Bleeding Tower Isle
Once Luke and Alarich left the mountains, the land was a wide expanse of trees and patches of flowers all over the place. It was really beautiful. Blues, reds, pinks and purples everywhere. According to the map, the bridge was still a little while away. Luke took in the scenery like savoring a fine desert and he felt like his family was with him, but when he had to come back to reality, it felt like darkness had come in and hit him over the head. He tried not to let these agonizing thoughts take over. It was difficult. His head hung low for a very long time.
After a while, he noticed the trees were thinning out a little and dying too. They were coming up on sandy ground, which meant the lake wasn’t far. But why was the ground like this? Shouldn’t there be tons of life and more trees where there’s water...? He could see fog in the distance. This prompted him to look at the map again. They were so close now. With that thought and imagining what is to come, anxiety grabbed at his heart and stiffened his muscles again. He shook slightly as he put the map away.
Alarich moved a bit slower as they went into the fog. It was so ominous out there. They listened to the faint winds, the creaking trees, the sounds of Alarich’s hooves kicking the sand and stepping on twigs. And they began to hear distant wailing noises, low booms and bangs, and the sound of the waves in the lake moving ever so calmly. It was unsettling Alarich, and Luke’s chest was tightening worse than before. What was making all that noise? Could it have been the phantoms? It sounded like a war was going on out there. He didn’t want to be in the middle of that! He hoped to the gods they were only noises and nothing else.
A few more minutes went by and then he saw the bridge, and gulped hard. This was it. They had arrived at Bleeding Tower Isle. He steered his companion toward the bridge and a few big black birds over their heads cawed and flew away.
Stopping at the beginning of the bridge, Luke looked at the calm-moving water and the thickest part of the fog far out in the middle of the lake. He squinted as he tried to focus on the faint outline of the Tower on the Isle. This was a beyond intimidating thing to see. There was a lantern on both sides of him on the bridge but the wicks inside their cases weren’t lit. Of course, they weren’t. He had an idea. “Excuse me for this Alarich. Bear with me.” He gingerly stood up on his back, annoying the horse, and checked the candles. “Oil! Oil lamps...! There’s plenty in these.” He grabbed the lantern and struggled to take it off the pole. Finally, he managed to get it. “Now... the other one.” He said.
“Phbbbt...” Alarich didn’t care for the sound of that. Luke jumped down, took Alarich over to the other lantern and did the same with that one. It was surprisingly looser than the first lantern.
Now finished, he got off Alarich and carefully stowed one of the lanterns in a saddlebag.
His gaze met the gloomy Isle again. “The Isle of Phantoms...” There had to be many dangerous entities lurking there. He could just feel something evil out there. He then wondered... what would happen if he spread the thinebell weed’s essence on him? Since it was a ghost repellent, the possibility of it not being strong enough was quite high, but it was an idea absolutely worth trying. Why didn’t he consider this earlier?
He reached into the bag and took the vial out. “...Time is wasting. I have to be brave.” Opening it and rubbing his finger over the weed, the dust-like essence came off and moved together like a ribbon in the breeze. He was amazed at how it attached itself to him and made his skin tingle. It was warm and comforting. Truly, it felt like a shield. He shook off the odd feeling, put the leaf and vial away and flicked his cape back, “Wow... Wow, that was amazing...! They didn’t say it does this.” He mounted Alarich and shook the reins to continue onto the bridge. “Here we go...”
The planks squeaked and whined at their weight as they charily traveled over them. After a while, he could see something swimming toward the bridge; he needed to squint to understand what it was. That particular part of the water was glowing and he could’ve sworn he was seeing flying fish leaping in and out of it.
Each time they came out of the water, he heard MEEP! He pulled back on Alarich, but then he saw they were in a big hurry. His eyes enlarged with fright. “They’re coming for us!” He snapped the reins and Alarich whinnied, racing on. The creatures came at them like a storm, jumping over the bridge, making those urgent meeping sounds. Luke’s jaw dropped as they gracefully flew over him. These were some kind of mermaids. A different kind of mermaid than what he’s researched. They had koi fish faces, orange wings on their backs and glowing spots on their humanlike torsos. He had lost his breath. He would never be able to explain this experience to anyone. They illuminated the area as they passed over. “They’re just migrating...!” He gasped. Then he remembered right in that second he needed to get past the Tower quickly. The sun was rising high enough to shine light on the horizon now.
