16. The lightning struck twice
5th of Lamashtan – Fireday – 14th day at Sandpoint
The Rusty Dragon
I almost choked on Bethana’s mashed eggs when I saw Vidarok walk into the Rusty Dragon. “Welcome back, friend”, Harsk laughed and jumped of his stool and went to clasp the hand of the druid. Vidarok was beaming and looked like nothing had happened. So Zantus’ ritual was successful, I noted with satisfaction. Ilori went to hug him, and I too rose and went to greet him. “What happened? I remember seeing a dead peasant in the house and then I woke up in the cathedral”, the druid asked, taken aback by our joy and friendliness. We shared breakfast and Harsk told him what had happened, Ilori filling in the gaps in the story where needed.
I was cleaning my teeth with a toothpick when Sheriff Hemlock entered the tavern. Removing his gloves and greeting Bethana, he approached us. “Good morning all. I’ve had the chance to talk with my men, but I wanted to come over and thank you for your help last night. Especially you, Vidarok, I hear you made quite the sacrifice but I’m happy you survived to fight another day.” Vidarok shrugged. “I was surprised by a ghast, but my friends here came to my rescue.” Are we friends, I mused to myself, splitting a toothpick in half and reaching for another. We let Hemlock continue. “Oswald made a report, but I’d like to hear what you learned as my investigations have not yielded any leads.” Harsk leaned back in his chair. “Ahh, well.. we’re unsure if we got the killer himself, but we found another note, addressed again to our lady Ilori.” Ilori looked serious and kept her gaze forward, looking at nothing in particular. “The orchestrator of these killings obviously remains at large”, the dwarf went on. Hemlock groaned. “So we have nothing”, he half-asked, half-stated. I folded my arms. “Tell him about our theory”, I told Harsk. Harsk twirled his beard. “There is a possibility that Aldern Foxglove is behind the murders.” He described the ghast with servant’s clothing, wearing the key with a Foxglove brand, and the infatuation of Aldern with Ilori. But just like I had originally, Hemlock doubted the theory and left us with the same accusatory rumors concerning Titus Scarnetti that we had already heard from Ameiko and with a plead to investigate the murders further. After he left, we talked about the possibility to leave for Magnimar, as that was where we had last heard him depart to. But before that we wanted to check with the other mysterious person with an abnormal interest towards Ilori – the historian Brodert.
Vidarok and I stopped by the Mercantile League to exchange our silver coin to platinum, and we headed out to the ruins of Old Light. We weren’t disappointed as we found the old nutcase out on a walk, talking to himself, near the ruins. Even though appearing lost in his thoughts, he nevertheless spotted us coming. Or spotted Ilori, that is. “Ooh, the lady with the Sihedron medallion returns!” He rubbed his palms together in anticipation. “It is magnificient”, he rambled on while keeping his eyes at her quite-ample bosom where the seven-pointed star necklace rested. Ilori looked uneasy. I snorted in amusement, and held back a thorny comment about showing less cleavage. It was another tool in our arsenal, like my bow, or Harsk’s spells, I’d come to realize. But it was evident Brodert couldn’t care less about the carmine lady, or her looks or charisma. He reached forward with his liver-spotted hand, towards the necklace. Ilori took a step back. “Err..” She started, a bit nervous, “we’d come to ask you about the ritual killings, where the killer has carved the star into the chests of the victims.” Brodert pulled his hand back and smiled widely. “Oh, about the Sihedron rituals? I heard about them too. Somebody has been collecting souls.” I frowned. “Somebody has been doing what exactly?” Brodert looked at me happily. “Yes, collecting souls. That is what the ritual is for. The soul is drawn from the body, then stored into a container.” We all looked a bit astonished. So that’s why people were killed. I wondered if the victims were chosen in random or if there was a particular reason for choosing them. Brodert cut my trail of thought with a wink and a slap at my shoulder. “I got your message, half-elf, and I went to see the underground ruins for myself! Such a magnificent place, the chapel, and the well!” He almost shouted in glee. “I even summoned one of the beautiful creatures from it”, he went on, before his expression turned sour. “It came with me from the dungeons, but then the town guardsmen killed it on sight”, he explained with regret. Harsk raised his eyebrows so that they almost touched his hairline. “Wait, what? You summoned one of those hellish aberrations from the well and let it loose in the city?” He gasped. What a madman! “And this happened when?” I added the question. Brodert nodded, still looking sad but for all the wrong reasons. “A week ago, last Fireday”, he told us. I turned to the others and rolled my eyes. “Now we know why the guardsmen were all uptight and running around when we returned from Thistletop..”
Brodert, looking for something to cheer him up, turned back to Ilori and continued his shameless stare at her bosom. Or at the Sihedron medallion. “Can I have it?” He asked as the crazy smile crept to his face again. Ilori shook her head. “I’m afraid not, I’ll need it myself. But can you tell us about it?” Brodert clapped his hands together. “Of course!” And so he told us about the seven runewizards who had ruled Varisia thousands of years ago, how they had ended in a war against each other and how there still were remains of their time and their war visible, like the ruins of Old Light. He mentioned how each wizard had represented an unique school of magic, and how each was originally intended for good, but each had been corrupted by evil. I mentioned Lamashtu, but Brodert didn’t see a connection between her and the runewizards. To him, the evil goddess was a newcomer, and a non-entity compared to the gods and powers of the Thassilonian era.
Our chat with Brodert reminded us of the well of lava and the danger it still was to Sandpoint. We thanked Brodert and left him to his daydreaming and walked to Zantus next, to say our thanks for resurrecting Vidarok, and to discuss the fate of the well. Harks and Vidarok especially wanted to get rid of it, so the high-priest agreed to send two priests with us to it, to see whether it could be closed with magical force.
In the end the trip back to Erylium’s chapel was a waste of time. Nothing worked: holy water, positive energy, healing powers, nothing. Deciding it wasn’t our problem anymore, I turned and left the place, Faroth at my heels. Ilori shrugged and came as well. Harsk shook his head, looking disillusioned, but it was Vidarok who took our failure the hardest. “Wait, we can’t just leave this pit of evil untouched-“, he started, but with me and Ilori already gone, and Harsk given up, he realized that there was nothing we could do, and followed us out bitterly.
