Before getting on the path through the wheat field, Luke lowered his head and focused on the sounds around him. Steady, steady; he repeated. He flicked Alarich’s reigns and continued on. Field shifters... devilish things they are. He knew something about them. In the book he read though, the ink was very light and mostly gone. He couldn’t depict what it said about their behavior.
His eyes zipped around as the wind blew through the field; he was searching for abnormally moving stalks of wheat. Even Alarich was quiet and seemed to be listening very carefully. What a smart horse.
Nothing was out of place. It was all calm and normal, and stayed like this for quite a while. He placed his hand on his sword and spurred Alarich a little more. It was annoying having to remain under suspense for so long. Just what were the chances of running into a field shifter if nothing has happened by now?-Were they high, or were they slim?
He looked to the right again. A bird was swooping down to pick some wheat. He thought of what Esmé would do. She’d be running out there to try and catch the bird. It would fly away and she’d drop to the ground with a sigh and smile as the sun shined down on her. She was all about nature. Suddenly, the bird was swallowed up by a large snake. He jumped. “Whoa-!” Alarich took off before he could do anything else. “WAIT! WAIT!” He managed to take the reins and glimpse back to where the snake was. It was there, moving fast through the field and coming right for him. His heart was about to pound out of his chest.
Frantically, he felt around for his sword and almost dropped it on yanking it out of its sheath. He swung it, slicing the creature in midair as it leapt at him, changing into a dog. Alarich jumped up on his hind legs, throwing him off. He rolled over onto his hands and knees and snatched the sword, panting heavily as the horse ran away. The shifter was just a few feet from him, twitching, bleeding from its side. It locked eyes with him. He snarled and shouted at it. The creature only winced and briefly shut its eyes. When it looked at him again, he saw it was too hurt to attack–the pain was too much. So much... pain. Was it pleading him to finish it off? His grip on the sword was tightening and loosening in hesitation. The shifter searched his narrowing eyes and found a face lingering within them; there was a memory within his eyes. The shifter used that image and changed form again—Into his sister. He watched her whimper and reach for him. “Luke, save me. I don’t want to die.” Her breaths were short and staggered. He crawled backward while she moved closer to him, leaving a trail of blood from the wound in her side. “Please,” she grabbed his foot. The creature was tampering with his mind; this suffering he saw in her was making him forget she was a shifter. It was fooling him into believing she had actually come after him. There were no impossibilities of this being true.
“I’m losing control of my body... Please, Luke... please don’t leave me to die.” He could feel his heart sinking and his face warming, tears threatening to leave his eyes. She fell to the ground with her hand slipping off his foot. “Esmé, no!” he reached for her hand. She was motionless as he pulled her into his arms. “Come on! Don’t go!” He listened for her breathing and checked her pulse. There was nothing. He rocked her back and forth, “You can’t go! I refuse! You’re all I have! What about mom and dad? We can’t give up, remember?” He pushed his face into her hair. “How could you!” She felt so limp and fragile. He backed his face away from the side of her head and held her cheek. There was no personality there–this body was a shell; all the times they shared; the memory was not there anymore. All he could see was this young soul, a blessing to this world, was taken away from him by someone or something. He looked at the sword and saw her blood on it. That’s his sword... Why would he do this? He stood up with his hands on his head, “No, I didn’t do this... I would never do that! Never!”
Absentmindedly, he paced around. But then he stopped, peering over his shoulder at her again. He thought for a good long minute. This made no sense! What the heck was he thinking! What was he doing!
His hands clenched into fists, facing the shifter again. “You’re not my sister. How dare you force me to believe that!” He stomped over and snatched his sword. As he growled and turned back around to it, there was a snakelike hiss. The shifter suddenly sprang up from the ground as a snake. It was growing tall–taller than him! He took a shocked step back, holding his weapon with a death grip, gaping up at the creature baring its venom-dripping fangs. “This can’t be... You were dying!” He spun around and ran for his life. Alarich was running toward him. The words; ‘Go go go! You can make it! MAKE IT!’ cycled over and over in his thoughts. Alarich raced past him and kicked his feet at the shifter. He shot his hand out at the horse, “NOO!” Alarich knocked the creature down and trampled it nonstop. Each time it was stomped, Luke saw it change into different animals and people. Its body violently jolted up and down every time Alarich came down on it. Slowly, it looked at him with a widening smile and Alarich bashed its head in. Luke shifted away to throw up. Alarich kicked dirt and wheat on it with a disgusted huff, then walked back to him.