He spurred Alarich again and sprinted through the flock of mermaid creatures up the bridge. The more he entered the fog, the more he could hear men shouting, swords clanging with each other and wraithlike screams echoing throughout the area. He nervously gritted his teeth. Pretty soon, there was nothing but a thick white cloud all around him. He couldn’t see where he was going at all. Such terror out there–so much death and suffering–so much war. He could feel the heaviness draping over him like a blanket of darkness consuming his soul.
He thought; ‘I don’t want to do this. There has to be another way!’ Then he looked back. That fog was still too thick to see through. There was certainly no turning back.
Taking and opening the vial to get the weed again, he rubbed more of the dust-like repellent off the leaf and let it attach itself to him. “Shield me through this darkness—through this evil—Protect me!” Once it was finished, he started putting it away and heard a horse galloping toward him. A sudden wave of wind knocked him off Alarich and the leaf swirled around him. “No!” he reached for it. A ghostly hoof stomped near it, causing a breeze to carry it away. He gasped.
Shakily, he lifted his gaze up to see a phantom warrior with an iron helmet on, pointing his sword at his head. “No man crosses the path of the Bleeding Tower.” The phantom said in a deep, threatening voice, then he raised the blade. Luke gasped again and rolled away before the sword came down. He unsheathed his sword as Alarich stood up, neighing in fright and kicking his legs at the warrior. The phantom horse was startled, trying to back away. The warrior shouted and swung at him again.
Luke screamed and sliced at them, causing the horse to fall back into the river. The warrior yelled as he went down with it. They disappeared the moment they began to sink. Luke watched with huge eyes. Quickly, he mounted Alarich, panting and sheathing his sword, “Come on!” He surely didn’t want to wait for the next few phantoms to come!
Sounds of war and wraithlike screams surrounded them while they raced on; black shadowy figures flew overhead as they passed the Tower. Horns sounded and drums pounded deathly rhythms. He rode hard, never looking back or around him.
He heard a hellish neigh behind him and glimpsed over his shoulder to see that same warrior had returned. “Hya, HYA!” he spurred Alarich more violently. The warrior shouted after him; “NO MAN SHALL CROSS!” he let out a bloodcurdling wail so loud it pierced Luke’s ears. He was a wraith! Luke held one side of his head, wincing and screaming, almost falling off Alarich. He held on tight and kept going as fast as he could.
They burst out of the thick fog and saw the other end of the bridge. There was a dirt road that went through a line of trees. “We can’t stop now!” he pressed on. The rider behind was sounding as if he were farther away now and never came out of the fog.
They finally ran off the bridge and into the trees. Luke could barely catch his breath. He quickly looked back to make sure they weren’t being followed anymore. When he was certain they were alone again, he let his head fall. He would never return to this bridge. Not even if he was demanded to go! He almost DIED!
He patted Alarich’s neck, “I’m so sorry boy. We’re safe now. We must continue! ...We’ll rest a little later,” he breathed. Alarich shook off and huffed.
They went ahead up the road.
These surroundings were peaceful; quiet and alive with wildlife–quite nice wildlife, in fact. There were rabbits, deer and colorful birds singing little songs. The great change in atmosphere completely blew him away. It’s like the gods were opening his mind to show what this world really is about.
Once he was out of the line of trees, he found a road and could see a tavern with a stable just past a cabbage patch garden. A slow smile graced his face. “Yes... We can rest there for a while.” They followed the road and he saw other travelers outside the building. A couple of them were leaving and others were going inside.
As they rode up to the place, Luke smiled at a man who had just finished helping another traveler with his horse. He dismounted Alarich and bowed his head at him. “Hello.”
“Hello there friend; welcome to Zeek’s Tavern!”
“Thank you. Are you the owner?”
“Why no, I’m not. My name is Ulysses. I deal with the horses. Mr. Zeek isn’t here at the moment. Talk to Melinda in there and she can help you with what you need.”
“Well, perhaps you could help me with my good friend Alarich, Ulysses.”
“It would be my pleasure.” He reached his hand out, “That’ll be 10 coin... stranger.” Luke’s face went blank for a second, then he gently took some his parents’ money from the bag and gave him the correct amount. “My name is Luke.”
“Well Luke, let me get to your companion now.” Ulysses took Alarich’s reins and guided him away. Luke could tell the horse didn’t quite like that man. He wasn’t sure why either. Maybe that horse is just moody.
He turned and walked into the tavern with a more confident stroll. What he experienced not too long ago made him feel close to a legend. Yeah, a legend...
