14. Spring cleaning at the sanatorium
4th of Lamashtan – Oathday – 13th day at Sandpoint
Morning, Scarnetti lumber mill, Sandpoint
A gruesome duo of murders had occurred during the previous night at the town lumber mill.
“Why do we constantly run into that symbol”, Harsk asked, pointing at the desecrated body of mill operator Benny Harker. The poor man’s corpse had been vandalized, his flesh ripped from him, his face torn and unrecognizable. A symbol, huge seven-pointed star, had been carved to his chest. He was hung from a wall, and completely naked.
On one hand, Ilori held the seven-pointed star necklace she had taken from Nualia, and on the other, rolled a piece of paper she had got from Sheriff Hemlock. It was a message that had been found with the body. A message addressed to her. She was staring blankly to nowhere in particular, taken aback by how her name was connected to such violence.
You will learn to love me, desire me in time as she did. Give yourself to the pack and it will all end.
The ominous letter was signed by someone calling himself Your Lordship. But this unknown, pompous madman had not only killed the miller, but he had slain a young girl as well. Shayliss’ younger sister Katrine. Feeling empathy for the girl, I wondered if she had heard already and what she was going through. Apparently Katrine and Benny Harker had been having an affair, and were using the mill as a late night love nest. The affair had come to a bloody end.
“The stench is awful, foul even”, Vidarok noted as he walked in to the mill past two nervous town guardsmen, who were keeping curious townsfolk at bay. Hemlock, not trusting his men (or so I had determined), wanted us to investigate the murders. His aim was to keep this under wraps for now, in order to maintain order and keep the town from succumbing into panic. As it turned out, miller Harker and Katrine Vinder were not the only victims. Two days earlier, three bodies of local swindlers had been found slain and similarly desecrated from an abandoned cabin south of town. There was one survivor, a man called Grayst, who had accompanied the con men, but he had been attacked as well and went completely mad after seeing what had happened to his companions. He was being held and treated in a nearby sanatorium. The deaths of Harker and Katrine proved however that Hemlock was dealing with a serial killer, something akin to the Chopper from the years of the Great Unpleasantness. So, with us in town, he wanted our help. And considering a message to Ilori had been found in the scene of the murder, we were kind of obliged to help, to dispel any suspicions that we were to blame for the killings. My literally fresh-bloodied hands in addition to a complete unwillingness to see Ven Vinder and explain why I didn’t want to see him didn’t help with dispelling suspicions, but Hemlock had let me off the hook. Vinder would have probably tried to attack me if I would have tried to talk to him. What happened between me and his daughter was mine and her business alone.
Ibor Thorne, another of Scarnetti’s millers, had found the bodies when arriving to work earlier that morning. Vidarok had questioned him, and Katrine’s father Ven, as we believed having Ilori or Harsk, or me for that matter, present would not help Vinder come forward with insight into the mystery. But neither had provided any valuable information, nor did have a solid motive, so we had decided to have Hemlock escort us to the lumber mill.
With the firepelt, which I had decided to name Faroth, Elvish word for Hunter, shadowing me I walked over to a log splitter where the remains of Katrine Vinder laid. There were bits of flesh, bones and blood everywhere covering the sawdusted ground. Her head was however mostly intact, allowing for identification. Nasty. Somebody had fed her to the machine. At the thought I felt a shiver of rage, driven by that knight in shining armor I was apparently developing. Who the hell does this to innocent girls? I was no first-timer to seeing people hacked to pieces, but this was all simply shit-for-brains wrong. I had to look elsewhere to cool my nerves. And by doing that, I noted the source of the unnaturally foul odor Vidarok had smelled through the stench of rotten meat – a bloodied hand-axe that was lying next to the splitter.
Curious. I crouched down and called Harsk over. Faroth sniffed the axe and voiced a low growl. “Can you say if this is magical?” I asked the cleric, pointing at the axe but not touching it. Harsk regarded the weapon for a moment and shook his head slowly. “It smells worse than death but it is not.”
