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Titled Phantom Isle: Screech
Along a shallow path, a few miles out of town, leading through the dense forest, walks a small band of mercenaries. Heading the group, a tall medium-built Human, clad in silver plate, his walk cautious, one hand always resting on the hilt of his sheathed great-sword. Bring up the rear, is a Dwarven woman, donning half-plate armor, a wild look in her eye that betrays her detached demeanor. In the center of the trio, a Halfling, wearing the form-fit clothing of a warrior-monk, looking bored, indolently kicking stones as he walks. The Human stops, signaling for his comrades to take cover as he scans the thinning trail of footsteps and blood they’ve been tracking.
“I believe our assailant has gone this way,” he speaks as he scoops a bit of blood onto his fingers and examines it. “From the looks of it, were getting close.”
“Finally!” yells the Halfling, emerging from the shadows of a tall oak tree, “We’ve been at this for hours. I don’t even know why we’re doing this. It’s not like he attacked us…”
“Quiet!” the Human responds in a hushed yell, “Did I not just say we’re close? You’re insipid shouting may scare him off.” The Dwarf emerges from behind a large outcropping, adjacent to the Halfling.
“Yeah, Oturan,” she adds, “you complain of being bored, yet you hinder our progress at every turn.”
“Hey, I’m just say’n,” he retorts, “they didn’t offer us a reward for bringing in this ‘serial killer,’ so we’re not getting paid. When’s the last time we did anything out of the kindness of our hearts?
Speaking of which, do you even have a heart Zondak?”
“Why would I not have a heart, Oturan?” asks the Human, ceasing his current task to acknowledge the little man, “Am I not mortal?”
“Yeah, you’re mortal,” answers Oturan, “but that devil that possessed you and burnt most of your body was not.” Zondak adjusts his plate with his free hand and scratches at the old burns on his neck. The wounds may be old and healed physically, but they still feel as though they smolder internally to this day.
“Tyranthraxus was dispelled,” Zondak replies, “besides, that was over a decade ago.”
“Sure, but he did spend quite some time burning down some villages if I recall the stories correctly.” Oturan adds.
“Shush you two, I hear something,” whispers the Dwarf who, during the exchange has moved a few yards ahead of the group. The Dwarf squats at the edge of the path, her head down, eyes squinting in an attempt to see through the underbrush. As the men approach her, she points east along an even smaller path leading into a thicket.
“What is it Vistrana?” Zondak begins to ask as he kneels down beside her.
His question is quickly answered by the sounds of a man weeping a short distance down the path. Zondak nods at his companions as he slowly unsheathes his sword and begins to creep down the trail towards the disturbance. Oturan takes a moment to limber up, rolling his neck and shoulders around and shaking out his muscles. A smile appears on his face. Its time for him to have some well deserved fun. He quickly rushes to another tree, his body slowly seeping into its shadow until he’s out of sight. Vistrana places her left hand on the crest of Zondak’s back and moves closely behind him, her right hand open and ready to strike when needed.
The two push through the underbrush into a small clearing, surrounding a large birch tree. Resting under the tree, is the body of a male Dwarf. His neck clearly broken, his eyes gouged out and replaced by gold coins. Even with the blood smeared across his face, it’s easy to tell it’s Bilor Stonethrower, the man who went missing a day ago, after his sister was murdered in a similar fashion. Beside the display kneels a masked man, his head down, loosely propped up by one of his hands, as if to be pondering the misdeed. The mask he wears resembles that of an owl and seems to be carved from wood and decorated with paint and leather strips. Zondak takes another step forward, trying to sneak closer before the man sees him, and the armor covering his right shoulder clanks against his equally armored bicep. The man lets out a sound of surprise, turning to look in an instant before quickly scrambling to his feet and sprinting for the tree line, opposite the mercenaries.
“Vistrana!” commands Zondak, as he begins to give chase.
“I got him!” She replies, raising her right hand toward the sky, her eyes glowing a piercing, bright blue. Storm clouds immediately gather overhead and a bolt of lightning explodes a few feet in front of the killer, sending him flying back a few yards. The stranger lands on his feet, and twirls around to the North and begins to run again before a halfling suddenly leaps from the shadows on the ground directly in front of him, tackling him to the dirt. The killer uses Oturans momentum to send him flying over his head, and clambers to his feet.
