Inside the building reeks of fresh death and fresher growth.
As Arlene creeps through it, guiding herself by apartment numbers and the scant surviving signage, she passes by windows dilated into misshapen staircases and beneath twitching masses of blue-white growths, dangling down from the high ceiling like tangled threads and greasy hair.
She sees no one, not in the oddly large lobby or the small apartment manager's office or the little laundromat just beside it, but she feels eyes trying to pin her in place with every step.
Beneath her feet a freshly grown carpet squishes and spurts, unaccustomed to the weight of her abhuman feet; bursting pustules drench her thin leather shoes in caustic ooze that slides off her skin like butter melting on hot iron.
The temptation to quip rises and she quells it.
In the hallways the feeling of walking into the building's maw grows and grows; she feels the warmth of a tongue beneath her feet and the ceiling's bulging tiles stretch with toothy longing towards the floor. The walls are breathing and the doors flutter with each exhalation—
Arlene flares her body's wings, five snapping perfectly into position and one failing with a shuddering groan as its tendons struggle against cold-welded bone and feathers; no matter, no matter, she tells herself. Her working wings blaze with waste energy, distilled entropy dripping from the lowest pair to paint the carpet in icy dust and a crown of oozing light beating out in toxic waves from about her head, an astringent chemical scent drowning out the witch-rot lingering in the building's every inch. Light lenses around her solitary middle wing as pinprick holes open at the tip of each of its many feathers, an echoing whistle slowly rising through the hallway's distorted air—
Probably she'd lose a real fight, or need to cut away her body to escape. All she really has going for her is a biohazard suit's thaumaturgical counterpart. But she does her best to make clear that she's not a morsel which would go down easily; that even here, even in another's domain, she has defenses enough to stick in its throat.
It works, for now.
She keeps her wings flared as she advances, and the building opens around her; ceiling rising up, ever-narrowing hallway broadening into something halfway between a ballroom and a stomach, and for the first time since she entered she sees ...
Not any more.
They're dancing all through the vast space, feet hardly touching the deep oily puddles which decorate the hall's mounded floor; twisting and twirling in arcs which their body's flesh should never have allowed, their only music the cracks and snaps and pops of overstretched meat.
What was once an elderly lady twirls its head around, staccato pops marking each fresh break in its spine; a child throws its arm across its back with such force that only some strange magnetism keeps it from fleeing its body. A man spins, skin peeling away in long red strips.
"... ah," Arlene says, and curses herself as the sound echoes and builds—
A mercy that the dancers don't react; a greater mercy that the light oozing in thick strands all about her head smells strongly enough to drown out all but the faintest traces of the hall's charnel stink.
Something chitters overhead and she glances up, past her light and the caustic haze filling her air and the handful of dancers twirling high above the floor, caught in those same dangling threads which trailed down into the lobby like fishing lines cast from a far-off perch—
She glances up and she sees the sky, so far beyond the hall's intestinal morass, dripping with the dim red glow of unfamiliar stars; a crimson night untainted by the moon's cleansing light and free of reflected citylight dim yellow glare.
She stares transfixed.
It is only when she sees the hands that her trance breaks, only when she sees those vast things dragging their strings across the sky that she snaps back into herself, wards whining as they desperately try to compensate for the weight suddenly bearing her down—
As she shakes her head in frustration and coaxes her wing's light into a filmy umbrella shading her vision she finally sees the dolls.
There are three of them, or perhaps five, or perhaps thirteen; definitely a prime number but she couldn't say which one or why.
Each of them drips with oily slime, fast-hardening gifts from the pools which some are still crawling out of; their skin runs with yellow-silver-green iridescence, strands of growth falling limply in ever-changing fringes around them and tangled strings trailing behind them.
If she didn't know better she'd call them drones, and yet there is something unmistakably dollish about them and the hunger lingering in their filmy eyes.
Arlene's threads are stretched so tight that she can't suppress a shiver at their boneless movements.
"There's no need to fight," she says with much less belief than the words merit, "I'm looking for someone. When I find her I'll leave—"
The dolls laugh at her as if they were seventeen heads growing from a single body.
"Nothing here, morsel, nothing for you! Just your end!"