Having a look around we found tracks coming in and out of the mill and leading to the Turandarok river. We left Hemlock and his men to sort out the mess at the mill and crossed the three feet deep stream. The tracks, obviously of a bipedal humanoid, but inhuman, I could tell, followed the riverbank south at the opposite side. The tracks took us to the immediate vicinity of the Sandpoint Bridge, where I had had nightly swim and healed myself only days ago. Pity the murderer had not run into me, I thought, my mood darkening. But instead of taking us further inland, the tracks ended at the beach of the sea proper. The killer had waded into the sea.
Harsk’s sharp mind was ticking. “The symptoms of the survivor from the cabin, Grayst, sounded familiar to me. I believe he is suffering from ghoul fever. The foul, unnatural stench from the mill also reminds me of the undead.” Vidarok nodded. “And considering our killer simply walked into water, he wasn’t worried about being able to breathe.” It seemed that we were facing an undead, possibly a ghoul, killer. “What happens to a man suffering from ghoul fever”, I asked Harsk. He stroke his beard, recalling what he had learned of the sickness. His expression was serious. “I believe he will die within days of contracting the disease, and turn into a ghoul during the following night post-death.”
Vidarok slammed his fist into his palm. “That’s it then. We must travel to the sanatorium to see this man if he has anything to tell us.. and make sure he does not spread this filthy disease!” I could see the man of nature was appalled by such perversions and couldn’t blame him for it. If nothing else, I wanted the killer’s head for what he had done to Shayliss’ little sister. For Harsk, the evil called for purgation, and Ilori was still anxious about the letter. We all had a good reason to investigate this.
As our next step our other options where to see Brodert, the strange historian who might tell us more about the seven-pointed star rune, and to try to find where the killer had resurfaced, but Vidarok and Harsk both felt time was against us, so we returned to Hemlock to inform him of our plans, got our mounts and rode south to the sanatorium.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this place”, Vidarok mouthed the feelings of everyone present as we reached our destination. The place was beautiful, idyllic even, a haven in the middle of nowhere. The sanatorium itself was an old, impressive three-story building, and it and its surroundings had been kept tidy. I was expecting to see patients outside, with their caretakers, enjoying the warm autumn day.
But there were no signs of life anywhere. Even the damn birds were keeping their distance to the place. I walked to the windows, to have a peek inside, but they were all covered with curtains. Somebody really valued his or their privacy.
Harsk stepped to the main door and knocked. We waited for a while but nothing happened. Then the dwarf tried the knob, and pushed the door open. “Hello”, he called inside. Still nothing. You could’ve cut through our tension with a knife. “I can see another door, to the south”, Vidarok said, half-whispering. Harsk didn’t turn his back to the door. “I say we go in from the front.”
There was a small lobby within. In the lobby, a single table stood, and on it, a bell. Next to the bell there was a sign with clear letters.
Visitors, please ring the bell.
I frowned at the sign. Fuck that. “I’m not ringing that bell and alerting everyone and their mothers to our presence, especially if this place is overrun by ghouls”, I exclaimed, and my comment drew nods of approval from the others. Looking back, we were obviously still shaken by our common experiences in Thistletop, and were being extra careful. There were two doors in the lobby, one to the north, other to the south. It was obvious a small room was at the northern side of the house, so the southern door was more to our interest. Harsk tried it too, but it was locked. “Now what?” Ilori asked. “Step aside, dwarf”, I told Harsk and drew the master-wrought thieves’ tools I had seized from Tsuto. “I can get it open silently”.
I kneeled next to the door, evaluated the lock and took out some of the tools. I had got the lockpick in my hand when the doorknob moved, and began to turn on its axis. I grunted in surprise and jumped to my feet, my free hand reaching for the pommel of my gladius. A small, angry-looking man entered and regarded us with contempt. Faroth hissed at him, already reading my emotions well and reflecting them. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Harsk was first to reply. “We are looking for a man who is a patient here-“, but he was cut short by the angry man. He was visibly shaking. “Can you read? Why didn’t you ring the bell?” Harsk, possibly the most honest of us, was lost for words. Our tension diminished and we were starting to feel a bit stupid. But there was something wrong, something out of place with the man.
