We followed a winding river upstream, treading deeper into the darkened woods. Cold mud sloshed between our toes with every step, as scattered rays of the morning sun streamed between the trees. Tall as skyscrapers, they made the ones back home look like shrubs. Each rested on enormous multi-prong stool-like legs, creating shaded dens underneath.
“It wasn't supposed to, not like this.” She steered us with a slight limp, a blank look in her eyes, occasionally inspecting our hands and arms with an odd smile.
“Hello?” I waved my hand at her. This can’t be Earth. The last moments escaped me, distant and foggy, much like all the memories from my previous life. Perhaps due to the death, the time in the darkness, and being implanted in an alien body? I was uncertain what to make of all that had transpired.
“It can't be ...” A worrying smirk marred her face as she mumbled to herself. “It must be a dream. That’s all it is. It's only-” She glanced my way, then recoiled. “A nightmare.”
“This isn't the afterlife?” The surroundings weren't heavenly, including her -- a demon, or a fiend. No lava or brimstone, and the snow on the ground was atypical for hell. A frozen hell?
Chewing her lip, she took a deep breath and spoke with a trembling voice. “W-Who are you?”
“Kevin, and you are?”
“Kev-een?” she said. “What a ... what an odd name.” She ran a hand through her bird’s nest hair. “I'm ... I'm Estra. Are you from the South?”
“South? No, north. Maine.”
“Never heard of Maine. Did we meet at the Academy?“ She cocked her head.
I shook my head. “Where am I?”
“Lancaster?” she said it slowly, in an uncertain tone.
"Is that a town?” I lifted a single eyebrow.
"No, the kingdom of Lancaster."
This was unreal. I never heard of such a kingdom. I took a deep breath and gathered my wits. Nasty demonic rats, magical [Fireballs], colossal trees, and this troll. Alright Kevin, what would uncle Bob say? No, not that, thank you. And not that either, it wouldn't help this time. He'd say 'Kansas went bye bye.' He loved cliches.
“What’s going on here? Why are we,” I gestured toward our two heads on top of the common shoulder. “How are we attached like this?”
She opened her mouth to respond, but left it hanging open. Her eyes narrowed. “Argh. I shall murder him.” Her voice quivered.
“My ... My brother. Now he’s done it,” she said. “We need to go back. I have to fix this.” We turned around. I brought us to a standstill.
She whipped her head over to me. "What are you doing?"
"What did he do? Explain. You said you can fix this situation?”
"Look, I do not know about your situation-" she glanced at our shoulder, "-but I must speak with my father.” She pointed back the way we came.
“Do you mean the place with the rats?”
Her face froze, she mouthed a silent curse. “Argh. The guards would kill us." She sighed and cursed again. Staring ahead, nostrils flaring, she snapped back to me. "How do I look?"
“Ahh.” How do I put this gently? “Umm … not … good.” I touched my face -- bigger, like wearing a mask, and very much unlike the face I knew. I ran my tongue across my teeth, and it was like licking a gearbox. I described her facial features to her, down to the hairy wart. She listened and her sniffles build up, she covered her mouth, until at last she completely broke down into tears.
“So, you’re not supposed to look like an ogre?”
“No. Of course not!” she said through her sobbing and kicked at the ground, stumping our toes into a knobby root.
I grunted in pain, and Estra scrunched her face. It brought to mind all the soreness and pain. “We share the pain too,” I said.
She lifted her arm and the hand glowed green. The light migrated into the body, dissipating, taking away the pain down my back, shoulder, and right leg.
“The hell was that?” I asked.
“A healing spell, obviously.” Within minutes, all the pain, blisters, and cuts vanished, leaving pink scars.
“That’s interesting. What other magic can you do?” I asked, but she gave a slight smirk without an answer. “Fine. Where can we go? It’s getting late.”
She scratched her chin, her hand recoiling when she got to her tusks. “Honestly, did my brother put you up to this?”