You can’t win every time. But Vidarok really wasn’t the type who understood or accepted the fact.
We left the priests and from the underground catacombs, we continued to the outskirts of town, to Scarnetti Manor to be exact. All the noble families, Kaijitsu, Deverin, etc. had estates and manors south of town across the harbor, and we found Titus Scarnetti’s mansion with little trouble. The road there was little used, and closed, not by a gate but by two stubborn guards. As we entered the front courtyard, they approached us with haste and challenged us. “Stop! You cannot be here. What do you want?” The other, a pale-faced man with a beard asked us. He was flanked by a younger, taller and almost wiry guard, who looked as angry as the first. Harsk threw his arms up in a peaceful gesture. “Greetings. Don’t worry, we mean no harm, we’ve come to see Master Scarnetti.” Beard looked at his comrade and back at Harsk. “He is not taking any visitors. Scram, little man!” Harsk was a bit taken aback by the guard’s attitude, and lowered his arms. “This is important, it concerns the killings in the town-“, the cleric was able to say before he was cut short. “Do you have an appointment with Master Scarnetti?” Beard asked. Harsk, ever honest, opened his mouth to answer. “Well we don’t, but-” That was enough for Wiry. “If you don’t, then you must leave the premises immediately!” Interrupted now twice, Harsk grumbled and threatened them under his breath. I heard him and happily took my cue from the dwarf. I’d had a good look at them already, and noticed they were lightly armed and wearing only leather armor. I could’ve taken them out alone without breaking a sweat. Looking back, we really should’ve let Ilori try to seduce our way in, but then again, she was not the seductress type. I stepped forward decisively, and they followed suit. Pushing aside my cloak, I revealed the pommels of my masterwrought gladii blades and stared Beard straight in the eye under my hood. “You know, you could let us in now, or let us in later, with broken noses and lost teeth”, I said with a frown, trying to intimidate them. Beard and Wiry grabbed the pommels of their short swords, and Beard warned us. “Last warning, hoodman.. get out of the premises!” It almost came to blows, but out of nowhere came a shrill cry. “Guards! It’s the Master! He’s dead!” A maid came running from the manor, holding the hem of her skirt and crying uncontrollably. This made the guards pull their weapons at us. “Have you anything to do with this?” Beard spat in sudden rage. Wiry didn’t know what to do, as he kept looking at us and back at the maid, his sword arm trembling. Vidarok looked stunned as did we all. “Of course not!” He exclaimed. But I realized an opening for us. I talked fast. “Harsk here is a cleric, a healer. Let us in and we can save your master”, I lied, knowing perfectly well that if he was truly dead, there was nothing any of us could do. But the guards bought it. “Come on”, Beard ordered us, “but if anyone pulls a trick, you’re dead!”
We found him in his study room on the second floor of the mansion. He was truly dead – his face was shredded and the Sihedron rune was carved into his bare chest. I was for some reason not surprised he had been killed by the ritual murderer. By Aldern Foxglove or one of his lackeys. At least his death proved his innocence. And the message we found next to the body implicated Aldern even more. A quick glance told me that the killer had entered and exited through the room window, and had surprised the nobleman, as there were no signs of struggle. The foul smell we had encountered in every killing scene was present.
Harsk went to the body to examine it with the shocked guards. Ilori stayed behind while me and Vidarok went to the window, completely disregarding the body. “See”, I pointed out to the grass beneath us, “tracks leading to the forest.” It was evident that the killer had ascended the wall to get where he wanted. Vidarok nodded. “We should go and have a look at them”. The maid was trembling and sobbing out in the corridor, unwilling to enter and re-witness the horrible state of his master. So I paced to her. “Sweetling, do you have any idea when this might have happened”, I asked, trying my sweetest tone and nicest smile and failing miserably. The maid burst into tears. “I- I don’t know. We saw him alive last evening, and I just found him like that..” We couldn’t get anything more out of her, so I let her be. No matter, I thought, we knew now exactly whom to look for.
The guards, overcoming their shock, turned to Harsk. “Well, save him!” Beard ordered him, managing to appear panicked and angry at the same time. Harsk shook his head and didn’t turn his eyes from the body. “With such extensive injuries, he is beyond saving, I’m afraid.” In reply, Beard grunted in disgust. “You’re useless. Get the hell out of here, we’ll need to report this and you to the Sheriff.” At that, I laughed humorlessly. “Go ahead. We’re here on the behalf of Hemlock, investigating these murders.” But I didn’t drag the exchange of insults and threats, and we left before a fight broke out. The guards were a nuisance I have to admit, but hurting them served no purpose and was not sensible.
The tracks outside, again belonging to a biped humanoid with a foul stench led us to the beach, just like the previous time – the killer had used the sea to cover his tracks. But given that we then firmly believed Aldern Foxglove was behind the killings, and given that the killer was within walking distance of Sandpoint, our options became limited – we’d have to go and visit the Foxglove Manor a couple of miles south of town and look for the killer there.
We went first to report our findings to Hemlock, and told him of our plans. He told us about the grim rumors told the manor – warning us that it drove its masters crazy, and that the ones that didn’t succumb to madness perished in weird, unexplained ways. Great, a haunted house, I thought then. The day was already well into the afternoon, so we didn’t want to linger and rode out as soon as we could. On our way there, it started to rain. But rain was nothing compared to the unnatural shit we saw when we reached the estates. The air itself seemed to darken by the yard as we approached. Black clouds blocked sunlight, and the trees, vegetation and the land itself seemed half-dead or dead. Our mounts stopped when we arrived to the cape where the manor was located, unwilling to go forward an inch. We tied them to a nearby tree and Vidarok left them with the rest of the hay he had been carrying. We walked the rest of the way.
