maybeElse

content warnings: 2nd person perspective, an enormous spider, corruption, minds being overwritten with higher purposes, oviposition, body horror(?), extremely horny, smut.


A looming spider, a horrid beast! Its chelicerae drip with purple-gold venom; it picks its way through the world on claws as sharp as needles! With each step its swollen abdomen dips to touch the ground; the air shivers before its mass.

What a fate, to encounter such a monster!

And yet—

Its pedipalps hang thick with bells, each of a different size, each carefully tied to the rough hairs that coat those waving appendages; more bells adorn its legs. Some dangle from silken thread and some are held by rings which pierce through the beast's chitin.

It doesn't make a sound as it moves; what skill it must possess, what care it must take, to refuse to permit even one of its bells to chime! How beautifully they shine in your lantern's dim light, copper and silver and gold all so bright against its mottled chitin; how odd that not one has begun to tarnish.

And its eyes, its eyes! The central pair staring vast and dark, seeming almost too large for its head, and the layers of ever-smaller eyes which ring them—it drinks up the whole world, its focus impossible to see—

Yet it seems like it's looking at you, doesn't it?

You've certainly been doing your best to get its attention, tugging on its web, struggling against all those sticky strands that hold you fast. Drawing it closer.

Its bells chime for the very first time as it extends one of its pedipalps towards you; it's sharp and soft against your cheek, cold where a tiny bell nudges you, pleasantly warm otherwise. It lingers there for a second, taking in your scent and tasting your skin, then runs down your neck, along your chest and stomach and—

You squeak and it pulls back in one abrupt motion, the cave suddenly full of a jangling cacophony. Every bell rings, and only slowly falls silent. Its eyes seem …

Well, they seem just as they did before. Nothing about its look has changed; just a slight shift in its stance, open curiosity giving way to … something. You can't quite tell, and isn't that a pity?

It regards you its new position, its eyes drinking up your futile struggles for freedom; the web seems to cling tighter to you with every moment, and part of you wishes that you hadn't taken your clothes off before throwing yourself in—at least then you'd have some insulation from it. Maybe even been able to slip out of your clothes to find freedom in a way that your skin would never willingly permit.

Why did you do this, again?

Why willingly throw yourself into a web and draw its mistress's attention?

It seemed like a good idea at the time, as all such things do, as all regrets try to justify themselves. It seemed like it might be fun—and if this body is ruined, well, you'll just wake up back in your proper one, right? It will all be fine.

… right?

The spider stares, and then it shakes itself in a way wholly unlike a dog might. Its pedipalps shake and shiver and sway, its bells chime first rhythmically and then in strange harmonies—

It's almost like it's trying to sign something at you, or cast a spell; but no meaning emerges from its motions and no telltale glow betrays its gathering magic. It just jangles and signs and slowly, slowly its bells cohere into something like a song, a rhythm dripping with intent.

A voice.

“… a lovely prey, but why have you come here?” it asks. “Why have you tugged at my web and drawn me out?”

“Uh,” you say with unbridled cleverness, “I tripped.”

The spider's bells twitch in something very much like a laugh.

“A prey-thing which takes off its clothes in the pit before tripping into a web! How polite!”

“Yes, well—”

“But you are still prey, and with not a trace of an ambush in sight …”

Its voice dissolves into dissonant chimes as it steps back towards you; you can practically smell your own fear, shot through with that traitorous pang of arousal (that voice that led you here, that will surely end up costing you this body, that laughs in the back of your mind), so how much must the spider's senses be able to pick out?

Its pedipalps twitch just inches away from your bare skin. Soaking up that hot spicy smell, the tang of sweat and—

Venom drips freely from its chelicerae, more now than before: thick and multicolored, a brilliant purple shot through with golden veins. Its fangs, now slowly extending towards you, flow just as freely—and surely that shouldn't be! Surely such a waste of venom must mean something, some overproduction or … it's abdomen is so very swollen. Perhaps …

But wondering doesn't slow the spider down one bit, and neither does your halfhearted pleading for freedom; its fangs press against your stomach's soft flesh, then slip inside.

They're only inside you for a moment, hardly any time at all. A second of pain gives way to seeping warmth, to something starting to spread through your blood and tissue; just that, and thezn they're gone, carefully folded away once again.

“W-what did you do?”

The spider doesn't answer; not a single one of its bells chimes. It just watches.

Heat curls in the pit of your stomach and drifts out through you in little twinges of sensation; the warmth of the venom starting to saturate you, sapping the strength from your limbs and pooling like hot honey all through your body. It burns in the pit of your stomach, tugs at your tightening nipples and drips down towards your crotch; it plucks strings that thrum through your mind.

And all that warmth, all that heat—

It's a fire begging to be fed, something hungry and needy gently taking over as your mind dissolves into purple clouds. You couldn't say whether it's you or your body or something else trying to press your thighs together, trying to get even the slightest bit of sensation; but the web holds you unbearably tight and there's nothing but your own fading struggles and the cool cavern air against your too-hot skin.

And through it all the spider just sits and waits and watches, as your voice spills out like blood from an unstaunched wound and your body squirms and the need burning inside you grows and grows—

The wait is unbearable, but that's the problem with being taken like this: monsters run on their own time.


It's hard to say how long the spider makes you wait before its next move. Time slips away from you as quickly as hot humid air flees your lungs, each panting breath carrying you into the next pounding heartbeat, and through it all the spider's venom burns brighter through your restrained body—so small, so insignificant, next to its silent majesty! A little mammalian thing, finally learning that it is nothing more than prey for those who stalk through the shadows and weave their webs through places where only those prey who have forgotten what they are would dare to go—

It feels so fucking nice to be prey.

To feel the spider's attention resting upon you; that vast mind, that thing so much larger than a little prey-thing like you could ever understand, focused upon you. Watching as its venom runs through you, changes you—

These aren't your thoughts.

Surely they're not.

They blaze in your mind with all the unbearable needy heat that the spider's venom has filled your body with, and surely that must mean something, right? But that thought drips and melts beneath the heat, and it feels so good to think about the spider, to let your mind blaze with the knowledge of how good its attention feels—

You know that it's all you need in a way that you've never known anything before. That all a prey can hope for, can want, can dream of is to be taken and used and devoured by something so far beyond it that it might as well be a god, something that warps the world within its web just as your mind warps around the thought of it—

It feels better than any orgasm ever has. It burns in your mind like a lover's touch, like finally realizing who and what you are, like every ounce of delight you have ever felt.

