Three Of Cups
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The Three of Cups

Tarot card art by syuzhetsyuzhet


Madeline cradles the child — his limp arm hanging, laying on her knee, the shoulder clearly dislocated, the skin an angry red that's beginning to turn purple. She shakes for long seconds without making a noise, long enough Azalea fears for her sister's breath, until she sobs again: a sharp, shallow intake of air she stretches into the next bout of silent grief.

Azalea steps forward, but a hand clasps her shoulder. She turns to look towards Odele, and the eldest shakes her head. The youngest returns her gaze to Madeline, and frowns. My poor sister, she thinks, mustn't this suffering end?

Madeline runs a trembling hand through the boy's hair, and Azalea winces. The eldest looks on from a distance, wearing an intense expression one could mistake for a glare.

"Why?" Madeline finally gets out. The sisters have no easy answer, and watch on as Madeline's eyes slowly pan to them, red and wet. "Why must this happen? How can we continue on?"

"My dear sister," Azalea attempts a comforting tone, "it's only how things are. No one chose this. We have no choice but to make do."

"No choice? No choice you say, as children die!?"

"No choice," Odele echoes, cold and direct.

"Have you no memories? Have you forgotten what it was to live?"

"I have not forgotten, Madeline," Odele inclines her head, "only, I have discovered what it is to live now."

"You've given up," Madeline interprets.

"No," Odele retorts. "Just the opposite."

Azalea steps forward, and this time, Odele does not move to stop her. She kneels by her sister, takes her by the shoulders, and kisses her forehead, then pulling her into an embrace. Azalea feels her draping sleeves rest atop the dead boy's face.

Madeline leans her head on Azalea's chest and pours tears into her dress.

How many tears do you have, dear sister? Mustn't they someday run dry?

Odele slowly approaches, and then squats and extends her arms. Madeline shakes her head violently.

"Lin," Azalea coos, "you have to let go."

"No," Madeline answers, "no no no no."

"Sister," Odele speaks, her tone the growl of a mothering warning.

"Not this one," Madeline answers, "not this one."

"If you were to keep him, his sacrifice would have been for nothing, dear sister," Azalea hums. "Please. This is the best way to honor him."

Madeline shakes her head, but offers no response. At that, Odele closes the gap, and begins to slide her arms under the torso of the boy. At first Madeline clutches, but she has little strength to resist. Odele takes the boy into her arms, and once Madeline feels the weight leave her, she turns towards Azalea and nearly throws herself at her younger sister. Azalea has to shift her leg to support the weight as Madeline buries her face in Azalea's chest, muffling her sobs.

Odele and Azalea make eye contact, the younger herself on the verge of sympathetic tears. Odele doesn't make it to a full standing position before the boys' legs shift — they aren't so strongly connected, after the ravaging of his abdomen and lower spine. With a touch of frustration, she wills herself to act decisively and subtly.

Snap.

The boy's legs come free of his torso in one swift motion. Madeline's hiccupping cries seem to have shielded her from the sound. The eldest makes eye contact with Azalea and motions her head to the loose pair of legs, the shredded remains of intestines spilling out the new orifice. The putrid smell no longer registers to Azalea's palate, but she fears Madeline may not have worked up the same immunity — may have specifically fought against doing so. She frowns, but nods.

Odele walks, and Madeline's wailing seems interminable. For a long while, the sisters kneel there, tied together in fierce love, covered in tears, blood, and viscera.




The hall is large, but only three seats are used at this banquet table. Odele sits at the head, with Madeline seated to her right and a seat prepared to her left. Azalea enters from the far door, her steps echoing across the large, empty space, expertly balancing three dishes on her arms. With a kind of dancer's flourish, she places the dishes in front of the sisters and herself and takes her seat.

Madeline slouches, and sends her gaze into the far wall, past Azalea's shoulder. The youngest, for her part, smiles back, hoping to draw her eyes to a more pleasant place, but Madeline continues to stare off.

Odele clasps her hands together and presses her forearms into the rim of the table. Azalea follows suit, and her and Odele's stares bring Madeline back to earth, where she belatedly gets into the position of prayer as well.