The manor looked crooked, worn out and outright repulsive. But we approached with less wariness than when we had went to the sanatorium. It was strange how the environment, when it was obviously threatening, made us feel less threatened, than an idyllic, peaceful environment where one could expect flowers, little bunnies and kisses on cheeks. Maybe the place was just honest in its hostility. A small house on the path to the manor had burned, and sick-looking crows sat on the ruins, watching us keenly and croaking now and then. There was something black and unnatural growing on the walls of the manor, and its windows were tinted, as they too had burned long ago. The three story building stood at the tip of the cape, and around it were steep cliffs and the ocean. There was no chance of going around – we had to enter through either of the two front doubledoors adorned with lionheads of house Foxglove.
I tried to have a look through the windows, but I couldn’t see anything. Thus, Vidarok and Harsk took positions around the southern main doors and opened them. They creaked open.. and revealed a lobby with a huge statue of a manticore at its center. For a moment, no-one did anything. I strained my senses, trying to see any movement, hear anything. But nothing made a sound, and only dust floated in the air. We stepped in, the bold cleric of Iomedae at the fore.
We quickly noted some sort of mycelium growing everywhere, especially in a space right behind the statue, where it covered the floor as if it had burst through the wood. Vidarok examined the growths and turned up his nose in disgust. “I haven’t seen anything like this ever before. This is not natural.” I looked around. “Nothing here is.” It was dark inside, and it looked like the place had been deserted for years. From what Hemlock had told us, Aldern had spent a couple of years renovating the place, but of such work there was no sign anywhere. We moved forward in the large lobby and then I heard it. I gestured everyone to stop and listen. “A woman’s wail, it’s coming from upstairs”, I whispered, pointing up a staircase that led one floor above us. Realizing traps could be everywhere and expecting Aldern would be waiting for us, we continued cautiously to a room to our left rather than running upstairs to see who or what made that eerie sound.
The room we entered was another lobby, for the northern entrance. Within it was a very old grand piano, covered in cobweb and the same mycelium we saw everywhere. We could hear it play. “What in Iomedae’s name-” Harsk started to say when Vidarok suddenly snapped into trance and began to waltz around in the room, as if he was dancing with a lady, to the tune of the music. I immediately drew a potion of protection from evil from my bandolier and emptied it. Faroth hissed at Vidarok and retreated behind me. I’d come to realize that he avoided battle and all confrontation with the undead – a trait I needed to train out of him in the future. But for now, my loyal firepelt would be a bystander. “What’s wrong with you”, Ilori exclaimed, but there seemed to be nothing we could do to stop the druid. He kept on dancing.. until he stopped in midstep, and turned to look at us, bewildered. At the same time, the music stopped. “What was that.. for a moment, I was in a grand hall, dancing with an attractive lady.” Harsk pouted his lips and stroke his beard. “It must be this house. It is cursed, and is playing with our heads. We must be wary”, he offered as an explanation. Vidarok stepped to the other front door, pushed it open a bit and drew a breath of fresh air to clear his head.
We continued further, towards the back of the first floor. The others scouted forward, while I checked a door to our side. Behind it I found a small bathroom, and within it, a bath tub. Like all the other rooms, it looked like it hadn’t been used in years, decades even. A sickly looking rat was in the tub, trying to get out. “How did you get in there”, I whispered to myself. The little beast responded with a screetch and tried frantically, aggressively even to get out. But it could not for the sides of the bath were too steep and too smooth for it to climb it. Faroth looked over the side and let out a low growl at the rat. Even the fucking rat looked unnatural.
Then the cleric ran behind me down the corridor, mumbling incoherently as he went. And he was carrying Ilori on his shoulder, who was shouting curses at him and pounding and kicking him but no avail. “What the hell-” I managed before Vidarok too came running past me, on Harsk’s tail. “Harsk’s gone mad!” The druid yelled, trying to catch the surprisingly quick dwarf. Deciding asking questions at that time would not help, I sprinted in pursuit. Harsk almost got to the northern doors before I leaped past Vidarok and grappled him. “Stop Harsk, now!” I ordered angrily, trying to shout some sense into him. I grabbed his hands, but Harsk resisted, mumbling something about saving his child. For my efforts the little shit casted a fear spell against me. In an instant, I felt like the walls themselves were closing on me and I ran. The effect thankfully lasted only for a few seconds, but it would’ve allowed Harsk to get far with Ilori were it not for Vidarok. Right outside the house, he got a hold of the dwarf, and his soothing words brought Harsk back from wherever the house had taken his mind. When I got there, Harsk had let Ilori go and was apologizing to everyone. I walked over to the cleric and hit him in the face. Not too hard. “Ouch”, the cleric said, holding his cheek, “I guess I earned that.” I just stared at him angrily, making my point clear. “Friends..” Vidarok said silently and pointed to somewhere. We turned to look, and saw hundreds of the black crows now sitting in the ruins, the trees, everywhere around the house. And they were all watching us intently. “Get back in. Now!” Vidarok commanded, and at that second the birds soared to the air in unison. The sound of their wings was like a small storm. In the air they formed massive flocks that reminded me of thunderclouds. Needless to say, we did not wait around to see whether they would swoop down and attack us or not, but quickly ran back in and closed the doors behind us. “So what now?” I asked the others when we were catching our breath in the northernmost lobby with the grand piano. “We continue our search of Aldern”, Vidarok said vehemently, and paced back to where Harsk had lost his mind.
