There was no rain on the morning Brother Hearthstone died. His coughs and wheezing paused shortly after sunrise, turned into thrashing some minutes later, then ceased altogether when the birds began to sing in the garden. Little sister had listened all night from her room on the floor below, and now waited for a sound to signal it was just another pause. There came only the creak of his door, then a knock on hers when Sister Wormwood came to confirm her worries. The last spasms had worn out his heart.
Little sister slept the rest of the morning. Her pillow was still wet when she awoke, though sunlight was upsettingly warm on the weathered floorboards of her room.
It should've rained. She would've felt less poorly, and could have gone out feeling less like a child if it had. Now, when she went down the cracked steps of a home too big for its two remaining survivors, she felt as though she was plunging into her own gloomy depths in the corridors where the sun didn't reach.
She stopped halfway down and looked towards the top floor where Brother Hearthstone rested. With a sigh, she turned around and returned upstairs.
Little sister entered the room, but was unable to go near the body, or even look at it. In the air was a sweet fragrance, the same as in Brother Hearthstone's breath these last weeks, like he'd placed petals under his tongue. They'd bury him later, and the thought drew another sob out of her. Brother Hearthstone had talked of leaving, of braving the woods and finding someplace else to live. The thought had terrified little sister, but inhaling the smell of his last breaths made her think of something worse.
Today, she would bury Brother Hearthstone. One day, she would bury Sister Wormwood beside him, and then she'd be all alone.
Little sister shook her head to push the thought away, went to his dressing table, and quietly retrieved the box of matches in the top drawer. With no one left to make them, matches were precious, and Brother Hearthstone had crafted a lovely metal box for the few that remained. He'd painted and decorated it himself, and remembering how proud it had made him left little sister weeping as she pressed it against her chest. She stashed the memento in the pocket of her dress and hurried out to the garden.
Sister Wormwood was there, tending to the headstones. She hummed a melody with the birds, voice soft like the grass under little sister's feet. A shovel rested against a stone without carvings, and before it was an open grave.
She heard the rustling of little sister's approach, brushed sweat from her brow and looked up at the branches of the fruit tree growing over the graves. Brother Hearthstone had gathered its bounty weeks ago, but it still bore one fat plum he hadn't touched. The branch hung low from its weight, low enough to be plucked from the ground if the plum grew much bigger. Little sister had wondered about it, but he'd simply said it wasn't his to take.
"Almost time for the harvest," Sister Wormwood said, and turned with a solemn smile. She painted her lips and dyed her hair red with the juice of berries, making their brightness dazzling in contrast with her pale skin.
It should've rained, so her colours would've run, left her as drab as little sister and her head full of ash. Little sister cared for her, but Sister Wormwood's beauty seemed as out of place as the sunlight on a day like this.
"How are you feeling?" Sister Wormwood asked.
"Ill," little sister said. "Why is he still in the room?"
Sister Wormwood returned to her work. She pulled weeds away from the midst of pink flowers and polished the carvings on the stone of Old Father. She'd already seen to the rest: The headstones of Mother Meredith and the many, many brothers and sisters were all clean and weeded. It seemed like such a wasted effort, when the grass was too tall and hid the flowers anyway.
"I thought you might want to see him, before we lay him down." Sister Wormwood tossed a handful of weeds into the grave, then glanced at her again. "You shouldn't cry on a sunny day, silly chit. Go swim in the creek, or chase squirrels in the forest. I've a stew cooking, and it'll be ready when you run out of breath."
Little sister scowled. "Why shouldn't I cry? Even if the day isn't cold and still, our brother is. You wouldn't say that if it rained."
"No," Sister Wormwood admitted, with a look to the sky. She then pressed her hands in the soil and said, "But it doesn't, and so we'll behave accordingly. Would you have done as I told if Brother Hearthstone was out here with us, playing his flute to trick the songbirds into singing at their best?"
