"Are you sure this is okay, Miss?"

"Of course it is. Get that lock open."

Doll's fingers, long and fine as needles, dip inside the keyhole once again. She fancies that she can hear the house shudder as she massages its pins, and it's hardly a moment before the door clicks open. Behind her she feels her witch's smile: a vast gash cut into the night's fabric, teeth dripping with the moon's pale blood. Its empty eyes gaze hungrily past her from the sleepy suburban street's every shadow, and Doll thanks her lucky stars that no one's awake to see it.

"Yessss," it hisses into her bones. "Now go inside. Find it find it find-it-find-it-find-it-finditfinditfinditfinditfindit—"

The order curdles her thoughts.

That's how it always goes when her witch gets like this. Its desire warps her world, wears her like a puppet; she has no choice but to obey, can't pray to her departed gods for silence as she pushes the door open, eyes swiveling fearfully in search of the slightest hint of a trap that she won't be allowed to evade. Doll bears the scars of each time her witch's hunger has overwhelmed its care for her, and not with pride.

There's nothing, thankfully, and Doll wishes that she could sigh in relief.

Just a normal house, a normal entryway, a corridor stretching back into darkness. One staircase leads up; another leads down. Doors interrupt the walls in exactly the places Doll expects that they would. Framed photographs hang everywhere between them. There's even an umbrella rack. Goosebumps dance over Doll's skin. It's too normal for her.

"Miss, where do you think—?"

It doesn't let her finish, just screams "FIND IT" again into her thoughts and fills her awareness with its hunger. Her muscles twitch with procedural memory and her teeth tingle with secondhand hunger and her witch's desire drives her forward like a hammer, stumbling through the carpeted dark until one of her shins collides painfully with a stray end table and she freezes as the clatter of ceramic on wood echoes through the silent house.

There's no reply, no creak of curious feet slipping out of warm beds and no click of light's revealing approach. Just her witch prowling outside, the heat of its hunger burning her back, its vast bulk too entwined with the night's fabric and too fearful of revealing itself to follow her inside.

"Miss," she whispers, "I'm going to look in the basement first."

The answer fades behind her as she pads down the carpeted stairs, its hunger echoing with apathy—it doesn't care what she does, not really, not as long as she brings it what it wants. That's how it is.

Sometimes Doll can't help but miss how it felt to be its hunger's target. She knows she shouldn't—she knows she needs to come to terms with being merely one of its tools, with the fact that it possesses her so fully that even being taken from it might only rouse its wrath—but ...

If only her mind's clockwork perfection left less space for her. If only she was just an empty shell for her witch to inhabit. If only ...

It's a miracle that the stairs don't scream beneath her. She doesn't even think to step carefully down them, doesn't remember how to walk silently, but she's lucky today. The carpet is thick and her body is light and not a single creak announces her presence, just the house's darkness shifting uneasily as the house's finished basement comes into view.

A wide, open space. A couch, a television, a low table. Some sort of game table pushed up against the wall, a few boxes in the corner—it's the sort of basement Doll remembers from before her witch found her, a place to hang out and relax while a family reunion proceeds above. She had her first taste of beer in a place like this, and her second taste of indica smoke, and her third kiss. Memories ooze up from the soft, squishy floor with each step forward and she hates it for that.

Once, long ago, her witch promised that it would take all her memories away and lock them in its burning heart. It promised that she would never be anything but its perfect doll.

That was a lie, of course.

The only part of her it took was the willful kernel that might have hated her for what it did and what it didn't.

There's something familiar about the way the floor throbs beneath her feet, something about the way the carpet's countless slimy fibers climb sluglike up her boots' aged leather surface and probe the gaps between their laces—

The basement has other things too.

One door opens cautiously beneath the stairs, and through it Doll can see the hint of a toilet's rim. A mirror-graced sink drips softly, not at all reassuring. One door is a small afterthought, a concession to the existence of unwanted crawlspaces. One door's threshold glows with soft red light. Doll can't see anything through its keyhole when she peers through, just the darkness of a metal plate keeping the outside safe from whatever is within.

It's a better lock than the one on the front door.

It almost manages to challenge her.

The room beyond is windowless. Its walls are solid and its bare concrete floor slopes down towards a rusty drain. It's bright, by the standards of the rest of the house; its ceiling's many bulbs drip deep red light down through a thick layer of plexiglass. It smells like Gem, just the faintest whiff of the spicy flowers and sweet rot that clusters along her skin and lingers in the hollow of her neck, and Doll feels her witch's hunger twitching eagerly at the back of her mind as it drinks deep of her senses.

"Uh, are you ...?" Doll whispers.

Nothing answers.

The smell lingers in her nose as she tiptoes back up the stairs and eyes the second flight's perilous ascent to the house's final floor. Gem's smell always does; no wonder it drives her witch so crazy. Its impatience is palpable, its eyes stare inwards through every window and its tongues drift hungrily along the place where its lips become the world. Doll tries not to let it distract her as she climbs the stairs, only mostly succeeds, her hand reflexively drifting towards the banister's shadow-greased wood—smooth and slippery beneath her sharp fingers, each touch marking her with its oily sheen. Something laughs at her from the framed photographs that crowd the walls, a cruel smile so unlike the happy faces that house's darkness doesn't let her see within the brightly colored frames.