Through a dining hall at the easternmost side of the lower floor, we moved to southwards, to a small library room of sorts. An armchair lied upside down at the center of the room, surrounded by some books and a statue in pieces. On each wall there were bookcases, full with books. Harsk had a look at them, but they were ruined and unreadable, their paper crumbling to dust when touched. I walked over to a desk which apparently had been used for writing and reading. Cobweb covered dry ink bottles and pens. But there was also a beautiful red scarf, untouched by the times, almost as it had been recently placed there. I took it, and sneered at Ilori. “Your lover left you a present”, I told her, showing the scarf. “Ha-ha. Funny, Alpharius”, she responded dryly. I left the scarf where I had found it and continued forward, behind Vidarok and Harsk. They had reached the southernmost lobby – we had successfully circled the lower floor. It was decision-making time. Either we would go upstairs, or try to find routes down. These sorts of houses always had cellars. “What do you think”, Harsk asked me and Vidarok as we stood next to the roaring manticore statue. The wail of the woman still was audible, coming from the upper floors. “If I were Aldern I’d hide underground-” Vidarok started but then stopped. “Where’s Ilori?” He asked us. We looked around and realized the carmine lady hadn’t followed us out of the library. We stormed back, calling for her urgently. When we got back, we saw the damned scarf around her throat and neck, strangulating her. She was struggling against it with both hands, trying to get it off her. “Ilori!” I shouted, and at the moment, the scarf let go and Ilori collapsed on her knees, breathing heavily. The red scarf floated to the ground, almost serenely.
She gestured she was fine, and we let out a mutual sigh of relief. Not only was the house playing with our heads, it even had power over matter, it seemed. This was truly one of the most dangerous places I’d been, I thought to myself, shivering. To be sure, Vidarok used the wand of healing on Ilori, and a healthy colour returned to her features. Together, keeping an eye on each other, we moved to the main lobby.
A short discussion later Vidarok spotted a monkey’s head on the wall next to the particularly large growth of mycelium, close to two doors we suspected led to a staircase. Both doors were locked. From the monkey’s open mouth hung a long cord and Vidarok had the idea that pulling the cord might open the doors. Or, I don’t know, wake the manticore, I thought to myself, expecting a trap behind every corner. We had the sense to back down from the monkey’s head and let Ilori pull the cord with her mage hand power. With a flick of her wrist, the cord was pulled down, and the building trembled from a horrible, deafening roar. Nothing else happened.
“Well, I’ll imagine whoever is in this house by now knows we are here too”, I remarked ironically, drawing frowns from the others. The northern door, next to the monkey’s head remained stuck, but after applying some force that would’ve made Frank proud, we got the southern door open. It did indeed reveal a staircase leading.. upstairs. Irritated and strained from the effort, I wiped sweat off my forehead. “We could’ve just used the fucking stairs in the lobby, hmmh?”
Carefully, we ascended the stairs. As we got to the second floor, I heard the door downstairs slam shut and somebody running the steps. I warned Ilori who was coming last, and she turned, but there was no-one following us. She looked at me curiously, wondering if I was too losing my grip in reality. Under my breath I cursed the house. I knew what I had heard.
A wide corridor circled the second floor counterclockwise. There were multiple rooms, and we started by going to the center of the floor. Behind a doubledoor we found a gallery with portraits of people hanging from the walls, covered in cobweb. At least this place didn’t have that foul spore growth, I noted. While the others had little interest in the portraits, I walked to one and brushed aside the web to reveal a well-painted picture. It was a little prudently smiling girl with a long dark hair. Under the portrait read Lorey Foxglove. “Is this the girl you thought you were carrying”, I poked at Harsk. He turned, had a look at the painting and grunted, but didn’t answer. At the end of the gallery, Vidarok pushed open a second doubledoor, and I let the portraits be and followed the others in.
“Strange”, the druid started. “No mycelium, and it looks like someone has actually managed to keep this room quite tidy”, he thought aloud, gesturing around the room with his hand. We’d arrived to a master bedroom, with a large bed, some chairs and a desk with some wooden debris on it. I cracked a joke about the debris, that were actually pointy shards of wood. “I bet those shards fly off to somebody’s back the second we turn to leave.” For some reason, no one found the comment funny. I shrugged, and looked around if there was anything of value in the room. We found no traces nor anything valuable, and decided to leave. Just to spite myself I had a second look at the table. There was something in there among the shards. I took a step towards the table, frowning, sure it had not been there when I had examined it just a moment earlier. A silver-handled dagger was lying among the debris.
Something or someone yelled in my head. There’s nothing on the table, Alpharius. RESIST IT.
I shook my head, to clear it, closed my eyes and re-opened them. And the dagger had vanished. The damn house had tried to screw around with my head, but I’d overcome it. I silently whistled and quickly got out of the bedroom and back to the gallery. There, Vidarok reached out with his other hand, absentmindedly brushing aside cobwebs on many of the portraits as he paced back towards the main corridor. A mistake, we realized when the doubledoors to our back and front were suddenly slammed close and the temperature rapidly fell beyond freezing. I cursed, and Harsk ran and barreled himself on the door, but it didn’t even move an inch. The temperature was quickly dropping and we were shivering, frantically looking for a way out.. until the way again opened, and the temperature returned to normal in a blink of an eye.
“What the hells was that”, Vidarok asked from no-one in particular, realizing at the same time that asking and trying to understand what this house was doing was ultimately futile and actually just stupid. I was about to point that out when I noticed the cold burns and boils on the skin of my hands. I shook my hands in disgust, thinking they were another illusion, but then Ilori exclaimed, saying she had boils all over her. I too said I had them, but Vidarok and Harsk just stood there looking at us like we were mad. “Uhhmm, friends, there’s nothing on you”, Vidarok said, diplomatically. I looked at him angrily, then back at my hands. And the burns and boils were gone. “Godsdamnit”, I cursed, “I fucking hate this place”.
We checked the room opposite to the gallery, found nothing, and moved north. Harks opened a door to a bathroom, directly above the one I had investigated on the ground floor, while the rest of us had a look at the north-east corner of the floor. Two things happened almost at the same time.
I heard timber complain and give in, and the bathroom floor collapsed under Harsk. He had the unbelievable dexterity to jump on a bathtub while the wooden floor came crashing down under him, and thus spared himself of most of the harm to his self. I ran to the door and saw Harsk sitting dumbfounded on the bathtub one floor beneath me. His helmet had fallen off his head and there was dust and splinters of wood everywhere.