"Then, what if it was winter, and the day was cold and still, but he played his flute to call winter birds to sit with us on the porch?"
Little sister hesitated. "I suppose."
Sister Wormwood smiled. "Then I see no reason why you should act differently just because he's gone. We learn to live with loss, dear sister. That is our share."
Dissatisfied with the answer, little sister went into the woods, but did not chase squirrels or leave treats for the badgers. She went down the path until she found a tree tall enough to climb, and from the heights watched the house.
Sister Wormwood still sang as she worked, a splash of red against the too-long, dishevelled field outside a manor falling to ruin. It looked nothing like the pictures over the mantelpiece or the paintings lining the upstairs walkway. In those, it had a coat of pure white paint and the family was all gathered outside, arm in arm, smiling at little sister across the years, Old Father a giant watching over the rest. It was a colossus, with so much space many rooms must've gone unused even when it was full of laughter.
Now, the colossus was as grey as little sister and as worn as Brother Hearthstone in his last days, and the only one smiling was the last sibling with a name. How easy it must've been for her, knowing she'd never be alone.
Little sister sighed, looking at the clouds. It stormed so often most windows were broken and the rooms were full of glass. In the piano room was a rift in the wall, and a carpet of shards that glittered in the reds and blues and greens of stained images. Brother Hearthstone used to play them songs and the sisters had danced together, but now they would've only gotten glass stuck to their feet.
Of all the days it didn't rain, why did it have to be today?
Sister Wormwood called little sister home when the sun began to set. She chattered about this and that while they ate, though little sister hardly listened. She prodded the pieces of robin's breast in her stew, nodding now and again, preparing herself for what came after dinner.
Once she had gathered their bowls, Sister Wormwood led little sister upstairs. Brother Hearthstone's skin was the colour of butter in the lantern's glow, worn and withered, and highlighted the bruises on his throat, likely from all the coughing. His eyes were open and stared ahead like the glass beads of a doll. Sister Wormwood tried to press his lids shut, but they refused to close. The sweet reek of sickness made little sister's eyes water.
"All the same," Sister Wormwood said, and began to wrap Brother Hearthstone in his bed linens. "We'll leave the grave open for tonight, so he can watch the stars for one last time. I'll bury him tomorrow, or you may, should you want to."
Little sister grabbed his feet when prompted, and swallowed her response. When she first awoke she'd hoped Sister Wormwood would've buried him without her knowing, but now she'd rather have left him here, to keep him close by. There seemed to still be life in those eyes, though they may've only mirrored what she wished to see. It occurred to little sister the others might've frozen this way as well, burdened with earth to stay in place and watch the play of worms, endlessly.
"Wait," she said, before they lifted the body. "Cover his face."
Sister Wormwood regarded her curiously, but wrapped the cloth around his face as well. "I know this is hard for you," she said, as they manoeuvred the corpse downstairs. "I've buried so many loved ones that I've grown calluses over my heart. It's only good you haven't."
"Why?" asked little sister. She wept again, and the evening sun turned her streaks into gold when they came outside.
They lowered the body into the grave, and as they did, drops of rain dyed the soil black. Little sister wept while the downpour darkened cloth. Sister Wormwood's arms and chest ran red as though she bled from a wound on her throat.
"Because," Sister Wormwood said, and placed a dyed hand on her sister's shoulder, "I can't remember what it's like to feel anymore. If I've taught you compassion, I've served you well."
Sister Wormwood knocked on little sister's door near midnight, after the rain turned into a storm and thunder rattled the windows. Her candle lit up the small room and drove out the shadows from the corner of little sister's bed.
"I thought I'd sleep here tonight, to keep you company," she said, nightgown swishing against the floor as she entered. She set her candle on the nightstand and slipped under the blanket. Little sister squeaked when lightning flashed and hugged her.
"My, what a racket," Sister Wormwood said. "I doubt I'll ever get used to it."
