Chapter 11: A crime to remember

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The stilt house, much to my relief, was easily accessible. There was no need to touch the pond's water and summon the guardian on accident: from land, an old, damp wooden staircase spiralled up to the door. I climbed those stairs, trying in vain to ignore the creaking noise as Isla and Harris followed me. I wouldn't have been surprised if termites had feasted on the wood I stood on before.

To whom had the stilt house belonged? Had anyone been crazy enough to live in Algor? If so, who had that person been, and how long ago was it that they'd left? Had they died, torn apart by monsters, swallowed by quicksand, drowned in murky water? Had they gone away, leaving the swamp and the parasites it sustained alive? Had the house belonged to the person, the magician, the creature who'd once cursed this place?

Or had the house never been built at all? Was it something Algor had created, something its haunted, wretched ecosystem had formed over the years? An illusion, fed and kept alive by unseen forces such as the shadow lady, strategically placed to lure unsuspecting travellers like me inside? Would an abomination wait in there until a meal showed up?

I shivered, and not from the cold.

The door was made of a dark ebony and wasn't ajar, but closed. Locked? Part of me hoped it was locked. I'd bravely led the way up, but my resolve faltered when faced with the door. My body didn't move, ignored the commands my brain sent it, and I stayed in place. Fear of the unknown rooted me to my spot. Was I the only one afraid, or was Harris scared as well? Could Isla feel fear, or had her ability to do so long since been lost to time?

"Come on, Jack. Are you going to open that door now or are you waiting for Easter?" Isla sounded impatient, but not nervous, not scared, and showing fear in front of someone fearless had never been a good idea. I gathered all my courage, took a deep breath and tried to pull the door open. To no avail.

It was a fucking push door.

Fine. I could push. I pushed, watched the door, covered in moulds and moss, slide open. And what that open door revealed to me about the contents of the stilt house haunted me. It branded me, and when my eyes shot wide open as I took in the gruesome scene, I knew I'd always carry it with me in the back of my mind.

Dangling from a wooden beam with a noose tight around her neck was the girl from my dream, the corpse candle foretelling my approaching death on my doorstep. It was her, Harris' girl, Emily Macaslan. I recognized her dirty, peeling skin, algae-filled hair, her eyes which had been scratched out of her sockets. The only difference from will-'o-the-wisp Emily was that this one didn't move or laugh, and an expression of shock rather than a decaying grin rested on her face.

My nausea only intensified.

In horror, my eyes drifted to the corner, where another body sat slumped. This body, which must've belonged to Miss Abigail Finley, was almost intact for the most part, though decomposing and rotting away. Her fingers and hands were coated a dull red colour, dried blood and dead skin amassed beneath her fingernails. Someone had stuck a kitchen knife in her chest; the weapon, I noticed, had pierced her heart.

A crime to remember, is it not?

I stepped into this chaotic scene, into this moist room full of clutter and plants sprouting from the walls, the floor, the ceiling; this room with water leaking from the roof; this uninhabited room of death and corpses that reeked of blood, excrement, and decay, and I wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else.

Instinctively, I turned to my companions who'd entered behind me, to Harris, who'd walked in expecting nothing and now found himself confronted with the truth he hadn't wanted to face. He was paler than a vampire, shaking like a leaf, mouth opening and closing in some kind of effort to make sense of the situation.

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