I almost laughed aloud at the absurdity of the situation, but Vidarok started to scream. “Aaaaah! Get it off me! Get it off!” Ilori, standing before him was desperately telling him to stop, but it didn’t help. The druid was frantically clawing his own face. Blood flowed. Leaving Harsk to sort out his own mess, I barreled to Vidarok, gripping his hands tightly while we rolled to the floor. His eyes were wide open in horror and he stared at me, the whites of his eyes bulging. Then he blinked, and it was over. He was still shaking visibly when we got up. I didn’t even ask what he had seen, or what he thought he had seen. The sooner we were out of this place the better, I thought. I wondered if we’d get out alive.
We searched two other bedrooms. The first was an awful mess, even by the haunted mansion’s standards, with everything turned upside down. Even a picture on the far wall. Maybe for a reason, I decided, as no-one had inclinations to turn it around and see what it depicted. The other room was child’s bedroom. Ilori had a vision there – for a moment, she was a child who witnessed two adults, maybe the parents, arguing fiercely. She wanted to leave the room at once, so we complied, now ready to enter the third and final floor. But the house wasn’t going to let us.
Harsk was leading us and when he got to the door to the rummaged bedroom, he froze. “You bitch..” He cursed suddenly, and turned around to face Ilori who was behind him. In a rapid motion, he drew his longsword and slashed at the carmine lady. She simply had no chance to evade the blow. She cried in pain and stepped back, a huge cut on her waist, and she was holding her hands on the wound to stop the bleeding. It spurted between her fingers and the look on her was pure terror. But before Harsk could attack anew, Ilori’s eyes erupted with furious fire and the dwarf dropped his sword, cursing her magics. I was already moving towards him, but Harsk managed to cast a magical weapon right next to the sorceress that also stabbed at her, scoring yet another blow on her shoulder through the shimmering mage armor. For the third time that day I barreled into one of my own group with anger. I headbutted Harsk, dazing him momentarily, and grappled him as well as I could, all the time yelling profanities at him. My excessive force brought him back from the madness and bloodlust, and the magical weapon attacking our lady disappeared.
“I’m so sorry Ilori”, Harsk lamented, begging her to forgive him. Still on top of him, I hit him in the face again. Harder this time. Blood flew from his nostrils. Vidarok was all over the carmine lady, healing wand glowing with energy, and the wounds started to disappear. Ilori nodded weakly at the dwarf, accepting the apology. I was amazed, not at Ilori but at the accursed mansion. Did it need any guards if it could turn its trespassers against each other?
We finally got up to the third floor without further visions, mind controlling moments and other surprises. Next to the stairs Harsk came across a room that had actually been renovated, and there were still woodworking tools remaining. He curiously examined them, and pondered aloud that he’d need tools for the construction of his chapel in Sandpoint. He loaded some of the tools into his backpack, before I asked him was he really sure taking and using tools from a cursed mansion was a good idea. He simply shrugged, and I told him to remind me to never visit his chapel.
The third floor also had a main corridor running counterclockwise. We made good progress, checking room after room, until Harsk had yet another episode of utter madness.
“Is it hot in here? Do you feel it?”, the dwarf asked me, from the back, as we were traversing the main corridor. I turned around, ready to fling myself at him once again. Vidarok and Ilori were already investigating a new room, so they couldn’t hear him or react. I saw sweat running down on his face. I didn’t feel anything strange, but realized Harsk was about to lose his mind. He started to tremble. “It’s… so hot.. it’s burning me…. aaaah!” His moans grew into a scream of pain, and he took off running towards me, flinging his hands around like he was on fire and was trying to put down flames from his body. Making a quick 90 degree turn, he pushed himself through a door leading east, into a fine lounge room with massive windows at the far end. “Harsk! Stop!” I ordered him, but the house had taken him over completely, again. The kept running, across the lounge room and leapt as high as he could. Glass shattered and he crashed through the windows. I screamed his name as he fell with the shards and vanished somewhere beyond. I remembered the steep cliffs behind the mansions and my heart grew cold. Rain poured inside through the broken glass. Numbly, I paced to the windows. There’s no way he could have survived that.
But the little bastard surprised me one more time. He was lying on a sloping roof, desperately hanging from a weather vane. Beyond the roof was the storming sea, almost a hundred feet below. His right thigh was a bloody mess – apparently he had landed on the vane and it had stopped his fall by piercing his thigh. He was cursing and struggling, his grip slipping. The rain shower did not help him one bit. Vidarok and Ilori had heard me shout and came running to me. “Harsk went mad again, and threw himself through the windows!” Ilori covered her mouth as she saw the dwarf. “We need to help him!” Knowing what to do, I dropped my backpack, and frantically searched for the skein of rope. It was within easy reach, and I turned back to the window and threw the other end of the rope for Harsk. It landed pretty close to him, but he was unable to reach it. He groaned in pain, and I wondered how long he could last out there. Somewhere far away I could hear the croaks of the crows. I just hoped they would not swarm us. Ilori was quick to react though. Using her limited telekinetic powers she called “mage hands”, she pushed the rope closer to Harsk. “Grab the rope!” I yelled over the rain. Harsk gathered all his strength and with a roar pulled himself upwards and managed to get a hold of the cord. Immediately, we all started to pull. Harsk held on for his life, and in moments, we hauled him back in.
This time I didn’t hit him. I was too tired to do it. “Gods dammit you’re fat, dwarf”, I hissed between breaths. Vidarok was healing the cleric, who was leaning against a wall, pressing his thigh wound to stop the bleeding. He laughed lightly. “It’s the armour, and the equipment, lad.” I spat on the ground and brushed sweat off my face. “Just stop going crazy, will you?” To this, he had nothing to say. His expression darkened. Perhaps he was angry with himself, being unable to resist the control of the house. I didn’t know.
With Harsk back to full health, we went on. The wail of the woman was now coming from very close. I scouted a door and the end of the corridor, and indicated to the others that the voice was coming from there. It was locked, so I handed the key I had found from the dead ghast to Vidarok, who moved over to the door. Everybody indicated their readiness, so the half-orc pushed the key into the lock and opened it.
