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remember that you are a snail

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For as long as Sef can remember she’s hated the cold. Cold hangs heavy from her limbs and bites at her fingers and nose, and no matter how tightly she wraps her tail around herself and flattens her ears against her skull it refuses to yield. Hot is better, she thinks. Hot fills your lungs and shines down on the back of your neck, and it’s only painful if you stay in the sun for too long. Too much heat makes her want to sprawl out in the shade and doze, basking in the feeling of cool red dirt against her back. Too much cold can do the same thing, except if you let it put you to sleep you might never wake up again.

She’s used to hot. When she was born sixteen years ago to a Sunseeker tribe she barely remembers, it was hot. When she awoke one morning when she was five years old and found herself alone, abandoned in the middle of their empty campground, with nothing but the clothes on her back and fear and betrayal pounding through her brain, it was boiling.

But Sef was strong. She was tough and she was more resilient than her family could have ever imagined. Thanalan was hot and unforgiving, and among its burning sands and silent, towering cliffs, Sef carved herself a home by tooth and nail.

From an early age she learned to fight the beasts that mistook her for an easy meal, using whatever she could find to defend herself. She fought for her life on pure instinct, fueled by fear and the poison sting of spite in her heart. She learned to forage through the berries and mushrooms and cacti and insects she ate that made her bitterly sick. She learned the hard way what would give her strength and what would not. She learned to make herself invisible, even among the desert’s sparse vegetation. She learned how to hide, to creep through the leaves and scrubs with nary a sound and to never attract attention. She carved out little hiding places among the rocks where it was safe for her to sleep, where she could rest undisturbed for a few hours, and she learned to sleep with one eye open.

She even learned how to steal, practicing on the hapless travelers and merchants who chose to loiter in her territory with their caravans and wagons overflowing with food and supplies. Through them she obtained clothes to shield her skin from the burning sun and weapons—they were large and heavy and she wielded them inexpertly, but even an amateur with a lance can still stab a peiste through the throat with enough speed and determination. Sometimes she even found treats—little satchels of jerked meats that she gnawed on a little at a time to make them last as long as possible, bottles of bubbly, bitter drinks that made her head spin, and crumbly, flavorful sweets. Sweets were her favorite, even though they made her teeth hurt.

She gave herself a name—her family had given her one, too, but they were gone now and she didn’t remember it. Even if she had, she wouldn’t want to use it. Her family thought she was a waste of resources; to keep themselves alive it would be best to leave her to waste away among the sands and just forget she ever existed. So she kept herself alive to ensure she would prove them wrong.

She hated it more than anything—but against the odds she did it, and she did it well, for a full decade.

One day she wandered a bit further toward the outskirts of the desert than she had previously dared and found herself in a new place—a place filled with towering trees and soft grasses and so much green, more green than she had ever seen before. It smelled of wet and the stink of damp fur and of flowers. She took to it quickly, and she discovered that she loved to climb its trees—she would spend hours high above the forest floor, basking in the dappled sunshine and the cool breezes. It wasn’t as unforgiving as the desert and its monsters were of a different ilk, but they would still gladly kill her if given an opening, so she ensured they would not receive the chance. She missed the hot, but the soft and green was nice. It rained, though, which she wasn’t used to. It made her clothes stick to her skin and made her sneeze if she spent too much time in the wet.

She soon found a platoon of soldiers that stalked among its trees, proud and tall and regal as they bore armor and banners the color of the sun, who pledged to protect the denizens of the forest. They all looked different from one another, but they fought to protect each other with their lives. Some were even Miqo’te, like her. They called themselves the Twin Adders, and she wondered if they would protect her, too. She asked them if she could join.