Unfortunately for the masked man, the swift scuttle between he and Oturan gave Zondak and Vistrana enough time to flank him. He’s surrounded. Oturan regains his footing and faces the man again, ready to fight. This is, after all, the most exciting thing to happen to him all week. The killer readjusts his footing, slowly relaxing, and bringing his hands up to show he bares no weapons.
“Easy, easy…,” he says in a calm and collected voice as he scans the blockade around him, “I know better than to pick a fight with people better equipped than I.” He gently raises his right hand a bit further and takes off his mask, revealing bronze skin, deep black hair, silver eyes and pointed ears. A Sun-Elf. “So,” he continues, “I suppose you’re all here about Bilor and his sister Thorila.”
“That we are,” answers Zondak, his blade still pointed at the elf.
“Did the family send you?” Asks the Elf.
“The town guard, actually,” Zondak replies.
“Ah, so you’re bounty hunters then.”
“Not exactly,” says Oturan, “but we dabble.”
“You’re Adventures,” concludes the elf. “Well, that explains it. No common bounty hunter would ever be able to catch me. It would only make sense for Adventures to finally be my downfall.”
Vistrana sneers at the elf, letting herself laugh a bit before saying, “You’re a bit arrogant for someone who was just caught leering above a fresh corpse.”
“Ah, dear lady, this is not my first time at the end of a blade,” he states with a smile. He continues to scan his captors for a moment before stopping at Zondak again. His face turns quizzical as he leisurely points a figure at the Knight. “Do I know you?” He asks.
“I do not believe we’ve met, no,” Zondak replies, somewhat confused.
The elf studies him a bit more and focuses on Zondak’s semi-armored neck. “Ah! I knew I recognized you from somewhere.” He states. “You’re the Burned Knight! The one who caused a lot of trouble on the Moonshae Isles some years ago.”
“You… recognize me?” Zondak says, in a hushed, hesitant tone.
“Recognize you? Ha, but of course! I was one of the many men trying to kill you!” The elf laughs. “Got pretty damn close too.”
Zondak sighs, lowering his gaze for a moment, trying to recollect his time in the Moonshae Isles to no avail. “I was… a different man then,” he states.
“Quite literally form what I hear,” says the elf. The killer looks toward Oturan and cocks an eyebrow. “And you must be… Otorian?”
“It’s pronounced Oturan!” The halfling snaps, still pumped from the fight.
“Right, right, the halfling that’s striving to become the most famous ‘ninja’ ever,” laughs the elf. “Well, you certainly picked the right place to start out. There aren’t many ‘ninjas’ in the Phantom Isles. You’re probably the most famous one here already.”
“Really?” Oturan says, taken aback by the comment.
“Of course! You did help save an entire village from pirates, after all.”
“I guess those peasants were good for something after all.”
“Ah yes, word certainly does travel fast around here, young one.”
The elf then turns to Vistrana and frowns, “I don’t believe I know you, Dwarf,” he states, “but judging by the storm clouds which appeared and disappeared at an astonishing rate, doubled by the fact that a bolt of lightning almost fried me, I’d say you’re a… Warlock? No, no patron I know of can allow one to control the weather like that. A Cleric perhaps? I hear, Talos, ‘The Tempest,’ has quite the devoted temple.”
“He and I are on uneasy terms at the moment,” Vistrana replies.
“Dear girl, Talos is on ‘uneasy terms’ with all beings.” He jokes. “Well, this is quite the honor! Really! You three have made quite an impact on Ishard in your very short time here. In the centuries since I’ve started my journey, no group of hunters has bared such an impressive history. I am humbled to be of such importance as to gain your attention!”
“Right… so, you know who we are,” starts Zondak, “but who are you?”
“Me?” Asks the elf, a bit surprised. “Why, I’m Noldo Dulin, but you may call me Screech.”
The group exchanges weary glances at each other contemplating the name. Zondak turns back to Noldo, his eyes narrowed, and says, “All right ‘Screech,’ tell me. Why’d you kill them?”