It was dark inside. A woman with a long, almost black hair was sitting on the bare floor, her back to us, facing a mirror. She was crying. My blood went ice cold at the sight. I stepped in with Vidarok and Harsk, carefully, but the woman didn’t even seem to register our presence. Another steps, and still nothing, only wails. We looked at each other, not knowing what to do. Was she a threat? Was she a friend? Was she real, even? Harsk moved closer to her, so close he could touch her. Still the woman did not react. Harsk made one fleeting glance towards us, stepped towards the mirror and with his longsword, broke it to pieces.
Immediately, the woman straightened and went stiff. She turned towards us but not at us and there was fury on her face. She was beautiful and hideous at the same time – she seemed normal, but there was something unnatural about her. Inside, she was dead. “I can smell your fear Aldern.. I’m coming for you.. and I’ll kill you!” She raged and leapt to her feet before storming out of the room. We gave way – she didn’t even notice us. “What the curses was that”, Vidarok asked aloud, bewildered like the rest of us. Harsk shrugged, and took off running, following the woman. We went as well.
We kept up with the woman all the way to the ground floor. There she fell to the especially large swathe of mycelium and started to tear it away with her bare hands. “What should we do?” Vidarok asked us again. We were uncertain. Should we follow her wherever she went, or perhaps try to find a staircase below? The woman was making rapid progress, and in a few moments, she had clawed a hole into the spore growth and disappeared within.
“I’m not going in there”, Ilori stated blankly, and I had to agree. None of us were particularly keen in diving into a small hole covered by unnatural spores, so we decided to manhandle the one door behind it, hoping that would lead us down. It took the combined strength of me, Harsk and Vidarok to move the stuck door, but we eventually got it open. And alas, it led down to a basement. These sorts of houses always had cellars.
We found ourselves in a cramped space combining a kitchen and dining room. A dorm was connected to the kitchen – the basement was obviously meant to house the servants and other staff. At one side of the kitchen area there were small, fist sized holes in the stone wall. Screeching sounds echoed from within. Rats. And they were coming through the wall! I signaled the others, and we toppled a large dining table and pushed it against the wall. That should contain the little beasts for a while, I thought. It was all for naught however.
Vidarok opened a door not far from the wall we had just covered, and immediately, dozens of crazed, sickly rats poured in. The druid exclaimed in surprise and started to whack them with his quarterstaff. “Close the door!” Harsk cried out, and Vidarok did as ordered, but a horde of the little beasts had made its way in. They blanketed the stony floor at our feet, successfully biting at the ankles and feet of Vidarok and Harsk. Faroth, unfazed by the beasts, leapt in the middle of the swarm. He became a flurry of claws and teeth. Scores of the rats died as he crushed them under his paws and cut them half with his bites. Harsk, I and Vidarok were doing our best with our blades and staff, and Ilori was stomping them to mush. Eventually, we got them all, and survived mostly unharmed. I patted and scratched Faroth on his head, recognizing his deeds.
There was a way that led approximately to the direction where the woman had crawled, so we headed out there next. Thinking we’d face battle soon, we emptied potions of magic, and Harsk blessed us. But we found only a long corridor, leading to a study room empty but some bookcases and hundreds of nearly decayed books and scriptures. Vidarok seemed lost in his thoughts for a moment, as he examined the books, but regained his senses quickly. The journey continued.
Ultimately we came to a small room in the middle of the underground floor. Above light shone from the narrow tunnel through which the woman had crawled, and below, somebody has struck open the floor, revealing a set of stairs circling down. Still there was no sign of the woman nor Aldern. We were getting restless from the anticipation of battle, but went deeper underground anyway.
It would’ve been utterly dark below if not for the strangely glowing swaths of mycelium. We descented to a series of caves. Two routes, separated by a ten feet thick rockface, curled to the west, and as I arrived down, Harsk and Vidarok had already taken the northern path. They were talking something, and I nodded to Ilori to stay close. Last time we had separated, Vidarok had died. A second after I had formulated the thought, I heard Harsk shout a warning. Vidarok started to cough violently and I cursed them both. In response, a shrill scream echoed from the west. I immediately recognized the sound. Ghouls. A lot of them.
Deciding the caves where too cramped for my bow, I swiftly pulled my gladii blades out of their scabbards. Behind me, I could feel the temperature increase as Ilori’s hands ignited with magical fire. We saw only shadows of the first ghouls – they attacked Harsk and Vidarok. Another shrill scream, followed by Vidarok’s howl of pain. “Vidarok! He’s paralyzed” Harsk managed the warning. Oh not again, I cursed between my teeth. But we couldn’t help them as ghouls came running towards us as well. “C’mon!” I taunted them. Over my shoulder, Ilori peppered the first ghoul with fire. Not losing its momentum, it kept coming and reached me. But before it could attack, I sank both of my blades into its chest and it fell to my feet, perished by our combined might. Harsk was standing alone somewhere to our right, protecting Vidarok. I hoped he’d survive, and kept hollering taunts at the ghouls who were still coming. My efforts were awarded – more ghouls came to sight from the caves. Ilori spared not her powers as she erupted the cave before us in flames. Through the burning onslaught, two more ghouls attacked, but I struck them both down, cutting the head off the first and piercing the brains of the other through its eye socket. Yet a fourth remained, and it got very close to us as I was still finishing its kin. But not close enough. Over the sounds of battle I heard the cleric utter a howl bordering a blood-lusted roar, and we were blinded with the pure white light of his positive energy. For a second it was light as day in the tunnels, and the fourth ghoul simply vanished before me, its corrupted body turned to ash by Harsk’s holy powers of life. The battle ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Harsk was showing signs of severe fatigue after his efforts and continues mental attacks by the mansion – he barely was holding himself upright. Vidarok returned from paralysis, but we were unable to say if he was afflicted by the ghoul fever or not. It was a problem we’d have to sort out if we got out of this place alive. We also had little time to contemplate it as after progressing only fifty or so feet further into the caves, we came to an opening. Beneath us was an abyss into which masses of water fell in from ruptures in the cave walls. There were also four undead goblins, that immediately attacked us. One was overeager, and it lost its balance on the watery, slippery rockfloor, and went tumbling down to the abyss. Harsk was at the fore, and suffered the worst of their attack. Already weakened, a ghoul got over his defences and sank its teeth into the dwarf’s flesh, paralyzing him. I sprang on the enemy, pushing if off my comrade. Ilori poured fire into it and ended its misery. But two more came at us. Vidarok challenged the other, and engaged in fierce melee. The other slashed its rugged blades at my throat, but I parried before they connected. Frustrated, the beast simply leaped at me, biting, but my elven physiology thwarted its poisons. Pushing with all my strength, I heaved it off me, and Ilori had enough room to set it alight with a fire arc.
