Cool, dank air wafted upwards from what appeared to be a passage of sorts. I moved through into the darkness and reached out for the lantern so Lottie could follow behind. Despite my forethought, the lantern was not near enough light for us to travel safely within the dark confines. The small flame offered nothing but a dull yellow halo. I turned up the wick, and light flared. The long space was stone lined, and a dark green, near black moss had sprouted in the dampness, so the walls appeared almost alive and added to the fecund stench that assaulted my senses. The ground was spongy with mud and a trickle of water ran through the centre. My boots were sucked by the mire and I lifted my skirts to negotiate my way. I saw the marks then, scrabbled in the mud. A boot heel, a scrape, something that may have been from a hand, and then five, long and thin furrows, like plough marks in a field. I bent to gain a closer look, and my breath caught.
“What is it?” Lottie asked, and I held her back with my hand.
“The scuttling marks of rats, I think.” I spoke swiftly and obscured the mark with my own boot print, for it was not the patterning of little feet that had given me fright, but the torn and bloodied remnant of a fingernail protruding from the mud. I stood, lifted the light high once more and ventured down the passage.
I felt Lottie’s hand on the rear of my skirt, where she clasped, afraid perhaps of losing me. We had taken near a dozen steps when we heard it. It was a low, moaning wail, the kind one might expect from the Chamber of Horrors at the wax works. My blood chilled, and Lottie reeled me in, clinging against my back, her breath in my ear.
“Is it him? Can you see?” she asked, her voice quavered. I licked at my lips, tasting the dampness of the air and took a hesitant step forward. “Lorn?” Lottie asked of me again.
“I can’t see him, Lottie,” and her name echoed. I extricated myself from her as I could not move well with her clung like a limpet. She settled for clenching at my skirt once more, keeping near.
The noise came again, closer. It bounced off the walls and reverberated about our ears. A drip of something loathsome from the stone ceiling hit against my shoulder and spattered Lottie’s cheek. She shrieked.
“Dear God,” I whispered after a moment, for there we saw him in the dim lantern light around a bend in the passage. Octavio Stepp was crumpled against the wall as if fallen in a drunken stupor. A leg splayed out in front of him, the other missing from the knee down with nothing but the ragged and bloodied remnants of his trouser leg to mark its dissection. But it was his countenance that frightened me most. His thick hair was plastered about it, tangled in lopsided whiskers, lopsided for his lower jaw hung askew. It was torn from its hinges to lay upon his chest held only by a ribbon of moist flesh. The gaping mouth, with severed tongue lolling, obscured a cavernous hole through which his ribs protruded like spider’s legs. Octavio Stepp was well and truly gone. I shuddered with the realisation of it. Greater still loomed the question, what had done it, and had it made the wailing cries?