But it wasn’t long before she learned that her fellow recruits hated her. They called her weird and stupid and made faces at her when she got too close and whispered to each other about how she smelled—except they weren’t really whispers, because they made sure they were loud enough that Sef could hear them. They joked about how she couldn’t read and didn’t like to wash her face and fidgeted with the uncomfortable uniform they made her wear. They laughed at her when she flinched at their loud voices. They always forced her to clean the latrines when it wasn’t her turn, and whenever she finished and came slinking back to their tent to try and steal a few hours of sleep they laughed at her from their bunks where they hoarded all the blankets and played cards and drank and gossipped and told her she stank of shite. If she protested they elbowed her out of the way to make sure she was last in line for meals, so the only things left for her were scraps. She was always hungry and tired.

Once a few girls from her unit snatched her from her bed and dragged her to the barracks washroom, where they stripped her naked and scrubbed her until her skin was red and raw. She hated the smell of their soap and the boiling water and the sharp bristles of the brushes they raked across her back, and when she cried they just laughed and called her a baby.

The officers hated her, too. They gave her only a few hours to sleep each night and made her work hard every day, even when she was sick from hunger. They yelled at her when she was scared, they yelled when she wasn’t as strong as they expected. They looked down their noses at her. They preached at her about the nobility of their cause, and they made her fight. She hated fighting, but they loved it, and it made her sick.

They were all cruel to her. And on top of it all everyone refused to call her by her name; they called her “Dirtpaws”, taken from a joke one of the officers had made at her expense in her first week, and it always sounded sharp and mocking on their sneering lips. She wanted a family, but all she found was hurt.

She decided she did not want to fight for them. So she left, sneaking away in the middle of the night, and returned to the forest. Alone again. It was better that way.

Then one morning she found herself standing just outside the towering gates of a bustling and vibrant town. In the misty dawn light she saw the flags of the soldiers who were cruel to her soaring high above its thatched, colorful rooftops. She almost turned around and left, but among its people she saw warmth and happiness. She wondered if she might find happiness there, too.

She learned the town was called Gridania. Its people were not cruel to her, but they were frequently indifferent; their eyes skimmed over her as though she wasn’t there as she scrounged for food among its garbage, carved out temporary shelters in its alleyways and abandoned attics, and tucked herself away among its bushes and trees. That was fine, she thought. Far better to be ignored than hurt. The soldiers she hated kept the town safe from wandering beasts, so she didn’t need to fight anymore. And there were many pockets for her to pick, too. Many Gridanians, she learned, had a taste for sweets, and tended to leave them in places that she could easily loot. So she decided to stay for a time.

Unfortunately, in Gridania it’s frequently cold. Cold and wet. Especially in the early morning, when the sunlight struggles to poke its way through the forest’s low-hanging, sleepy mists. Most people in Gridania spend their mornings indoors, basking in the warmth of their wood burning stoves, sipping luxuriously from steaming mugs of tea and enjoying big plates of hearty breakfast before they ready themselves to meet the day. But not Sef. Never Sef.

On this particular morning Sef is in a bush on the outskirts of the Gridania aetheryte plaza. It’s foggy and lightly raining at the moment, and the water beads on the leaves and branches over her head. The cold chills her to the bone. Sef shivers, wrapping her arms a little tighter around her knees. Hunger gnaws at her gut.

She’s thinking about heading over to the Carline Canopy to swipe a piece of bread and perhaps some meats from its kitchen when she notices a large throng of people have descended upon the plaza and are now loitering in front of her flowerbed. The crowd is big, and chattering, and loud. Sef does not like loud. Loud makes her brain feel like it’s buzzing in her skull. And loud people are the worst. A person at the center of the group laughs raucously and it makes her jump, sending the branches around her rustling. A few raindrops bounce free from the leaves and land on her face, and the shock of the cold against her skin makes her sneeze.

And at the sound of her sneeze, a person turns to look down at her.

Sef’s stomach lurches. Nothing good ever happens when people notice her. At best, they ignore her. Sometimes they snatch the food she’d just stolen right back out of her hands, leaving her hungry. Sometimes they swear at her or swat at her with a broom or whatever they happen to have on hand to try and shoo her away. At worst they report her to the soldiers for stealing. The soldiers all know who she is, and the last time they caught her they called her a rat and struck her about the face until she bruised. She scoots backward deeper into the bush and scrunches her eyes shut, holding her breath, praying for the voices to go away.