He saw a bigger woman with wavy dark hair behind the bar counter serving drunken, exhausted men either laughing with each other or nearly falling out of their chairs. The rest of the room was bustling too. If places could have multiple personalities, this was one of them; it was beautiful and quiet on the outside, but noisy and dirty on the inside. And there was a little strange, obnoxious creature running around mimicking everyone that spoke to it. It looked like a skeletal rat on two legs wearing red oversized, hooded mage robes. What an interesting voice it had too. It was ruff and small.
Luke swerved around the people in the room, avoiding the creature, and approached the counter. The woman was annoyed, clearly staring past everyone as she poured their drinks.
“Excuse me... Melinda?” he said. Her bright hazel eyes shot at him. It was intense and very uncomfortable. He cleared his throat, braving up. “I would like a tad bit of Ale and a warm bath, please.” She threw a towel over her shoulder and folded her arms, “We don’t have any Ale little man. But we do have baths, lucky for you. They’re not very warm though.” She had a deep, deep voice–like a man’s voice. He was taken aback at first.
“Well,” he said, “do you have anything that’s not too strong?”
“Sure. We have northern elf mead. Just got a new shipment of it, actually.”
“Oh... How much is it?” He’s never heard of this kind of drink. She looked him up and down, “It’s on the house.” She bent down to get the bottle. He rested his arm on the counter, glancing back at the creature wandering from table to table. At one of those tables, a man jumped up and threw his mug down near it, “I SAID SHUT UP!” The creature squeaked and made a beeline away from him.
Unconsciously, Luke placed his hand over the handle of his sword. Melinda rose from the counter, pouring his drink, and she shouted at that angry man; “HAAAANK!” He blinked quickly at her. She pointed, “SIT DOWN!” He slowly sat back down. Luke was surprised, yet remained silent, and his hand slipped off his sword.
Melinda looked back to him without moving a muscle. “There’s your drink. And there’s a vacant bathroom in the back. The bath will cost you 30coin. Pay when you’re finished with the drink.” She gestured to the right side of the room at a door, “The bathroom.” He bowed his head, grabbing his drink and raising it in thanks. “I greatly appreciate this.” She nodded almost sarcastically and walked to the other end of the counter.
As he brought the mug up to his lips, he watched her shake the arm of a sleeping traveler down there. He was dressed differently than everyone else. He had a big hat, a long black flowing cape and some big dark boots too. She seemed to be nicer to him–quieter as well. He woke, stood up from the stool, tipped his hat to her and walked out the door. The little rat-like creature chased after him. It must be a pet or apprentice of some sort. Luke took his first sip and instantly wanted to barf. Putting the mug down, he struggled to swallow down the rest of the mead and hit his chest a few times as he coughed. A hand grabbed his shoulder firmly.
He looked up and saw an older man boring his grey eyes into his. “You crossed the path of the wraiths... How did you survive?”
“What?” He said. Who was this man and how did he know that?
“I can feel death... that’s what wraiths are. You my friend... have recently encountered those things. They find places where the worst of the worst battles have taken place and entrap the lingering tortured souls for hundreds of years, thus creating phantoms. Wraiths are similar to guardians, but they are some of the fiercest beings in the world. Any man that crosses their path... dies. You survived. Why?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Luke slowly said, reaching into the bag and handing Melinda 30coin.
“They let you live!” The man said as Luke got up from his chair.
“Look Sam, you old hag—that young man right there wants to go take a bath; either you leave him alone or I’ll boot you outta here m’self!” Melinda said. The man glared and grumbled at her, moving away from Luke. The way this woman treated everyone and how she took control, it must have meant she was related to Mr. Zeek somehow. Maybe...
Luke dipped his head at her and followed her directions to the bathroom, all the while thinking about what that man told him. If what he said was true, how DID he survive? Why would they let him live? Maybe that wraith he fought was just... stupid. Or maybe he couldn’t escape the fog. Sure seemed like it.
He opened the door and saw the wooden tub half full, and a huge pot of boiling water nearby. There was a bucket next to it and plaque on the wall that instructed to use the boiling water to warm the bath. He scratched his head, “Well... alright.” He never saw that before. When he returned home, he would definitely have to tell his family about this.
He tested the water in the tub and thought about all the people that have used it. How many were ill, or had infections? How often is it cleaned? How long would it be before he could take another bath? He couldn’t afford to get sick. He needed to be strong and healthy. Sadly, he turned away and left the room.
Back in the main room, he saw Melinda cleaning a table and picking up her tip. He walked over to her and said, “Where is the nearest creek?” She stopped what she was doing. “You don’t want to use our bathroom?”
“No ma’am... I’m sorry.”
“We don’t do refunds.”
