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Most of the pilgrims had stopped coming long before the monster began turning to stone. She'd been keeping vigil for too many years already, more out of inertia than any particular devotion -- and what does any living being count for against the inertia of mountains and avalanches? Pitted against that indifferent silence, so far removed from the elders' tales of thrall and exquisite destruction, the few who came made cursory devotions and left.

There was one -- an old woman, feet bloodied from the pilgrim's path, who looked at the monster's lithifying flesh with a quiet reverence and kept vigil beside her until her lantern died.

"Surely," said the monster after some time, when the pilgrim made no move to relight it, "a human cannot navigate these caverns in darkness. In fact I made quite certain of that when I built the place."

"No, Madame," the pilgrim agreed. "But I am approaching the end of my life, and I was lately robbed of my vengeance by the same power that will soon take me. I offer my death to you instead."

It had been a long time since the monster had eaten anyone, and in those days she still felt hunger. After all, that blood-scent from the pilgrim's tattered feet had sent countless others to their deaths before. The monster considered the pilgrim. Old, of course, but strong and heavy too, and not all of it bone and sinew. A sluggish warmth uncoiled through her limbs. Olivine fingers and diabase calves flexed with the faint grind of stone on stone.

The pilgrim saw nothing and heard little more than that, but the monster could feel how richly she listened, how brightly. Waiting.

"You offered your blood," the monster said at last. "That is enough. I and mine have no power against what robbed you of your vengeance."

The pilgrim replied, "It's not vengeance I seek. That story is told. There is nothing more I need for myself."

"I have no blessings for your kin, either, except safety from my appetite. I am giving that to you quite freely, as you can see; much good may it do you when my people war with gods aboveground."

"I have no kin, Madame," said the pilgrim. "My husband and lover are dead, and my only child has sealed her heart away."

Silence hollowed between them.

Eventually the monster asked, "Has she joined the fighting?"

"Yes, Madame," the pilgrim answered, and the monster understood that it was weariness, not resignation, that lent this old woman such unmoving strength.

"If you wish," she said, "I can put your heart somewhere safe and send you to find your daughter. I won't steal it."

The pilgrim sighed. "I wonder how long it has been since she last thought of me as her mother. No, Madame; if I am going to put aside my heart, I would rather that the old thing be put to good use. If you might want it..."

"You are a very strange human."

"Yes, Madame."

"Still, I tell you I don't need your heart, or I would have taken it already. Come here and listen."

The pilgrim obediently felt her way over and pressed her ear against the basalt plane of the monster's chest.

"What do you hear?" asked the monster.

"But nothing, of course. You have no heart."

"Of course. Who on these mountains still lives to remember the days I kept my heart under paltry flesh-and-bone protections? Again: listen."

With an imperious tut, the monster sheared away the cavern sounds -- the papery echo of the pilgrim's breath, the streams' song and jumble -- and lit them both in sudden stillness. Their slightest movements seemed imprinted against the dark.

The pilgrim carefully lowered her ear to the monster's chest again. Hardly a moment had passed, however, before she straightened in astonishment.

"Water!" she exclaimed. "Madame, I swear I heard water running through an immense stone chamber. How it echoed! And here I thought my hearing was as keen as it ever had been."

"Oh, it certainly is," said the monster. "You would have heard nothing, otherwise, for all my help. Your hearing hasn't betrayed you. You heard the place where my heart used to rest, which first petrified while all the rest of me was still flesh."

"And your heart's blood became the water?" the pilgrim ventured.

The monster shook her head minutely, feeling skin tug against stone where it had begun to creep up her neck. "No," she said aloud for the pilgrim's benefit. "Transformation is not so sensible. I remade my heart's old home after a place that I knew to be complete in its emptiness: because I am disgusted with the world; because I keep vigil for my children; because killing holds no more joy for me if I cannot kill the fool who trapped my eldest son, and through him, his siblings.

"To root myself under the mountain, to give up the taste of blood -- I believed that price more than fair for a demon recluse who no longer desired to depend on humans' hearts. So I taught my chest to be empty, and my box to be empty, and they faithfully followed the form of the place I'd chosen, even to the streams that ran through it..."

A wisp of longing still clung to the pilgrim's voice as she asked, "Do you still believe it a fair price?"

"You mean to find out if I've come to regret this. But what is fair? What is it to regret? All I know is waiting, and remembering. I will remember you."

"You honor me, Madame," said the pilgrim, prostrating herself.

"What honor?" the monster replied. "Go. I will keep vigil for the both of us."

A flicker of her eyelid, and the rest of the world flooded back into existence: sound, light, motion. The pilgrim, squinting against the shock of her rekindled lantern, rose and bowed again, deeply. Shadows swung across the cave walls in her wake before she disappeared from view. Slowly, slowly, the light-shock faded from the monster's chest.

Perhaps there were others to make the pilgrimage after the old woman. The mountain took no notice of them.