I did learn something from that woman, but it was not what I asked to be taught. I learned that, even with all of the shreds of humanity I had absorbed over the years, even with all of the time I spent with Telan, the human mind and its workings and motivations were still entirely alien to me.
I sensed that the woman’s connection to the other humans could be used to motivate her. I felt pride at my insight; after all, I did not reach it by emotional appraisal, but by thinking back on what memories I could scrounge up of the years of hunting humans that moved in groups. The often tried to save one another from me, and they displayed great agitation while I consumed other members of their parties.
Perhaps my experience with Telan actually increased my naivete regarding humanity, in a way. After all, he was cooperative, even helpful at times. He made an effort to teach me, while also attempting to understand me. I thought that learning from a new human would be just as easy. I thought that I could easily force this woman to teach me the things I wanted to know.
I was wrong.
She approached the bodies of her fallen companions. Water ran down her face. I had seen this happen with Telan, when I’d particularly upset him. She knelt next to the dead men. I grew impatient. “What are you doing?”
“Give me time,” she growled. “You want to learn what it’s like to be human? Humans mourn.”
She placed her hands on the men’s faces, covering their eyes, and spoke words in the language that I did not recognize. I watched her closely, in case the words she spoke had power like those that had caused my body to moved without my input, but they seemed to be mundane.
I released the two younger women. I knew I could easily reclaim them, should they attempt to flee. At the time, I could not have known what a mistake I was making. The youngest one fell to her knees, but the woman of middling age pulled her to her feet. They, too, approached the dead bodies. The woman of middling age draped herself over the body of the oldest male while making highly unpleasant sounds. The youngest crouched next to the other male, holding his hand. The oldest woman spoke to them, quickly and softly, in the language I did not know.
“What are you saying?” I asked. “I don’t like it when I can’t understand you.”
“They don’t speak your language,” the old woman said. “Trust me, they’re saying nothing of import. They are terrified. They are distraught, as I am, that you killed my son and his son.”
“I wanted to motivate you,” I said. “There are things that I must learn.”
“Yes, there are,” the old woman said. I did not read her tone as well as I would now. I took her words as evidence that she intended to teach me.
She never told me her name. I didn’t care to ask. Knowing names makes it so much easier to differentiate between individuals, particularly when referring to them later. They give an individual a sense of self, yes, but they are also useful markers for those attempting to remember them.
I gave the old woman, and the two other women, too much freedom. I was overconfident in my abilities, a common theme in my earlier days. After all, I had dominated every challenge that had appeared before me. Such precedent did not encourage timidity.
My first mistake was allowing them so much freedom. My second was in allowing them to communicate so freely. My third was in observing them primarily with Telan’s eyes, which were not nearly as thorough in the capacity for detection as my sense of touch, particularly when I insinuated my body fully over an area.
I did not see the younger woman pull the blades from the men’s bodies. I did not realize what they had done until I saw blood flowing over the corpses. It took me a moment to register that the blood was not from the humans that I had already killed. I had done so in a completely bloodless fashion. It did not occur to me that the women would kill themselves, or that the older woman would have instructed them to do it.
She turned and met my eyes as she pulled a blade from the folds of her clothes. She stared me down even as she opened her own throat. The blood flowed freely from her veins. She knelt, slowly, her amber eyes on mine the entire time, as though daring me to do something about her actions. Had she been able to maintain that gaze in death, surely she would have.
I did not react in time. I could, perhaps, have kept her alive despite the wound, had I acted fast enough. Her move caught me so completely by surprise that I failed to even process what she had done. I certainly did not understand why she had done it.
Sacrificing others, I understand. Another had never been as important to me as myself. So, had she killed the others in some sort of act of self-preservation, I wouldn’t have thought about it twice. But that had not been her motivation, and I was sure that her companion’s lives were more important to her than others’ lives as I regarded them.
The idea that she would take her own life confounded me. My life was the most important thing in the world to me, even beyond anything and everything I might learn. Giving that up was unimaginable; after all, in what way could losing my life benefit me in any way? It couldn’t. It could only benefit others, and I had no interest in benefitting any being but myself.
Humans, however, are different. Telan had begun to show me this, when he’d taught me of the different factions of human civilization. My ponderings about this old woman and her actions taught me more. Humans do not factor solely their individual life and preferences and benefits into their definition of self. To humans, their family is a part of their self. Their culture, their society, and even humanity as a whole are all parts of their self. A human factors all of these things in when determining who they think they are. A human is capable of thinking about these things outside of their true self when determining whether their actions have a benefit.
The old woman saw me as a threat to herself, and not just the self as defined by her own individual person, or even her family. She recognized me as a danger of an importance beyond what the life of one person, or even three people, could merit risking. She saw that to teach me anything would be to bring danger to all of humanity.
In some ways, her actions were misguided. She may have assumed her life would be forfeit regardless of whether she provided me with what I desired of her. She may have been right. Still, there were far more humans in the world that could teach me what I sought to learn. Her effort, though valiant, only served to delay me.