The sisters close their eyes, and speak in unison at Odele's prompt:

"We give Thee thanks, our Father, for the Resurrection which Thou hast manifested to us through Jesus, Thy Son; and even as this bread which is here on this table was formerly scattered abroad and has been made compact and one, so may Thy Church be reunited from the ends of the earth for Thy Kingdom, for Thine is the power and glory for ever and ever."

"Amen," Odele concludes.

"Amen," the sisters echo, Madeline with a bit more emphasis than Azalea, who is already grabbing her utensils.

The eldest eyes the size of Madeline's plate, and then turns to make eye contact with Azalea. The youngest makes a subtle motion of her hand towards the middle sister, hoping to be understood without vocal elaboration. Madeline has yet to pick up her fork, and stares at the cut of meat on her plate.

Odele and Azalea hope to encourage her by a demonstration, and begin to cut the cooked meat into cubes and spear it alongside some of Azalea's leafy garnishes. Odele stirs her fork into a puddle of sauce, and takes the first bite. Madeline's face hardens, and she grabs her fork with some force. She takes a long gander at her plate — she has not failed to notice the size of her portion, and her stomach, despite her best efforts, growls. The others politely ignore the unwomanly sound, but Madeline feels judged all the same. She presses the fork into the crisp, golden-brown surface of the cut, testing it.

Azalea tries to make like she isn't watching, but can not help but stare.

Madeline's brief display of interest wanes, and her hand retreats. She looks up at her sisters and meets Azalea's eyes.

"Is it…?"

"No," Odele answers, without looking up from her meal.

"The last moon's catch," Azalea clarifies.

Madeline raises eyebrows. "And it hasn't spoiled?"

"Our baby sister has gotten very good at preserving," Odele explains with some warmth to her voice, "and there was much to preserve."

"So we didn't have to, then. Last night."

"We're running low. It was merely restocking."

"But we didn't have to."

"What does that matter?" Odele spits. "Would you rather we wait until we run out, risk starvation?"

"If it had waited one night, maybe the parents could have been home. Think of them, now. Think that they returned to an empty house, a pool of dried blood and a stench of death."

"Sister…" Azalea mutters, with a sorry look on her face. Odele keeps eating.

"It isn't the boy," Odele repeats. "Eat."

Madeline looks back at her meal. She feels empty — she knows she's thinned. She holds her fork below the table in a grip that threatens to bend the metal. Her eyes pass from the food, to her baby sister, to the head of the household. Their eyes hold some sympathy — Azalea's more than Odele's — but offer no answers.

She takes the knife, and her heartbeat quickens. Before she can overthink it, she stabs the meat with her fork, cuts off a bite, and presses it into her mouth. She sets down the silverware to free her hands to grip the side of the table as she hangs her head, her long hair coming down over her face.

She chews. Slowly, deliberately, she works through the bite, fighting the contradictory urges both to vomit and to stuff herself to bursting. She practices control, by chewing — in her eyes, honoring the dead by savoring the flavor, though the thought nauseates her.

She swallows, and looks up to see her sisters staring at her. Her face coils into a frown, and she presses her eyes closed. She claps her hands together and puts her forehead against them.

"Lord Jesus, please bless us, we know not what we do. Your humble children kneel under your mighty presence with prayers that uplift our souls and hearts — oh king of kings, help us in these trying times." She swallows air. "I decree and am purified from all my sins before You, Eternal Father. Christ has offered atonement for my sins on the cross so that I may be cleansed. I am not worthy of this cleansing, but the Grace of the saving lamb made it possible. Thank you, Lord. Amen."

"Amen," the sisters echo her.

Must you do that for every bite? Odele wonders.

Madeline stands.

"Lin," Odele intones.

"I am going to be ill."

"Dear sister," Azalea pleads, "you are making yourself ill! Please, eat!"

"We are all ill!" Madeline yells. "We have been cursed, we are forced to live a life where our only product is suffering and death! Can you look at us and say that we are children of God?"

"I can," Odele says, but she is not given space to speak as Madeline continues.

"Can you look at yourself and say that you are living a virtuous life? How many times over must we be forgiven?"