An eternity later she finds herself at the top of the stairs. Darkness laps against her feet, a presence looming behind her, an unspoken fear curling in the back of her mind. There's only one window here, one dark rectangle waiting at the end of the hall, past all the carefully labelled doors—names that Doll shouldn't know, that she can't possibly know, that she was promised that she'd never know again—

A toilet flushes and the bathroom door creaks open. Light spills out to fill the hallway, light that burns away the darkness behind her back and the darkness outside, a charmed circle of normalcy. And there, standing within it, rubbing her eyes and blearily staring at her—

"What are you doing?" Gem asks. "Shouldn't you be in bed, ░░░░?"

The name dissolves in static.

Doll's witch didn't lie about that part of what it took from her.

She stares blankly as Gem walks towards her, nose twitching at her smell. So much stronger here than it was below, sleepy sweat dripping down her scaled skin and making her nightgown cling tightly against conchoidal fracture planes.

Gem reaches out to touch her cheek and Doll doesn't recoil, doesn't move at all until Gem's kind words reach her ears.

"Are you okay, bro?" Gem asks, "you're burning up. Have you been out wandering again?"

"It-I-no, just-why did you call me that?"

"Because you're my brother? Are you having a m-," Gem pauses to yawn, "a moment again? Look, I think I know where your meds are, just stay there ..."

She turns to leave and Doll grabs her hand, pulls her back, both of them teetering unsteadily at the top of the stairs, their witch's smile pressing against the window at the end of the hallway, filling up its darkness with flashing teeth and dripping hunger—

"That's not what I am, Gem. And this isn't what you are."

Gem sighs. "This again? Really, you just need to take your meds, it's fine."

She tries to pull herself free of Doll's grip, fails, tries to pull Doll along with her. The carpet's glistening surface doesn't offer enough traction for Doll to stop her and she's carried along, past doors marked by names she can't recognize and on to one she can't read, its scarred wood surface plastered with band posters, a cacophony of illegible names and angry faces.

Doll lets go of her as she reaches for the doorknob, retreats back along the hallway. She can't bear to see what's inside, doesn't want to know if it will dissolve in the same static as the name that was never really hers or if the sight will shatter her and send her spiraling back into the shape she never really was.

The entire house creaks as Gem comes back into the hallway, little orange cylinder clutched in one hand. It rattles as she walks towards Doll and the house's bones rattle with it, a pressure growing outside, her witch's impatience oozing in to a place that was never built to contain it.

Gem's reading the label, mumbling beneath her breath. "Take one by mouth in the morning and evening ... oh, but you've been off your meds for a while, haven't you, ░░░░? So I'll just give you two." The bottle opens easily in Gem's practiced hands; Doll's heels greet the shadows that fill the staircase's eager void. "Open up, ░░░░. Everything will be fine in a moment."

Doll doesn't cooperate.

A moment of struggle and the orange pillbottle disappears down the stairs; another moment and Doll's hand is wrapped around Gem's wrist, squeezing hard, trying to get her to drop the pills. Struggling, bodies contorting, Gem's frustration meeting Doll's stubborn fear, the house creaking around them—

They're evenly matched. Gem has the height advantage, Doll's just a shade stronger, won't let Gem free her hands for long enough to force her to open her mouth, won't let Gem force her down to the floor like she has so many times before. Their stalemate could last for hours.

Would, except that Gem cheats.

"Dad! ░░░░ is having a moment!"

A sleepy groan answers her from behind one of the doors, unintelligible at first and only unwillingly resolving into words. "Ugh, again? I'll be there in a moment ..." The noises of a large body stretching; a boneshakingly deep nod and a hand fumbling for light. The end of hope rubbing the sleep out of its eyes.

Gem smiles triumphantly and the window at the end of the hallway shatters.

The thing that crawls inside isn't Doll's witch in any way that matters, is barely even a skin it's wearing—it's a weapon, a tool, a vast insectoid body bristling with pincers and stingers and needle-sharp legs, contorting and bulging and breaking the house around it as it forces its way inside. Gem halfway turns to look, a shocked scream rising from her perfect mouth, and Doll takes advantage: a final yank, her body's entire weight put behind it, pulling both of them off their feet—

Gem falls, hand opening, pills forgotten, and Doll falls with her—down into darkness, down into the fear that has been lapping against her feet for as long as she's been inside the house, as long as she's been away from her Witch's reassuring presence, the fear of a world which doesn't turn around her, which doesn't care about her, down past photographs of a life that was never hers and souvenirs from places she has never been—

Most people do not die from falling down the stairs.

Nor do most entities.

Statistics do not offer protection. Nor do they offer reassurance that you can't possibly be what you desperately want and fear. They are not a spell that you can cast on the world or a prayer to whisper to uncaring gods: they will never tell you anything about what you are except in relation to the population you exist in.

Thankfully for Doll, her witch doesn't care about any of that: most dolls do not die because they fell down the stairs, and so she does not. Its hands catch her, and its hands catch Gem, and the world breaks around them as it pulls them into its heart (or its mouth; Doll has never been particularly clear about that), and that's the end of their little adventure—

Except it isn't.

Not really.

It's not as simple as that.

But it's nice to pretend that it is.

Ignore the blood. Ignore the screams. Ignore what happens to the man who thinks that he's Gem's father. Ignore how long it will take for Gem to remember what she is, and ignore the existence of the trap which Doll still isn't free of—

Ignore it all.