"I don't think I can sleep," little sister said. "Not with such heavy winds, nor such a heavy heart. Do you have any more stories to tell?"
Sister Wormwood stroked little sister's mouse-grey locks. "Afraid not. It's so difficult for me to remember things anymore. I fear I'll forget how to be myself soon."
Little sister propped herself up with an elbow and inspected Sister Wormwood's desolate expression. The ghost of a smile still lingered in the corners of her mouth, but little sister saw no happiness in it. That smile was a habit now, as much a part of Sister Wormwood's makeup as the colour she wore.
"You are you," little sister said. "What is there to remember?"
"We all have a duty in this house, dear sister, and mine is to see everyone to the grave. Once they are filled, I am without purpose." That placid smile of hers seemed so frightful when storm winds snuck into the room and made the candle flutter. "And that means I'll forget the human half, just as Mother Meredith did, and Brother Hearthstone, and all the others."
Little sister's frown deepened, and she flipped over to rest on both her elbows, arms crossed between them. "You're not without purpose. We will care for each other, and make sure the house is always warm for when more people come out of the forest."
Sister Wormwood faced her, gave a slight chuckle, and brushed a lock of hair behind little sister's ear. "Of course we will. Try to get some rest now."
Little sister obeyed, but when Sister Wormwood reached to blow out the candle, she turned for a look over her shoulder. "I know a story you could tell."
"What is it?" Sister Wormwood asked.
"Why you have a name but I don't."
Surprise flashed on Sister Wormwood's face, as brief as lightning on the glass. "Ah. Well, if you insist. I suppose there's no harm in it anymore."
She waited for little sister to settle in the nook of her arm. "Do you remember being born, dear sister? I do. So did my other siblings. Old Father did not, because he was different from us, just as you are. We weren't born from another's flesh, the way you crawled out of Mother Meredith, but grew from the earth like flowers, like weeds. We fed on rainfall and grew strong with sunlight, and if we'd been let to grow that way, we might've become trees instead of children.
"Old Father looked after us when we were but saplings, and gave us names to remind us we could be like him. There used to be a world beyond the house and the woods, you see, long ago. It is gone now, and if you walked far enough into the forest, you'd find nothing but darkness the brightest torch could barely lift."
"Is that why you refused to leave the house when Brother Hearthstone wanted to?"
Sister Wormwood nodded, a soft movement of her cheek against little sister's head. "That is where your kind came from, but now you are bound to this house the same way we are. Old Father could not give you a name because there can never be two like you in the house at once."
Sister Wormwood paused, and little sister noticed she looked at her with an odd expression, almost fearful. She felt something stirring inside, like something tugging at her brain. It didn't sound familiar, but she thought it should have. "I don't remember that," she said, when the feeling was gone. Sister Wormwood seemed to relax again. "My first memory is swimming in the creek, with you and Brother Hearthstone watching over me."
"That is where we washed you," Sister Wormwood went on, "after Mother Meredith forgot the human half."
"You still haven't told me what that means."
Sister Wormwood hemmed, raised her eyes to the ceiling, where candlelight danced with the intrusive breeze. The patter of rain seemed so loud in the silence. "You, dear sister, were meant to come out of the woods in your own time, and with your own purpose. Instead of serving his, Old Father placed your seed in Mother Meredith." She ran her hand through little sister's hair. "This house once belonged to people like him and you, when the world wasn't yet broken. We others belong to the forest, but so long as we follow our duties, we remember the human half Old Father grew in us and are bound to stay and serve. When our servitude is over, we forget it—it wilts as all living things are meant to, once their time runs out." She shuddered, so strongly and abruptly little sister started. "He was foolish, thinking he could change anything. It was his fault Mother Meredith perished, and it was his weakness that infected the rest."
Little sister shivered at the venom dripping from Sister Wormwood's tongue, but when she continued, her voice was again as soothing as her silky touch on little sister's neck.
