Antoni stared into the well as the pebble fell down and down, swallowed by darkness but never striking the water. The silence reverberated, ringing clear. Antoni sighed.
Flicking another rock into the never-ending hole, she settled herself down next to the well and prepared to wait. She wouldn't budge from here. She would endure through snow, rain, hunger and agony for a hundred years if she had to. Maybe to prove a point to Witsik, maybe to prove it to herself. Never again would she falter.
Fifty-three years passed, slowly. Dore came to the meadow, occasionally, shaking Antoni out of her induced coma and force-feeding her a piece of bread or meat that she usually retched back up. Her muscles and bones decayed, gradually, until she slumped by the well, unable to keep herself upright. Her skin hung from her body, browned by the sun, rubbed raw by wind and snow, a useless sheath for a lackluster soul. Sometimes, despair gripped her so suddenly that bony fingers clenched in the grass, tight, until the muscles spasmed and relaxed. When she didn't sleep, she cried.
In the winter of the thirty-second year, Eubern came to the well. Antoni woke, bit by painful bit, and watched him dully, as though she looked past him. For an hour they watched each other silently, while the snow drifted down, fat and lazy, powdering but not coating the meadow. The Diamond never blinked, and the immortal met his burning gaze without emotion. She faced him down, prone and powerless, resigned.
"He would not approve of this. Come back to the castle," Eubern said finally.
She tried to shake her head, but her neck was atrophied. She tried to speak, but her jaw wouldn't move and her tongue had rotted away. She choked, and tears slid down her rough cheeks.
"Time and nature hold sway over you, no matter what you would believe." He touched her face, gently, and her pain eased to something she could gasp around.
"Leave me alone," she wheezed. "Let me stay until he returns."
"He will not approve." But one immortal's suffering could not distract Eurburn for long, and with her position made clear, he washed his hands of her. It was not in his nature to deny her, or himself, and he had other things to attend to. "He may not be able to save you when he returns," he said, leaving the body on the ground to slowly disappear under the pale, falling sky.
She slept. The grass danced around her, and the sun warmed the growing world. She became part of the landscape, a motionless heap of something better left forgotten, untouched by animals. She dreamt, but not often. Her moods changed with the turning of the seasons, dark, then cold, then angry. Forever hopeless.
Dore came to her, she thought, and spoke for hours. She listened, sometimes, and learned of the happenings of Diamond Court. The Abomination was waking, they suspected, in Limbo. Everything stirred, restlessly, and tensions mounted. A blackness darker than the bottom of that well was alive somewhere, and hungrily uncurling from its lair. That anger, that hatred, that mutation—it could consume stars, would destroy everything. Perhaps Witsik had chosen the wrong time to leave. What if he never came back? Oh, she had nightmares of these things.
But Dore didn't come often. Sometimes. The rest of the time she was by herself, so alone despite being surrounded by a moving world. Years ago, she allowed doubts to plague her. A thousand questions all at once, or separately, in the dead of night when there was no sun to blind her. Things shone more clearly in the dark, until she wasn't sure her agony was external anymore. She didn't carry sores and burns and rashes on her skin; she bore them inside, on the very tissue of her spirit. So she stopped opening her eyes at night, clenching them tight until she could force herself to sleep, until those truths were shoved away.
One spring day, after winter had passed away like fifty winters before it, she heard a footstep. A rock clattered down the well, striking the stone walls before passing into obscurity and farther. Antoni listened, absently, but didn't bother to look up.
"Oh, you poor girl."
Her eyes snapped open, but there was nothing in front of her but a wide green field. Struggling to move a body that hadn't shifted in half a decade, she sobbed frantically to find herself inert and helpless.
"Hush, there," Witsik muttered, and crouched in front of her. She relaxed at the first sight of those brilliant starburst eyes, silent sobs racking her body as he placed a careful hand on her shoulder. "What have you done? Have you waited here all along?"