“Ah, well that is a long story,” Screech says, letting his hands drop to his sides. “Come, sit down, I’ll tell you.” He begins to walk toward the unusually large birch tree again, waving them along as he goes. Oturan is fast on his heels, making sure the dubious stranger doesn’t try to run again. The other two are a bit more hesitant to follow, but they eventually cave to their own curiosity. Screech stops just shy of Bilor’s corpse and twirls around quickly as he sits, so as to face his audience. Zondak finds a large rock to sit on, Vistrana stands near him and Oturan begins to climb onto some of the branches of the tree right above the Elf.
“Go ahead, Screech,” Zondak insists, “spin your tale.”
“Gladly,” he replies. “My tale starts about four hundred and forty years ago, when I was just an adolescent. My family owned a rather large farm outside of a prominent town surrounding the port city of Nyth. Being one of the more impressive farms in the area, my father had much political pull with the local lord, and was well liked by many of the towns people. One day, a new guard captain was assigned to the town, a tall Elf with a wicked smile. It didn’t take long for he and my father to butt heads, so to speak. I remember my father telling me that he didn’t trust the man.
“Well, about a week later, my father took the first of the spring harvest into the city to sell it, but before he left, he made a stop in town to drop off some freshly baked bread to some family friends. He was stopped by the guard almost immediately upon entering the town. The captain ordered his chart searched, claiming someone had stolen food from the guard barracks recently. As you can probably imagine, as soon as they found the bread, wrapped in some cloth and buried beneath the crops, my father was severely beaten. The captain ordered him drug to the center of town to ‘face justice for his crime.’ I saw it happen from the window of my room and instantly told my mother.”
He stops a moment and chuckles a bit, “You know, my mother didn’t even bother going to him. She went straight to the city, straight to the Lord’s home. She thought she could stop this before it started. She didn’t even make it into the city before the captain’s mock trial had completed and my father’s corpse hanged from the end of a rope for all to see.”
The mercenaries sat enthralled at the story. Even Oturan stopped climbing above them to listen. It’s not something they haven’t heard before, it was just something about the way he told it. It was almost… mesmerizing. He paused every so often to quietly address this with a faint smile. He was relishing in the attention.
“Anyway,” he continued. “When she returned, she told me that the Lord had given the captain full judicial command in town. The Lord would have done nothing. Who would he have believed any way? A peasant farmer or his most trusted Guardsman? But as I sat there for hours, staring at the injustice of it, I started plotting my revenge. That power hungry excuse for an elf would suffer. At first, I hid away in the barn and read books on war and swordsmanship. I practiced for hours under the watchful eyes of the barn owls, to no avail. I needed to try something else.
“I started sneaking into peoples homes. At first, only at night when the residents slept, but after I began to get good at it, I snuck in during the day, when everyone was around the house doing their daily chores. I was only caught a few times. It was a good start, but I still didn’t know how to effectively kill a man. So I started kidnapping people, and keeping them in my family’s barn. I started practicing on them with my father’s old, dull butchers knife. After a few messy tries, and a couple of shallow graves, finally found out that if you stabbed up, right below the rib cage, the person wouldn’t be able to scream or cry for help, and they’d slowly suffocate. I thought I’d found my perfect revenge. But then I realized most of my ‘test subjects’ died too quickly.
“Many of them only lasted a minute. So I started exploring other possibilities. I began attempting to break a man’s neck without killing him. Took me months to get it right. I even had to start grabbing people from Nyth to test on. Nevertheless, I found that if you kept your hands caressing the base of the jaw, toward the back of the head, palms resting on the neck itself, that you could be able to break the spine without doing too much damage to the spinal cord. Most of the time they were still paralyzed, so it was a perfect way to immobilize him. But it wasn’t enough.
“I had spent a lot of time with the barn owls at that point. One thing I noticed about them was that their eyes never moved. They relied solely on their necks for a full field of vision. That gave me an idea. I would learn how to remove a man’s eyes and replace them with something else. That should cause the right amount of pain for my revenge. It didn’t take me long to figure it out and perfect it and after seventy-two victims, one for each year since my birth, I finally had my plan. I went out that night and let the guards catch me in the act of stealing away a child. They didn’t hesitate to throw me into the small dungeon under the barracks after finding my bloodied knife.”