“That’s fine. Consider that 30coin as payment for the drink. Please, where is the nearest creek?”
“Take the road north from here; up the hill you should find Song Creek.”
“Thank you.” He reached to shake hands with her. It was a strange gesture to her, but she did it anyway.
As he went to the exit, she said, “Beware of the-” He looked back at her, unable to understand everything she was saying; the people around were too loud. He raised his hand, “Thank you again Melinda! May the gods bless your soul!” Her shoulders slumped in disappointment.
He went out to the stable and found Ulysses brushing Alarich’s hair. ‘I guess everyone loves that horse.’ He thought to himself. Well, he is some kind of special after all.
“Thank you Ulysses,” he said while opening his hand for the brush, “we are leaving now.” Ulysses gave it to him and patted Alarich, “He’s a very good and beautiful horse.”
“Thanks...” Luke said, putting the brush away and then taking the reins. Alarich seemed to be enjoying himself. However, at the last minute, he became annoyed.
After leading Alarich out of the stable, Luke mounted him and nodded finally at Ulysses, “Thank you for your service sir.”
“My pleasure.” The man didn’t expect such kind, respectful words; they made him smile.
Luke looked on and clicked his teeth twice. They started moving and got back on the road. All the while, the last thing Melinda said echoed on and off in his head. It was a warning. What could be worse than what he’s already been through? How could it be worse? Really, how has he made it this far? Were the gods smiling down on him or was he just lucky? He never wanted to cross that bridge again; from this point on, he was going to name it Hell’s portal. He was seeing things that needed to be stopped; those poor people in the valley needed to be set free somehow, and something told him the fog around Bleeding Tower could somehow be cleared, and the grounds, cleansed; maybe if he could do that, the phantoms would be released from purgatory and the wraiths would possibly be defeated. He wanted to save them all. But he couldn’t–Not then.
By this time, he and Alarich were going uphill. There was a fence on both sides of the road and they were entering another mini forest. There was a sort of magical feel in the air; it felt something like stepping into another world; one where everything was innocent and never knew evil. How would that be possible? The farther they went, things continued to feel more and more this way. He heard the creek off to the right back in the cluster of trees. Was there a portal out here somewhere? Is that why this forest had an otherworldly vibe to it? He knew one could easily tell when there is a portal nearby; they had magnetic pulls. Some have said there are portals that pull you in and never let you go. He listened more intently as he steered them in the direction of the creek. Only tweeting birds, buzzing, clicking insects and wind blowing through the trees filled the area. There were also some wildlife walking around, but he wasn’t really concerned about any of these things.
He slowed Alarich down as they approached the creek and he instantly felt a peaceful, relaxing feeling around his heart; a Zen feeling warming him from the inside out. Whatever gave him that, it was extremely confusing for him to try and understand, but it was so good... he wanted it to last forever.
The water was clean and glistening, flowing smoothly over and around the rocks. A little to the east, the creek dipped down into a deep pond that had fish of different sizes in it. The sun peeked through the tree canopy down onto the water’s surface, seeming to make it shine more. That’s when he noticed about four holes in the pond’s floor. “Whoa... That’s odd... I wonder what are in those.” He dismounted Alarich and walked to the creek to take a look. They were just holes. Maybe whatever made them had left. He hoped he was right about that.
Making an assuming face, he took his belt, cape and the bag off. Pulling his vest and shirt up, he smirked and told Alarich, “You might want to turn your head or something.” When he glanced back, he saw Alarich had walked away to eat some grass. That bratty horse... He rolled his eyes and got back to undressing himself.
As he was unbuckling his pants, he heard female giggling and water splashing. He paused, slowly looking at the pond. There was a half nude woman with a fish tail watching him. A mermaid!-Smiling bashfully and waving at him! Wow, she was beautiful too... She had long curly ginger hair and sparkly pale skin, bright hazel eyes, heart-shaped red lips and a long narrow face. He closed his mouth and finally blinked. Never before had he seen such... extraordinary... beauty...
"Come–come to my party...” she beckoned him with a finger, winking and batting her eyes. Entranced, he slowly walked to her. “...What sort of party?” She giggled more, never answering. He stepped into the pond with a fascinated smile. She took his hand and started pulling him closer. “We must go down.”
“Wha- what’s your name?”
“Penelope,” she tapped his nose and smiled almost devilishly.
“Ho- oh!” he blushed.