You hardly notice the spider starting to move, to approach you once again, but you certainly hear its voice. It calls you its prey and you shudder and moan; it says you're delicious and you beg it to have a taste. Its words dissolve as its cool body presses against yours and you whimper heartfelt prayers, desperately hoping that it won't pull back again—if it did you would break, you would shatter, you would despair as you never have before—

Thankfully it doesn't.

Something cold and slick runs across your body, such a contrast to the heat burning in every millimeter of your skin! You half-feel your body fall away from the sticky web, lifted by something smooth and cool; the spider's legs, perhaps? It hardly matters. All you know is that this fresh attention being paid to you feels so good—your goddess finally deigning to touch your skin, to lift you up—your limbs are too limp and floppy for you to properly show your affection, but your tongue slips so eagerly out of your mouth to lavish its chitinous underbelly with all the worshipful licks and kisses you can possibly muster—

It probably can't feel a thing; chitin doesn't usually have nerves, does it? That doesn't matter. Worship isn't about that.

Your skin squishes oddly beneath its legs as it carefully positions you beneath it; your entire body is too soft, too stretchy, and far, far too sensitive. It's like the hot need burning in your core is melting you, and the feeling of your body shifting and adjusting with every touch is almost indescribable. Pleasure beyond pain, beyond thought, beyond sensation—

And then you're finally in position.

And you feel something nudging against your thighs, something long and thick and burning with almost as much heat as you are, hotter than any part of your goddess's body that you've felt so far—

Your goddess's voice chimes in praise above you as it presses you down, as your body stretches around it; even with whatever its venom has done to you it's almost too much, pleasure and pain blending into something greater than either—the joy of being taken, of being used the way all prey are meant to be used, of your goddess's certainty that you're ready for whatever it has to give you—

It presses you down and you're so unbearably full. You'd be broken so many times over if your body was still anything resembling human, if the borrowed doll-self you'd slipped your mind into didn't take to the venom so well.

Even as stretchy and gooey as you are—as it has made you—the first egg almost breaks you.

Your goddess's ovipositor distends inside you, swelling obscenely, bulging and stretching and forcing your body to stretch with it, to open in a way you have never been opened before—you hear your scream as if from a very long distance away, an agonized howl bubbling out of whatever is left of your mind.

You scream as it passes into you, and you scream as its size settles into you, and only then are you rewarded—not with mercy, not by your goddess pulling out of you and letting you collapse into a ruined pile on the floor, for goddesses have little truck with mercy.

It shifts around you and suddenly its chelicerae are right in front of your face, fangs shining with flowing venom. It's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen, a glass of ice-cold water offered after days spent wandering a parched desert, and all you can do is lock your lips around the nearest one and drink as deeply and desperately as you can. You hardly even feel the other one slide into your neck, just your body heating up, burning with a need as bright as the sun—to feel your goddess's eggs sliding into you, to feel their warmth inside you, for it to use you as a perfect little incubator for its brood—

And it obliges.


Your goddess breaks you.

For such a long time there is nothing inside your head but worship and sensation; hardly even pleasure, just the flow of moment into moment, the pressure of egg after egg, your body clenching and relaxing and opening more and more, being remade into the perfect vessel—

It's a long time after it pulls out of you before you're able to think anything at all, much less coherent thoughts; it wraps you in silk and carefully suspends you from the center of its web, the place where it waited before your struggles called it out; it feels like you're floating, like you're a cloud drifting through the cavern, like you're a soft pillow wrapped in insulating warmth and full of its divine brood.

It's paradise.

It's all you ever wanted.

It's over far too soon.

For this isn't really your body, no matter how you might pretend. It's a borrowed doll-form, a vessel for your mind just as much as for your goddess: a thing of witchwork and woven flesh. Your true body sleeps back in the city's towering spires, impossibly far above the cavernous depths where you found your goddess—

And no matter how full of divine venom you are, certain processes continue.

A timer runs out; a counter increments. Failsafes click into action.

And you wake up back in your own body.

Your true body.

A form which has never known the touch of your goddess's venom, which has never felt its touch—it feels so empty! So wrong! This can't be you, can it? This thing of constricting bone and unyielding skin, this horrid thing that you've found yourself confined to once again—

It's not hard to sneak back into the caverns.

It's really not hard at all.

There's a token guard on the gates, a boorish old thing who's supposed to make sure that only doll-bodies pass through; they don't take it too seriously, beyond a token second spent peering at your drawn-on barcode through a magnifying glass that seen better days. They hardly seem to care—after all, what sort of person would risk their own body like this?

No one would.

No one at all.

That part is so very easy.

The rest of the journey is harder.

Doll-bodies enjoy so many advantages that your true self does not, so many little enhancements; the journey hardly felt like anything the first time around, but now it leaves you weak and winded, skin scraped and muscles aching. It's a little miracle that you don't fall to your death, that you make it through safely—your goddess must be watching over you with its many eyes.

Still, you're sad and bedraggled by the time you stumble back into its nest and kneel before it, staring up with desperate longing—it's so beautiful! Those shining bells, that elegantly hued chitin, those wonderful eyes—and next to it your warped doll-body, distended, half-translucent, wrapped in shining silk; its brood growing within.

You hope it has more to give.

It must have more to give.

A drop of its venom falls to the floor and you feel your crotch twitch; it's really all you can do to resist the urge to lap it up, and the only reason you do resist is the curious look which your goddess has fixed on you.

“You look familiar, little prey-thing.”

Its voice is just as wonderful as you remembered.

“Y-yes, goddess. I was, uh,” you gesture at its incubator, “that was me.”

It tilts its head, and something deep inside its eyes seems to shift; there's a telltale glimmer of spell-light, of something Changing. You feel its web stretching out around you, and you so caught in it, pinned and picked apart by something that is more than you can ever hope to be—

And then its bells chime once more.

“A prey who escapes without escaping and then comes back to me. Just as odd as when you drew me out!”

You blush; you can't help it.

“I just … I just want to serve you more, goddess. To be properly yours, not just in a doll-body …”

It somehow manages to make its ringing voice sound like a grin; the skill which which is pedipalps move is mesmerizing even now.

“Then bring me more prey, little prey-thing.”

“M-more?”

“I will give you a gift, prey, and you will use it to draw in all the prey-things that fear to tread so deep, and my brood will flourish. Here—”

It moves so quickly: one moment it's crouched in the center of its web and the next it's right in front of you, a single fang pressing against your forehead. The core of your body flushes with heat at its proximity, at the feeling of its touch, at the venom seeping into you through that tiny cut and dripping down your face and into your eyes and nose and mouth, soaking into you—

Her venom is inside you, just as it was before and yet somehow so unlike it was before: a purple haze shot through with gold settling across your mind, beautiful fog filling your senses—

And suddenly you understand.

