Heya, readers! We’ve hit our first Patreon goal, so here’s the first chapter of our bonus story, Rapturous Voyage! If you want to see the goal markers for the release of this story, they’re available on our Patreon.
Story contains gore.
As soon as I entered the house, the smell hit me. Rot, like an urban cesspit. It was out of place in the neatly kept parlour, with coals still smoldering in the grate, and the wooden furniture polished to a gleam.
The cop met me in the kitchen. He was standing over the trapdoor in the corner of the room, mercifully closed, cup of coffee in one hand, cheap cigar between his lips. I drank in the smell of that greasy, bitter cigar. It was the most pleasant smell in the house.
“Coffee?” he asked, gesturing towards the kettle on the stove.
“This is a murder scene!”
I gathered myself. “Take me to the victim, please.”
“This your first time, ma’am?”
“Does that matter?”
“Does it matter if you’re prepared for what’s downstairs? I daresay it does.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, more certainly than I felt.
“Whatever you say, ma’am.” He set his coffee on the table, and opened the trapdoor.
It was then that I realised that no, the smell had not hit me as soon as I entered the house. What had hit me as soon as I entered the house was a shadow of a smell, a pale memory if the true sensory bouquet awaiting me down in that basement. When he opened the trapdoor, that is when the smell hit me. I gagged immediately.
The cop watched me with some concern. “Ma’am, we don’t have to do this right now. A woman shouldn’t have to see – ”
“I’m fine,” I lied, forcing my lungs and stomach to obey me through sheer effort of will. “I know my job, Mr… uh…”
“Mr O’Hannigan, and my sex has nothing to do with it. If we could get on with things?”
He shrugged, and led the way downstairs.
I followed, step by rickety wooden step. The smell of decay felt like a fog pressing on my skin, settling into my lungs. I resolved to burn my uniform as soon as I got back to Refujeyo. My boss could pay for a replacement.
I kept my eyes on the stairs, trying not to notice the blood. Only when my feet were firmly planted on blood-streaked stone did I look up.
And immediately threw up.
O’Hannigan was ready for this. He shoved a bucket in my hands just in time. When I was done, he replaced it with a glass of water, but there was no way I was drinking that. Not when it’d been sitting here, in this basement.
I looked up again. But there was nothing left in my stomach to throw up, this time.
The victim was male. Long blond hair was plastered with sweat and blood to his face, frozen in a rictor of agony even in death. The blood caked around his mouth was probably a result of the tongue removal; that had been in the report. It wouldn’t have been from the… other injuries, biologically speaking…
He was raised high off the floor, still nailed to the giant wooden cross erected in the middle of the room. The nails in his wrists and ankles were invisible under the blood and torn flesh. I wasn’t inclined to look too closely, but I knew from the reports of the others that under his fingernails would be relatively clean; none of the victims struggled. They climbed onto the crosses willingly.
I’d run out of extremities to focus on; face, ankles, wrists. Sooner or later, I was going to have to face the torso. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to look.
The report had been clinical. Breastbone hacked open with some kind of hand tool while the victim was alive; lungs pulled out and thrown over his shoulders. There was nothing clinical in the scene before me, though. The spongy lungs tossed over each shoulder were still connected via their trachea and dangled like bloody wings over their owner’s shoulder blades. An angel, crucified in the basement.
My stomach found some emergency materials to throw up. When I was done, I scraped together as much dignity as I could muster, and looked at O’Hannigan.
“Are all the victims this… young?” I asked.
He shook his head. “First vic, a man of around forty, we think. Second was a woman of about seventy or eighty. This kid here, we think early twenties. Didn’t you see the photographs?”
The only photographs I’d seen were of the victims’ feet. Which reminded me. I was here to do a job.
I tossed my cloak on the floor to protect the blood of the crime scene as best I could (and, of course, to protect myself from the blood). I prostrated myself at the feet of the crucified man.
And I looked up.
There it was – bottom of the right big toe. A pale mark, easily missed among the marks and calluses found on any foot, but I was trained for this. It jumped out at me immediately.
“He’s a witch,” I said.
“Like the others?”
“Like the others.” I reached into the kit on my belt and took out my witch needle. With a well-practiced hand, I pierced the witch mark and wriggled it around until I found what I was looking for – a black, sticky residue, already thickening and dying without access to a living body. I dropped the coated needle into a test tube.
“What’s that?” O’hannigan asked.
“Devil’s milk.” When he stepped back, alarmed, I added, “It’s perfectly inert. It can’t hurt you.” I felt a lot better, doing my job. Even in a place like this. Even when my subject was dead.
“The victims,” I said. “They’re not pulled off the street if they’re stepping onto the cross willingly. Are they related?”
“We don’t know who they are, but they look similar enough that they might be. A whole family of goddamn witches. I can’t believe it.”
I shook my head. “It’s not a family of witches,” I said. Then I amended that with, “It’s extremely unlikely that it’s a family of witches.” We couldn’t make assumptions; every curse was different. “It’s one curse, in a family, moving from person to person.”
O’Hannigan frowned. “It’s what now?”
“A witch,” I explained, “is somebody who accepts the taint of a curse in exchange for power. What we’re seeing here is multiple people taking the same curse.” I tapped the victim’s foot, in full professional mode now. “The entrance wound is in the same place on every victim. The big toe isn’t a common place for a curse to lodge; this is the same curse, over and over. Curses have certain… requirements of their witches. Being of a particular bloodline isn’t unheard of. This curse is just jumping from family member to family member, and they’re killing each other over it.”
“Why? For power?”
“Possibly. You can ask them when you catch them, I suppose.”
“What does the curse do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You’re a witch finder, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, O’Hannigan, because the curse isn’t here. I can’t inspect what isn’t here. A curse needs a living host; it left the moment this poor man died. Bring me the witch before they’re killed next time and I can tell you what it does.”
“I’m half-tempted to let the buggers wipe each other out,” O’Hannigan grumbled. “If they want to kill each other for power so bad, maybe we should let ‘em.” But he said it without conviction. His job was to catch murderers, and that’s what he was going to do.
My job was to find witches, and that’s what I was going to do.
But as I ascended the steps once more, a nausea that had nothing to do with the basement filled me. This family wasn’t fighting over power; those victims had stepped onto their crosses willingly. They weren’t assassinated.
And murders, even witch murders, weren’t usually this elaborate. The garbled religious symbolism, the long preparation, the drama – these were hallmarks of clueless people trying to find a way to bind a curse.
What curse could be so terrible that three people would rather be so violently executed than live with it?