"My heart is torn from the middle, and whichever half I choose to feed decides where I belong. You aren't burdened with the choice, but have only one purpose. Old Father never learned this, even at the end of his life."
"What happened to him?" little sister asked quietly.
Sister Wormwood fell silent for a while. "He drowned in the creek," she said at last, "after Mother Meredith left the house and he failed to find her." She scoffed. "I suppose he did escape the cycle, in a way."
Little sister listened with concern, but chose not to prod for the sordid details. Instead, she said, "But, Mother Meredith is buried in the garden with the others. Did she return?"
"If you look tomorrow, you'll find the soil before her headstone undisturbed. I carved the stone so we'd remember her, but she sleeps somewhere in the forest."
Little sister clutched Sister Wormwood's hand. "If you haven't seen the body, is it not possible she might be alive?"
"No, silly chit. It is not."
Sister Wormwood said nothing further, and soon her breathing evened. Little sister turned to her side, felt the steady thump of her sister's heart against her back, though her own pounded. Whether for the storm or the sudden intensity in Sister Wormwood's tale, something had left her deeply disturbed.
"What is my purpose?" little sister whispered.
Sister Wormwood didn't answer for a while so long little sister thought she'd fallen asleep, but when lightning cracked and thunder rolled against the house, a voice breathed into little sister's ear: "To set right Stormcloud's sin."
With a jolt, she hissed, "What?"
Sister Wormwood's chest pressed against her in a slow, calm rhythm, and little sister noticed the rain had stopped. She lay down again, unconvinced she'd merely dreamt the answer, but accepting it nonetheless.
The next she awoke, Sister Wormwood was gone from beside her. Wind made the boards rattle and chilled the room when little sister crawled out of bed. The sky was dark and overcast, and rain would return soon.
Little sister shivered as she stepped into the hallway. Without a light, the old wood seemed to have lost more of its colour, as though her brother's fate had made its spirits as dismal as little sister's.
"Sister Wormwood?" she called, bending over the railing. There was no answer, and no smell of breakfast porridge wafted from below. When she came down, she ducked under the stairs through the door to the kitchen, but found it empty as well. Their bowls from yesterday still sat unwashed, enticing flies. The sight made little sister shudder, and the creeping sense of loneliness drove the shudder down her arms until her fingers trembled.
"Sister Wormwood?" she called louder, loud enough to be heard outside, and noticed the back door was open. Little sister stepped outside to see if she was gathering vegetables in the garden, then circled the house to the headstones. Only Brother Hearthstone was there, wrapped in his linens in an open grave like a pupating butterfly.
"Where on earth could she be?" little sister thought, then said aloud when she noticed no birds were singing. It was nothing unusual before a storm, and the darkness overhead told her it was best to take heed of the birds and hide indoors, but the loneliness still resonating in her fingerbones made her fear the silence. "Could she have gone fishing?" little sister wondered, and continued to narrate her thoughts on Sister Wormwood's whereabouts until she heard something through the window of the piano room a wayward branch had smashed.
Little sister hurried back inside, where the white double doors to the piano room were open at the end of the corridor. From there came the sounds of light patter and humming. The voice was Sister Wormwood's, but the melody was distorted, rough, jagged, with none of the purity of tone always present in her songs. Little sister approached, gingerly and frowning, and gasped upon finding Sister Wormwood twirling on the field of rainbow glass. She had traced circles of bloody footprints around the room, and when the hem of her dress caught air, little sister saw her feet were as red as her lips and locks.
"You're hurt!" little sister cried, scarcely keeping from running to her. Sister Wormwood threw back her head and laughed, let loose her disharmony at its shrillest. "Stop it! We have to bind your wounds before—"
"Before what, dear sister?" Sister Wormwood spun in place now, hair spitting paint as she drew arcs in the air, arms stretched to the sides. "Before I fall and cut out what’s left of the human half in me? Ah, now there's an idea."