Azalea shakes her head, but keeps her thought to herself: Forgiven for what?

"We are all ill. Only, I seem to be the only one who feels it."

She darts away, through double-doors and beyond sight. Azalea stands to follow, but Odele grunts through a bite. Once she's swallowed: "Leave her her space."

"For how long must we leave her her space?" Azalea nearly yells. Stepping closer and lowering her voice: "This can not continue. She won't eat, she will starve, she may die."

"Or worse," the eldest agrees, "she will lose control. She does not act on her own nature. She will either lose her physical being, or she will lose herself."

"Then you understand! How can you be so calm?"

"How it will happen is how it must be."

Azalea struggles with a frustration she doesn't dare to name to Odele. "So you will sit by and lose her? Do you even love her?"

Odele stands from her seat, forcing the youngest back a step. "How dare you insinuate that I lack love for Madeline. Do you hear yourself?"

"I'm sorry, dear sister," she defers, head lowered and gaze averted, hands pulling together in a nervous gesture. "You're right, I shouldn't have."

Odele breathes heavily, boring a hole into the crown of Azalea's bowed head with her eyes. She turns and walks several paces away, and stops.

"But you are right," she admits. "I am calm because I believe that how it will happen is how it must be. But God helps those who help themselves — we will be best rewarded by action."

"Thank you. For seeing reason."

Odele turns back around and walks towards the table, placing her hands upon the back of a chair. "But what?"

"Lin's illness is a resistance to her nature, agreed?"

"Agreed."

Baby sister Azalea frowns at the natural conclusion. Oh sister, I act only with love. Please see that — above all, please see that.




Madeline stirs from a dream of childhood simplicity as Azalea's hand gently shakes her shoulder.

"Mm," she grunts.

"Dear sister, wake up," Azalea coos, sitting on the bedside.

"Hmm? What…" Madeline begins to sit up and rubs her eyes, and notices the dark window. "How long was I asleep?"

"Not too long. Come, Odele and I have something to show you."

"Okay…" Madeline feels a sense of unease, as Azalea takes her first steps towards the door. "Is this…?"

"What?"

Madeline holds tighter to her blanket. "A hunt? I told you I wouldn't go anymore."

Azalea averts her eyes and smiles sadly, but fails to respond in short order. Then, she shakes her head. "No, it's not a hunt. It's something special. Come. I'll give you a moment to dress."

She leaves the room and closes the door, though not all the way. Madeline rises and exchanges her nightgown for a simple household dress — not fit for guests, but God is always watching, so it should be nice nonetheless. She opens her bedroom door, and Azalea meets her eyes with another soft smile. "Come," she urges.

Madeline follows her, but can't help but ask: "What is it?"

"It's easier to see than explain."

"Is it something good?"

Azalea is shaken by the question, but maintains her composure. "It's something important."

"You're scaring me, Zaly," Madeline stops in her tracks. "If it were something good, you'd be excited. I can't help but feel you're leading me into a trap."

"A trap!?" Azalea turns around and closes the distance between them, grabbing Madeline's hands in her own and bringing them up to her chest. "Lin, do you trust me? Odele and I?"

Madeline wishes she did. Perhaps Azalea reads this in her pause, because her face coils with hurt, which rushes Lin into saying: "I do, of course, of course I trust you." I trust the Azalea and Odele that I remember — only, I'm not sure you do more than resemble them, anymore.

Azalea hangs her head for a second, a delay in her acceptance of Madeline's statement betraying that she sees the statement for what it is. But she turns her head up and brightens some before saying: "Please, just trust me this once, if you never trust me again. Let me win or lose your trust now, and I'll never ask you to make another blind leap."

Madeline considers, and her hope that the Azalea she knows hasn't died to be eaten by this thing in front of her wins out. "Okay," she says, starting intently into her sister's eyes — the windows to the soul — trying to catch a sign one way or the other.

Azalea smiles, but the expression is brief. "Come," she keeps hold of one of Madeline's hands as she turns to lead, "we're going to the cellar."

Madeline follows the youngest down the spiral stairs and through the main hall of the mansion, through the foyer, and out the double doors. They walk around the corner, and Azalea lets go of Madeline's hand to unlatch and throw open the doors to the cellar. She takes the first step and turns to take Lin's hand again — only it isn't offered. She looks up, hand hanging in the air.

