Oppressive Epidermis – Horror/Urban Fantasy One-Shot

Working as a supernatural organ harvester is never an easy job – but Silvia Ferrante now has to deal with a string of murderous rituals, and they show a pattern she’s far too intimate with…

Unlike what most people thought, Silvia Ferrante did not have any particular fondness for dead bodies.

Be they human or beast – it made little difference. Once you knew where to cut and what to take, the activity fell into a sort of disgusting dullness. She had gotten used to it: she could listen to self-help podcasts while sectioning a mongrelwolf. People just liked to act like her line of work reflected upon her: was she going to start wearing a studded bikini and meeting friends for an happy hour wielding a machete?

And yet, people liked to assume.

Hence, the reason why she had left her leather jacket in her hotel room, no matter how much she liked it (hey, that Witches get Stitches motto sewed on it was sick) and was now wearing a dark suit over her white shirt (far too white for a coroner visit).

“I am here to see the bodies,” she said showing her card to the guard at the Archives entrance. He was a pleasantly-handsome man in his thirties. He took a couple quizzical looks at it.

“Is this legit? I thought the Milan branch stayed well out of this.”

“I was scouted,” she replied with a thin smile. Come on, she looked her very best: professional, and tidy, her brown hair in a nice ponytail, and the eight-shaped tattoo on her left cheek just a reminder of some bad choices in her youth.

“I’ll have to scan this,” he said.

Silvia sighed. Working in Florence was bad enough due to the heat. If she had to stop and show her credentials every ten minutes she’d go insane. She reached for her necklace and showed him what looked like a tiny bone coin, with a square hole in the middle.

“Or you can scan this. I was scouted, as I said. By the Witch of Milan herself. Do you want to make a call?”

“It’s the procedure, Ma’am,” he replied, but his eyes never left the tiny coin she bore. He picked up what looked like a wooden tuning fork and passed it all over her, three times. She felt a faint sensation of cold run down her spine, but the displacer wand did not go off.

Even if it did, she supposed the amulet she bore would have made short work of it.

But better this way.

“You’re clear. The coroner is on the seventh level.”

“Down and to the left, I suppose.”

He nodded and they parted ways.

She walked through a series of tunnels – a few simple structural spells had constrained the space between them, so she had a quick vision of people stretched as if through straws as her intention made the door appear straight in front of her.

Golconda Venturini – Coroner – SIS, Florence Branch.

Except for the slightly-exotic name of her contact, the metal door and its plaque might have been utterly similar to any other morgue in the world, but as soon as Silvia knocked she felt something else going on beneath the surface.

As her skin touched the metal another vibration spread through her skin.

They are quite thorough with the scanning, today, she thought. Even though, considering what was going on, she supposed it made sense.

“Come on in,” said a woman’s voice.

“Thank you.” Silvia turned the door and shivered again.

The room she entered in was covered on every inch of free surface by graffiti, some as thin as a hair, others as thick as a thumb. All sort of augural formulas to keep harmful influences at bay. Her knowledge of this kind of Alchemy was second-hand and rusty at best, but she spotted a few warding spells that could have warded an entire town’s water supply for years.

Farmers in the Middle Ages would kill for this kind of stuff.

And amidst the letters and formulas and symbols laid eyes upon eyes upon eyes, like the cells in an unblinking honeycomb, each of them looking at the rows of beds where naked women lay, their misshapen body bent and bloomed out of any human proportions by the coral-beds of bones sprouting from their heads.

So far, she did hear about what had been happening in Florence, but seeing it happen first-hand was… completely different.

“Oh dear,” groaned the coroner, a tall woman with short platinum hair and inviting grey eyes. She was pretty, in a way that a pale mannequin might look pretty. She wore leather gloves and a grey overcoat that hid most of her body. “They did not ward you. Come here.” She beckoned her to a corner of the room.

