Wraithlike, secretive from years of keeping secrets though no one now survived who could discover them, Aidris Akalan slipped through the familiar stone passageway, into the stairwell that led down and around, down and down and down into the cool silent dark hungry belly of the earth. The weight of ages rode upon her shoulders, and at the moment she felt every minute of every year. She did not hurry; she could not, though what waited below would have inspired speed from any breathing creature. Most would have hurried away, perhaps, but they would have hurried. The ache in her bones and joints and flesh had once again grown great; time announced itself again as her implacable enemy.
She pushed onward. The stairs ended in another corridor, this one rough-hewn through living rock. The sounds of the world above had fallen away; now she could hear only the shuffle of her leather-soled shoes on the stone and the coarse rasp of her breathing. The hearing didn't matter. She wouldn't hear them until they wanted her to. Wouldn't see them. Wouldn't smell them.
But she could feel them. Already. They lay ahead, waiting, not yet impatient or angry. Simply waiting, cold and incomprehensible and terrible.
My servants, she thought mockingly. My Watchers.
She had brought them to her home, had fed them, and in return they fed her. But they threatened her, too, more every day, more every hour. She did not fear their evil, though they were evil beyond measure. She did not fear the violence they could commit, for they had sufficient targets for their violence not to need her. She feared only that as they perceived the depth of her need for them, they would weary of her. She feared that they would find a way to break free from her, or that they would find another . . . sponsor. She considered that word, tasted it, decided it would serve. Yes. She was their sponsor. And she feared that she became daily more replaceable.
Their presence thickened in the air. She felt them watching, though they did not yet appear. They waited, testing or perhaps taunting her; she suspected that they hoped to make her fear them, that they hoped yet to see her subservient to them. They toyed with her. She showed no reaction. Her power was different than theirs, but she didn't fear them. They couldn't make her fear them.
A breeze started somewhere far down the corridor, the gentlest of whispers. Coming toward her. Sometimes they chose other ways of announcing themselves. This time it was to be a wind. She kept walking forward, kept her head up as much as her stooped shoulders and bent back would allow.
The wind came closer, the whispering growing as it came, and she could almost make out the sibilant threats, the menace of their voices moving.
She showed no fear. She needed to hand-feed them again, to remind them of all they owed her. Her cells should be full; next time she would bring them to her, offer them treats, remind them that everything they had they owed to her.
They reached her. The cold wind snapped her skirt around her ankles, whipped her hair into tangles and shot racing spirals of brilliant white sparks past her on all sides.
The wind died abruptly and completely and the sparks of light began to coalesce around her. She watched them. They tried to seduce her with their beauty, but she was not one of their weak-minded victims. She stared straight at them, knowing how it cowed them to be less than awe-inspiring to anyone or anything.
"Watch/Watchmistress/mistress," they whispered-growled-howled, their cacophony of voices high and shrill and rich and deep as the fire in the belly of the earth all at once. "We will feed you."
"Yes, you will," she said. "When you have finished, I will permit you to hunt again."
"Thank you," they whispered in a hundred discordant voices. "Thank you." She sometimes wondered if they mocked her with their thanks. She suspected they might, but she could not prove they were even capable of mockery.
She felt them first against her skin as the simple pressure of cold air. The temperature dropped as more of them touched her, grew bitterly cold while the pressure became fierce; the cold crushed in on her and pressed down on her, fighting to force her to her knees, to topple her and break her, but she held, stood firm. They kept pressing. Pressing. She fought them, while sweat beaded on her forehead and ran in runnels down the creases in her cheeks, while her legs ached and her knees trembled and her spine felt as if it would collapse in upon itself. Then fire flashed through her veins, through her heart and lungs and bones and brain; it burned along the inside of her tightly closed eyes, burned her teeth until she felt certain they would burst from her skull, burned her flesh; and in fire and ice she stood, she held firm, she held fast and they did not crush her beat her destroy her and she became the ice and the fire, and, triumphant, she lifted herself straight and threw back her head and howled.
Yet even in her triumph over them, they mocked her. They had not fed well enough. They had not killed in sufficient numbers, or their prey had been weak or without magic. Stronger. Yes, she was stronger. But when they pulled back from her and withdrew to the dank wet earth in which they hid, she was still not young. Younger. Stronger. But not young. If anyone saw her touched by age, they would begin to think her weak. As long as she controlled her Watchers, she would never be weak.
She would summon them to her cells, and they would devour the prizes she'd captured for them. And when they had destroyed the last bit of flesh and blood and bone, they would give her what she needed.
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