"You're… not going to hurt me, are you?"

"No," Azalea is quick to say, "no one is going to hurt you."

Madeline still hesitates, looking at the cold stone stairs leading down into a dim red glow. "Can… we leave the doors open?"

Azalea quirks her head, and then breaks eye contact to consider. "Yes. Of course, if that makes you feel more safe."

"You're scaring me. Waking me up in the middle of the night — when you and Odele would be… wasn't it that you were going on a hunt tonight?" Even after all this time, the hurt is laid plain on Madeline's face as she names the method of their survival.

"We returned from our hunt an hour or two ago," Azalea says. "You're not wrong."

"Then you're going to show me something. Someone. You retrieved."

Azalea hangs her head.

"Don't tell me," Madeline breathes. "Someone we knew?"

"No, no, nothing like that."

"I asked you to keep me out of this. I — I demanded."

"I know. Sister, we know, we know you did. I wouldn't be bringing you here if it wasn't important. Desperately important. Please believe me."

Madeline frowns. "I want to believe you."

"Then do! Please."

"If you promise me. That this is the last I'll be… exposed to this… horrible violence, sister. If you promise me that, then I will."

Azalea frowns and shakes her head. Her hands clasp over her heart, as if she were holding it still. "I… promise."

Lin doesn't respond as Azalea raises her head to look for an answer. Instead, she closes her eyes, and steels herself. She reaches a hand out, and Azalea takes it.

"Why the delay?" Odele's voice calls, echoing from deep in the cellar.

The two sisters begin walking down the stairs. "Our sister is nervous, that's all."

"Understandable. Please, come in and close the door."

The younger sisters make it to the bottom, and hesitate. "Ah, Lin was hoping to leave it open, actually."

"That's not safe. Close it behind you."

Azalea looks to Madeline, helpless. The middle sister sighs, but obliges, turning around and closing the doors behind them.

"Good," Odele responds to the sound of the latch. "Come in."

Madeline comes back down the stairs and takes Azalea's outstretched hand, barely visible in the low light. The flickering glow leads them around a corner, and just as Odele comes into view, the youngest hesitates, and turns back to look into Madeline's eyes.

"Wh-whatever it is," Madeline finds herself paradoxically comforting her baby sister, "just let me see it. Let's get this over with."

Odele only looks on, and Azalea seems to check in with her through eye contact, before letting Madeline around the corner and stepping out of the way.

The focus of the scene is immediately apparent. Odele stands off to the side of the body of a man, naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist — a gesture undoubtedly for Madeline's sake. Madeline's chest goes cold, her breathing slows but doesn't deepen.

She looks to Odele, willing to assume the blame lies primarily with her more stoic sibling. "Well? What of this ordeal must I bear witness to — what horror are you prepared to spring into my life?"

Odele maintains their eye contact, determined not to be the first to break it. "I won't be doing much of anything, Lin. It's you."

"Me?" She turns to Azalea for confirmation, and Azalea gives a single nod. Turning back to Odele: "What is this — are you trying to get me to eat? Surely you can't think that… I… you know that it's the more…"

"We've always ate the heads, hands and feet ourselves, yes," Azalea voices what she can't. "We've been sanitizing the meals for you."

Lin looks at the floor for a moment. Raising her chin: "This can't be better. You've left him practically intact. You know I can't do it."

"We've left him entirely intact, Lin."

For a moment, she doesn't understand. Then she looks to the body, and sees, with a more attentive gaze, the subtle rise and fall of his chest. Her eyes widen, and she takes two steps back. "No…"

"You are to kill him, sister."

"No!"

"You can refuse," Odele speaks up to be heard over her growing hysterics, "but we will not feed you. You can leave, but then you will have to fend for yourself. How hard it is for you to eat now, I can not imagine you will fare well in the wilderness. You will lose yourself to the monster, and you will kill without intention. You think we are horrific, but you have yet to plumb the depths of your own condition, and you will be your own tormentor if left to your own devices. You will wish for death, but you will not be allowed it. Instead, you will lash out, eat and cry, sleep and vomit, and kill far more than necessary to sate your appetite, all because you fight yourself."