Vidarok stepped in. “We’re here on behalf of Sheriff Hemlock, to interview a man called Grayst, who witnessed a triple murder and is suffering from what we believe is ghoul fever.”A sign of recognition, and the first hint of anxiety crept to the man’s face, and I could see small beads of sweat appear on his forehead. “We have him here, for treatment. But he is very ill, and delirious, so I don’t think he’ll be of any use to you”, the man was babbling, trying to deter us and make us leave. My previous tension turned into doubt and curiosity. He is hiding something. Then I really wanted entrance. “We’ll reserve judgment”, I said coolly. “Let us in, and we’ll be off in no time.” The man was looking at me, Vidarok, Ilori and Harsk, in turn, trying to think something to say, to oppose us. But his anxiety had robbed him of the chance to bluff us from wanting to come in. Finally he relented. “All right. You can interview him. But only for a very short period. He is very weak.” He turned on his heels and gestured us to follow him. Beyond was a larger hall easily fifty feet long by 20 feet wide, dining room, given that several dining tables stood at the middle. The place was not well lit. It was eerily silent inside as well.
“Stay here, right here”, he added, “while my servants fetch the patient.” He said something to a pair of grumpy tieflings, who were standing at the ready at the back of the hall. I sneered in disgust. These half-fiends were bad news everywhere I had been. They left the room, retreating upstairs. “What is your name”, Harsk asked the angry man, to break the silence. “My name is Erin Habe, and I am the caretaker of this sanatorium.” He didn’t seem interested to hear our names, but Harsk introduced us anyway. Then silence fell again. I swore I could see Habe twitch.
I took a step towards a solitary door at the south-eastern corner of the hall, just to spite him. He turned towards me, and I took another step, followed by a third, now with no intention to stop. “Hey, what are you doing? I told you to wait here!” Habe’s voice was shrill. I grinned. “What’s beyond that door?” I asked, trying to sound innocently curious but failing miserably. “Nothing that concerns you!” His face was red. The situation resolved itself as the two tieflings re-appeared, dragging a very unwell man between them. Grayst was clothed in a white straitjacket, but blood, sweat and other bodily fluids had left little of the jacket clean white. He was babbling nonsense.
“Well, what questions do you have for him? As you can see, he is very ill”, Habe asked us, growingly irritated. “Can you do something for him”, I turned to Vidarok and Harsk, our healers. Both shook their heads. “My magic won’t help with ghoul fever”, Harsk admitted, with a pained expression. He couldn’t take his eyes off the suffering man. “Magic is not required here, I can treat this patient”, Habe was quick to interject. I was the closest to Grayst, so I made my way to him. The tieflings were leering at me, and gripping Grayst firmly, holding him by the arms and shoulders. Grayst was looking at the floor, drooling and mumbling something about razor sharp teeth. I hunched a bit, trying to make eye contact with him. “Grayst, listen to me. You saw something or someone kill three men, Mortwell, Hask and Tabe. Do you remember?” But my effort was in vain, as the drooling and mumbling continued. I straightened my back and sighed. “I don’t think we’ll get any information out of him.”
Ilori stepped closer, fingering the seven-pointed star necklace at her chest, wanting to have a closer look of the man herself. I continued. “What should we do with him-” But I couldn’t finish my sentence as Grayst snapped his face upwards and stared straight at the carmine lady. His voice was now clear as day and cold as a glacier. “He said you’d come.. His lordship.. he who made me.. he has a special place for you.. he.. he made me remember.. No, I’ve forgot! No, he said that if you come to him, if you join his pack, he will end his harvest..” Exhausted by his moment of lucidity, Grayst collapsed to the ground, shaking loose of the tieflings at the same time. Ilori was stunned, her mouth open. “What the hells was that-” Vidarok managed before I pulled an arrow from my vine, nocked it and aimed at Grayst who was a lump on the floor. Time to end him. “Noooo!” Habe cried when he saw what I was about to do, and ran between me and his patient. The tieflings were trying to regain their grip of Grayst but it was too late. He turned. The seams of his straitjacked were ripped open and he tore his hands free, all the while growling incoherently.