Screech stopped again to make sure his audience was still hanging onto every word. Zondak had started leaning forward, almost enchanted by the story. Vistrana had sat down and was reclined against the rock Zondak was sitting on, but still fully immersed in the stranger’s story. Oturan had climbed down to a low branch near Screech and was now hanging upside-down, his head cocked to one side, listening intently. The Elf laughs once more.
“He visited me in my cell that night. The captain. His arrogance led him right to me. He wanted to gloat, you see. He wanted me to know that out of all the innocent, miserable bastards he’d killed over the years, my father brought him the most joy. It gave him almost absolute power in town and that let him extort a lot of money from the peasants that lived there. As he turned to leave my cell, I leapt up and quickly broke his neck. He fell back, stunned, unable to call for help out of pure shock. Before he came to his senses, I grabbed his dagger and stuck it beneath his rib cage, but only a little. That way, he could still breath, albeit barely, but he couldn’t talk or scream.
“You should have seen the look of horror on his face as I carefully carved out his eyes. Plucking each tendon, one by one, while he lay there motionless and silent. It was the happiest moment of my life. I replaced his eyes with two gold coins that I had pulled from his pouch. All he saw in life was the prospect of wealth, so I made sure that was all he would see in death as well. My father had finally been avenged after almost thirty years. The guards found him in my cell in the morning but I was halfway across the Sea of Fallen Stars by then.”
Zondak clears his throat, “This is all fascinating, really,” he says, “but what does it have to do with Bilor and Thorila?”
“Patience Zondak!” Screech replies. “You can’t rush a good story. You see, after that I spent about a century traveling throughout the Sea of Fallen Stars. I vowed only to kill those who truly deserved it and after a time, I had picked up the habit of wearing the Nyctimene mask to strike fear into those who do wrong. Unfortunately, the legend of the “Owl-man” would eventually catch up to me, and I’d be forced to relocate every century or so. First it was to the Swordcoast, then to Moonshae and now to here, the Phantom Isles.”
“So…,” starts Oturan, “what you’re saying is, Thorila and Bilor had committed some sort of crime and that’s why you killed them?”
“Sadly, that’s only partially correct,” Screech sighs. “Tell me, when you all first came to town, did you notice many of the people there were sickly? Perhaps, as if they were being poisoned?”
“Yeah,” Zondak states, “almost everyone looked malnourished. I figured it was just the norm for this town. It’s not exactly a paradise.”
“That’s what I thought at first as well,” Sreech explains, “but upon asking around, I learned it had only started recently. I immediately knew I had seen this type of thing elsewhere. The Cult of Erythnul. Damn death-worshipers had poisoned the food and water of entire cities so their army could slaughter the inhabitants with little resistance. I suspected the same was happening here. Didn’t take long for me to find Thorila dumping large amounts of poison into the soil around the town crops. The roots would suck up the poison, and transfer it throughout the plant. The people were being killed by that which gave them life. Betrayed by one of their own. So I killed her. After I had finished with her, however, her brother appeared and chased me into the forest, in an effort to avenge someone he believed was an innocent girl.”
“And you weren’t able to lose him, so you killed him,” Vistrana finishes.
“Again, only partially true,” Screech retorts. “I wasn’t able to lose him so I tried to reason with him. He wasn’t having it. As he swung his sword at me, he misstepped and simply fell and hit his head on that rock you’re sitting on Zondak.”
The mercenaries all turn to look at the stone that’s propped them up to realize there was blood smeared on the side opposite to them.
“He was dead on impact,” Screech continued. “I had made a promise to myself years ago, that if any would fall to me, I would keep up my tradition of breaking their necks and removing their eyes. I counted this one out of pure ineptitude. I could have prevented it, but didn’t.”
“That’s strangely honorable,” Zondak remarks as he strokes his chin in contemplation.
“No,” Oturan says, “it’s insane.”
“I kind of agree with Oturan, Zondak,” adds Vistrana. “Nothing about this story tells me this man is honorable.”