"I'll end it," Lin yells, "I won't let it get that far, I'll throw myself off a cliff — I'll stab through the heart!"

"Be my guest and try, but I doubt you have the will to do it."

"Dear sister!" Azalea holds a hand to her mouth.

Madeline turns to her baby sister, and she pleads. "You can't agree to this, can you? Zaly, the gentlest of us — the gardener, Duke's best friend — tell me you've been coerced somehow, give me some hint you retain some semblances of the girl I once knew?"

"I…" Azalea starts, and shifts position, looking towards the wall. "I pressed Odele into action. I suggested we do something in the first place, Lin, dear sister — this was my idea. That's why I should be the one to trick you into doing it. Odele didn't have the heart to lie."

Lin turns to the eldest to see her incline her head in acknowledgment. As she turns back to Azalea, her brow is creased with fury, and tears spring from her eyes. "You bitch!"

"It's for your own good!"

"And why should you get to decide that!?"

"Because the other option is to watch your slow decline!" Odele's voice booms. "Tell me honestly. What terminus did you expect, sequestered to your bedroom, neglecting to appear except for at our summons, refusing to leave the estate, barely eating, never seeing the sun? Were your prayers being answered, dear sister?"

Madeline turns back to Odele, and the anger leaves her expression, leaving only sorrow and tears.

"Perhaps, not in the way you'd like?" the eldest suggests, tone softer.

"Oh, Odele," she cries, "what terminus do you see for me here?"

Odele raises her head so that she appears to be looking down at Madeline, even from a distance. "Control. Acceptance. Harmony."

"How?"

"The idea," Azalea starts, and then sighs, "is to get you accustomed to your nature. You'll be the one to kill our prey until you are at peace with doing so. When that has been accomplished, you'll join us on our hunts — until you are at peace with that, as well."

"I'm not a killer."

"As long as you live, you are. Don't you see, Lin? As long as you live, we will kill for you. Just as many will die by our hands as would have died by yours — just to give you food enough to live. If Odele and I only hunted enough to feed ourselves, then you could be absolved of the guilt of association, but we don't, and you can't. That's why we're giving you this option. Either you begin to kill, or you do what you've wanted all along — we no longer feed you, we hunt only for as much to feed ourselves."

"And I die," Madeline chokes.

"And go to God," Odele adds. "If you are so lucky as to die. I fear your fate will be less comfortable than that."

Madeline looks between her sisters, her back to the unconscious man on the floor. She wipes at her eyes, but neither sister makes a step to comfort her — not that she would have allowed them. "How?" her hoarse voice gets out. "How can you two be so sane? How can you be so levelheaded, how can you look upon this man, this child of God, and ask me to… to kill him? And eat him, dear Lord… how can you ask me that? Are you not afraid of Hell — have you no more love of God's creation? Tell me, sisters… what happened to the beautiful girls I knew in my youth? Why should I hold so many misgivings when you seem to hold so little? You speak like tempters of sin. Shouldn't it be better for me to die if I should live by the deaths of others? Why has it been so long since I've heard you call yourselves 'cursed' — am I the only who remembers the mild, simple lives we were to live, in accordance with the Lord and the law?"

The eldest and youngest look to each other, seeing who should speak first. Odele wordlessly cedes the floor, and Azalea steps forward. "Dearest sister. It hurts me every night to see you suffer so much — I know the misgivings you had. We all once thought ourselves cursed — I have never left the term altogether, though it does not weigh so heavy in my mind. Sister… humans have always hunted, we are no different. We've hunted deer and elk, hare and bird, rat, fish and crab. And haven't those hunted themselves? Isn't this how life is lived?"

"The animals in the woods have no soul, sister," Madeline easily writes her off. "The meat of this earth was made aplenty for us to eat. Man was not made for our consumption!"