“Impossible, the transformation cannot be so rapid-” Harsk began, amazed at what Grayst was going through but Habe was shouting at us and waving his hands in the air, trying to disrupt my aim. “He is my patient, leave the sanatorium at once”, he ordered, but we weren’t having none of that. Me, Faroth and Ilori were the closest to whatever Grayst had become, and Harsk and Vidarok stood at the back, closer to the exit. But whereas I hesitated, not getting a clear shot thanks to Habe’s antics, the half-orc leaped across the room and in a blink of an eye he was standing next to Grayst. But it he was no man any longer, but a ghoul. Vidarok’s quarterstaff slammed at the creature’s head but it remained standing. The tieflings, appalled of what had become of him, steered clear as he began to lurch towards Ilori, hungrily. “What is wrong with him”, Ilori shouted at Habe, but the caretaker was lost for words. He just stared at the ghoul. He was intrigued. Ilori, her patience exhausted, flung fiery magic missiles at the ghoul but they did not finish it. It was Vidarok who struck the abomination down for good.
“What have you done”, Habe whimpered, crouching over the body of the ghoul. “We did something you should’ve done long ago”, I stated coldly and lowered my bow. The arrow was still nocked, however. As one, the tieflings stepped closer to us. Habe was steaming. “You come here and disturb my work”, he was raging, “get lost, report this to the Sheriff! Out, now!” Harsk and Vidarok looked at each other, and turned to leave. Ilori hesitated, but eventually turned as well. But I remained firm, Faroth prone between my feet. I saw through Habe.
“No. You are still hiding something”, I said to the caretaker. “There’s something you don’t want us to see. We’re you keeping him alive for some purpose? Are there others like him here, other ghouls?”
Habe disregarded me, but I could see increasing confidence in his demeanor, as if he had overcome his earlier insecurity and a made a decision about something. He walked to the south-eastern door he hadn’t wanted me to examine and slammed it once. Then he turned to his tieflings and instructed them with a stern voice. “Please escort Master Alpharius out of the building”. The tieflings hesitated for a moment, but then started towards me. I didn’t relent. I was sure I could easily take care of them if they touched me. Hell, I wanted them to lay their hands on me. But something else wanted me a piece of me as well.
The door which Habe had slammed was pushed open. Habe simply took off and ran, not looking back. “Get back here you ud’raan“, I shouted after him, cursing. But then my attention was drawn to the newly opened door. From the darkness, several ghouls appeared. Moaning, they headed straight towards me, their arms reaching and mouths open.
I was already moving. I jumped on a table behind me, leaving the two tieflings and another long table between myself and the undead. A total of four of the walking corpses had emerged from beyond the door and were all lumbering towards me. One of them groaned and swung its claws at the other tiefling, drawing blood. The half-fiend cried half-surprised, half-panicked. “Not me, attack the half-elf!” Those bastards were part of this. I gritted my teeth – that sealed their fate. From my vantage point on the table, I shot one arrow at the nearest ghoul. It penetrated its skin easily, burrowing into its chest and it’s tip exploding out in its back. But the ghoul just moaned and kept coming. This will be interesting. “Harsk, Ilori, Vidarok, get back here!” I shouted to the others who were already half-way out of the building.
Then the thrice-damned necromancer made an entrance.