It takes a few moments, but surprisingly, most of the voices do go away. She faintly hears a person in the middle speaking, and then most of the group seems to politely disperse.

She cracks an eye open. The person who heard her sneeze has not gone away. In fact, she approaches Sef’s bush, and kneels down to speak to her. Sef squishes herself against the branches at her back.

“Hey.” A pair of friendly amber eyes are peering at her through the leaves. “Are you alright?”

She isn’t wearing a soldiers’ uniform. And she… doesn’t seem mean. Sef nods mutely.

“Can I help you up? It looks wet down there.” The woman smiles, offering her a hand, and her voice is gentle. Sef hesitates.

Her muscles are screaming at her to run. In her experience, that would be the smart thing to do. But the woman doesn’t move, hand still extended as she waits patiently for Sef’s response, and that’s somehow… reassuring. Most people don’t allow Sef time to put her words together.

Maybe this one is nice. She decides to take the risk.

Sef takes the woman’s hand. It’s calloused and rough and Sef is surprised by how warm it is, not to mention the effortlessness with which the woman bodily hoists her out of the bush by her arm like a sack of popotoes. Sef barely suppresses a surprised yelp—but a moment later she is placed safely back on her feet.

“Oh, hang on—hold still.”

The woman’s hand is suddenly very close to her face. Sef freezes, her ears flattening to her head and her tail fluffing on instinct. But she simply plucks a sodden leaf out of Sef’s hair and flicks it away.

“There ya go. Much better,” she comments with a smile. Sef blinks at her stupidly.

She looks the woman up and down—she is a hellsguard roegadyn with very short, close-cropped auburn hair, and she towers several feet above Sef’s head. She’s several feet wider than Sef, too, and is covered in the kind of muscle that comes from a lifetime of hard work. She has a bright red tattoo splashed across her cheeks and a jagged scar running over one of her eyes, and it makes her look like a warrior. Despite her build, she doesn’t look particularly intimidating at the moment—she’s wearing a thick pair of glasses and a green raincoat, and there’s a few flecks of rainwater on her glasses lenses.

“I’m sorry I scared you before.” She sheepishly runs a hand through her hair. She seems genuinely kind. “I was heading back home from the market and they just kind of… appeared. It happens to me sometimes.”

Sef is deeply perplexed as to why this would be a common occurrence for anyone. But as she opens her mouth to ask, there’s a sudden flurry of activity and another small swarm of excited people are descending upon them like a plague of locusts. Someone shouts “By the gods, it’s the Warrior of Light!”

The what?

“Oh, balls—hang on.” The woman flashes Sef an apologetic smile and turns to head off the crowd. Sef shrinks back behind her to hide, nearly stumbling back into the bush she was just pulled from in her haste. Did they say the Warrior of Light?

Her brain is reeling a bit. She’s heard all kinds of stories about the Warrior of Light ever since she moved to the forest, but they were no more than just that—whispered stories about wars and monsters and heroes that didn’t concern her. Part of her never really believed the Warrior actually existed. This person is very real, though.

She’d always assumed the fabled hero of the realm would be very tall and strong, and this woman is certainly massive. At the moment, however, as she cheerily cracks jokes with a large basket of vegetables hooked around her elbow, she certainly doesn’t look like the stuff of legends. It seems that even famous heroes need to get groceries.

The woman waves happily to the group as they bid her farewell and move along. Then she turns back to Sef. “Sorry. It’s really busy out here today, huh?”

Sef swallows. Now that the crowds are gone she can ask her question. “Are you the Warrior of Light?”

She nods. “That’s what everyone calls me.”

Huh. Sef wrinkles her nose. “I thought you’d be cooler.”

The woman blinks. Then she bursts into a loud, long, boisterous laugh that makes Sef flinch in surprise. But she doesn’t seem to be laughing at her. 

“Oh, man. You got me there, kid.” She moves her glasses aside to wipe at her eye. “What’s your name?”