She stilled so suddenly her hair wrapped around her mouth and throat, leaned down and picked up a shard. Blood began to drip down her palm as she inspected her green reflection. Little sister cried out when she ran a finger along the edge, but Sister Wormwood only laughed at her horror. "I'm as surprised as you are at how quick the change was. Brother Hearthstone lay sick for weeks after the last apple trees died, trying to resist it. And all the talk of leaving the house… Bah! It would've changed nothing. It was only in his last moments he let himself forget."
"He didn't," little sister said, teary and shaking. "He wouldn't have."
"You weren't there to see it, silly chit." She pressed her cut finger to her lips, refreshed the red. "Just before his eyes closed, I saw a fire lighting in them." She shook her head, chuckled grimly. "I sent him off anyway. He was always weak."
She studied little sister, and drove her back with a single step closer. "He thought we'd changed you. The fool wanted to kill the thing in the woods and let you become whole, thinking that with our nurturing and Mother Meredith's sacrifice, you'd be different and would set us free."
"Sent him off? Sacrifice? Have you gone mad?" little sister said, but then recalled Brother Hearthstone's bruises. Her accusation rolled off a numb tongue. "You murdered him."
Sister Wormwood smiled, a scarlet thread running down the side of her mouth. "It is my duty to see everyone to the grave."
Terror coursed into little sister's veins and set her feet into motion. The sounds of Sister Wormwood's shrieks and crunching glass hastened her flight.
Lighting split the sky as little sister ran to the yard. She took the path to the forest; it was safer in a storm than the fields or the creek, and she might lose Sister Wormwood in the tangled wood. Screams chased her into the darkness, but little sister had no time to regret her lack of light. She forced her feet to move faster, hoping they'd remember where the roots poked out of the path without the help of her eyes.
"You fool," came a whisper by her ear. Little sister cried out, spun and threw out an arm, but it touched nothing. "I'm not your slave any longer. The vile humanity is gone from within me. I belong to the forest, and the forest is mine."
Little sister stopped to listen, held her breath. The path was silent, and she couldn't find the scents of the flowers in the field in the air. Sister Wormwood's curses had vanished, but so had the light at the edge of the woods.
Little sister eased out the captive breath, heart still racing. She could barely see her own feet.
A rush of wind ran through the leaves above her, twigs snapped somewhere down the path. She thought she heard a quiet giggle in the darkness, like when Brother Hearthstone had fallen into the creek and Sister Wormwood had done her best not to titter. Little sister took a step back and stumbled against a root.
Something metallic chinked beside her when she fell, and little sister spun to her knees to search the ground. Her hand landed on the carved surface of Brother Hearthstone's matchbox, flung from her pocket.
Little sister felt the contents of the box. There were only four matches left, and she struck one against the rough side. The flame's glow barely touched the tips of her fingers holding the match. Despite this, little sister held it out to give her something to follow. It would wink out soon, burn her fingers before doing so, but for now, it comforted her simply by existing.
"Finally, you're here," said a new voice, after little sister had walked for some time. It wasn't Sister Wormwood. The first one had been, she thought, but this one sounded strange. "It is almost time for the harvest. Quickly now—set me free."
"I don't know how," little sister said, once her worst startlement wore off. "I'm being chased. I need to find shelter."
A rustling laughter ran through the leaves—Sister Wormwood's voice. "From here? You've had your shelter, and were cast out. Do you not recall?"
"Recall what?" little sister said, when a face appeared in her path. She jumped away with a cry, dropping the match.
Little sister stood in place, rigid, and worked to calm her nerves. When nothing attacked her, she dug the matchbox out with trembling fingers and struck a new light.
Ahead of her was a figure, leaning against a tree. When the match was so close to the figure's face it could've burned its hair, little sister slapped a hand to her mouth to suppress a scream.
Mother Meredith stared back at her.
