The witch who planned so hard to achieve immortality did not plan for the end of the world.
Her magic—the magic of permanence—proved itself more durable in the end than the clockwork of life itself.
Small consolation, she felt, bound forever to her own buried bones.
It was something of a surprise when her millenia of silent rumination about her own life were interrupted by a shifting of dirt and rubble.
Her eyes had long since rotted away, but senses beyond sight alerted her to the impossible touch of sunlight on her remains.
Her mind stirred. She shifted from her reverie to contemplation of the outside world again. With great effort, she cast awareness outward to bring her surroundings into focus and perceive the cause of this unexpected shift in circumstance.
She felt no life. But not nothing.
A small figure stood over the dead witch’s body, scrutinizing her in silence. A painted face that should have been bleached to nothing from years of sun stared at her bones. Limbs which should have seized up and rotted were covered in dirt from its labors.
She knew this doll.
A distant memory surfaced, summoned by that unforgettable face. Years of toil on this one culminating in failure. Early experiments in imbuing a form with permanence which disappointingly ruined a perfectly good doll. It was discarded with the other unsalvageable mistakes.
It should not have been moving at all. It should not have known where to find her. It should not have survived the ages with its body intact in a way her own was not.
It was unmistakably standing before her, having dug through the ruined remains of her tomb to find her.
“You are still here, aren’t you?” the doll asked at last. “None of the others are. You’re just a skeleton, but I feel you inside.”
It approached, limbs creaking slightly until it could touch her ribcage for confirmation with a dirt-covered hand.
The witch no longer possessed a voice with which to speak, but the doll answered for her anyway.
“Yes! Thank you for saving me! You’re the best doll I ever had, and I’m sorry I forgot that when I left you behind!”
“Oh, you’re very welcome, Miss. Let’s get you out of here.”
It should have been humiliating to be spoken for in such a way, but there was such wonderful novelty in having someone else speak at all after so long.
Her spirit was still too weak to reach out and make her own true words known, which did not faze the doll in the slightest.
“Be careful with my skeleton, Dolly. I’m very old and fragile!”
“Yes, Miss. I’m being super extra careful, see?”
It scooped up the skeleton with feather-touch gentleness and—careful not to hit her skull on any rubble—picked its way out of the hole back to the surface.
“You’re my only friend left, Miss, and I don’t want to accidentally hurt you like I did the others,” the doll continued. “I think all that napping made me real strong like you and now I gotta be extra gentle so I don’t hurt anyone any more.”
“You’re doing so good, Dolly.”
Come to think of it, the witch didn’t think she’d ever given such praise to her dolls before. Correct behavior was to be expected of them, after all. What strange side effects had her experiments on this one had on it?
What strength did it think it had?
The doll continued to converse with itself, speaking on the witch’s behalf in a way the witch never would have on her own. It propped her bones up against some surface rubble in a mockery of a sitting position and continued chatting away with barely contained delight.
It was nice, actually. Even when the doll put words in her mouth that she never would have spoken.
“You’re so good at stories, Dolly!”
“Thank you, Miss! I’ve been practicing!”
“You’re so pretty, Dolly!”
“Thank you, Miss! You made me this way!”
The happiness she felt from “her” words pleasing the doll was completely unfamiliar. She had been so much lonelier than she had let herself believe, and she found herself content to be in the company of such a chatterbox and pleased that the comfort it offered was mutual.
The world on the surface was so empty. The landscape was barren. Even the night sky had somehow died and become featureless.
But the witch’s heart was warmed by Dolly’s endless imagination and friendly conversation. She had come to think of the doll as a genuine friend too.
When Dolly held her bones and slept, the witch wished she could hold her back.
The first time Dolly whispered, “I love you, Miss,” the witch’s thoughts responded in unison with her doll’s narration, “I love you too, Dolly.”