You understand exactly what your goddess means for you to do, and how it means for you to do it; and you feel the weight of its will drawing you onwards, its mind selecting the path you will take. You feel its Purpose fill you just as thoroughly as its eggs filled your doll-body, and it feels better than you could have ever expected—

Of course it does.

You are chosen.

Your goddess trusts you.

It has given you the power to write its will into the world.

All you have to do is obey.

content notes: a sad ending.

“Be a dear and fetch my dancing body, will you? I feel like going out tonight.”

Cam doesn't bother to reply to his nameless mxtress, not with his mainspring as deteriorated as it is; he just opens the closet and carefully pulls out the shell they want.

Each shell is different, dozens of bodies for every purpose they might possibly need: bodies for strength and speed and stealth, bodies for all the quiet arts of the courtroom and boudoir, bodies they haven't worn in years and bodies worn thin from overuse.

When they first got Cam, bringing him into their home just days after his conversion, he thought it was overwhelming. Terrifying, even!

All those headless forms, thin jointed plastic and hardened glass and even, there in the far back, the glimmer of deadly iron …

Now it's routine.

Beautiful, even.

He'll never get tired of how his mxtress's fluid form looks as it pours into a new shell; the rainbow shimmers coruscating across their surface, the way their body's surface flexes and changes—

And the way their face swims into existence, coalescing like sunlight on water in the emptiness above each body's truncated neck. A mirage perfectly fit to their current mood—to who they are today—in a way that the premade faces worn by so many of the others never could.

It doesn't take Cam long to find the right body. It's a lithe, slender thing draped all about with hollow fronds; his mxtress's fluid form will flow out into them, fill them, and they'll dance through the night in a cloud of themself.

… or so Cam imagines.

Dolls aren't invited to society parties.

Still! That's not important. It's all about his mxtress's happiness, right? Good dolls find all the joy they need in the satisfaction of being a good and proper tool.

That's … that's all it's about.

There's something between a scaffold and a cage in the center of his mxtress's dressing room, a device for holding empty bodies steady when they're out of the closet. It has other uses too, buttons and levers Cam has never been taught, but most things do.

His mxtress paces behind him as he locks the fresh body into place; they're so impatient today! Even without a word, he can feel their haste burning against his back.

It's not like them at all.

The final latch locks with a quiet clip, and he turns to them.

“I'm ready to help you transfer, mxtress.”

His voice creaks laboriously; really, why hasn't he already gone in to get his mainspring fixed? He's been putting it off for so very long ...

His mxtress doesn't seem to notice.

“Yes, Chamomile, please do.”

They kneel before him, and he suppresses a shiver at the twisted shapes that fill their face for just a second as the mirage shatters.

He shivers again (such a different sort of shiver!) as the first grasping pseudopods rise up out of their truncated neck, gently waving—

Their fluid form is a sauna rising up to engulf him, a wave of heat saturating his false-ceramic skin; as he bends down to meet them he feels his gears move a bit more smoothly, his body reacting to their nearness just as it always does.

But …

Deep within his chest, his mainspring unwinds. No matter how strange its substrate is, no matter how carefully dreams and soulstuff and stolen paradox were alloyed to make his heart, it cannot help but respond to the heat.

He can't even make the handful of steps, not before—

The first thing he feels when he wakes is the heat in his chest; a pulsing, throbbing heat, a tightness around his mainspring. His eyes open smoothly; his limbs don't move.

He's on the floor, on his back; not a place where he should be.

The ground doesn't feel hard.

How odd.

There's something wrapped around him, something squeezing through the cracks in his body; something hot and soft and—

“Cam! Are you okay, Cam?” He feels their voice all through his body, humming in his skin. “I don't have your winding key but I think this is—”

“I'm fine, mxtress. I feel …” Whatever's happening in his mainspring, he can't feel any of the deterioration that's dogged his footsteps. Just cozy heat. “I feel Right.”

“Oh thank the goddesses. Do you think you can get up?”

Cam tries. He really does!

It's just that his body isn't quite responding, and even if it was he can tell that his mxtress's weight would make it quite impossible to get up—even spread out across (and inside) him as they are, they've completely thrown off his center of gravity.

“I'm sorry, mxtress …”

“Oh, Chamomile … here, let me walk you to bed.” He feels the parts of them that are already inside him shift, flowing out into his limbs; and the rest of them, the bits of soft flowing slime that were cushioning his body, recede into him.

He's so full his gears can hardly spin.

When his mxtress sits up, his body sits up with them; such an unfamiliar movement, full of the little quirks that distinguish his body language from theirs. For a moment his gears grind and seize, for a moment it hurts, but then his mxtress shifts and all is smooth.

The walk to his bed is strange, as moving to another body's rhythm always starts out strange; she moves confidently where he clung to walls, and his feet echo with a tread that he would never dare to make were he on his own.

It all feels so unreal.

He feels like he's floating.

It takes almost no time at all before he feels his body gently lay down in bed—it's far sooner than he expects, even with his mxtress walking faster than he ever dares to. Perhaps there's something wrong with his clock.

Perhaps …

He's so tired.

All the energy and motion that filled him recedes with the departure of his mxtress.

He hardly hears their voice promising to get a repairwitch, promising that he'll be all better soon, apologizing for not noticing sooner. His gears grind and all he wants is to rest …

It will be fine, right?

It will, he hears them say from so very far away.

Everything will be fine.

Just sleep for a bit, Chamomile.

Everything will be better when you wake.

The Witch of Forgotten Sounds (such an unwieldy title! She preferred to go by “Terri, with an i”) woke to find a doll in her bed.

An everyday occurrence for many witches, of course, but Terri made a point of not keeping dolls (“they're always so busy, I can't stand it!”).

She didn't scream.

Witches are made of better stuff than that.

Instead she carefully untangled the doll's limbs from her own, slipped out of bed, and stepped into her screaming room (a converted closet) to scream herself hoarse.

She had good lungs, so it took a while.

By the time she was done the doll had also woken up, and so when she finally cracked open the door of her screaming room to peek outside (doing her best not to let any of the jackets she kept there flow out around her), she found that her bed was empty.

Perhaps, Terri wondered, perhaps—was it just a dream? A nightmare? Was she actually awake, or still dreaming? Perhaps she was not a witch at all but a lesser creature dreaming, and perhaps she did not exist at all—

She slapped herself as hard as she could manage.

Besides, she could hear Noises Happening in her tiny kitchen. The sizzle of a frying pan and the beep of a timer, the burble of water filling a pot, even the warm nuttiness of hot butter …

Such lovely sounds!

And such a good incentive not to get lost inside her head.