Her dress was torn open with her body, ribs cracked and spread out as though something had pushed itself free from her chest. Little sister shook her head, gut convulsing, but braced herself so as not to waste another match.
Then she noticed Mother Meredith's heart was missing, as were her lungs. That was all the inspection little sister could bear, and her light and resolve fell to the ground with surging sickness.
"Don't be afraid," said the voice. "She's been dead a long time."
"Who are you?" little sister croaked. Her voice was strained, throat burning. She threw up more before an answer came.
The sound of a match flaring made her look up. Little sister found a small sphere glowing above her, and the suggestion of fingers below it.
The light gained strength, revealing her own face looking down.
"I am your human half," it said, in little sister's own voice.
A chain ran from her neck towards Mother Meredith. As the globe of light grew, little sister saw the corpse didn't lean against the tree, but was impaled by a spike through the stomach. The chain attached to it.
Little sister pressed a hand to her mouth, wheeling between the body and her twin as she stood. "Did you do this?"
"The devouring? No. You ate your way out, as children of the flesh are wont to do. Or do you mean the impalement? That was her own doing."
"To undo Old Father's tyranny," said Sister Wormwood. She entered the grove, lantern held high. Little sister spun to face her, gasping when her gaze fell on the cleaver in her left hand. Sister Wormwood grinned, with none of her usual warmth. It reminded little sister of the asps she sometimes found basking near the fields. "He made us serve him, as the wood folk once served all the flesh-born. When he grew old, he didn't eat the harvest as he was meant to, but forced Mother Meredith to swallow it in his stead."
Little sister shrieked when the cleaver flashed up and towards her face. She tripped on the chain, but before she fell to the ground, the human half caught her and took the blow in her stead. The twin's scream deafened her for an instant—Sister Wormwood hacked at its back, as though trying to carve through.
"The spike! Pull out the spike!" the human half cried. Little sister jolted towards the body, but was stunned into stopping when Sister Wormwood ceased her assault and raised the lantern over her head. As though a bonfire had lit in its centre, little sister saw the entire grove—saw the dozens, perhaps hundreds of resting skeletons and bodies. Each had their ribs opened like Mother Meredith, but none were impaled.
And, they were huge. Though Sister Wormwood was tall, even sitting down the corpses rivalled her in size, and must've been as enormous as Old Father had they stood straight.
Despite the danger stepping nearer, little sister was enchanted by the sight, as though the scene loosened a memory she had forgotten. Her mind turned cloudy, and a taste seeped onto her tongue, like iron, like rust. It held her captive as Sister Wormwood stepped over the unmoving human half, stretched on the ground with a mess of muscles visible along its back, and dropped her lantern and cleaver.
Sister Wormwood's lissom fingers seized little sister's shoulders, turned her and wrapped around her throat. Little sister gagged as they strangled her, still caught in the dream even as her lungs began to burn.
"It seems the cycle has shattered, though not in the way Old Father wished," Sister Wormwood said. "For what it's worth, we did love you. Mother Meredith pried the human half out of you while you ate your way out of her, and without it, we raised you to resemble us the same way Old Father bent us out of shape." Her grip tightened. "I would've rather drowned you, left you resting in cold waters beside him. It's supposed to be beautiful, drowning. Better than he deserved, but for you—"
In a motion of sudden panic, little sister raked her nails across Sister Wormwood's face. With a cry of surprise and rage, Sister Wormwood released her and pressed a hand to the scraped skin. Though still foggy—now more from loss of breath than the strange recollection—little sister dove for the dropped cleaver.
Sister Wormwood whirled towards her, face twisted into a snarl, and fell silent with a gurgle. Her hand moved to her throat as her legs began to shake.
She fell sitting beside Mother Meredith. Her arms and chest ran red as her eyes turned to glass, alight only with the reflection of the lantern lying askew on the ground.