She would have nodded. Sitting back on his heels, he glanced over her and frowned. "What possessed you…?" he demanded, frustrated. "How can I—how do I fix this, Anni? I left the power on the planet, on Jaerdin, like I promised I would. Without the power, without makeskill, how do I help you?"
If she could have, she would have told him not to bother, that she was fine the way she was. He wouldn't believe her, but the words at least would have been a comfort. Had she been selfish, even in this? She hadn't meant to; it was for him. So he could see that she was strong and true, a real timeless. So that she could deserve to stay.
Silently, Witsik tightened the hand on Antoni's shoulder and placed the other on her thin, bleached hair. She watched him as he closed his eyes, expression smoothing into something relaxed. Even without the senses for such things, she was sure he was reaching inwards, towards something inside of himself. The parts that he had locked away somewhere on his desert planet, that maybe he could still find somewhere deep down.
Not for the first time, she wondered why he had done it. The sun-children were nothing without their power; it made up their body and spirit. Yet he confined it to five tiny objects and left it hidden, even from himself. Antoni didn't pretend to understand, and closed her own eyes, releasing her agony to him, trusting that he would take it from her. Slowly, she found herself drifting off to sleep, so very tired now that she wasn't waiting.
Shadows flickered on her bedroom walls, cast by the torch near the door. The mattress gave under Antoni's hand as she sat up, so horribly soft after so many years on the hard ground, and blankets twisted around her legs. Every feeling was a memory from so long ago that for a moment she was disoriented, senses disconnected and confused, as though this was only a dream.
Someone knocked at the door, but she didn't want to test her voice to answer. Every other muscle was responding perfectly, and as she stared down at her arms they were as pale and delicate as she once remembered. Her tongue was heavy in her mouth, and she swallowed. Another knock echoed in the room. She cleared her throat. Carefully, she opened her mouth. "Come in," she called.
Eurbern stood quietly in the doorway, not quite bringing himself to enter the threshold, and Antoni watched him warily. She had not expected to see him here. "Where is Witsik?" she asked, softly, because whether or not he followed his own code of courtesy, he was still a Diamond and she was only a timeless; her rudeness would not go unpunished. She only hoped he'd forgotten about her impudence in the clearing.
"Resting." A window appeared in the wall by Antoni's bed, and for the first time in half a century she faced the sun without wincing. It pierced her eyes, but she relished the intensity. She wondered how she had hated it for so long. "After overexerting himself, he carried your body all the way here."
His tone was emotionless, but she heard accusation there and hung her head. "I'm sorry," she mumbled. "Will he recover?"
"I have no doubt. You and I have other things to discuss, however. Are you loyal to me?"
"Of course." Instinctual.
Eubern smiled his half-smile, the one she could not help but fear. "Good. Listen, and I will tell you what I would have you do…"
Later, Antoni stood by Witsik's bed. His eyes opened a crack when she touched his thick hair, a sliver of light that outshone the sun streaming through the windows in his room. "No, don't wake up," she said, pulling back regretfully. "Sleep and get well…"
"I'm fine," he mumbled, but didn't move under the sheets, terribly still. "Well, I'll be fine, anyway. It's good to see you doing so well, Anni. Where are you going?"
She was dressed to travel, a thick coat on her shoulders and heavy boots strapped to her feet. "Away, for a while. Eubern is sending me on an errand."
Witsik's eyes closed, and cleared his throat softly, already drifting away again. "Right," he slurred, tiredly, "listen to Eurbern. Come back…soon; I've missed you. And Dore, too, and…Nu'Bel…everyone. Just need to rest…" His words slowed and finally stopped as he fell asleep again. Antoni pet his hair once, and gathered herself together before leaving the room and the castle.
The clearing was exactly as she remembered it, and she supposed it was only the day before that her pathetic corpse had been slumped next to the stone well. It was obvious now, though, what she was meant to do, to redeem herself. Standing by the well, she looked at the sky instead of the bottomless hole and breathed deeply, smelling the life all around her seemingly for the first time.
She didn't look back. With a smile, Antoni climbed onto the edge of the well and threw herself into the darkness and beyond.