I awoke, completely alone. The air had a chill to it that bit at the edges of my existence, and the trees stood still. No gusts of wind were forcing them to make sounds.
It was both strange and familiar to be alone. I had grown used to being followed by Auha, so it felt as though we had always been in each other's company. I had felt the same about the Fawn, growing so used to her presence that, though being born in my own presence, I felt as though we had always been in the same places.
I knew, now, that I had always been alone. I had always been with Auha, I had always been with the Fawn.
And now... I had always been separated from them. Endlessly, eternally, noticing the absence of their presence.
I didn't stop to think about it. I simply knew. It was an endless knowing, hanging from my body like scraps of rotting metal.
I never stopped to think, to wonder, to consider.
I awoke. Alone. And for perhaps the first time, the the smell of soil much too close to my sense of smell - or, at least, the sense of smell on my blank face.
I extended tendrils to try to walk, and then I remembered. For the first time I ever knew, I had fainted. I was injured by the Stinging Beast, some creature that must be something like me to be able to ever think of touching me.
I felt around, examining surfaces with tendrils and hoping to find something to pull me up, to get a better footing. Like a beetle trying to right themselves once turned over, I simply tried to turn myself back into the right position. There was no thought behind it, nothing to help me besides the minds of the tendrils.
As I pulled my body up from the soil and leaves, something still partially wet stuck to my skin, pulling it somewhat painfully. It stank, and as I broke the clots outside my body the stink of it was flung into the air, spreading around the atmosphere about me in spore-like clouds that wouldn't have been visible without a sense of smell.
Blood? My blood?
Weakness gripped at my appendages much more than usual, and for the first time, I had a thought. One that was unlike me.
This pain, I hadn't known before. The endlessness of this felt... like it wasn't endless. Like time had only just agreed that I was weak, and in pain. That this moment was wrong, somehow. I was not forever in pain, in weakness.
It was as though the endlessness of me had suddenly met time. In a way that it hadn't with Auha, with the Fawn. I had both felt something then and known nothing.
Now? I knew this weakness. Discomfort. Something that was less than the coming of the new winter, the wet crispness in the air suddenly feeling worse on my skin than it ever had before.
Not a creature of the mind, my body didn't think ahead into the future. It never had. It had known all kinds of endless moments, and that, as you can see, was all there was to it. There was no reason to wonder. I stood on tendrils, letting the rest of my body hang limply in a way that it never had before, but I moved forward, knowing my surroundings.
I sensed no deer. Not completely. They must be on the other side of the forest, somewhere away from where I sensed the residue of the Stinging Beasts.
My head turned toward where I felt the residue. Everything felt distorted, wrong, though I had never truly made a decision in my life. I acted and was acted upon.
I never thought. I never considered. But I acted. My tendrils began to shift, to take me back in that direction, back to what felt like an unresolved place. Something I would have to go back to, again and again, until it was sensical, a true part of my endless existence.
But I was slower, unsteady. My tendrils, weaker, seemed to be sliding off wet surfaces they tasted, and the tastes and smells seemed distant and hazy. I knew which direction I went, but it felt the distance was getting farther and farther...
I did and didn't realize I had been reaching the end of the forest.
I did, because I knew the endlessness of the boundaries, how the space between trees began to become smaller and there were more young saplings - as if we were in a place where an old tree had fallen, and her saplings began racing to be the first to fill that space.
I did, because at the edge of a forest, where the perimeter is always endless, the wind is stronger, killing what species can only live within the deep centers of forests. The species here, squished densely together, competing for light, hard to walk through without getting sticks and leaves and burrs stuck to you, were different, more wind-tolerant. Not resistant, but flexible, without having to think about it.
I did, because Auha often had led me here, not to encounter unresolved moments that did not fit the endlessness of her being, but to graze on grass. I usually had not followed outside of the dense layers of edge plants. It wasn't a conscious decision. It never was.
I didn't, though, because my body was weak, and everything was distant and more endless than it usually was. I was aware of everything, but at a distance. I walked straight through the densely packed shrubs and thorns, feeling them tug on my body as if they knew in turn to stop me. I pulled through them, weakly, and they quickly released me, more aware than I was where I was going.
I felt the air change, and felt a weak ray of sunlight with more intensity than I was used to. It meant I was truly on the edge of my full existence, the endless nature of it that controlled my body.
I felt too weak to stop, and so I continued despite having little to hold onto, despite feeling as if the trees were no longer responding to my weak outputs of movement and energy. The soil beneath became bare of leaves, but covered by moss which felt back as I touched them. Life residing between the scales of moss didn't seem to notice me. Grass grew delicately, but with a certain hardiness that meant it was used to being stood on, cut, grazed.
A spider in the grass didn't run away as I glided unsteadily forward, my head hanging down in growing exhaustion, as I bent the leaf she stood on as I moved by.
Before me was a what I sensed to be a mountain of corpses of trees, within which was a pulsing energy I had not been familiar with before. The energy talked, with words I didn't know.
I approached slowly, bringing up head up in an attempt to make sense of it. I approached the pieces of dead tree, feeling them with a tendril as if to try to recognize them, but I didn't. And therefore it mattered much less to me, despite knowing they were still dead.