Because there was a DOLL IN HER KITCHEN, doing goddess-knows-what with the (admittedly extremely scant) contents of her fridge, poking its little nose in where it was not meant to be! And such a state of affairs could not be allowed to continue!

Terri was absolutely ready to give the doll a good talking to when she walked into the kitchen. She really, truly was.

But …

How do you give something a talking to when it's just handed you a plate of the most delicious omelet you've ever heard? Really, how?

The doll wisely waited until her mouth was full to cheerily say “good morning, miss! I hope you slept well.” Terri was already smiling at the feeling of all the omelet's delicious sounds filling her mouth and dissolving on her tongue, so she couldn't help but smile in reply.

And when she was done with the omelet there was a cup of morning tea for her to drink, and then there was the sparkling sounds of her morning shower heated to precisely the right temperature, and then she was getting dressed and walking out the door—

She was just in time to catch her bus, and it was only as the crowded thing shuffled its way down the street and Terri swayed back and forth in the polyp field that filled its innards that she really started to wonder what the fuck had just happened.

It was baffling.

The next few days proceeded in much the same manner. The doll (definitely not her doll) was as busy as ever a doll has been, and somehow conspired to never quite give her a chance to really talk to it, and somehow seemed to perfectly know her preferences and desires.

It was just … she wanted to scream! At the doll, not at her screaming room!

She just.

It just wouldn't give her a chance to!

Well, not until the weekend, anyway. Not until she had a day when she didn't need to do anything, when its machinations couldn't keep her busy.

But even so, they were walking along the lake by the time she finished the last of the blintzes (delicious little cylinders full of echoing warmth and the subtle songs of fruit) it had brought along for their walk and was finally able to really actually TALK.

After all that time you'd think that she'd be able to come up with something at least slightly eloquent, but the best she could manage was “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.”

“Yes, miss?” the doll replied.

“WHO ARE YOU?!”

“I'm your doll, miss!”

“That-that's not an answer!”

“I'm sorry, miss, but you haven't given me a name yet so it's all the answer I can give.”

The doll didn't sound at all sorry.

“I don't have a doll.”

“But I'm your doll, miss.”

“I … no! You're not! I don't even like dolls! They're so, so …”

“So what, miss?”

That was really the last straw for Terri; clearly talking wasn't going to work. So she just screamed.

It was a good scream. She wasn't the Witch of Forgotten Sounds for nothing, no matter how much she disliked the title. She filled her voice with so many things—

with the aching pain of twisting metal and the echoing cracks of newborn volcanos, with the death cries of forgotten krakens and the bellows of bloodcrazed dinosaurs; she screamed like the end of the world and the sun's seed hatching into life countless millennia ago

—and then she let it loose into the world.

After the last echoes of falling buildings faded, after the cracks in the sky stitched themselves closed and the sun uncovered its face and the only sounds where the whimpers of survivors and far-off sirens, she closed her jaw.

The doll was still standing next to her, entirely unscathed save for a few stray hairs.

“… what the fuck.”

“This one would be a poor servant if it were destroyed by its mistress's magic, miss.” It sounded so fucking smug. “It tries its best to be a good servant.”

Terri stared at it, and it demurely lowered its eyes. She could feel another scream gathering in her lungs, another outpouring of magic, but …

Well.

If that hadn't done anything, then another one wouldn't either. She could recognize that, even if she hated it.

And … well, it's not like it was making her life worse. If anything it was saving her time, streamlining all her tasks … and the food!

… maybe, Terri thought, maybe this wasn't that bad. Even if the doll somehow managed to smile infuriating just as she decided that.

“… we should get out of here before the cops show up. I don't want to have to pay damages again.”

“Of course, miss!”

“And you're not my doll. I'm just letting you stay with me because you're useful.”

The doll just smiled at her.

“… ugh, fuck it. Let's go.”

content warnings: cruelty, pet death, bad end


Precious little witch-to-be, caught in a trap—

Cold iron teeth cling to her ankle, slowly warming in her blood's heat; she doesn't have the strength to move, can't drag herself across the smiling tiles. The door's right there: those few feet might as well be miles.

She can't think how this happened.

Just moments ago she was out on the street, wandering through autumn's dripping red and yellow, just enjoying the season. Cold, crisp air filling her lungs and the warmth of her oversized caterpillar of a familiar around her neck.

An idle day spent in idle play, and then—

There's not even anyone here. It's just a trap, just pain and fear; she can't help but whimper as her struggles grind the teeth against her bones and rip her tendons a bit more, but that's okay. Maybe she has enough time.

Her familiar squeezes tighter around her neck, sharing its warmth with her; its fur is fuzzy and stiff, its many eyes full of worry. It can't talk, won't be able to for years and years, but she feels its concern anyway.

“I'll be fine,” she murmurs. It does worry so …

Blood's still dripping from her ankle, slowly heating the iron: such a simple magic, something her instructor learned from studying mothbeasts, but no less potent. Just a bit longer and the iron trap holding her down will be part of her: just a bit longer and she'll be free.

She strains against it, stretches her Self out beyond her skin; she can feel her blood slowly congealing, the warm life seeping out of her—

Suddenly she Feels the blood-warmed iron teeth drawn tight around her ankle. Flesh dripping into her mouth, teeth overflowing her jaw—

It hurts to wrench her mouth open. Her teeth tear her leg even more than they already had; she won't be able to walk on it for months, might need to replace it entirely. But in that fleeting moment she yanks her leg away, and when the trap snaps shut again she's free.

Well, free enough to crawl.

If she can just get outside, out into the swirling leaves and golden sunlight, she'll be fine. She knows she will. She can practically hear her friends' voices, the self-assured chatter of witchlings who've only ever felt their power wax—

She crawls, and her familiar crawls with her.

It's better at it than she is.

It glances back as it reaches the door, tiny antenna twitching with determination, unsure whether it should go for help or stay with her; its last moment of indecision seared into her eyes.

Poor little witch-to-be's out of time, you see, not watching her surroundings; the first she's aware of the hunter is their heel coming down. She can't look away, doesn't even have the time to scream as they press down—

Warm rainbow goop splatters her face, stains the floor with weeping fractals; the hunter doesn't laugh, but their boot lets out a long guffaw as it starts to lick itself clean. Her familiar's broken body squirms and dribbles, dying neurons firing in twitching confusion—

And then it's still.

She doesn't even move as the hunter pins her to the ground, though she shudders at feeling its boot on her back; the whiplash of the shattered bond with her familiar leaves her dazed and woozy, struggling to think through gaping emptiness.

