice was becoming increasingly difficult to discern from her own.
On the other side, the slope dipped gradually down to a narrow road that didn’t look like it had been used since Hym had been made a Wizard. The road, or lane, or path, or whatever it was, ended at a small, one-story building that had been white before the elements stripped it of the majority of its paint. The roof sagged inward, a young tree sprouting through the hole that might have once been a chimney.
The windows were thick with dust. From the road, no one could see in or out, and clearly no one had been inside in a long, long time.
It was the perfect hiding spot.
Violet took a moment to stare, unable to believe her own good fortune. She staggered forward, tired and hurting, not bothering to make sure that no one was coming from father up the road. Soft, predawn light edged at the horizon as Violet circled around looking for the entrance. A simple wooden door sat above two stone steps, settled under a faded sign that proclaimed the decrepit building to be Elk Chapel.
Tentatively Violet extended her magic, but there were no protections guarding the property. When she jiggled the handle it snapped in her hands, and after years of disuse the wood had swollen in the door jamb, making it stick shut.
Growling with frustration, Violet tried to shoulder it open, but it was no use. Angry tears pricked at the corner of her eyes as she slammed against the door with an almost childlike, impotent helplessness. It wasn’t fair! After all she’d gone through, all that stood between her and safety was a stupid door that wouldn’t open. It wasn’t fault she was a monster. She couldn’t help that no one would let her in. She tried and tried and tried so hard to be a good person, to help people, and it was never enough.
She would never be good enough.
Violet didn’t have the strength to keep trying. Overtired and overwrought, she pressed her forehead against the door and cried. There was nothing left for anything other than the outpouring of emotion, the surrender to all the grief and pain she often ignored in the name of survival. There at that abandoned chapel deep in a forgotten wood, Violet bore her soul, not caring who might see or hear.
“Please,” she sobbed. “I can’t do this anymore.”
A force stirred deep within her. Violet was familiar enough with her magic to know that whatever she felt, it didn’t come from her. Warmth spread through her body, embracing her with the comfort of an old, familiar blanket, or a pair of loving arms. Frightened and confused, she whipped her head around, but there was no one but the wind.
Violet was still alone when the echo of a memory whispered in the depths of her heart, mind, and soul,
Be not afraid.
Taking a half-step back, Violet pressed herself against the chapel door, willing herself to disappear. There was the groaning of wood, then a sharp crack that punctured through the peace of the morning like a rocket, and the door snapped from its hinges.
Violet stumbled backward and was unable to keep her balance before falling hard on her behind. Heart pounding she scurried as far backward as she could, but the feeling was gone, leaving only a deep, pulsing ache.
“I’m actually going insane,” Violet whispered. Without bothering to stand up, she craned her neck backward to see where the young sapling had managed to break free to the open sky. The musty smell of earth and forgotten things filled the single room of the chapel, both the walls and floor covered with hoarfrost.
As far as shelter went, Violet had had better. She’d also had much, much worse. She crawled the corner that seemed warmest and removed the wrappings from her feet, wincing as the dried blood pulled the scabs open anew.
How much had she left behind? Enough for the dogs to track her? Violet squeezed her eyes closed and tried to remember the spell that would seal the broken skin, letting her breath out in a low hiss as her magic knitted the tissue back together imperfectly. She’d need to study more, or at least not be stupid enough to leave her shoes behind when she ran.
With her feet taken care of, Violet finally turned to the matter of getting warm. Reluctantly, she left her sanctuary just long enough to find a good-sized rock and lug it back inside, before settling herself at the base of the tree. Oak, her mind uselessly supplied. As if the leaves and acorns at her feet hadn’t told her that much.
Violet laid her hands on the stone, trying to ignore the barbaric claws that extended past the edges of her fingers. Her hands shook with exhaustion as she tapped the last dregs of her endurance to call heat to the heart of the rock, enough that would last her the hours it would take her to recover from the night’s escapades.
Blue light flashed. Violet screeched in alarm and pulled her hands away, having succeeded a little too well at her spell. The stone glowed cherry red, instantly melting the frost at her feet and heating the room as well as any stove.
She let out a breath shaky with relief and buried her face in her arms. She wouldn’t cry again. Not for something as stupid as a little warmth.
As exhausted as she was, it took Violet longer than expected to drift asleep. The immediate need of shelter taken care of, she realized just how hungry and thirsty she was, and not knowing where she could find either food or water wound her tighter than a two copper watch. She was too tired to think of a plan for getting shoes and clothes and too confused by how she’d opened the door of the chapel to try to fight through her fatigue.
Probably a coincidence, Violet thought, the excuse unconvincing even in her own mind. Instinctively she reached for her bag and pulled out her journal—which she had managed to take with her—finding a stubby bit of pencil amongst the detritus of the bottom of her pack. She flipped to a familiar page, reading and rereading her entry about that night, eyes skimming the words she’d long-since memorized.
Be not afraid.
With everything that had happened, knowing the monster that she was, how could she not?
Sighing softly, Violet turned the page and scratched out another name. Maybe next time would be different. She tucked the journal away again and tried to get comfortable at the base of the tree. A cluster of acorns poked against her hip and side. Violet brushed most of them away, saving one to add to her growing seed collection.
Nearly sick with dread and exhaustion, Violet finally allowed herself to drift to sleep as the first rays of dawn crossed the horizon, the memory of a promise she still didn’t understand leading her to a deep and dreamless slumber.