Azalea winces. Was Duke so soulless? She holds her tongue on the matter. "Please, bear with me. Suppose, for a moment, that you were a rabbit, instead of a woman. Suppose that you should wake up one morning, and find yourself a fox. To be a fox, you must hunt the rabbit. It may at first distress you — but, I argue, it is not more nor less your duty and inclination to hunt the rabbit. Your distress comes not from the hunt itself, but a shift of position in the dynamic. Truly, to be a fox, you must hunt. To do otherwise would be to fight against God's design. We find ourselves in a similar position."

"But we are not foxes, Azalea — we are women! We were never hunted rabbits — we were human, are human — aren't we?"

"I think, to truly understand our dynamic, we must realize that we are not. We are whatever we have been made to be — may it be new, may it be older than we know. But in the order of the world, no."

"Then God has left us!" Madeline sobs. "Lord Jesus will not welcome us into his breath, we hold no spot in heaven."

"No," Odele can not help but step in. "Sister, I can not let you speak such nonsense. God is with us."

"Then speak sense into me, if you have any left in you."

"God has repurposed us. Sister, there are no mistakes in God's designs, and to ever believe He has left us is heresy. God sees all, Madeline. He leaves no stone unturned, no tree unplanted, no creature of God's design is ever alone. You and I are just as cradled by His light as the man behind you — and if ever I hear your word against this again I will leave you to His devices alone and see how you fare. Am I understood?"

Madeline makes no noise as she stares at the eldest, who's made several strides forward, one hand at the bottom of her sternum, rubbing forefinger and thumb together, an expression — along with the frayed edges of her voice — of the energy she fights to hold down.

"If man were not meant to die, they would not die. If the lion were not meant to maim man, He would not have given him claws to do so. Violent demise reminds us to be humble. Pain is a test of our faith — and should these we hunt die with dignity, they die with God. We have been given the task to kill."

"You surely can't believe that — sister, you can't believe our curse is anything but a transgression against God?"

"Do you believe demons are misplaced in God's design?" Odele challenges. "Virtue has no value without sin — do you think we suffer meaninglessly? We suffer to learn, we suffer to see. To redeem, there must be sufferers. To be sufferers, there must be those that are suffered."

"Then we are demons!?"

Odele nods once.

"With — with all due respect, Odele, I fear you may have lost yourself to the temptations we face. Man is defined by its ability to overcome the temptations of the flesh — and I can not see our hunger as more than a temptation."

"Then overcome it!" Odele bellows. "Fast and discover your peace in withering."

"What our sister is meaning to say," Azalea cuts in, her voice meek at first as she finds her footing, "is that the temptations to overcome are that of excess. Lust is forbidden, but sex is sacred. Wrath is wrong, but must not a father punish a child? We are not gluttons, sister. God has never forbidden us to eat — only to eat in excess, only to take more than is required for our lot in life. We do well to listen to our bodies — they tell us the necessities of our survival. We have new bodies, Lin. They've told us what they need, and we take only humble supply. No more, no less."

"What I fear, sister," Odele steps even closer to Madeline, at which the younger steps back, "is that you don't have control over these temptations. Azalea, though I sometimes question the strength of her faith, yet displays the humility God asks of us. Our youngest is who we trust most to walk among the public in the day. Do you know why?" Odele displays the gnarled back of one hand. "Because some days, when the weight of our duty presses down on me, I fear I may be too weak to fight it. We all feel it, Lin — the visions of desolation, the gore of passersby on our fingertips, eating from the open belly of a still-living victim. Dearest sister, you are not alone. Can't you see that?"

Madeline only shakes and hangs her head. She feels a hand on her shoulder.

"We're here to help you," the youngest hums. "With us, you can practice moderation. You can learn the new conditions of our life, as Odele has. As I have. But you can't merely hold it in the whole time — the pressure will build, and sister, you will combust. Can't you see that? Can't you feel that?"

Madeline raises her head, and makes teary eye contact. Azalea smiles sympathetically.

"You do no good, fighting your nature. If Odele and I were the monsters you think of us, we would have massacred the village by now. We would be beastly, vicious things. But we do not indulge. We kill quickly. We eat only what we need — we preserve the meat so we waste none. We… pray." She rubs Madeline's shoulder. "Sister, are you afraid that you will enjoy it?"