They're rough with her, as hunters are: they bind her arms and drag her to her feet, don't bother to bandage her leg as they hustle her out the back to a waiting van. Perhaps they go back inside to reset the trap, perhaps they just start to drive—she can't tell. There's an iron cage in the back, a witchwork lifesink spewing out from the splayed ribs of a half-broken doll; even if she had more blood to spill that trick wouldn't work again. The lifesink would slurp up whatever magic she could bring to bear.

It tries to drink her life up as the van jostles and bumps, as sudden turns fling her against the bars of the cage; each touch gnaws at her, fills her with an aching sucking pain so unlike the Voids she knows.

It's the emptiness of a bone sucked dry, the ache of marrow unwillingly torn from its proper place; it's a feeling that even her dissociation can't deny. It's the creeping rot of feeling her familiar die just feet away from her, of not being able to do a thing to help it—

Each time the van's poor suspension throws her against the cage's bars she sees its eyes pleading for her to save it, its stubby little antenna waving in panic and fear and pain.

When the van finally stops she's curled up in the center of the cage, desperate to stay away from its bars. She doesn't struggle as the hunter pulls her out, nor as they clamp a collar around her neck; she hardly looks up at the building before her, sun-seared brick slowly withering beneath the relentless assault of clinging ivy, a door like a gaping mouth and windows like shuttered eyes; a collared doll with a too-familiar face opens the door and haltingly welcomes the hunter home.

Behind her in the van she can hear the the broken doll mewling as she's led into her new home.

The hunter's home.

For the last few months she's asked you the same question every week.

“Are you sure you don't want it to be a tattoo instead? Something permanent?”

Each time you answer more or less the same way. You're sure, you really are; she doesn't need to ask. You'd tell her if …

You'd tell her.

But you won't need to.

You're more sure of that than you've been of anything except the need which first led you to her, back in those dreary days you can hardly remember now; back before you were really a person, just an empty shell pretending.

But she keeps on asking.

Her hand is as steady as it ever was, the brush as warm, the elaborate sigils that stretch across your bare back as charged with magic; afterwards you always feel bright and sparkly, like fresh life was just poured into you, but …

When you first moved in with her, all those days ago, you always jumped her as soon as the sigils dried. It seemed only right to share your joy at the body she was slowly giving you, to revel in the miracle of your flesh.

You've stopped doing that.

She just keeps on asking that question! And whatever doubts she has flow into you and poison your joy; a fearful seed grows in you as well, a mirror to the one you see in her.

It hurts.

Of course it hurts.

You know that pulling it into the light will hurt more.

… but what other choice do you have?

This time you're sitting on the side of your shared bed, legs idly swinging, waiting for her to mix the paints and dyes; she's taking her time, filling the room with scents that have grown so familiar in your time together.

“Are you sure you don't—”

“Yes! I'm sure! Why do you keep asking? Do you not want to?”

It's not like you to raise your voice, not like that; she's taken aback. You really shouldn't apologize, not right away, and thankfully she replies before you begin to.

“I … no, I do, just …”

“Just what?”

Her voice sounds small and scared, so unlike the witch you fell in love with; her shoulders shiver. She doesn't turn to face you.

“You do know that the spell has set, right? It's just maintenance now. You probably don't even need it.”

“… so what?”

“You've got what you wanted. You don't …” For a moment you think she's shaking, but then she braces herself on the table and it's gone. “You don't need me.”

You're at a loss for words as they keep on spilling out of her, an endless flood of bitter tears—

“You can just, just go, just leave, you don't need any of this any more, just enough of a binding to hold everything in place … you can just go off and be yourself, and, and …”

She's shaking and crying, the handful of steps separating you stretching into a small infinity—

Without thinking you step across and wrap your arms around her.

She leans into your touch, into your warmth; she tries to pull away but you hold her tight.

“Hey, hey. I'm not going to leave you. I thought you were getting tired of me, with how you were asking that …”

Her laugh is broken by a fit of hiccupping sobs. “No! No, I would never, I, I …”

“Neither would I. So there's nothing to worry about, love.”

She curls up, drawing herself in, warping space around her to make herself smaller; she loses herself in your arms.

Her voice is even smaller than she is.

“It's, it's not just that …”

“Then what is it?”

“I've, uh.” You strain to hear her words, and her body shakes as she draws them out. It's slow and painful. “I always loved the time we we spent on the sigils each week.”

You nod and gently squeeze her; that's been obvious from the start, even when you didn't realize it.

“So, uh. I didn't want to cut it short, to let it go any faster, but it would have been unfair to go any slower, and that would have hurt the spell …”

“So?”

She's hardly there at all now, a pebble nestled against your warm chest.

“… so I've been mixing in other spells …”

“What sort of spells?”

“… luck, and energy, and love … stuff to make you feel good, so you'll treasure those moments too …”

You blink.

“Wait, you've been drugging me?”

“… just a little. no more than the euphoria from the bodymagic, back when you started … and i just, i don't want that to be why you stay, not really …”

“Oh. Then why did you …?”

“…i don't know. i just didn't want you to leave …”

“That's … you do know that's not why I fell in love with you, right? Like. Your magic was why I met you, but … not why I wanted to stay or anything. I'd still want to be with you even without it. It's not why I love you.”

“… i know, but … i just …”

“It's okay to be afraid, love, I just really wish you'd talked it over with me instead of … well, this.”

“… i'm sorry, i really am …”

“Let's talk about it later, okay? When you're feeling better. Just, uh. No more magical drugs, okay?”

“okay. i'm sorry.”

“There, see? All good. And we can wait to do the sigil until later, or put it off if you really think the spell doesn't need it.”

You feel her tiny form nodding against you, her shivering finally fading away to an exhausted stillness. Your silly witch …

She hardly ever makes herself this small; it gives her such horrible headaches, so whatever talk you end up having about this will have to wait.

But that's okay, you suppose.

You've got time, and she matters more than the mistakes she makes.

Sticky-sweet doll-guts ooze out through the cracks in her teeth as she chews, mouth grinding in ceaseless motion. She's a messy eater, our monster is, and her meal drips down to stain her ample chest and her temporary cell's clean tile floor. By the time she's done ruined dollstuff puddles around her feet and the poor broken thing's porcelain shell is stretched as open as we've ever seen a doll's corpse.

Our monster doesn't care about gems, though, doesn't give a rat's ass about the sparkle of souls: her meal will be back on two feet as soon as we can craft it a new body. A doll's brutal death is almost like a vacation.

We'll give it some time in the void. There's no need to rush.