Little sister let the cleaver fall from her grasp. Her throat felt tender, her heart so heavy it bound her in place. Eventually, she managed to force herself to attempt to pry out the spike binding the human half in place. It was lodged in place too firmly for someone so weary with sorrow to free. She decided to come back with an axe—or not at all.
For now, all she wanted to do was sleep.
The storm had passed unnoticed in the forest's depths, and only a light drizzle remained when little sister walked out into the open. It was enough to wet her face, and for that, she was grateful. She wanted to cry for Sister Wormwood and her betrayal, for the years of affection and care today couldn't erase, but was too worn for tears.
She stopped by the graves to look at the plum. It was low enough to reach if she stood on her toes, but even such a small effort felt beyond her. She continued slouching towards the house, but would eat it when she awoke. All the running without breakfast had left her hungry, but without Sister Wormwood to cook for her, there was nothing but Brother Hearthstone's last apples readily available.
Little sister's sleep ended in a nightmare, and she woke up to find the drizzle turned into a shower. She sat up against the backboard, pulled her legs up, and listened to the house creaking and groaning. Her bruises tingled, as though loneliness choked her in turn, and she made up her mind to revisit the forest and bury all three of those who belonged in the house. The strange remains could stay.
Thinking of Sister Wormwood brought belated sobs, but amidst them little sister remembered her saying something odd. She climbed out of bed, picked up the lamp on her nightstand and lit it with a piece of flint. Her shadow was her last companion, and she intended to bring it along everywhere she could.
Little sister came to the graves, set down the lantern and knelt in front of one of the sisters she hadn't known. She pressed her hands against the ground and felt for a mound. There was one; all the brothers and sisters had one, hidden under the tall grass so she'd never noticed them. The ground before Mother Meredith's headstone was smooth, just as Sister Wormwood had said.
So was Old Father's.
Little sister sat there for a time, unsure what to think. She then lifted her lantern and headed towards the creek.
Sister Wormwood said he'd drowned. Little sister had thought it'd been the death of a grieving husband, but now guessed his end had been more sinister. She walked along the edge of the forest, towards the hayfields, along the waters roiling with the deluge until she came to the lake.
She stood by the dark waters, removed her clothes and waded in. The bottom sank quickly, and fishes slithered past her legs before she was forced to swim. It felt foolish, thinking she might find anything, but the ache of something forgotten had returned. Not as strong, as gripping as in the woods nor even the past night, but calling her into the depths nonetheless.
Little sister dove, swimming with a hand in front of her lest she hit a rock. She swam deeper until she ran out of breath, but just as she was about to kick herself up, she touched something.
She returned to the surface, gasped in a breath, and dove again. Her fingers traced the outline of a giant body in the darkness, bonds around the arms and legs, and a weight holding it down. After another visit to the surface, she managed to release it. The effects of water and time—and hungry fishes, likely—helped her pull apart the knots without a knife.
With effort, little sister dragged out the rotten, fish-nibbled remains of Old Father. She looked at the lantern-lit giant, that frustrating blank spot in her thoughts buzzing like a horsefly near a sleeper, impossible to catch and impossible to ignore.
Without thinking, little sister dug her fingers into the sloughing flesh of his chest and found the gentle curve of his ribs. One by one, she snapped them, broke the sternum loose and pried the bones apart.
She then dug out the innards and ate them.
They were preserved, miraculously so, and tasted divine. She remembered tasting it before, remembered blood flooding her mouth after she bit into a heart. She remembered many things, so, so many things, with each bite she took. Heart, liver, lungs, all went down her gullet. Liver, spleen, pancreas, all filled her mind as they did her stomach.
Sunlight touched the grain behind her by the time Mother Nightfall sucked her fingers clean. Yes, among the things she remembered was the name that belonged to her, and she wore it as proudly as her newly-coloured hair. Her strands had turned from ashen to auburn from digging around the innards, but unlike her hands, they were soft and shimmery instead of wet and sticky. It occurred to her she could bathe in the lake—it occurred to her she was still naked—but after some consideration only washed her hands. It'd rain soon enough, a final send-off for the old master of the house, and she wanted to enjoy the colour for a time.