Madeline's face contorts, and she hides it by looking away and to the ground. "I — the first nights, when you could not find me."

When you came back, flayed skin pasted to your dress, encrusted with old blood and the other humors of the body — incoherent, hysterical — I remember, Odele thinks.

"I — I — sisters… Zaly, Odele… please, I have sinned so much already. I fear I am beyond forgiveness. And," Madeline can barely say the word, "yes, dear Azalea, but please, please don't make me say it again."

The youngest pulls Madeline into a hug, which she belatedly reciprocates, though Lin's tears are not as fierce as they once were, her body still.

Once she pulls away, Madeline asks: "How? How did you…?"

Odele sighs. "Zaly reigned me in. I fear I would have succumbed to the same fate as you should she not have been there to hold me, restrain me, speak sense into me."

"I could only chase one of you," Azalea said, "I'm so sorry I could not be there for you in the darkest moments."

Madeline shakes her head. "It is not your fault. I… I was always curious how you two had mended your differences."

"Rest assured, our differences have yet to be mended," Odele cuts in, with some growl to her voice. But then, she sighs. "However, Azalea displayed a kind of calm and control that can not be less than holy. She led me back to the light, and without her… I don't know if I would have been anything more than a being of fear and desire, but I… am ashamed to admit, I believe my desire would have won out against the fear of my own nature. For that, for her patience and grace, I can not help but extend the same." Odele shakes her head, as if expelling a thought, as Azalea, private from the gaze of either of her other sisters, rolls her eyes.

"For you," Odele continues, "it seems fear has played the largest role, and though that does less damage in the short run, I don't believe you are preparing yourself to live the life you will have. You have not chosen it — none of us chose it, Madeline. Know that. But you are the last of us to come to terms with what it is we must do to live. To live with God, Lin."

Madeline stands, hunched, and looks between her two sisters. Odele's expression grim and serious, Azalea's a light, hopeful smile and a look of inquisition. Before she can speak, the eldest grabs underneath Madeline's armpits, and pulls her into a straighter posture. Lin can't help but give one chuckle, and Odele smiles.

Madeline sighs, deep. And then another.

"And you will help me through this transition?" she speaks, meek.

The eldest and youngest simultaneously affirm.

"You will see me at my worst and love me still?"

"We have seen you at your worst," Odele corrects.

"And of course, dear sister. We still love you. Even if you were to give in to your darkest desires, I could not help but love you."

Odele casts a disagreeing glance Azalea's way, but says nothing.

Madeline opens her arms, and the youngest is the first to accept the invitation and embrace her again. This time, though, Odele closes the gap, and wraps bother her sisters in a hug. They remain like that for as long as Madeline needs to compose herself — some long ten seconds or so, before Lin breaks off and takes a deep breath.

She turns around, and stares at the unconscious man, her composure dwindling some.

"I don't want to," Lin whispers.

"You're not supposed to," Odele states, a mite faster than Azalea can start her own statement: "You don't want to want it."

"But we won't let you go too far."

"We'll be with you while you learn."

Madeline nods. She shakes her head, hunches for a moment, but breathes deep and stands tall, imagining Odele's hands pulling her up. She rolls up the sleeve of her left arm, as it changes. The skin splits, and from the fissures rise pitch black slivers, only some at first, but multiplying by second. Her forearm is quickly covered, glistening and wet, reflecting the orange glow of the lit torches. Her palm similarly splits and black flickers across her hand, the slivers connecting, like a million leeches aligning end to end until they create new, bare muscle, though frayed at the edges where little tendrils hang off and wriggle. The arm and hand bulk out, growing twice their usual size, vastly disproportionate to the rest of her body. By the time the transformation is complete, her hand reaches almost to her foot, the fingers elongated even for the proportion of the hand, with their tips splitting to reveal growths a craggy gray-yellow, not sharpened into spearing tips but instead jagged, erratic lines capable of slashing from any angle.

Odele nods, and Azalea smiles, though Madeline sees neither. Instead, she wipes at her mouth with her right hand, cleaning a trickle of saliva she's glad her sisters didn't see.

She clears her throat, flexing her new fingers, eyes fixed on the man's vulnerable belly.

"Okay."

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