If she were anywhere else the glee in their voice would seem comical; but here, in the belly of a witch-house waking more with every moment, surrounded by the broken things becoming a fresh crop of dolls, Arlene finds nothing but horror in their words.
It's what she expected.
Negotiation probably went out the door around when she intruded into its domain (its body, really, but she's not ready for that yet). She still had to try.
Its thirteen dolls (... eleven? two?) are more enthusiastic than skilled.
She skewers the first one (... three?) to get near her on bands of intersecting light, its chest bursting open in a shower of rotting wood and rusty iron; her wings flex as she spits icy death into its exposed heart—
There's nothing there. There never was.
The pair of oily dolls are keeping their distance, probing the edge of her range; the ground beneath her feet shifts, keeps her unsteady as the dancers all around twirl faster and faster, their frantic motion confusing her senses—she keeps on seeing things where they're not—
The ground, at least, is an easy problem to fix; she dilates the pinprick singularities along her wingtips, whispers a prayer to the Power which has graced her with the smallest fragment of its mass—
And immediately overbalances as gravity drags her to the side.
Right, fuck, her bad wing—
A cacophony of dolls slams into her, fists trailing fungal afterimages and maws gaping open like distant doors, teeth sharp enough to gnaw through the bonds of friendship and family alike, sharp things tearing at her wings and neck and eyes and—
One dies against her wingtip, body unravelling into a mess of spaghetti as the microsingularities slurp it up; another's body absorbs a fatal dose of entropy, its body steaming away into undifferentiated energy.
Arlene's skin blisters; proton decay never agrees with her.
Still, two deaths out of nineteen is hardly worth crowing about—she's still smothered, still stuck, struggling to keep from being dragged down into one of those oily pits and desperately trying to keep the dolls away from her dangling wards and the dancers just keep on dancing—
In a fit of pique Arlene wraps herself in a cloud of swirling mass, fibrous strands of reality carefully unwoven from their contents and constants alike by the demonic engine in her body's heart; enough to drive the dolls back as she rips the nearest dancers to shreds.
The building screams and its dolls scream with it.
There are twenty-nine of them now, fewer than before, their existence stretching thin as they muster another assault; the building joins them in a flurry of shifting architecture, toothy ceiling plunging down towards her—
That's okay, though.
It's obviously pained, obviously panicking, so she destroys another few dancers; it tries to drag her out of the hall, away from its weak points (meals? power sources? dolls-to-be? Arlene doesn't really care), but she anchors herself in its lining—
The dolls are scrambling to retreat, desperately trying to pull the remaining dancers along with them, a huge crowd of fearful masks glancing back at her as they flee; she laughs, pulps a few stragglers with bursts of gravitons, shouts in triumph—
Two vast fingertips meet with her neck just between them, one of those far-off hands dipping into the hall to drag her out: the witch-house finally deciding that it's had enough of her.
Its skin is dead starlight and its whorls run with old runes, spells etched into its being; she struggles as best she can but all her weapons run off it like cool air fleeing a fire's hunger, like an infant struggling against a lion—even her blades, sliding smoothly out of her arms for the first time in years, witch-killing weapons from a forgotten war, do nothing.
She's pretty fucked, is the thing, even if it hasn't started to overwrite her existence yet—her wards are sizzling against her skin, failing one after the next, and then she's outside its body, outside the house, suspended beneath a rotting sky in a world that is not her own—
Her body shouldn't need to breathe, no war-body would do something as simple as that, but it still can't; she feels the absence like a boulder crushing her chest. Her microsingularities blink out of existence, her body's engine struggles to find enough reality to split into fuel—
And then it drops her.
She folds her wings just in time to avoid the impact, keeps those vital components safe; but she lands badly, pulps one of her arms and shatters the blade inside it. A shard tears at her cheek; another lodges inside her thigh.
"... fuck," she groans.
The impact even jarred a few of her threads loose.
She's about to cut the rest, about to do her best to retreat—this needs something so much bigger than her, an ever-sung beast's vast claws or a titled witch's ontological mass or a flight of angels—
But then she looks around.
She's crumpled on a rooftop patio, its smooth tiles broken and twisted; a carpet of ceramic flowers reaching up towards the empty sky. Towards the far end they rise into a heap, ceramic giving way to wood and plant and flesh and a face Arlene knows—
"What was I?" Florence asks.