“Hey now,” interrupts Screech, “don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”
“All right,” Vistrana continues, now talking to Screech directly, “you killed seventy-two innocent people, well seventy-three now, and those are just the ones we know of. You don’t deserve my admiration. You don’t even deserve my pity. You deserve to suffer for your actions, however good willed you claim them to be.”
“Come now Vistrana,” Screech sneers, “you of all people should know what its like to suffer for your actions. Your gifts. The burden you carry with you everywhere. The constant tugging you feel on your conscience. The constant darkness you carry within you, yet you still try to use them for good.”
Vistrana sits dumbfounded as Screech’s simple grin turns into a wicked smile. How did he know all of this about her? He himself claimed to not know her at first. The other two seemed be trying to piece it together as well. They all looked at each other for a moment and suddenly Oturan slips out of the tree and lands on his feet, his gaze not leaving Screech’s arrogant smile. He takes a few steps forward, his glare turning more and more to suspicion with each step.
“I have a question,” he says, not even letting Screech respond before asking, “Why did the captain go into your cell that night? He could have just stayed on the other side of the bars. His message would have been all the same. In fact, any sane person wouldn’t have gone into the cell alone with someone who was thought to be the deranged killer of over seventy people.”
Screech lets out a hardy laugh. “Oh did I not say?” He asks in a sarcastic tone. “I’m a Psionic.”
Zondak and Vistrana stand in unison, both tensing up as if they were readying for a fight. Oturan looks puzzled for a second. He looks back to his companions and asks, “What’s a Psionic?”
“They’re a type of magical user,” Zondak states. “Though the term ‘user’ isn’t exactly accurate. They’re magical ability comes from within their own mind, unlike every other magical beings, whose magic is obtained from nature or the gods.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Screech adds. “And most of our abilities deal with the mind, specifically, the minds of others.”
“He’s been manipulating us!” Vistrana snaps, her eyes beginning to glow blue with rage. “He read my mind!”
“I read all of your minds,” Screech declares. “I also compelled you all to stay and listen to my story.”
“Why?” Zondak demands.
“Well, I’ve been wondering this world for over four hundred years. I figured, someone has to hear it,” he vents. “You just happened to be the people who finally caught up to me.”
“So what do we do with him, guys?” Zondak inquires.
“I say we kill him,” states Oturan, without hesitation.
“Seconded,” adds Vistrana.
“Well then, if that’s the case, this has been fun but I must be going,” announces Screech, as he lifts up his arms, fingers stretched toward the bounty hunters.
Zondak unsheathes his sword and yells, “Oh know you d…”
The mercenaries stand below the birch tree, as if frozen in place. Like a still painting of warriors readying for battle. It’s now dusk. One by one, they begin to blink, shake their heads, and move once more. They quickly survey their surroundings. The Elf is nowhere to be seen. On the base of the birch tree, right above Bilor’s body, an owl head is hastily carved into the bark. Oturan searches the woods surrounding them while Vistrana inspects the carving and Zondak takes a seat on the rock once more.
“Gods, I hate Psionics,” Zondak sighs. Oturan returns a moment later.
“No sign of him,” he reports.
“So… What do we do?” Asks Vistrana.
“Wrap up the body,” answers Zondak. “Let’s take him back to town.”
“Screw that! Let’s go after him,” Oturan barks.
“It’ll be no use, he’s gone,” Zondak replies. “Besides, I’m sure we’ll see him again. There isn’t many places for him to hide anymore, we know his face, and so will everyone else once we’re finished with him.”
“Plus, he’s arrogant,” Vistrana observes. “He’s already toyed with us. He’ll probably want to do it again, very soon.”
“Good point,” Zondak concludes.
Vistrana produces a large cloth to wrap up Bilor’s body. They lay it out in the clearing, and collectively lift him up to place him in what would likely be what he’s buried in. Vistrana and Oturan fold the sheet over the corpse, while Zondak gathers materials to construct a makeshift stretcher. They all set out toward town within the hour, the body in tow. Oturan is the last one out, as he takes one more glance at the owl carving on the tree before leaving. He smiles and disappears into the darkness beyond the trees.
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