Wiping his mouth, Luke shook his head and muttered to himself, “Oh my gods... I have never seen something so horrific. How...? How could I be so stupid and gullible to so easily succumb to that thing?” He glanced at its mangled body one last time as it soaked into the ground. “What in the world...” How was that happening? There was no way he could understand what he was seeing. He suddenly threw up some more to the thought of what just happened. Alarich nudged him, but he didn’t look.
“Yes...” he coughed, “yes you’re right, we should... hurry off.” He stood up straight, wiping his mouth again. “Alright.” Climbing up on the saddle, he rubbed Alarich’s neck, “Thank you for saving me... Alarich... I’d probably be dead if you didn’t. Now I know why Mr. Thomson spoils you.” He patted him and made a clicking noise. “We need to get past Bleeding Tower before this day is over. It’s already afternoon.” Alarich started walking on. Luke reached into his bag and took his flask of water out. “...I think I’m feeling nauseous again.”
They successfully left the wheat field without seeing another shifter. There were no words to best describe how glad Luke felt. Now, they were entering the pass between mountains. It was fairly dark, the air was much cooler, and the wind was howling. There were other sounds too; sounds he would have never imagined hearing. Some were low and guttural and others were high-pitched screeches. Whatever made those almost otherworldly noises, he was sure they were all far off from his location. At least there was that to comfort him a bit.
While traveling through, he thought of his experience with that field shifter. That was his first kill–figuratively speaking. He was remorseful yet proud, and felt strong. What an unusual feeling... He wasn’t certain how it would affect him next time. To have expected a clean and harmless start was completely foolish of him.
There was something else he continuously questioned; a passage about those in the study book he read had information about their most common transformations; it never mentioned humans or humanoids, nor did it say anything about their bodies dissolving into the ground. Was that an imposture shifter? If so, what could it have been? Why didn’t the goblins prepare him for a being like that? Maybe it was something else that was also passing through. Too bad he had no one to talk with about this...
Right now he had to think of what else he will face. ‘The Isle of Phantoms’. What if the phantoms were off the isle and on the bridge too? How can he fight those? He needed to believe the thinebell weed should keep them off him and Alarich. If the bridge was too long, he would have to stay there through the night. He could only hope nothing terrible will happen to them.
He heard a whoosh, BOOM, BOOM, and rocks falling. A monstrous howl sounded from high above. Quickly, he unsheathed his sword and looked up. There was a giant, GIANT gray spidery creature hovering over them. It had horns, a pale white humanoid face with many, many eyes and no mouth. He went into a cold sweat. It snapped its head from left to right. He leaned in and whispered to Alarich, “Be... very... quiet.” Looking up again, he steered him closer to a wall. The beast shouted again. Why was it just standing there? Leave already!
There was another shout from a different area. There were two of them?! The beast got into a battle stance. Luke felt a kind of fear he’d never had before. The other spidery creature was heavier and faster, coming this way. A bead of sweat traveled down his forehead. He checked everywhere for a place to run. It was all wall and no crevices big enough for Alarich to get through. He heard two loud roars and a BAM! Rocks and boulders fell as the beasts collided and fought with each other. Alarich backed up quickly. The fallen rocks and boulders created a path on the left wall. Luke spurred him in that direction. The creatures couldn’t see them escaping. He kept running, hearing them fighting and smashing into parts of the mountain. The echoes were so horrifying they gave him a burst of pure adrenaline. Every obstacle that stood in their way he overcame it without realizing how difficult it was.
The next thing he knew, he had made it to a crossroad, leaving the mountains. The right side led up and the left side, down. Alarich was a little calmer now, turning slightly to the right.
“Back into the mountains? I’d rather go down.” Luke said. “For mom and dad... I’m sorry Alarich–we need to go.” He started them down the road.
