Over a week had passed since Morana's arrival at the Claw Arms, a week in which she felt something quite close to happiness the longer she lived here. After only one more day of examinations in the clinic, Dr. Allister cleared the young horned lass permission to leave her bed and explore the grounds.

Alma could barely contain her delight and took it upon herself to provide the full tour of the boarding house. It truly was a sight to behold, a well-maintained and secure lodging Rot somehow managed to keep together. Almost as magnificent was the garden behind the building, a mere trudge through the pumpkin patch led Morana past the old rusty gate and into the amazing garden beyond. Holli would insist that it'd look lovelier once spring hits, the garden spirit boasting just how pretty she could make it.

Holli in particular had been rather lazy these last few days. She and Alma had to explain to Morana that the garden spirit's power drops greatly in the dead of winter and Holli would be entering a type of spiritual hibernation. While Alma was saddened she would miss out on some additional fun with her disembodied friend, Holli gave her one last promise before drifting to slumber: that she would reappear with the most grandest explosion of blossoms in the spring.

Alma was happy and her smile brightened Morana's mood. Sadly, there was one who was not entirely swayed towards lightheartedness. Rot, who had avoided Morana after carrying her to the clinic that first day, kept to himself more and more. Something was bothering him more than usual, Alma noted, and he tended to speak with Allister more than anyone else lately. Despite Alma's reassurance to the contrary, Morana felt as if there were a lingering hatred for her past actions and the stitched immortal was keeping his temper in check solely because of his sister. These thoughts amid those dwelling on her immediate fate haunted her to this day as she sat in the pumpkin patch, the sole audience to an impromptu concert Alma and Gar were throwing.

Morana liked Gar, more so than she thought she would. The werewolf was crude and mischievous, yes, but he had such a passion for music and loved to strum and sing alongside Alma's glowing vocals. Despite receiving warning of Gar's habitual nudity while in human form, Gar had been clothing himself more and more in the winter; even his wolf form had a thick winter coat, especially handy as the snow seemed to fall on a daily basis lately. He'd taken to the disliked title of 'watchdog' since Holli's hibernation and insisted he was on his break.

As the song wound to a close, the werewolf stashed the guitar and stood atop the tallest pumpkin to make his announcement. "Well, ladies, it's been a pleasure to play for you both but I gotta get back on duty before snake-lady notices." Ducking behind the gourd, the larger-than-normal gray wolf padded into view with the clothes he'd worn earlier in his mouth. With some help from Morana, who was currently the only party with normal fingers, the outfit was stashed with the guitar and carried off in Gar's mouth again.

Alma waved one large hand at the retreating lupine and smiled to Morana. "I think he looks cute with his winter coat," she confessed.

Morana blinked her pale eyes. "Why?"

"He looks so much fluffier!" The clawed girl threw up her hands at the proclamation and fell back onto the snowy ground, giggling. Oddly, Alma's winter gear consisted of only a scarf and a cap in which she tucked her long hair into.

"Aren't you cold down there?" Morana asked, crouching beside her and tilting her head curiously. "I can barely stand walking in the cold... it must be so much colder lying in it."

Alma giggled again. "Nope! It's nice and soft and pretty!" She hopped to her bare feet in a flash and danced playfully in the snow. "It's been about a year now since I first woke up. When I opened my eyes for the first time as me, the snow was everywhere. I fell in love with it ever since! Rain is fun to play in sometimes and the sun is nice and warm but snow is my favorite of all."

She turned to Morana, still with her innocent smile. Morana grinned back reflexively, hiding her shivering in the large coat she wore. It was Rot's a patchy old leather jacket he wore outside... if felt strange being shrouded in such a garment from a man she was pretty sure wanted her dead. Her thoughts must have shown since Alma's smile faded and she quickly approached to give her comforting gesture: lightly touching foreheads. Hugging was a dangerous act for Alma to commit as she sometimes couldn't control her strength.

"Don't be sad," she said softly before immediately perking up. "Ooh! Wanna help me build a Snow-Om?"

"What's a Snow-Om?"

"A big version of Om made of snow! I made a cute one last year but with all this snow we can make a great big Om! I'll get something for his teeth, you look for a couple of little rocks for his eyes!"

In flash the delighted girl with inhuman hands was out of sight inside the boarding house, leaving Morana alone with her thoughts again. She adored Alma, the good, honest soul that forgave the atrocities committed against her... but the forgiveness was simply another form of torment. Turning from the house, Morana walked further into the pumpkin patch, wondering just what she was doing here. She came for help, yes, but what else was there?

"I don't deserve their support," she muttered to herself, dropping to her knees before an old scarecrow wrapped around a wooden pole. Tears came to her eyes as she heard the distant caw of birds, almost like they were mocking her. "Why... why am I still here? Why am I still alive?"

"Because I want you to live."

The voice came from nowhere and everywhere. Morana's head snapped up. Her body felt colder than ever. She looked around, searching for the voice, dreading its source.


"Wh-Where... where are you?" she called out, her voice feeling muffled in the snow. When no response came she started stumbling back to the boarding house, seeking shelter when the voice spoke again at last.

"Don't turn your back on your creator."

She spun, pale eyes wide with fright. She saw nothing in the pumpkin patch, nothing but snow-covered gourds and the old, leaning scarecrow that had not been there yesterday.

A scarecrow...

"N-No... no, no, please, no..." she whispered as the figure wrapped around its crude wooden frame slowly unwound its arms and dropped feet first to the ground. Reaching up one hand, it grasped the burlap sack on its head and pulled it off to reveal the face she feared more than anyone or anything. White hair. Black bone mask. That malicious sneer.