Over the dying wails of the burning goblin ghoul, I heard a loud whack. The third goblin, it too having endured Ilori’s burning arc, slumped to Vidarok’s feet. The druid was bleeding from many cuts, but stood strong and made sure the goblin stayed down by hammering the end of his staff to the beast’s skull, cracking it open. An eye got stuck in the staff, and Vidarok poked it away with disgust. I turned to Harsk, who was still frozen in place. I pulled him from his beard and he came alive accompanied by a painful yell. He earned that too, for the jump off the window. “Welcome back”, I greeted him, cleaned my gladii by brushing them on the ripped clothes of a dead goblin and re-sheathed them. Vidarok and Harsk exchanged some words, while Ilori stared at the watery abyss below us. “We’ll need to find a way around”, she murmured. I could’ve tried to go around the abyss counter-clockwise, but we would’ve needed to go through a waterfall. A too risky option, so we had to look for a way clockwise. There was an narrow path leading westwards, and at its end was a cave filled with bones and remains of animals and humans. The reek was awful, but the cave offered us an alternative way around. But we still had to traverse a few dozen feet of slippery, sloping rockside. We’d already seen what would happen if you’d lose your balance, so we were not taking any chances.
Vidarok came up with a solution. “Let’s tie each other together with our ropes, so that the one crossing is always connected to two other people”, he suggested. Feeling confident, I suggested to be the first to cross the slope. I tied two ropes tightly around my waist, the other connecting me to Vidarok and the other to Harsk. Then I set out, keeping as close to the wall as possible. And damn, it was slippery. Staying upright was a struggle, and after a fighting my way through, I got to the other side. The others, having learned from my fumbling, decided it was better to crawl than try to walk, so they got over easily.
Behind us, a large cavern loomed. We knew the end of our adventure here was approaching.
Boldly, we started into the dark cavern, Harsk first, Ilori last. At the end of the tunnel we saw a shimmer of torch light, and the tunnel opened to reveal a cave decorated as if it was a room in a house.
“The heroes arrive”, somebody welcomed us from the back of the cave. A man’s voice, familiar. He was sitting on a chair that had seen better days, filled with holes, stuffing bursting out of them. We froze. This was it. The man rose from his chair and the torchlight revealed him to us.
Aldern Foxglove. But it was not the same handsome nobleman we had met in Sandpoint. No, this was something else. Something corrupted, defiled and evil. He had turned himself into an undead creature. But he was also injured. Then we noticed the woman we had set loose, dead and lying on the ground beside us. She had come here, but failed to kill Aldern. Almost immediately he spotted Ilori, who was standing behind us. His grin was supposed to be of joy, but it was haunting leer. “My love, I knew you’d find my letters and come. Let us consummate our hunger!” Producing an awfully keen looking war-razor, he sprung towards Ilori. However, Vidarok was on his way. The former nobleman drove down the war razor, but Vidarok successfully parried the blade aside. I was running, acrobatically evading Aldern’s stabs, and I got behind him. My first strike hit nothing but air as Aldern hissed and moved past the blow. In return, he cut a deep wound to Vidarok’s chest. Ilori’s eyes flashed ruby-red as she tried to burn the razor of his grip, but the pommel was wooden and the attack didn’t cause the monster any harm. Harsk and Vidarok both kept pounding at him, pushing him back and Vidarok hitting him to his right cheek, drawing a grunt of pain. He was momentarily caught unawares and that was all I needed. I stabbed with my left gladii and the tip of the blade pierced the flesh in his back and came out through his chest. “This is for Katrine Vinder”, I whispered to his ear, and pulled back the blade. He collapsed face down to the ground.
Before he died, he whispered his last words, his eyes on Ilori. “My beloved Iesha.. I’m sorry that I ruined everything, forgive me..” And as his voice faded to nothingness and the unlife vanished from his eyes, the body of the woman next to him dissolved into dust.
She was Iesha, his wife, we realized that instant.
I kneeled to check if he was truly gone, and found it to be true to my delight. The ritual killer had been found and disposed of. But at that moment I had no idea what would become the price of our success.
“Everybody OK?” I asked everyone, but looked at Ilori in particular. She had been the target of Aldern’s twisted infatuation. I wondered if she felt a bit responsible for all the deaths Aldern had caused. “I’m fine now”, Ilori answered, still looking a bit anxious. But everything wasn’t OK with Vidarok. He paced slowly to a wall that was wholly covered with the same unnatural mycelium as all the other places we’d seen. But this looked different. I felt that this spot was the place where all the other spores had grown from, a sort of nexus as it were. Vidarok didn’t seem to care, and he actually reached out to the wall and pulled out a handful of the mushrooms, and stuffed his mouth with them. He smacked noisily. Harsk followed him. “Vidarok, stop that”, he ordered the druid, but he was delirious and kept stuffing more of the mushrooms into his mouth. Harsk, realizing words would not do the trick, grabbed the druid and pulled him off the wall. This sobered the half-orc, who shook his head to clear it. “What.. for a moment, I saw nothing but those mushrooms.. and I was so hungry..” Harsk folded his arms. “It must be the spores you inhaled when we came down. I was still kneeling next to Aldern. “Let’s check the cave for valuables and get the hell out of here.”