He could see ruins down there in a valley. It was every bit of a few hundred years old. He checked the sky. The sun was setting. “I suppose we have no choice but to rest in those.” The only things he could think of were ghosts–or phantoms. If he was lucky, there would only be animals.
The closer they got, the more he could see how ominous it truly was. Everything was made of stone. All the wood outside had rotted away. He’d never seen a place like this before. There was a pond in the center of the ruins with frogs and birds around it. That was a good thing to see, he thought to himself. It wasn’t poisonous.
When they arrived, he led Alarich to the pond and unsheathed his sword as he scrutinized the area. “I’ll be back.”
He walked into a couple rooms, finding pottery in them. In one room, it smelled like a type of powder Doctor Thomson would use to start fires from time to time. Red lily powder is what it’s called. He looked around and saw a bunch of decorative jars in front of a window. “Ah, that’s interesting.” He opened one, accidently spilling ash on the floor. Groaning, he dusted off his shoe and then noticed an old furnace in the corner. It was then he realized these could be the ashes of the dead. “Oh- ...I am so sorry...” He knelt and gathered as much of the ash as he could to put it back in the jar, then he set it next to a few more in another corner. “I promise not to bother you anymore.” He said, in case anything was listening.
Considering how things were going, this seemed like a good place to retire for the night. He couldn’t keep moving, unaware of what else is out there. He could check the map to see how much farther he needed to go until finally getting to Bleeding Tower Isle.
Leaving the room, he went back over to Alarich. “Time to eat, don’t you think?” Alarich bobbed his head at him. He took a couple apples out of a bag and fed him. The way Alarich was enjoying it made him slowly smile. “Yeah... I like apples too. My mother makes a wonderful apple pie. Maybe she’ll let you try some one day.” He then grabbed a knife and a small portion of meat from the bag and cut some up. “Going to have to light a fire soon.” He took a bite and abruptly stopped. “I didn’t bring- I forgot firewood?!” He angrily slapped his legs, “How absentminded could I be?!” Alarich only watched him. He sighed with his hand up, “We’ll make due. We will.” He finished his meal and went to cup some water from the pond in his hands. For a minute, he stared into it. “Red lily powder!” He got up and hurried into a room to look for a jar of it. He knew it was sitting around somewhere!
Finally, he found a jar of the powder and scurried out with it. “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” he said to the dead. Once he set the jar on a bench near the trough, he found a place and dug a hole, then he grabbed the jar again and poured the powder into the hole. Next, he retrieved his tinderbox from one of the bags. It took him a great many tries to light the old powder. He thought it wasn’t going to work–until the last minute. There was spark. “Yes! That’s right–Burn!” he helped it grow into the perfect fire, adding more powder—just enough to keep it going for a while.
He then took the blanket out of a saddlebag and spread it out on the ground. “So glad I know these things...So glad.” He sighed, “I should check the map.” He also took the map out of a bag and then sat down.
Bleeding Tower was just north of these ruins. It was closer than he thought. Just outside this valley should be the start of the bridge. On the other end of the bridge are two roads; one was halfway visible because of how Gianna marked the map. The road he needed is the way to Clakiwen, but it’s a little far. This was frustrating to him, but he didn’t react. He wanted everything to happen right now so he could get back home and help his parents.
“Well, I think we’re moving at a pretty good pace, don’t you?” he folded it and set it aside, lying down. While resting his hands over his belly, he said, “...Esmé and Doctor Thomson had better be taking good care of them. When I return home, I hope to find that flower taken up. If it’s not gone, then I’ll do it myself.” He looked over at Alarich, who was looking at everything but him. “Pff.” He closed his eyes. “I won’t be surprised if I don’t fall asleep. Those monsters out there were just... terrifying.”
Hours later, shuffling noises and frustrated huffs woke him from his nap. Alarich was kicking his feet while looking around. “What is it?” Luke whispered, sitting up. The horse stopped and shook off. Everything appeared to be the same as it did before he faded to sleep. “You have to be joking... It took me forever to go to sleep, and then you just wake me up moments later! What is wrong with you horse!” He wiped the sleep out of his eyes and saw something very strange. There were people around–transparent people, dressed in rags. They weren’t acknowledging him or Alarich; they were behaving as if they were still living here.