“Uhm, sure?” Silvia stood motionless as the coroner pulled out what looked like tape and began to apply it to her clothes – each of the stripes glowed with blue warding symbols, crackling with energy.

She was thankful, but she also cringed a bit. It would be a pain to pull it out of her (formerly) nice dress.

“That’s better. At least now you won’t start choking on your own bones. At least that’s what we hope for. So, to what do I owe the pleasure? Golconda Venturini, by the way. But I am sure you can read.”

She had a bit of a motor mouth. And there was something about her that Silvia couldn’t exactly place, some weird out-of-focus detail.

But she had to take care of one problem at a time.

“Silvia Ferrante. Second-class Retriever, Milan branch. I was sent here by Datura.”

At her name, the coroner quirked an eyebrow.

“Weird. As far as I know, big-time Witches like those do not step over each other’s toes, do they?”

“It was actually Precatoria who asked for help with this…” she regarded the bodies. “Accident.”

“The gears grind and the pebbles turn into dust,” she huffed. “Not the first time it happened. I hope by showing you the bodies I am not putting myself in the crosshair of any Witch feud?”

“Not beyond the usual. Besides… Witch eat Witch not.”

“So far,” the blonde conceded. “Very well. I was in the middle of skinning Marta here. You can help.”

She guided her to the nearest victim, laying on a bed with a few cold wards laying on its side, keeping the body from decomposing.

Silvia had seen her share of weird things. More than her share, in fact.

But this once-woman, ripped from the inside by her own bones, spreading to form some sort of lattice like an overgrown sponge- it made her stomach churn.

Silvia had expected to breathe the stench of death, but the only one she smelled was a faint scent of burnt wood. It was almost pleasant. It might have been the wards, though.

“Smells like charcoal.”

“Indeed.” Venturini traced the inside of the woman’s skin with her gloved fingers. She noticed the stitches and the thin lines etched on the leather.

“Those are Cagliostro Gloves,” she hushed. “Is it that bad?”

“The difference between prudence and paranoid is usually two lines on a tombstone.” The coroner chuckled. “Happens in both our lines of work, doesn’t it?”

“Sometimes,” she replied without real commitment. She still wasn’t sure she could trust her.

Silvia began to follow the patterns on the woman’s body. Her eyes moved from symbol to symbol, while in her head she thoughts about the pattern she had almost completed thanks to the blood magic ritual… If only she had been able to see the complete patterns. Some of the runes and arabesques traced on her skin seemed to comply to the picture Silvia held in her mind.

“Can I?”

“Be my guest.” Venturini slipped off her gloves and gave it her. She inwardly cringed, the inside was warm and weirdly damp.

But work first.

Silvia unfolded the skin of the last dead woman like she was unwrapping a gift. 

Under the now-grey epidermis Silvia saw more etched symbols and patterns; some of them she did not recognize, some of them she did. And those were the most worrying.

“Find anything?”

The coroner was looking at her with that strangely-hopeful expression.

“It is a spell, of course.” Silvia let go of the skin, which flapped back into place with a wet slap. “I am still not sure about its purpose, but, I can see this is some advanced stuff, compared to the notes my Alchemists gave me. This is blood magic.”

The coroner blinked, shaking her head. 

“I thought you were a Retriever. How do you know this?”

“Oh,” Silvia replied, showing her best disarming smile, “I just happened to stumble upon some notes, and some help by a colleaugue. I do not know the first thing about magic.”

“So I suppose you have no idea what this can do.”

“I cannot say for certain. Even at this late stage, a spell matrix can be changed by a single symbol. But one thing is sure.” Her gaze went past the coroner, towards the rows and rows of murdered, twisted women, eternally lying under the unforgiving light of the obituary. “This is some powerful stuff.”

Author’s Notes: this is a rewrite and expansion of one of my favorite scenes from a novel I wrote a few years ago, The Better Bones. I wanted to explore it again and felt like recreating it from memory.

The novel is a candidate for revision and publication in the future, but for tonight I think I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading!


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