Then my tendril came in contact with something it never had before. Something smooth, smoother than water's surface in a moving stream. It was so cold that at first I moved back in mind surprise, almost pain as if my tendrils were a sensitive tooth, its nerve suddenly exposed to painful cold. It wasn't cold like ice, and another tendril touched it gently, as my head turned toward it specifically to explore it.
The tendril traveled down it, looking for a texture. Then, it found a small gap at the bottom, and a smoke not made from burning plant bodies was escaping slowly. It tasted like oil, burned oil.
A warmth touched me from within the gap that made my entire body ache. Testing the gap, I pushed it, and to my interest the gap widened as the smooth, non-ice surface slid upwards with only some resistance. I tried to push it more, but I wouldn't budge any more.
I wanted to fit through, to get to the warmth that my body yearned for. But as I fit my tendrils inside to pull my body in, I realized that the gap was too small to fit. I was not used to this concept.
All at once, I heard a scream, from the mouth of something like the Stinging Beasts.
My head turned toward it, and it silenced itself.
Unthinkingly, I tried to reach for it with outstretched tendrils, but failed. The creature within moved, backing away slightly out of reach. It was shaking.
I realized dully that the first Stinging Beast I had ever met had been shaking, before it attacked. Before I grabbed it and stopped it.
I quickly retreated, without fully understanding why. There was a feeling there I hadn't known, of being vulnerable in the cold while a beast might be aiming at me with whistling pieces of dead trees attached to rocky arrows.
I retreated all the way into the cold, feeling the lack of warmth in a new way. I backed away, feeling incredibly weak and slow. Hungry, even, in a way that made my dried-blood covered skin hurt and itch.
I hesitated only briefly, knowing I needed my strength. I began to turn around, to face the forest, when I sensed the Stinging Beast come to the edge of the gap I had made, toward the cold.
I sensed her much more clearly. Yes, her, I could tell by the pheromones. They were similar, though different, to Auha's. My senses told me that she was younger than Auha, somehow, but I didn't know what it meant. I did not understand time.
She suddenly slammed the gap completely shut, and I heard a click as it did. I felt out in the open, but somehow that helped. I felt she could not hurt me through a barrier.
And so, filled with an aching pain, pulses through my wounds that had begun screaming in memory of attack, and exhaustion, I stopped completely, and stared.
I could feel her staring right back. She could sense me through the non-ice, too. I felt she could see my every movement, and not knowing about photons and eyes, I was somewhat frightened at the preciseness she seemed to notice me as I tried to keep myself too still to sense.
She seemed to hesitate, then she clicked the non-ice again, and I heard it slide open just enough for the thin line of warmth and burned oil to waft back towards me. Involuntarily my head inclined towards it, wanting.
She said something. It sounded shaky and high pitched, frightened.
I didn't understand it. Yet, her words had somehow drawn attention to hurt, to my wounds which smelled like blood.
Then I knew she'd asked about the wounds. She knew they were there, somehow. I did not understand eyes or noticing of something that way.
I didn't think about it. I extended my tendrils (she closed the gap) once again, and moved ahead, back towards the end of her realm and the endless perimeter of mine. I pushed my way back through dense foliage, finding it more difficult to enter than it had been to exit.
I felt light, but did not feel the presence of any other creature like the one I had met. And so I continued, weekly, until I stopped. I stopped halfway through the shrubs, halfway into the forest past the endless perimeter, feeling exhausted and painful, as if my head was light and too heavy to stay straight on my shoulders. The two wounds on my back, the one on my chest, the one on my forehead, all screamed out in pain, festering chunks that I finally realized were still leaking. I felt poisoned, and though I had been unconcerned before, I longed for warmth and comfort, and suddenly felt an intense wondering about the location of Auha, of the Fawn...
At the sudden intensity of it, I lost my grip. My tendrils felt the wounds, as if that would stop the pain, but I only encountered chunks that hurt along their edges. It pulled me into a kind of awareness of myself that I had never, ever known, something a little more than instinctual, than of thoughtlessness and being forever existing.
My body twisted in the pain, suddenly fully aware of it, as I pulled a leaf out from the hole in my chest. The smell of blood and dirt mingled in the air, and my tendrils lost their hold of whatever they had previously been touching as my senses became all at once overwhelmed.
I held still suddenly, willing it to calm down, to subside back into gentler waves as it had been like before.
As it did, I became unconcernedly aware of a new beast, but once I had occasionally encountered before. A smaller wolflike creature, the kind that was often alone and which barked instead of howled.
It was watching, apprehension etching its smell. It didn't smell like a wolf, or like the forest, but it did smell like the Stinging Beast, like the burned oil.
I considered its body, willing to be distracted by the thoughtlessness of sensing.
I heard the Stinging Beast - the female - make a sound repetitively.
I backed away, slowly, carefully, until I was truly in the forest, past the edge, back into where the trees were spaced and there were corpses of trees with enough room to be downed.
I stood still. The wet crispness of the air grabbed at my wounds, and I no longer wanted to move at all.
The presence of the forest surrounded me, welcoming.