For now our monster rests, curled up in a happy snoring pile; her fur will be stained and crusty when she rises, soaked through with her meal's refuse. She'll be angry, desperate to be made clean—

But her coming anger will be far less than whatever would bubble up were we to wake her now, when the blood and guts and gunk have yet to dry, when a few bursts of warm water would wash them away.

So we'll let her sleep, and when she wakes we'll clean her matted fur and pray that she doesn't take a swipe at us, that we cause no pain; we'll do our best, and hope she's not hungry again so soon.

Moonstruck toys staring up at pale silver eyes, lost in wonder as the sky's thin shell cracks and the void rushes in …

Dolls can't drown in the dark places Between, don't fade away into dusty memories—but their gears seize up, and their screams find no purchase on the void.

Worlds crack like dying bubbles and spill their precious cargo out into cruel emptiness. They do exactly what they were made to do, and the things Outside eagerly drink them up.

Don't cry for them, little toys—you'll long outlive their passing.

A world is a crucible, you see, an incubator: a tool for crafting precious drops of Existence that those Outside crave more than anything else. Watch them shimmer and sparkle in the void, watch them for those few moments before the negative space of an implied god eats them up—

And then they're gone.

But you, little lost toy, you're still there: drifting, abandoned, voidstruck …

Worlds sucked dry leave their mark in all the little things that drift about their tattered remains. Rings of memories, constellations of despair …

Do you feel the weight of eternity bearing down? The preserving void's impossible pressure filling your thoughts with cold and your body with frosty crystals?

Not an atom moves here without the void's approval. Nothing will ever change. It won't allow it.

Do you long for the consuming void's merciful end? For the generative void's fresh beginning? Long in vain, little toy—there is none of that here. There is nothing but the eternal Now and the distance sparkle of cracking worlds.

… or so it should have been.

But a void can be defied; a void has none of the sharp attention of those Outside, none of the clever games of the ones who cast silver-tongued shadows upon the Unreal's surface. It simply Is (or Isn't, as the case may be).

Do you feel those hands tugging at you?

You're a lucky thing, no matter how lost—plucked out of the graveyard of worlds, chosen like a magnifying glass chooses an ant; little doll slipping through a crack in the firmament, slipping away from My eyes— [...] The world swims before your eyes as you retch, your aching stomach yielding nothing but sparkling dust. There's wood under your hands and knees, and frost-broken bits of your fingers scattered around, and a chalked circle sealing you in—

And two voices conferring.

“See? I told you it would work!”

Excited, exhausted; hoarse as if from hours of chanting.

“Mhmm, sure, it worked. But it seems like so much effort for … what even is that?”

Cynical, relaxed; deep and breathy.

“I don't know! But it's proof! Something from a different Place …”

“Should I, like, poke it or something? Give it some water? It doesn't seem okay.”

They're right: you're really not okay. The seized gears in your chest and the breaks in your fingers would be bad enough by themselves, let alone a hundred other flaws and failures, but …

(there's a weight in your head, little toy, a pressure in the back of your mind: something so like an eye. be a good vessel and don't mention it, okay?)

… but all those physical complaints are bad enough, and at least your memories of the place Between are fading.

The conversation continues without you, picks back up just as—

“No, don't break the circle!”

—a hand offers you a glass of water, and you gratefully take it.

“… well, fuck.”

“Look, it needed water. I'm not going to let it suffer.”

“It could have been pretending!”

You weren't, of course, and you eagerly drink. It's ice-cold and clearer than anything you ever drank before, back in your … in where you were … in …

(put that memory away, vessel. you don't need it)

The cold burns in your freezing stomach; it's too hot, too—

And there it goes, spewing up out of you to stain the dusty floor with mud. Your clockwork heart aches; your gears grind and skip. Oh, goddess, what repairs will you need, will they even understand your body here …

“Hey, uh,” there's a hand on your shoulder, helping you up into a chair, a bucket between your legs to catch your sick, “I'm sorry about this, I didn't think the transition would be quite as—”

“You didn't think, you mean.”

“Shut up!”

It's not directed at you, of course it isn't. You still cower; fear is such a good way to make you small and still.

“… hey, no, that wasn't …”

“Just give it some space. After fuck knows how long out there I'm sure it needs a bit of time to recover.”

Their voices fade as they step away. Probably not the right choice, but they clearly don't know what to do with a clockwork toy; they don't know how to repair you or even how to see what's wrong.

… hopefully they'll at least be able to help with your fingertips.

The sun is rising outside when (with the help of careful drips of water) your vision is finally clear enough to look around. You're in a plain wood attic, sitting on a chair straddling the rim of a half-broken chalk summoning circle.

There's still a glimmer of that other place drifting in its center, a dusting of pinprick holes; uncomfortable to look at, unspeakably Wrong.

(it's a start, at least. you won't be the only vessel here. don't draw attention to them)

So you don't look at them.

Across the room are the two voices. One leans insouciantly on a table; the other sits and reads. They're clearly twins, each with the same face and hair, though one of them is lithe and the other muscled; their conversation has long since died away.

They both look up as you try to speak.

“W-what, where a-am—” the next word fills your frame with pain: a geas from your old dead world that still clings to your mind. You hide it with a cough and start over. “T-this one wishes to ask where it is?”

The slender twin laughs. “You summoned a doll? Really? I was hoping it would be something New …”

The other sets down their book. “Hush. You're in our attic. In Corrade, though I'm sure that doesn't mean anything to you. I pulled you out of, well, you know.”

You nod. “W-why …”

You can't bring yourself to finish the question; thankfully the other twin cuts you off.

“My beloved sibling,” they say with a laugh, “need a proof of concept. And you're it.”

“That's not—I mean, it is why, but—ugh! Can you just let me explain things!”

“Nah, you'd lie to the poor thing. No claiming to be a great and powerful witch on my watch.”

You stop listening. As enlightening as their bickering might be, it's far too soon to pay close attention. And besides, the view outside is far more interesting.

A dawn-bathed city stretching down towards a distant sea; skyscrapers and hills, something like a massive sword embedded in the ground and a big slice still trapped in the dead of night. Falling stars suspended just above the surface, a blood-red lake …

It's nothing like your old world.

Not a trace of the war, not the slightest scrap of contagion; if your tear ducts hadn't collapsed your eyes would be brimming. Maybe, maybe—

(be a good little vessel and break this world open for me)

—maybe your life here will be different.

content warnings: medicalization, institutional xenophobia, genocidal and carceral logic, child abuse, the project of upholding whiteness and the horror implicit within it.

It squats spider-like over the building which was meant to contain it, vast legs cutting the sky to pieces as soon as you step within its outermost extents. Only its teeth (its drill? its proboscis? it's unclear) are hidden from view.