She laughed again and yanked him down into the water, into one of the holes. He panicked as they traveled farther in. Everything was pitch-black and seemed to have no end. They dashed through the tunnel and suddenly, he saw her skin emit a yellow glow, lighting the way. Before he knew it, they entered a giant dark room with many other mermaids down below glowing yellow. “This will help you.” he heard Penelope say, then he felt her brush her hand down his side. There was a pinch at first, and he quickly looked down to see his skin was tearing open in three parts. “Breathe!” She said as he cried out and started jerking in pain, struggling to hold his breath. She took his chin and said, “Open your mouth–breathe in!” He shook his head worriedly at her, but her captivating eyes drew him in, making him somehow believe in what she was saying.
He took in a deep breath. Water filled his lungs and his organs felt like they were going into hyper-drive. He panicked, frantically searching for the exit. He took in another larger bit of water. The sensation was changing; he thought he was in pain, but he was actually adapting. He looked at her in amazement, then down at everyone else grinning flirtatiously at him. She gently squeezed his arm and smiled, “You can breathe.” He could only watch how she looked at him with such admiration. Delicately, he touched a finger to her cheek and held it there as he drank in her kind, beautiful features. She so much resembled a goddess... She had to have been sent from the gods.
But just then, something caught his attention; he saw in one corner, a mermaid had a man slumped over her lap; she was biting into his arm. There were other mermaids around her too. His eyes grew huge. She had shark teeth and her hair was moving like wild snakes. Some of the other mermaids were getting antsy–They were hungry. He quickly looked back to Penelope and jerked away from her. She growled, opening her mouth and revealing her jagged, razor-sharp teeth. She had changed dramatically. She was a MONSTER! He screamed and punched her in the ribs, then frantically tried to swim away. She shouted a hellish sound after him, lunging forward and grabbing his ankle. He kicked at her hands and face and pushed off her. He could see the exit up there illuminated by the glow the mermaids had. They were all hissing up at him as he raced to the tunnel and disappeared into its darkness. Penelope chased him inside, but never thought to look at the little holes in the walls or behind her.
He watched her swim past him and then carefully moved out of one of the holes. She wasn’t moving too fast; she could’ve turned back at any time and found him. But she kept going.
He followed her back to the entrance and waited just inside the tunnel as she hurried up to the surface. The big splash she made was a perfect distraction. He jumped up behind her and wrapped his arms around her neck, yanking her against him. She screeched, losing balance and fell back, taking him with her.
As they fought underwater, he could feel Alarich running up, calling after him. He shouted in his mind ‘No Alarich! Stay back!’ The horse was going to come and fight back, and he was going to die.
Penelope tried to bite him and he punched her in the face twice, breaking her nose and a few teeth. She screamed again and scratched and pulled his hair, making him cry out. He snatched her wrist and snapped it, then shoved his palm into her esophagus, letting out a louder, stronger shout. She instantly stopped fighting and held her neck with a worried look. He kicked her hard in the chest, sending her down into the sandy floor, and he leapt to the surface of the pond before the sand cloud could swallow him.
The moment he burst through, he let out a loud, desperate gasp for air. A few silent, tense seconds passed as he heavily breathed in and out. He listened only to his pounding heartbeat. And he climbed out of the pond.
As he lay there on the ground, all he could think of was the light leaving Penelope’s eyes. It all happened so fast. One minute, he was under her spell, and the next–He was killing her. The last thing he remembered doing was jumping up behind her. The rest... Gods, he could barely make sense of it.
He slowly looked over at Alarich nervously sidestepping in concern. “Alarich...” he raised his hand at him, “I’m fine...” he let his hand fall and then he looked up at the trees. “...I took a bath.” He wiped his face and sat up. “A really enthusiastic bath.” With a grunt, he stood up and went over to gather his things. Alarich was quietly observing him as he meticulously put everything away and grabbed some fresh clothes.
“Don’t worry boy. It’s ok—really.” He assured, but then he felt something very strange and uncomfortable. His eyebrows came together as he glanced at Alarich again. Suddenly, he lurched forward with a pained gasp and placed his shaking hand over the gills in his sides. His skin was stitching itself back together; the gills were slowly disappearing. He fell to his knees, fearfully watching it happen. There was a severe burning sensation in his lungs that made him start screaming so loudly it cracked his voice, taking nearly all the air out of him. He fell on his side, curling into a ball, crying and yelling. Alarich jumped up on his hind legs and neighed for help many times. He quickly knelt beside him, pushing his muzzle into his shoulder. Luke took a fistful of his hair, squeezing it tightly. “Alarich- Go find HELP! AHHH!!!” He rolled over on his side. It was too much; he couldn’t bear the pain anymore. It took the energy right out of him. Alarich let out another neigh and ran off.