We stripped Aldern of his armour and equipment first. Then we had a look at the room proper. On a table were erotic drawings of a woman, not really well drawn but clear enough to see they depicted Ilori. Ilori looked embarassed and with a gesture, she set them alight and they burned to ash in a blink. On the table was also an cameo-necklace. That too had a picture of Ilori in it. I snatched it before Ilori could do anything to it, turned to her and flipped it to her. She caught it from the air and had a look. “He really had a fixation on you, carmine lady”, I joked. If looks could kill, I would’ve died right there.
We found our next clue among the things Aldern had hoarded into his cave. A letter, addressed to him, signed by someone calling herself Xanesha, Mistress of the Seven. In the letter, Xanesha was complimenting him, and briefing him for the murders he had committed. So the trail did not end with Aldern, I thought as I read the letter. And the letter mentioned Magnimar.
Among other things we took with us was a ring with two keys. Vidarok pocketed them as we moved out of the cave and started our journey back to ground level. Our way back was uneventful. But as we reached the front doors leading out of the cursed mansion, Vidarok had a quick look outside and confirmed our fears. The crows were still outside, waiting for us. And Vidarok claimed he could sense that the house itself was alive, as it had a beating heart somewhere. He wanted us to cleanse the place. “Can you bless this house, to drive out the evil within?” He asked Harsk first. Harsk shook his head. “I can bless a certain area for a while, but I don’t have the powers to excise the evil spirits here.” Vidarok looked desperate. “Fire is a great cleansing power however”, Harsk added, trying to be constructive. Ilori shrugged, not really sold into the idea. Even her powers were limited, and already she had used them extensively.
I just wanted to get the hell out of here, so I suggested an idea.
“Let’s draw the birds into the house. You all go to the northern exit and wait for my signal. I’ll open the southern doors and attract the attention of the crows. When they attack, I’ll run through the house, all the way to the northern doors. At the last second, we’ll close those doors, and some one of you will run to close the southern doors from the outside.” Of course, my plan assumed I’d get all the birds with me to the house, but I imagined we could handle a few stragglers if it came to that. My idea was accepted, and we took our planned positions. I left Faroth and my backpack with Ilori, and moved to the southern doors. I drew a deep breath and opened the doors. “Hey, fuckers, come and get me”, I shouted with all my strength. In the yard before the mansion, hundreds of the birds took flight, circled in the air creating massive flocks and came right at me. I turned and ran like hell, gladii blades in my hands.
As I sprinted, I kept looking behind me. The birds swarmed inside, and it actually looked like the plan was working. Some of the birds caught me, but did not attack – still, I slashed at them and killed several. I kept running, through narrower corridors now, and the flocks had a harder time keeping up with me and staying coherent at the same time. I was perhaps twenty-thirty feet ahead of the leading crows when I reached the northern lobby and yelled at the others to get out and close the southern entrance. Ilori sprinted out first, going for them, while Harsk remained at the northern doors, closing the other while keeping the second open for me. Dexterously I grabbed my backpack on the run, jumped out and pushed the door closed. I could hear crow beaks crashing into it.
Flames erupted with a roar at the southern door – apparently Ilori had to force some crows back to get the doors closed there.
“Now what?” I asked, with urgency. Already we could hear the crows knocking on the windows with their beaks, trying to get out. Time was very short. Harsk was sweating profusely – I remembered he was very fatigued and weary. I recognized the fact that we might not have the time to reach the horses before the crows got out. We needed to do something, immediately. I urged everybody to leave.
But the godsdamned druid wasn’t going to leave without a fight. “No! We cannot leave this place standing. It remains a threat to the region. We must destroy it!” And with those words, he began casting a powerful lighting spell. The rains above us increased, and flashes struck in the clouds above us. Vidarok was using the strange weather here to his advantage, drawing power from the rainstorm. Vidarok gestured with his fist, and a powerful arc of lighting struck the house, right where the birds where. Windows in the upper floors exploded into shards and splinters of wood flew into every direction.
And the house screamed, as if it truly was alive!
“It’s working”, Harsk whispered in awe. The knocking on the ground floor windows increased and already we could see first cracks in the glass. I started to retreat, but pulled my bow from my back anyway. “Let’s go..” I told them, but no-one was listening. Instead, we watched as the house started to repair itself. New woodwork appeared on the roof, and the broken windows reformed. “No!” Vidarok exclaimed in denial. “Ilori, burn it down!” He ordered the fire sorceress, who stepped closer to the side of the building and shot a massive plume of fire at it. A wide section of the wall caught fire, and the house howled in pain again. Ilori was driven to her knees, as if something had hit her. “The house.. it is attacking me, my mind.. Watch out!” She warned us, tears flowing from her eyes as she struggled to gain control of herself. Then the windows of the lobby exploded outwards, and the swarm flew out. I shot arrows at it, each hitting and killing scores of the birds, but my attacks where inconsequential. We needed massive power, and Vidarok delivered it, in a form of another thunderstrike. We were almost blown off our feet as it speared to the flock from the heavens. The explosion was deafening and the afterimage of the flock dying burned into my retina. I had to blink many times to regain full vision. But the battle was over, the birds were dead.
But no, the battle was not over for Vidarok. Keeping his hands wide apart, his staff on the other, he turned back to face the house, chanting a spell. “Vidarok, no!” Ilori screamed at him but it didn’t matter. A third lighting struck the building, again deafening us and destroying a part of its structure. The house roared in pain.
The following silence was broken only by the raindrops hitting the ground. Vidarok just stared forward for a moment, unmoving. Then he fell down like a sack of potatoes. “No no no..” Harsk moaned as he ran to him. I shouldered my bow and sprinted to the druid, as did Ilori. But there was nothing we could do. His expression was of utter terror, and his heart had stopped. He had seen something so terrible in his mind that his body had simply given up. Kneeling beside the druid that had died a second time in two days, I looked at the mansion, that was repairing itself, and then up in the thundering sky.
The lighting had struck twice. And this time, we couldn’t bring him back.