The knowledge came rolling around him, a fog of hushed tones and shadowed whispers. If the sun had set, he did not see it. He rarely saw anything nowadays, and noticed even less. Rarely saw, until the fog crept in, slow and wet and cold, soaking into his fur until his bones rattled to their whispers. Only then did he crack open an eye and wonder where the sun had gone. Wonder, because even though his sleep-sensitive eyes were blinded by light, he felt chilled. The chill urged him to his feet, lest the cold steal his legs away, and sent him moving.
His eyes caught important things. Rocks that would catch his hooves. Bright colors and movement that signaled a body (…body?) to be avoided. All should be avoided. He wanted nothing, and no one. No one, because somehow, as he sank into the role of contender in this place, something new began to form inside him. A thought. A memory. Smiles that weren’t theirs. Lips that weren’t hers, but she brought them. And with them, the lips, the smiles, came… something. Something else. A knot in his stomach. A knot that writhed when he stood against foes, and twisted when he brushed against her side.
He kept his eyes low, moving silently through the abandoned woods, but the fog followed. It had crawled into him, nestled beneath his skin, and was gently peeling away his nerves as it inched a path to his brain. As weak as he felt, he resisted it.
Bodies. It wasn’t the fog that whispered this time. It was the vile knot in his belly. It, too, was creeping its way to his mind, albeit slower. Over a period of months. So slowly, he hadn’t even felt it at first. He’d only felt happiness. Delight in his own cunning. Contentment over the occasional blessing or praise. He hadn’t felt the clump of filth in his gut until, after one amazing day with her, she had ghosted across his vision for the first time. Pale and strange, with open eyes that never blinked. After that, she came frequently, always the same, appearing in his mind’s eye and simply staring. Not at him, no. She watched the sky. She brought with her the smiles. Pale. Strange. Teeth caught between dry lips.
His hoof disappeared into a sinkhole, black mud and melted snow, and he lay for a while where he fell, chest rising and falling against the crushed dry grasses of the birch. But he couldn’t stay. If the fog smelled his weakness, it would have him. He braced himself, knees shaking, and pulled himself out. His leg was black to the shoulder, and when he put his weight on it, it bent like a green branch. It wasn’t his leg, not for the moment, so he limped forward on three.
It hadn’t taken him long to see the connection. To realize that whenever he discovered some new happiness, a ghost would rise to meet it. He was not one to back down, never one to back down, and he met the threat head-on. He sought emotional highs to spite the spirits. When he lay by her side, he spat later in the ghost woman’s face. Whenever his antlers clashed, the dry smiles that arose afterward brought bouts of laughter. But as the visions became more regular, sometimes slipping into his sight while still in the presence of a friend or foe, he found himself slipping.
She had always prayed to the gods. He watched her there, usually from a distance, releasing some prayer into the statues. So one day, when the pale woman’s unblinking stare haunted him worse than usual, he prayed. He bowed, as he had seen her do, his knees pressed against the hard earth where countless others had bowed before, and he released a whisper of hope into the air.
If the gods answered, it was not the response he’d wanted.
In his vision, the woman’s eyes turned from the sky, her pale, dry irises shivering as they attempted to focus on his face. The knot in his gut had clawed at him, tearing holes that the dead smiles crept through, but her eyes held him. They were green. Green, like Eraline’s.
He had fled. Fled, and hid.
In the abandoned forest, they left him alone. The knot lay dormant, curled in around itself like a sleeping babe. He ate bark and dry grass, and pushed a layer of slime from pools before drinking. And when the frost came, he curled up against the rocks and slept.
Slept, until the fog.
And now, he was running again. He didn’t know what he was running from, but he knew that if it caught him, something unspeakable would happen. The fog wasn’t like the knot, though. It didn’t slumber while he ran. It was at his neck now, sinking deep whispers into his spine, and he knew the unspeakable wouldn’t wait much longer.
The birch forest opened into a small valley, surrounded by pearly trees and filled with golden grass. His stomach stirred when he smelled the faint odor of the blue bowl. The flowers had already bloomed again. Or had it ever been winter in this place? The fog dug deep fingers up his spine, and the whispers began to seep in.
“Such a pretty thing,” they said.
“A shame, isn’t it,” they said.
“So much potential, wasted,” they said.
“No,” he murmured aloud, shaking his head as if to stop them. As if he could stop them.
“So young, too.”
The wind brushed a hand across the grass, and the whispers fled out across the valley, stealing the fog away. In an instant, all was still. The thing growing in his belly fell silent, its tangled smiles and pale skin holding its breath as it waited for him.
It could’ve been grass, new and green, if not for the golden nature of the birch. If not for the red veins that cut through it. If not for the fact that it was Eraline, still and unmoving as the forest held its breath around her.
Her eyes were closed. He wondered if she would’ve liked to watch the sky. Removing his mask, he knelt before her, his knees raw against the grass, and pressed his cheek against hers. She was as cold and dead as the painted metal that rested between them.
That day, when he had prayed before the gods… He had done everything wrong. He had been created to bow to one. One only. And with her eyes closed, she would never get to see it.