3: It's Probably Fine

Arlene only notices the absence when she glances at her weekplanner a day later, but as soon as she does she feels it like an aching, toothless socket yawning open in her mind. It's been a busy week but that's no excuse to forget, and really, why didn't Florence come in?

Four days since the surgery, since she implanted that horrible dangerous thing in a woman who wanted nothing more than what it could offer her ...

Arlene sighs as she locks the door and renews the wards, and places a phone call while she waits for a bus to squirm past her.

It rings for longer than she'd like, and the answering machine's beep is far from reassuring.

"Hey Florence, this is Arlene from the apothecary; I'm calling to remind you that you still need to come in for a follow-up. And please do call me back if something has happened."

That's good enough, isn't it? That's her obligation fulfilled: her relationship with Florence is purely professional, transactional, with none of the messy social obligations that bind so many of Arlene's kin. It's none of her concern if she never hears back.

And yet worry still aches in her heart all through the fifth day, as she puppets her chosen body through its motions (it's the same body she used during the surgery, disarmingly masculine and casually confident; it's her favorite for working in).

She leaves another few messages.

The phone remains stubbornly stoic, her only calls a handful of potential customers wanting to schedule consultations and her nominal landlord checking in about the state of the building's pipes.

It's frustratingly worrying.

And then the sixth day after the surgery is her day off.

Most weeks she'd just slip into a different body and enjoy herself; perhaps the lithe one that always puts her in mind of a snake, or the crystal-faced solidity of the one she likes to wear for gardening and flirting. Maybe even the cute little plush one, a cozy thing fit for nothing so much as staying curled up in bed watching whatever show has caught her interest and sipping rosewater from a chilled pitcher ...

All her options sound so appealing!

Well, all but the one she chooses.

House calls are always problematic; she distrusts public transit more with every year she relies on it, and the address that Florence wrote down when she scheduled her surgery is out in the uneasy ruins which ring the city's more vibrant interior. Every time she has to go out that far, Arlene feels rather like she's walking through an uneasy graveyard or across a questionably dead beast's half-rotten tongue. The danger of being in places where witches have faded and died; the threat of things which want to live again.

... Arlene did check on whether Florence lived somewhere safe before the surgery, right? She must have, she tells herself. Or she'd instructed Florence to get a properly earthed hotel room during the recovery period ...

One of those. Maybe it should be standard, just in case?

She makes a note of that as she carefully stretches out her strings and considers which body would best serve her needs. There's her work-form, of course; she wouldn't have to waste time explaining herself. But, she thinks, perhaps another option would be safer—

And when she finally stands in front of Florence's apartment building she finds herself glad that she chose to bring a proper war-body, no matter that its blades itch with disuse and one of its wings is cold-welded shut.

The building reeks of rot.

Arlene can't tell how much of the stench is old decay, still lingering in the place's roots from when its heart was killed (for her senses offer no doubt as to whether it was once a witch-house), and how much is fresh; the fact that both are present is cause enough for concern.

The building looms before her; a mass of protrusions sprouting from a common trunk, bulbous towers crawling skyward and strange protrusions meandering across a blocky surface. It's unpleasantly reminiscent of mushrooms rising from a slab of peat, and its front door is no better. If only she'd stayed home! But now she's here, just turning around would be ...

Incredibly tempting, actually.

Whatever's happening here probably isn't anything to do with Florence, right? And she wasn't stupid; surely she fled, surely she got out in time. It's probably okay.

Besides, war-body or not Arlene isn't qualified to deal with something like whatever this is. She's just a small-witch, and barely that, a thing of tools and rituals and the gentle repetition of her life's patterns.

Even as prepared as she is she's not ready.

She wears a body scavenged from a forgotten war, its greatest weapons unfamiliar and disused; she carries wards built for isolation and ablation, not hungry defenses which turn back the magnified power of assaults upon their sources.

There is every reason not to continue.

So Arlene makes a phone call, and then she goes in anyway.

"Hi, this is—yeah, it's me. I've run across something a bit worrying in the outskirts while following up with one of my customers. Not sure exactly what it is, but ... mmm, yeah, something like that. Things waking up."

She keeps on talking as she stretches, limbering up her body and triple-checking the wards on each of her many strings.

"No, I don't think it's related to her ... just implanting a tuned rod. No, it hasn't been illegal since HER last war ... mhmm. Anyway. I was hoping ..."

By the end of the conversation she's just nodding and frowning, disappointment coating her hollow insides and dripping from her brow.

"... well. I'll let you know how it goes."