It too emerged from the same door as the ghouls, quickly assessed the situation and casted a foul-smelling, thick fog around me. I and Faroth were not affected by it, but Ilori and Vidarok, who had just got back into the hall, started to cough violently. I could see their outlines in the haze, retreating back outside. The dwarf however didn’t mind the fog but drew his trusty longsword and ran to my side.”These are not ghouls”, Harsk spat, stabbing at the undead, “these are zombies!” “Whatever, cleric, just kill them!” I yelled in reply. The zombies kept coming, and seemed to attack the tieflings as much as they tried to get to us. I saw one of the tieflings fall, while the other made a run for it. Faroth growled at the undead, unwilling to commit to a fight against an unnatural beast, but swiping with his claws defensively at enemies that tried to grab it. Not seeing farther than five feet out in the foul fog, I let my bow drop on the table and drew my gladii from their scabbards. Time to test Korvut’s handiwork. And by Earthfall, they were up to the task. The first zombie who made it next to me immediately fell, its head sliced clean off its shoulders. I laughed in glee, enjoying the fight, feeling confident. But my joy did not last. Drawing breath anew in the fog, its effect finally overcame me, and I almost vomited. The fog was seeping into me, making me unable to fight or concentrate. Harsk bellowed curses at the abominations, his holy fires channeling into the undead, tearing chunks of flesh off them. Doubled over, I had to make a choice. And I too turned around and ran, coughing Faroth right behind me, leaving the bold cleric alone to face the necromancer and his remaining undead. Not my proudest moment, I had to admit.
I ran outside and fell to my knees, inhaling the fresh air like never before, struggling not to vomit. At the periphery of my vision I could see Vidarok and Ilori trying to do the same. Sounds of battle still rang from inside the sanatorium. Harsk was holding the line, alone. Vidarok got up first, and crashed the other outside door in, looking for an alternative entry to the fight. He vanished inside. Ilori rose then too, slowly. She looked at me with those burning eyes. I gestured her to go, immediately. She nodded, and ran after Vidarok. I could hear Harsk crying in pain. We were really pushing our luck.
It took me a few heartbeats and deep inhalations and exhalations to gather myself. Faroth, who was also afflicted, composed himself quicker than I did. I commanded it to me, pulled a healing potion from my bandolier and grabbed the beast from its jaws with my other hand. Here goes, I thought to myself before applying the magical potion on a wild beast first time ever. The firepelt did not rebel nor bite me, and I was able to down the potion to its throat. Bleeding clawmarks on his side vanished and his breathing became easier. I threw the empty flask away, took one that protected me from evil myself and then hurried back inside. I wondered if Harsk was still alive – the fight still raged on.
In the hall, the bold little bastard was still standing and fighting. Both of the tieflings were down, and only one zombie remained, along with the mystical necromancer. I joined the fray, slaying the last of the undead monsters as an afterthought. The necromancer was trapped. “Kill him!” I told Ilori who was about to light him up. But he obviously wasn’t going down without a fight. Threatened by me, Faroth, Harsk and Vidarok one side, and the carmine lady on the other, he resorted to foul play. Complete darkness suddenly enveloped him, like somebody had drawn down a black curtain. Vidarok and Harsk couldn’t see a damn thing and were slashing thin air. “He ran outside, he’s trying to get away!” Ilori shouted from somewhere in the darkness. I lost sight of Vidarok, then Harsk. Rather than running blind behind them, I chose to get out the way I had entered. Faroth at my heels, I again made my way out, just in time to see justice being served. Ilori was already outside, biding her time, watching. The necromancer was running like a rabbit. He had no chance. An arc of flame erupted from Ilori’s fingers, crossed the distance between her and him in a blink and set the necromancer alight. His dying screams echoed in the yard.
I saw a sly smile flashing on the fire sorceress’ face. I lifted my adamantine gladius in the air as a sign of victory and approval. Harsk hooted.
We gathered the valuables the necromancer was carrying and took stock of the situation. Habe was still somewhere in the upper levels of the sanatorium, and there was something in the cellars underground where the zombies and the necromancer had come from. I decided to look for Habe first, to get some answers. I wanted him dead for setting us a deadly trap, simple as that.
We walked through the second floor, seeing both alive and deceased patients in cells, mental cases all, mumbling unintelligibly. We didn’t linger, but pushed forward to the third floor.
On the third floor Vidarok bumped into a wererat that had escaped its cell. Delirious at first, the creature came alive and jumped on Harsk when it saw his enchanted longsword. Both the dwarf and the half-orc tried to hold off the overeager wererat who was clawing at the sword. I just shook my head. With a swift motion, I drew a gladius and gutted the aggressive creature trying to snitch the dwarf’s weapon of choice. Vidarok looked at me, not approving, but I could see our beacon of righteousness sigh in relief. I shrugged and we continued further. What were we supposed to do? We didn’t have the time for games.
