6: If Such Things Have Ends

"What was I?" Florence asks, the question bubbling up unbidden through her seed's vestigial throat and out past teeth already well on their way to hatching. Up in the red sky above the little patio where she keeps that memory of her lesser self her hands flutter uncertainly.

It is not what she expected to ask the shining-blazing-sharp-painspitting thing which crawled into her and took away her toys.

She wanted to threaten it.

To make the thing pulling its strings fear her in the moments before she learns how to consume its diaphanous not-form.

But her seed, that accursed thing with its tuning-fork heart and mind full of squishy little needs—

"Ah," Arlene says, "I think I see."

The gathering conclusion that all of this was her fault is unpleasant; it lingers in her mind like a rotten piece of candy unwarily eaten. She wants to tear it out, to burn away every trace of her mistake, to see the false-sky above crumble into a cascade of ash and fade away into nothingness—

But for now she has more self-control than that.

"Not this," Arlene finally answers. "And you were not meant to be this."

Florence looks faintly confused as she looks at Arlene (and her vast body beneath them shivers in something utterly unlike that confusion as dolls ooze through its veins and its many victims spine and twist in worship like broken toys praying to an unkind child, a wary beast—).

Arlene sighs and continues.

"I made a mistake. You," she gestures at Florence's seed, "asked me to place something unwise in your body so that you could be other than you were. And it has evidently resonated with this," she winces as her voice fills with bile, "this corpse."

Florence's hands twitch. She can't help but want to crush this little monster that claims responsibility for her, to grind it out of existence and slurp down whatever greasy pulp remains to spawn fresh dolls; she reaches down and down towards the patio and up from its floor—

It worked well enough the first time, when she was unprepared for its touch and forced to struggle against it. Why shouldn't it work again, especially with the floor beneath Arlene turned against her too? Why shouldn't she destroy her foe as expediently as she can?

She can't think of a reason.

But, flushed with confused and wrathful power, the witch-house has forgotten that her game has two players.

Arlene's war-form is weak. That has been clear to her for a long time, notwithstanding how easily she dispatched the dolls. But—

(for there is so often a but in declarations like this. Power has countless axes; it is a vector in an abstract space even without considering the question of how it is to be applied)

—she is far from defenseless.

The ground shifts beneath her feet, gravely hands reaching up to grab her; she steps into the air, her damaged wings flickering with unsteady power, and covers everything beneath her in destined uniformity's cold decay. Entropy drips and sizzles like a spreading mist—

But only for a handful of moments before Florence's own defenses swallow it up, and most of the patio with it.

It's a tiny opening, a shuddering skip in the pattern Florence thought she was enacting; it's just barely enough.

Arlene's fingers begin to degrade as soon as they enter the body. Faux-skin flakes away to reveal the layered spell-laden composite beneath, and it ablates just as it meant to; the thing which was Florence's body is caustic to the touch, a thousand flowers gnawing at her hands—

Her insulating charms have long since failed, and so when she finally grasps the rod with fingers that are little more than thick metal twigs nothing prevents its influence from spreading.

Florence's body squishes and oozes as she yanks it out.

By the time it's free, thick strands of pink-red slime its only connection to its former vessel, Arlene's arm is irretrievable and its influence is obvious on her torso: a far, far faster change than Florence experienced. The already abhuman is more susceptible to such exposures.

The rod drops inertly to the ground as Florence's hand grabs her and hauls her aloft into a sky that is already beginning to flake and fade; corruption spreads thickly through her as she unbinds the last of her strings. It's rusty and wrong, like living blood engorging a corpse—

She could leave it at that, could let whatever happens next happen without dispute as she flees back to her home to carefully check herself for any trace of the rod's influence and woefully ask to borrow a neighbor's phone, but old habits take over and rather than risk the rupture of her war-body's core (or, worse, its survival and capture) she whispers a prayer to the distant black hole which feeds its power and unbinds the last of her strings in the moment before it swallows the body up, taint and all.

Florence, broken and insensate, does not see, but the witch-house groans with frustration at the mark this final insult leaves on its hands and in its sky; a swirling, hungry emptiness gnawing at its fading world—

And that is the end of things.

(If such things have ends.)

(This story continues)