People don’t normally ask her for her name. “…Sef,” she mutters.

“Sef. I like it.” She grins. “My name’s Roe. It’s nice to meet you.”

Sef lashes her tail awkwardly. She never knows what to say in situations like this. Or in general.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why were you in the bushes, Sef?”

Sef shuffles her feet. “I like the bushes.”

Roe chuckles. “Fair enough. But it’s pretty early in the morning, and it’s cold as all get out. Why are you out here?”

A stiff breeze suddenly comes howling through the Gridania plaza sending Sef’s bones shaking and flinging freezing raindrops into her face. She shivers, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. Roe’s brow crinkles in concern and Sef quickly looks away, staring down at the dirt.

“Do you… have anywhere to stay?” she asks, her voice much softer than before. 

Sef fidgets uncomfortably. She could tell her the truth—but she doubts that “yes, a tiny corner in the basement of the Carline Canopy” or “yes, the dusty attic of the abandoned house down the road” is the answer that Roe wants to hear. “Kinda,” she mutters, working the toe of her boot into the mud.

“Hmm.” Roe folds her arms thoughtfully. “Tell ya what. Do you know where the Lavender Beds are?”

“Yes.” Sef’s very familiar—she’s swiped many a pie from Lavender Beds windowsills over the past few months.

“Well, that’s where my house is,” she says as she points east, beyond the aetheryte plaza. “It’s a little brown cottage with a green door and a willow tree in the front yard. If I’m not there, a green-haired viera lady will answer the door—that’s my wife, Thyme. She’s really nice, don’t worry.” She grins broadly. “Tell her that you met me and she’ll let you in. You can stay as long as you like. Okay?”

Sef balks at the prospect of having to talk to another stranger and opens her mouth to refuse, but Roe cuts her off. “It’s okay! You don’t have to.” She smiles kindly. “I won’t force you to do anything you don’t wanna do. But if you’d like to get out of the rain for a bit, you know where to find us.”

Sef’s tail twitches against the bush behind her as she considers her options. She’s not used to people being… kind. It would be nice to have a place to warm up. Maybe they have food there, too. 

A bell peals through the crisp plaza air to mark the hour; it’s now 8 in the morning. Roe starts.

“Oh! Sorry, I’ve got to go,” she says. It seems she lost track of time. “But one more thing—just a sec.” She sets down her basket and shrugs off her raincoat. Sef stares at her in mild bewilderment.

Then Roe kneels in front of her and plops her coat down over Sef’s shoulders as one would bundle up a child before sending them off to school, buttoning it to her chin before she even realizes what’s happening. She’s suddenly enveloped in warmth. Despite Roe’s new lack of layers she seems just as unbothered by the weather as before, even though she’s wearing a light button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up past her elbows and the rain’s beginning to pick up. “You need this more than I do, I think,” she comments, grinning cheekily as she playfully adjusts Sef’s new collar. “I don’t think green’s my color, anyway.”

The coat is huge—the bottom hem grazes Sef’s calves—and heavier than she expected it would be, considering the ease and speed with which Roe dressed her. But it’s soft and dry and perfectly warm thanks to Roe’s body heat, and now it’s hers. Sef has never even touched a coat like this before, let alone worn one.

After a second of stunned silence and gawking, Sef suddenly remembers that she has the capability to speak and tries to give Roe a “thank you”, the syllables awkward and unpracticed on her tongue. But before she can get the words out Roe stands up and scoops her vegetable basket back up off the ground, flashing Sef another smile and a wink. She affectionately ruffles Sef’s hair as though they’ve been friends for years.

“Take care of yourself, kid. Brown house with a green door and a willow tree, remember!”

And then she’s gone. Her pace is leisurely as she strolls away, despite her shirt quickly growing soaked through from the cold autumn rain. Sef is left standing in the plaza as the cold wind buffets her hair, utterly baffled. But she’s warmer than she’s been in weeks.

It’s not home yet. It might never be. But maybe Gridania isn’t so bad after all.