Finally, we found a locked door. It was heavyset, and would take us time to get through without a key. Harsk slammed the door. “Get out now and we promise we won’t hurt you”, he called out. I snorted. I guess Habe heard me as he decided not to play nice. “Go away! You ruined everything! My work, my research”, he cried in desperation. “Where’s Frank when you need him”, I sighed, remembering with surprising fondness all the moments the barbarian had easily smashed in locked doors with his earthbreaker. “I could burn our way in”, Ilori suggested. But Vidarok came up with the solution. Somehow, he had got in through a secret entrance.
Sounds of struggle ensued from within the room. “I got him! Come over, there’s a hidden entry on the back!” Vidarok yelled. We ran down a corridor, keeping our fingers on the wall. On the side, I could see the telltale signs of a secret entrance. I beckoned the others, pushed the wall and we were in. Vidarok was keeping the mousy man pinned against a wall. “Good job, Vidarok”, Harsk praised him. “Thank you, Master Harsk. We need him tied up”, Vidarok replied in his ever-courteous manner, gripping the caretaker tighter. Harsk produced a skein of rope and bound Habe from the hands and feet. I pushed him down onto a sitting position and pointed at his throat with the tip of my gladius. “I’ll kill this rat now if no-one has any objections”, I stated matter-of-factly. Inside, I was fuming. Shayliss’ sister’s fate, his treacherousness, the trap – I wanted blood. Habe pissed himself.
“No, Alpharius, stop”, Vidarok interrupted me. “You are not executing him.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I looked him in the eye for a moment, and the feeling of rage subsided. But I wasn’t going to let Habe go easily. He was terrified. “I’m innocent! I’m here to help my patients! You have to believe me!” I kept my blade on his throat but let the others speak. “What do you do here?” Harsk asked, sheathing his blade, trying to make himself appear less threatening. “I told you”, Habe replied, his voice weak, “I study and mend special patients with extraordinary afflictions.” Ilori laughed lightly. “It looks like you seem to kill more than you save.” Habe shook his head almost violently. “No no no, I save people.” All levity vanished from the carmine lady’s expression and she turned serious. “No. It looks like you put your research first and your patients second.” Ilori’s insight sparked anger inside me, which made me push the tip of by gladius a hair’s breadth closer to Habe’s exposed throat. The caretaker tried to retreat, pushing his back to the wall as much as he could. “If you are innocent-“, Vidarok started, but was interrupted by Habe. “I am! I didn’t know anything about what Caizarly was doing! I swear!” “Then why the hell did you call him and his undead underlings to attack us, rat?” I spat. “I.. I.. I thought you’d ruin everything..” But he had no good excuse for his treacherous act. He had wanted us dead, so we wouldn’t expose him and his deal with the necromancer. They had worked together, that was obvious to me, and that sealed his fate. Even if Habe himself hadn’t killed anyone, cooperation with such evil was beyond redemption. I wondered if this Caizarly had been the mass murderer.
I stopped my trail of thought for a moment. Why did I care so much? Such passion was unnatural of me. I wasn’t behaving like I normally did. The town, these people – they were getting under my skin. I put the thought to the back of my head, to wait for further introspection later. I recognized a possible weakness brewing in my way of thinking.
We decided, or Harsk and Vidarok decided, to spare the man and escort him to Sheriff Hemlock. We searched his room, finding detailed accounts of his ‘studies’ and ‘experiments’, incriminating him fully in some really weird shit which I did not want to know anything about. We also descented to Caizarly’s underground hideout. The stench was awful. It was full of dead people – so his source of underlings became obvious to us. It was possible Habe was supplying the man with the dead. He so earned whatever he had coming for him, I thought, gritting my teeth. But to our surprise and frustration it also became evident that Caizarly was not behind the murders – instead he had only been a spectator to the ghoul activities that had recently increased in the area. We found a map of the necromancer’s observations of ghoul movements and it was pointing to the south, to the Farmlands and Whisperwood. The undead were overrunning Sandpoint’s bread basket.