Magnus the Scarecrow.

"Hello, little runaway," he said so calmly and cordially it was insulting. "You've made quite a little home for yourself, haven't you."

As he spoke, Morana had fallen back and was scrambling back in pure terror. She couldn't think. Her mind screamed at her to run away, to put as much distance between her and him as possible.

"Why are you so hesitant to speak to me now?" he asked, striding ever closer towards her scrambling form until he could reach out with arms longer than she remembered. He grasped her by one of her white horns and hauled her to her feet. "Hold still, damn you!"

"G-Go away!" she finally managed to cry into his masked face.

Magnus actually looked taken aback for a moment. "Is this what they've taught you? To yell and run from those bringing apologies and gifts?"

Apologies? That broke through her fear and Morana finally allowed herself to listen. "Wh-What do you mean?"

"I mean what I say, fledgling. I realize I had been a bit too cruel in my treatment of you, leaving you to stew in the bog for so long and without hands to boot. You took care of yourself, however... escaping and getting yourself a new pair of extremities. But these are worthless compared to what I bring you."

As he spoke he produce from seemingly nowhere a pair of disembodied hands very familiar to her. They were the hands Magnus himself tore off before banishing her to the bottom of the peat bog, perfectly preserved and still bearing the unique runes upon each metallic fingernail. These were the gift he'd given her upon creation, a smidgen of the Scarecrow's power to manipulate and shape flesh and bone.

"I... I thought you destroyed them..."

"Why would I destroy the property of my precious companion?" The question passed the sneering lips of Magnus, almost sounding sincere. "And they will be easy to reattach. Like so..."

With his free hand, the Scarecrow made a few flicking motions of his fingertips, tracing a sigil upon Morana's forehead. He must have dulled her perception of pain again as the chill of the air bothered her no longer. With a few more flicks he severed her new hands Dr. Allister attached, reattaching her rune-tipped hands with no need of stitches.

"Like an old pair of gloves, yes? And I was generous enough not to make you feel the pain of amputation a second time."

He was right, they did feel familiar but too familiar. The stigma of her Creator's past cruelty was still fresh in her mind and she was hesitant to be so forgiving. "But why are you only now-"

"Ah, but I have more." Again from seemingly nowhere, Magnus produced a very familiar weapon: her bow, carved from dragon bone with her own hands. In the same hand he held a single black arrow.

"Why are you bringing me these?" she finally asked, drawing a slightly exasperated sigh from Magnus.

"It's simple," he said. "I've forgiven you for your misdeeds, hence the return of your skilled hands. But I still require proof of loyalty, hence the bow and arrow. You are not to shoot Rot or Alma, no. I want you to kill the werewolf with one shot."

"Gar? You want me to kill him?"

"Was I not clear?" He sighed again. "You've become so familiar with this lot... what better way to bid them adieu than with a silver-tipped arrow?"

From above there came the sound of distant cawing, distant but getting closer. Before long a rather large crow, a misshapen reanimate belonging to Magnus, perched atop a high branch just beyond one side of the boarding house. By an unseen command from its creator it began to caw, a loud and obnoxious noise that drew the attention of Gar, still in wolf form and now easily spotted from where Magnus and Morana stood in the pumpkin patch.

"He doesn't notice us," Magnus whispered, sounding much too gleeful. "Nock your arrow, little one." When she hesitated still his tone grew more severe. "I can return the agony as easily as I can remove it, you know that well."

Fear forced her body to move, nocking the black arrow in the familiar bow. Neither party noticed the slowly advancing figure of Rot, marching from beyond the woods with more lumber to split. He saw it all: his brother Magnus tempting the new girl to shoot Gar. She'd taken aim... but never fired. It wasn't until her arms lowered that he realized how he'd been wrong in avoiding her and advanced at a run.

Her aim was precise. She could have easily loosed the arrow and pierced the head of the wolf. The werewolf with a joking nature and love for music...

So why didn't she do it?

Slowly, hands trembling, she eased the arrow out of the bow and lowered the weapon. Turning to her Creator with tears in her eyes she spoke aloud, "No. I won't." Instantly she regretted turning to look at the Scarecrow as he scowled so deeply and so angrily he teeth threatened to splinter.

"USELESS!" he finally roared and punched her forehead with enough force to throw her backwards, bow and arrow tumbling from her hands as she rolled backwards against the building. An explosion of pain in her body told her he had removed the sigil and given back her awareness of agony. A second later came the battlecry of Rot as he dove for his surprised brother and delivered a flying haymaker to the Scarecrow's face.

Stumbling back from the blow, Magnus scowled even as he laughed. "Good timing, brother," he crowed, pulling a crude, old sickle from behind his back. "I'll take your head with this one day, mark my words! But for now I'll settle for the traitor's before I leave!"

He moved fast, too far for Morana's pale eyes to follow. In the blink of an eye he was upon her, a leering shadow promising more torment as he brought eh sickle around in a wide arc towards he exposed neck.

He would have succeeded, had another party not intervened. Someone much faster, with hair tucked in a cap and claws for hands, throwing herself in front of Morana just in time to have the sickle's edge cleave through her neck.

The world stopped for a moment.

All eyes watched the figure who jumped to save Morana. They saw her scarf fall in pieces and the hat, disturbed by the strike, tumble off her head and letting a cascade of white-blonde hair fall into view and become a gleaming streamer as the head fell from the body and land in the soft snow, the body falling forward a heartbeat later.

Regret was written on Magnus's face. Rage and sorrow co-mingled in Rot's expression as he fell to his knees in grief. Morana knelt as well, cradling in her hands the head of the one person who had always supported her.


End part 1