Mother Nightfall covered the skull with her old dress, and went back to the house to find something new to wear. She'd give Father Stormcloud a proper burial later that day, but first, there were matters long overdue to which she had to attend.
She searched the rooms of the sisters until she found someone as petite as her. In one of the rooms unvisited for years she discovered a light blue dress reaching just past her knees, worn enough that she wouldn't mind getting it dirty.
It was perfect for the day of work ahead. With Father Stormcloud's rule transferred to her, his influence on the very heavens was over. The days would become shorter, and that meant she'd have to glow as brightly as she could when the sun was high.
Axe resting on her shoulder, Mother Nightfall returned to the forest. The walk was longer this time. She presumed Sister Wormwood had wrested some power from Father Stormcloud in usurping him, and had used it to send her to an unfamiliar place.
No matter. She knew where the grove was now.
When the trees began to disperse, Mother Nightfall stepped off the path, and soon found the sacred site where so many like her had died and come to life, always growing in might and wisdom. They each had raised a family, ruled over it until they withered and died, and when the harvest came, gave away everything they'd gained to the one born inside them.
Father Stormcloud had almost succeeded in ending the cycle. So audacious, to place the seed inside a mud-grown slave—yet it had almost worked.
Mother Nightfall learned from his mistake.
When she found the three fresh bodies, she set down the lantern and hefted the axe. With the blunt side of the blade, she smashed the ribs of her human half. Sister Meredith had been clever, hoping that the care of Brother Hearthstone and Sister Wormwood would lull Mother Nightfall into forgetting who she was, at least until Father Stormcloud's grip on the two ended. Brutal, too, in separating the dangerous part of the newborn and keeping the unformed self from knowing her birthright, but as Mother Nightfall ate her mutilated twin, she learned nothing new. It had grown in isolation, and its flesh was as useless to her as Sister Meredith's had been.
That, however, was useful to know.
Once she had eaten, she chopped off Sister Wormwood's limbs, to make her light enough to carry.
When Mother Nightfall returned to the graves, she dropped the carcass and plucked the plum from its drooping branch. The harvest was overdue, and the plum had grown to fill both her palms. She bit greedily into the succulent flesh, plucked out every seed from her mouth and dug holes for them in the graves.
When she found the largest seed, the one her nature demanded she'd swallow, she spat it out. Her heart cried when she looked at it on her palm, begged for her to eat it and let the cycle continue. She threw it at Sister Wormwood and continued eating.
When she'd found all the seeds and buried them, she returned to the one she'd discarded, made an incision in the belly of the corpse and dug around until she found a small, withered creature curled up around itself. Mother Nightfall tossed away the dead human half, too weak to do more than instil obeisance in its host, and placed the seed in its hollow. Mud-grown meat would teach her son nothing—but Mother Nightfall would teach her everything, until the next plum grew. Then they'd choose their favourite servant, and they both would teach the newborn daughter. Mother Nightfall would never be alone; she would rule the house as its everlasting queen.
She threw the body atop Brother Hearthstone, then began to fill the grave. It'd be shallow, with the two of them in it, but she'd have to dig Sister Wormwood out eventually and take her to the grove, when it was time for the newborn to come out. Small wonder Father Stormcloud hadn't found Sister Meredith. By hiding in the sacred grove, she had willingly gone to her death to orchestrate her plan. Mother Nightfall learned from that too, and would not allow it to happen again.
Worms would keep them company until the time was right. They'd feast on Brother Hearthstone, but Sister Wormwood would be left alone. Even such lowly creatures knew to respect the bearer of a prince.
This story originally appeared in The Heart of a Devil: A Horror Villains anthology.
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