His fingers finished tying the last knots, spectral threads pulling a stitch tight in the doll’s joints and bringing its body together in one graceful motion. It clicked for a second, stuck in whatever dream it had been in while disassembled, before its eyes came back to life, looking up from the table at the witch and the shop behind him.
“This one doesn’t remember you,” it chimed. “Who are you?”
“Just a scavenger,” he smiled warmly back at it. “Someone put a lot of magic into that frame of yours, literally tore you limb from limb. It’s a miracle your core wasn’t completely shattered as well.”
“This one doesn’t remember this.” It blinked. “It dreamed…”
“I wouldn’t want to remember something like that either.” He lofted an arm, showing the door the burnt runes on its palms. “Do you recognize these sigils?”
“They’re conduit runes.” It tilted its head. “There’s a mistake, a typographical error.”
“Probably why the ritual blew your frame out instead of properly grounding.” He pulled a spool of canvas out from underneath the desk, wrapping it around the doll’s torso and its exposed core. “Some folks just don’t pay attention.”
“Where is this one’s Miss?” It looked at him with newfound concern. “Is she okay?”
“Oh, definitely.” He gave a weary smile back. “I watched her dump your pieces in the scrap pit. Looked like the blast took a couple of her fingers, but she didn’t seem to mind that much.”
“This one needs to return to its Miss. She can compensate you for your repairs.” It stood, standing on shaky legs, before collapsing back against the desk.
“I… don’t think you can return, doll.” He kept wrapping the canvas, laying an occasional retention stitch. “It would be impossible for me to handle your core if it was still bonded to your former witch. She severed the link, probably shortly after the blast. She didn’t strike me as the sort who’d keep an active bond with a suffering doll.”
It looked around dejectedly, only now beginning to accept what it had initially felt. It didn’t know where its miss was, couldn’t feel her thoughts pricking it in the back of its mind. Couldn’t feel the warmth of her torment…
“This is a lot to take in, I know.” He finished wrapping the canvas, slowly moving his fingers down the seams to seal them against the doll’s body. “I’ll admit, this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. Your story isn’t an especially uncommon one to find here.”
“Why are you helping this one?” It looked at him with confusion. “If this one’s bond was severed… its purpose is over. It should return to the dream.””I never really bought that part of the training.” His face twitched and he looked away, a memory pulling him back for a moment. “Do you remember that dream I pulled you from? The passage of time, talking with anyone else?”
“No,” it thought for a moment more. “This one doesn’t. But that doesn’t make it less real, does it?”
“I’ve looked into doll cores, when they become inoperable. There’s nothing there. May as well be a corpse.” He finished the final stitch, smiling at the slight pattern he’d woven in. “I think it’s a nice little lie witches tell ourselves. Tell our dolls when we scrap them.”
“Have you scrapped dolls?” Its voice took on a newfound curiosity at this strange witch it had found.
“Once or twice.” He held up his off-hand, a dozen long scars running down it. “I frustrated my teacher when I kept saving the strays. Eventually, she started making it my job to dissemble them. When that didn’t stick, she started making me crush the cores myself.”
“This one has seen its Miss… its former miss… do this as well.” It looked the witch over again, starting to take note of the bandages scattered over his body. “Is that not a doll’s purpose? If its miss wants to see it dismantled… should it not want that?”
“Plenty of witches believe that, sure.” He pulled away from the workbench, starting to rewrap his hands to cover his palms. “But if we wanted an unthinking thing to take our frustrations out on, an animate punching bag would be a better option.”
He grabbed a spare cloak off the wall, draping the doll with it and helping it to its feet once more. “The witches you’re used to don’t think of dolls as much more than that. The witches that raised me thought the same. Eventually… I met others that felt differently.”
“There’s so many witches out there, doll. Some take their knives and cut bone on stone until the edge is beyond repair and blame it on the knife. They’d rather forge an entirely new blade than take the time to care and treat their existing one properly.
“For my part… eventually I got tired of seeing the waste. I found witches who felt the same. And when it came time to crush another core, to forge another blade… I crushed a heart instead. And now? I find discarded knives, like you, and I grind a new edge on them.”
The two walked forward, slowly at first, limping towards the workshop door, the witch opening it to reveal a moon-lit room, filled with sleeping dolls and witches alike, a few sitting high above in the rafters and chatting quietly to themselves.
“Will… will you be this one’s new Miss?” The doll asked quietly.
“I’ll do my best.” He smiled back.