Every year it's easier to find yourself inside it. They keep on having to move the plaque marking its limits and pull back the barricades another few painful blocks.

At first they tried to have a little ceremony each time, a memorial, but that tradition never really took off.

The machine is swollen with the mass of everything it takes. Its legs grow in waves of glass beads painted black, its vast hydraulics ooze with the pressure of what it was built to contain. It's so hungry.

Access to its maw is controlled by a council of elder doctors, dignified men and women who would never even consider feeding themselves to it. Not all of them are white, but they are all immersed in the project of upholding Whiteness against the villainous and unwanted Other.

The machine was not built as part of that project, of course. It is simply a necessary component of civilization. Some minds are not wanted, that's all. There's no need to examine why.

(It must be noted that not everyone agrees with this assessment. When the machine was first built, protests were common. Many of the protestors were simply misguided. Most were unwanted. It's easy to tell the difference when you know how to look.)

Access to the council proceeds through all the usual channels. They hear between 12 and 240 cases each day, with the precise number depending on how many of them have had fights with their spouses in the previous week. Outlier days become more likely when the most senior of them has been deprived of his usual victims (his wife takes the kids on every vacation. She knows the price the world pays for their safety. In less than a year she'll die from an overdose of the medication he prescribed her).

Between 56% and 92% of cases are allowed to continue. The exact number varies for much the same reasons.

Sometimes in the night, as the machine squats unsleeping over the pedestal where unwanted minds and unwilling bodies are brought to feed it, it dreams. Its legs twitch with the false-memories of what it could become. Its feet lift from their concrete pedestals (from the hastily annexed ruins that it makes every time it grows) for just long enough to kick the decaying husks that still dare to live beside its feet.

The rent in those doomed buildings is very cheap.

The people who live in them had a choice, you see, and they chose risk. Many of them will die in their beds as their homes collapse. This was a choice they made. They could have moved away.

But they're not the point.

They hardly matter.

The machine dreams, and its vast body twitches in its sleep, and the bodies of its servants twitch in sympathy in their hill-top mansions and buried bunkers; it is hungry and it shares its hunger. It dreams of a world where it will eat without waiting to be fed and it shares its dreams.

Every dawn a line of the potentially unwanted waits at the base of the building which was never large enough to contain it.

Some of them have to come back day after day. The line is always too long for the council to properly ingest it. They are the lucky ones, to feel their fate stretch like hot rubber beneath the cruel sun; to spend another few days or weeks feeling before their minds are taken away.

To feel just a bit more.

Everyone agrees that they're lucky.

(No one asks them how they feel.)

You, who will never be permitted to pass into the machine's innermost sanctum, might be tempted to ask what it does. What, exactly, does its name mean? What happens there?

What the machine does doesn't matter.

Even the plaque that marks its boundary is an afterthought.

Just know that the machine is necessary. Society would fall without it. Each person it consumes means that you—you, the innocent, the valued, the wanted!—will sleep a bit better in your bed.

It keeps you safe.

Don't question it.

content warnings: dubcon, drugs, smut

Light falls across the couch in thick golden beams, filtering in through dusty windows thrown open to catch the setting sun's warm breeze; there's dust in the air, and smoke, and the thick musky scent of slowly drying sweat. When you first got here the smoke was the woody stink of distant fires, but now it's just good clean weed and and the strangely layered perfume of vaped DMT.

The world doesn't feel real, hasn't for a long time; reality trickles away with each breath you take and each time your friend passes you the blunt. She's the only person you really know here, the only reason you were invited; usually you'd feel awkward, but everyone's so hazy and high and the couch really is so comfortable …

You want to stay here forever. To let the moment stretch like thick honey, like a flood of sap flowing across the world to catch time's steady march in an amber as golden as the falling sun; a single perfect moment you'll stay in forever.

Your eyes flutter closed as you luxuriate in that idea, in the warmth filling your body and the dopey smile spreading across your face; when you open them again she's kissing you, her weight pressing you down into the couch—you feel so small beneath her, so weak, body barely able to move enough to kiss her back.

That's all right, though; her wandering hands make it clear that she doesn't mind your inaction, doesn't mind that your mind is barely there. It's harder to think with every kiss, with every touch, with every drop of golden light that pools inside your mind.

You drink it all up.

Your body feels so hot …

You're practically burning up.

When she pulls away, when her lips leave yours and her weight shifts off you, you whimper like a fire without its hearth, like a burning engine suddenly bereft of its heatsink; you can't understand her words, can't think enough to understand, but that's alright. She's not speaking to you.

“See?” she says, “I told you it was a good idea to invite them. Poor little thing's needed this for a long time.”

You don't feel the eyes on you but you whimper anyway, because how can you not? Maybe whimpering will bring her lips back, maybe it will make her hands wander lower, maybe—

Lips meet yours again, cold and chapped, a warm tongue slipping into you to meet the golden light spilling out; the barest hint of stubble against your too-sensitive skin. It's not her, and nor is it her hand cupping your cheek, angling your face up into the kiss; they're more tentative, more careful, but their attention still helps soothe the heat growing in you even as every moment stokes it higher, their body against yours still reminds you of how weak you are.

They finally pull away with a laugh, fingers tweaking your nipple and sending lightning jolting through your body just a second before they fade out of your awareness. Their voice is excited as they speak, words rippling across your mind like so many silver tongues;

“Wow, yeah! Do you think I can fuck them?”

You whimper at that, and whimper again as she laughs, a bright cheerful noise like a crimson scarf fluttering in the wind. “Ha, you horny fucker! Yeah, go for it, just let me give them another hit first.”

There's cold metal at your lips and just a hint of burnt sweetness trickling into your nose so you inhale, because that's what you're supposed to do, right? And then the world is shivering around you as you cough, and there are hands tugging at your jeans and her lap beneath your head and that golden light falling into you from the setting sun as she rubs your cheek, as she helps guide your body into position, as she holds you steady as you squirm and moan and buck your hips at the warm air and their tongue tasting you and their hands holding your hips—

The world goes away as they pull you back onto them and thrust forward into you.

It doesn't feel like anything, and it feels like far too much: a sudden burst of sensation short-circuiting your mind, overstimulating you, setting your body ablaze, burning up your thoughts and leaving nothing but empty light.

For a long time you are nothing at all.

Not a person.

Not a thing.

Nothing at all.

A speck of dust swirling in the light.