Women stood outside the small rooms, children were playing with each other and the men were building or gathering plants and fish they’ve harvested and caught. It looked like a normal day. Luke felt like he was in a time bubble. It was fascinating, yet disorienting.
“They’re ghosts...” He mumbled to himself, then glanced at the bag that had the thinebell weed in it. If they were harmless and didn’t see him, he didn’t need to use it.
Carefully, he picked up the blanket and took Alarich’s reins, “Shh, we don’t want to be in the middle of this.” He guided him toward a room. But then they heard a loud clash of thunder in the mountains. He pulled Alarich to the side of the room and watched with big eyes.
An old man began to panic and rushed past Luke to go inside. “No no! He’s angry now! He’s angry!” he shrieked. The people instantly started going into a frenzy, racing to the rooms—their ‘homes’.
Luke looked back toward the mountains where the thunder was coming from, then looking back again, he saw a large, buff man standing perfectly still in the crowd. A little boy came along and tried to grab his arm, saying, “Please, let me go! Let me be free!” The man backhanded him and then leaned down with a calm sort of voice, “You want to be free? This is where you belong. I keep you safe–all of you. Never run from me, do you understand?” The boy was crying as he looked at him and nodded. “Yes, yes I understand!” Another man ran up behind the buff one, shouting insults at him. The large man swung his fist, clocking him in the face. Luke repeatedly looked from them, the crowd, and the mountains, back and forth. The strong desire to intervene was overwhelming him, but he knew this was an echo of the past. What could he do? Was it possible to do anything?
The man that hit the little boy raised his palm over him. The boy screamed and tried to back away. The people were staying back, watching them. The sounds in the mountains were stronger now. Why was this happening?
Luke couldn’t hold back anymore. He couldn’t watch this happen! “STOOOOP!!!!” he charged at the leader. Right as he was about to smack him down, all the ghosts disappeared in just a blink of an eye–All except one: The big, strong man. The thunder quieted into a low rumble. As Luke tried bashing his hand through his face, he almost fell forward. Nervously, slowly, he looked up into his glaring eyes.
“What are you doing here?” The man said.
Luke swallowed hard, “You- you were going to-!”
“Who are you to disturb us? Who are you to interrupt me? Do you have any IDEA who I am?”
“N- No, I sure don’t! I just know they’re suffering! Let them go! It’s not right to hold them captive like this!” The man stilled his eyes on his face, listening to the innocence in his voice. This was a boy; a young man who didn’t know anything about the world at all, and also judging by the sorrow in his eyes, he was out on a mission to save someone. The man knew that look all too well.
“I see... I see what you are about. I am the guardian of the dead here. I have been in these ruins for three hundred years. I was summoned here days before a now-extinct empire destroyed this village. This is sacred land. Be smart—be gone boy, and carry on with your journey.” The guardian turned away and vanished in the wind blowing toward the mountains. Luke gasped. He stood quietly with his brows curving in. He couldn’t understand what had happened. He wanted those people to be free. But this guardian was protecting them. He’s never heard of something like this...
Alarich walked up and bumped him in the back. He turned around to the horse with the same perplexed look. “...I don’t know these people, nor do I know anything about this land... but when I see so many people... practically being held against their will by a single man, or creature—Something has to be done. I know he must come from within those mountains. When the day comes,” he pointed out at them, “I am going to come back here and see why this is happening!” Alarich moved his head as if he were silently giving him advice. But Luke didn’t see it. He looked off into the distance and saw the sun was going to come up in a little while.
He calmed down and sighed. “We have to go.” He started putting everything he took out away. “I always want to make things right. When I can’t, I only want to try harder. It’s a stupid cycle.” He finished cleaning up, sheathed his sword and kicked the pile of ash away from the bench. Alarich bowed his head slowly, allowing him to get on. That simple act gave Luke a small smile. He mounted him and rubbed his hair, “To Bleeding Tower it is.” Alarich neighed and kicked the dirt a couple times before taking off.