I shook my head. “What? I don’t even know your brother. I don't know what happened. I don't think I'm ... from this world.”
She stared at me for a long moment, before speaking, “We need to follow the river northward. We'll be safe from the Gloom inside a cave."
"The what?" I raised my eyebrows.
"The Gray mountain range." She pointed in the direction we had been heading, upriver. "We need to hurry. We have to reach them before it gets dark."
"No, what's a Gloom?"
She gaped at me. "Are you serious? What kind of- No, we do not have time for this."
Her secrecy and distrust frustrated me, but I figured I'd trust her for now. She appeared to know about our predicament. Besides, I didn't have much of a choice and it wasn't like she could leave me stranded. With a bit of patience I'd get the answers I seek.
“Sounds like a plan. We’ll tackle this mess together. Alright?” I said and smiled to reassure her, hoping to gain a bit of trust. "Before that, we need to sort out our arm and leg situation. If we both try to control the same part, the body locks up. So, you get the left arm, and I get the right-"
"I get the legs," she said with an enthusiastic tone.
"Alright, but why were you walking us with a limp, and stumbling around so much?”
"I ..." The enthusiasm on her face vanished. She looked away and scoffed. "Fine, you do it." She threw her hand up, and looked away. I sighed.
I took over our legs and we hurried on in silence. The light gradually dimmed as we delved deeper into the colossal forest. Snow-covered ground gave way to a decaying spongy mat, producing a bouncy step. The high canopy above blocked much of the light, an earthy scent of decay permeated the foggy atmosphere, a muffling silence replaced the sharp whooshing of the wind.
An occasional loud blare echoed through the mist like a distant foghorn, making her look over her shoulder. I feared running into the creature -- or machine -- emitting such noise. Perhaps the Gloom she had mention?
Melted snow pelted down from the canopy high above us. The river dug through and around a maze of massive roots, big enough to form hills.
“Anything else that's dangerous out here? Maybe demons, or dragons?” I asked half-joking, and warily eyed the dark alcoves under the overground roots, apprehensive of beasts that may lurk beneath.
She flicked her hand upward, and a luminescent ball of light the size of an orange blinked into existence. It floated soundlessly alongside, the warm yellow glow produced a soothing candle-light vibe.
While it painted us as a bright target, it also lit up the surroundings. Whatever beasts infested this forest would see us coming, but we would see them in turn - Bob never liked surprises. Besides, we looked scary enough ourselves, or so I was gravely mistaken.
We hurried along for hours, only stopping to catch our breath or to stretch out a cramp. While taking a draught of cold mountain water, the woods became illuminated in a light-show. Overhead, the air filled with screeching, and in a span of seconds, a violent stream of kite-shaped creatures with flame lit wingtips rumbled through. Like a horizontal tornado of angry fireflies, they were in a pandemonium.
I was awestruck by the beautiful display.
A cold breeze followed in their wake, as if heralding a thunderstorm on a hot summer day. Our single ball of light flickered and dimmed. As if gravity had doubled, a deep darkness seeped in like an oppressive presence. I grew nauseous.
With panic stricken eyes, she hushed me to silence, flicked her fingers and the ball of light winked out into pitch darkness. We dropped to the ground. Freezing wind, carrying a stench of death flowed through. The ground quaked in dread, as if a jetliner roared above. I held my breath, and closed my eyes. The moments crawled by. Our body shivered, cold sweat peppered our skin.
Just as swiftly as it arrived, the wind vanished and the world turned silent. My head swam, and I panted for air. I opened my eyes and peeked up - it was as if nothing happened. We stood and looked around. The same twilight illuminated the area, nothing sinister remained in sight.
“Was that the Gloom?” I whispered.
“No ... but almost as bad.” She looked bewildered. “A titan chasing embers?” She muttered to herself.
“Nothing? That was a whole lot of something!”
"It's getting late. We cannot be here when it's dark."
"Why?" I asked, but she ignored me.