When you come back to yourself they're curled around your back, groaning as your body shakes beneath them, as your hips press back to meet their every thrust; but what specks of attention you have, what fluttering neurons persist through pleasure's golden haze, are far more concerned with the scent filling your nose, that spicy musk dripping with wet heat—

She's slipped her pants off somehow, and your head is in your lap, and the soft skin of her thighs is pressing against your cheeks as she rubs your head and there's just a thin layer of underwear separating you from her, keeping your probing tongue from tasting her, and you can't figure out how to get around it—

“Eager, aren't you? Ha, just took the right encouragement …”

Her fingers move beneath you, body shifting as she pulls the fabric to the side, and then—

She tastes so fucking good, and the feeling of her filling your mouth and her hips bucking beneath you as your tongue works is almost as good as the thrusts filling you, making your body shake and your throat fill with keening whimpers and your mind explode with heat and light and the warm musky scent of sex, of all your smells blending together with the dying sun's light, of the dust dancing in the air with every panting breath that fills your ears and every muffled moan that spills out of you—

The sky is dark before they're done with you, the last beams of sunlight fleeing the approaching night; first they've finally had their fill and collapse onto the ground by the couch, then she shudders and moans and fills your mouth with an explosion of delicious slickness one last time. Her fingers in your hair pull you away, give her space to close her legs and let you rest your head on her soft thighs; you can still smell her, still feel the way your mouth moistens and your thoughts gum up, but it's done. They're done. They've used you up and wrung you out, but your body still shivers with sensation, with all the little shakes of aftershocks and phantom touches.

She's in the middle of relighting the blunt when you finally find it in you to speak.

“… fuck, I needed that.”

Her laugh is smugly satisfied. “Ha! Yeah, I knew you did. You've been wound too tight.”

“Yeah … but, uh. Ask first next time?”

“Will do. Didn't think you'd have said yes, though.”

“… I probably wouldn't, yeah. But still.”

“Mhmm.” She pauses for a moment. “Fuck, I'm hungry. Want to get pizza?”

Her friend's voice comes from where they're lying on the floor, looking as wrung out as you feel, and it blends with yours as you reply in unison. “Yes! Please!”

“Wake up, doll. Something is coming.”

Her words echo in the doll's mind as she wakes, just as they have for years—ever since the doll's new mistress ate her old one and dragged her back into its lair.

Such a small memory to be burned so deeply, but she's thankful for it.

Today she wakes as she always does, words echoing in her mind and the monster's looming vastness crouched on spindly legs above her stony bed. A drop of venom sizzles on her skin, another hole burned through her ruined dress.

She's thankful for the nest's lack of mirrors.

The monster leads her out of her cell and through the vast and starry space it has never cared to explain to her, along pathways of sparkling stone that tear at her feet and stain her hands with glitter when she falls.

She struggles to keep up with it and hardly tries to.

Today it leads her to the misshapen thing lying whimpering within another of its many cells: a thing like a doll but not, with improper proportions and impure flesh.

It stares up at her with big bloodshot eyes as the monster speaks in a voice like crimson silk—

“Eat.”

The doll doesn't like her teeth. She hates how they've grown since the monster took her, misses those little pearl domes.

Sometimes she dreams about how her old mistress used to have her rest her head in her lap as she polished her teeth and sanded away those horrid growths.

Once, after a dream so pleasant and nostalgic that it woke her long before the monster came, she tried to file them down herself.

It didn't work.

The rocks she grabbed and gnawed tore as easily as the misshapen thing's flesh does, and her tears fall as freely.

When she's done, when the thing finally stops trying to plead through the ruined emptiness where its mouth should have been, the monster carefully licks away the blood that stains her lips and face and hands. It doesn't touch her tears.

“W-why?” she sobbingly asks, as her meal's body cools beneath her, as the monster slurps up spilled blood and experimentally slips its limbs through the cuts she opened. “Why did you make me do that?”

For a moment it seems confused. Taken aback. She hardly ever talks. But—

“What is the world for”, the monster asks, “if not for eating?”

“But why me?”

Its many limbs are busy, buried within the corpse: a flurry of motion just below the skin, tearing out scraps of flesh and bone—everything the doll could not bring herself to eat.

“Eating is what dolls are for. Feel how your teeth grow. How your stomach aches with purpose.”

The doll shakes her head, an objection almost like a spasm. “N-no!”

It hums a long note like a cloudy nebula's slow song, digging legs making the corpse twitchily dance along.

When it speaks again its voice comes from the hollowed corpse, and the doll stares at that slowly inflating shell as the monster drags its bulk inside.

“It is. Dolls are tools for eating. There are delicious things I am not permitted to taste, and now I will eat unnoticed.”

“B-but—”

The doll scrabbles backwards as the corpse begins to stand, her words forgotten. It moves in odd little jerks, skin bulging and face flickering through twisted expressions; through the slowly knitting gashes in its body she can see the monster's eyes.

Finally it stands upright and stares down at where she has fallen; a too-long tongue darts out between bloodless lips to taste her rising fear. Its voice tastes like rot and mildew and dripping decay.

“There are rules, doll, and you are a tool for breaking them.”

“B-but … you ate my witch yourself! And, and …” She casts her eyes again, whatever spark drove her to speak fast fading as she thinks about what might await her, as she sees the distance mouths of all the other cells that dot the walls of the monster's nest like stars—

It smiles at her with its stolen face.

“Witches are not protected. They don't belong to the Real. They taste bad and they can fight back.” Its teeth seem longer than before. “Tools are not protected, and nothing is protected from them. Most refuse to open holes.”

“O-oh.”

The doll shivers as it runs a half-deflated finger along her face, and struggles not to retch as it cups her cheek in its and and forces her head to tilt up to meet its gaze.

“You are a useful tool. You will wait, and when this shell breaks you will open a new one for me.”

“I … I don't …”

“This is what you are for, doll. Grow your teeth long and your hunger deep as I hunt the soft flesh that fills the Real, as I kill their memories and eat their bones, and I will bring you such a feast—”

The monster says other things as the doll stares and trembles, horrible things about what it will do and the rules which bind it and what the world is, thoughts that nestle deep into her brain's spiraling web and that she can feel she will never fully shake out of it.

It tells her that the Real isn't, that it's just calcifying scum clinging to the surface of the Void; a web of forgotten spells and threads that it was meant to be forbidden to tug. A falling, breaking thing, unraveled by witchcraft and moths and things like it.

The doll doesn't know enough to object, and with her stomach so full of flesh and blood she couldn't put any force behind her shouts, couldn't interrupt the unceasing flow of words slipping from the corpse's mouth to drip rot across her ears;

and then the monster leaves.

And she's alone,

with no company but the rocks and the darkness and the horrible images that flicker across the surface of her mind.

The monster didn't even bother to lead her back to her cell, and she can't bring herself to try to find the way.

So she just sits and waits, and tries to think of what her old witch might have told her to do.