I stumbled through the underbrush, wondering where the hell Weijia was taking me. She’d set a pretty harsh pace, too. Moving across open ground, I’d have kept up with ease, but moving though the groundcover left me tripping and stumbling like a toddler learning to walk.
“Where are we going?” My breath leaped from my lungs in short, rapid bursts.
“My clan. The Shaman will be able to help you with the lichen on your stomach.”
I stopped. “You’re taking me to an enclave of trolls? Don’t they hate humans?”
She turned with a sigh. “No, Carter. I’m taking you to my tribe. We’re all half-bloods.”
I used the time she paused to catch up. “What’s the hurry?”
“Do you wish to be chained again?”
“Do bears speak Krogan?”
“The answer is no.”
“Then why not say so?”
I hung my head and resumed walking. “That’s what you get for trying to be poetic. Dumbass,” I muttered at myself.
“Did you say something?”
The tone of her question told me she hadn’t heard my mumbling. “No. How much further?”
“We’ll arrive near sunset. Can you keep up?”
“Sure. As soon as we get to a path, or something.”
“Paths would make it easier to track us.”
That didn’t make sense. “Wouldn’t one make it harder to follow us? Heavily travelled versus forcing a trail through the woods and all that.”
She glanced to the sky and then back the way we came. Turning to me, she shook her head. “The path will make it easier to track us, but we’ll move faster on it.”
A flock of birds exploded into the air, chirping and screeching. I looked to my right where they’d taken off from in time to see a couple trees collapse with crashing thuds. Without waiting for input from my companion, I turned and bolted in the opposite direction from the destruction.
I raced past trees and bushes. Hurtled a stream and ducked under a low hanging branch. The path was crossed without a thought. A sapling provided enough support to allow me to whip myself behind a boulder without slowing. A root, or rock, or something ended my running.
I belly flopped down an embankment. Dirt, leaves, twigs and other debris went down my shirt. I slid into a wide, yet shallow, brook. I was soaked, scraped up, and a lot cooler.
The water turned out to be rather refreshing. I lifted my face from it and cleared the liquid from my ears in time to catch the last of Weijia’s words.
“ —ter! Why did you run off?”
I blew water from my lips, trying not to think of what was upstream and pissing in as I lounged in the brook. “I ran from whatever was knocking down the trees.”
“Why? You’re the Walker of Worlds.”
“One, I don’t know how to use my powers, nor what they might be.” I stood and sluiced some water from my body. “Two, if it’s big enough to knock down growing trees, it’s big enough to run from.”
“But, you killed Belial.”
That should have been my first clue that Weijia wasn’t necessarily on my side, but the trembling aftereffects of my sprint and the breeze chilling me in my wet clothes caused that to pass by unremarked. I sloshed through the water and held out my hand. She helped me climb the slippery bank, and I pulled off my shirt. Holding it out between my hands, I spun it in a rope and then folded it over, twisted it more. Water squirted from the wrung out deer hide, but it remained damp.
I sighed and tossed it over my right shoulder. I noted her watching me closely, but thought nothing of it. “Please tell me I at least ran in the right direction and we’re now even closer to your clan.” She shook her head and pointed back the way we came. “Damn it.”
As it neared sunset, the surrounding woods grew thicker. The trees grew closer together and seemed to have distorted faces. ‘Pareidolia and an overactive imagination equals rough night sleeping tonight.’ The denseness caused a premature twilight to fall. As we hiked, I gradually became aware the noise of the forest became quieter.
The drumming of a woodpecker seemed to become the wail of a scared child. I stopped and listened intently, but only heard the hammer of the bird’s beak as it searched for insects. I scratched my head and then resumed walking.
A fog rose from the ground and rolled steadily through the woodlands. Indistinct whispers came to me on the breeze.
“Weijia, do you hear that?”
“Sounds like a group of people whispering nearby.”
We halted and she listened. After several minutes, she shook her head. “I don’t hear anything.”
I raised my eyebrow, but continued on. The ground became softer with each stride. It was like I trudged through mud. When I took my next step, my foot sank into something warm, wet and fetid. The rank odors of sour milk and rancid meat hit my nose. I recoiled from the sensation of squirming maggots around my ankles and fell to the forest floor.
My heart lurched when I discovered the earth was dry and nothing was on my foot.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“Are you okay, Carter?” Weijia came over and knelt beside me.
“Has anything seemed odd to you?”
She shook her head. “The fog may seem a little spooky if you’re not used to it, but all is normal.” She pushed to her feet and offered me her hand. “Come on. We’re not too much further away.”
I accepted the hand up and the apple she tossed to me. I bit into it with a crunch. I wondered where she’d found the red fruit. ‘Oh well. Doesn’t matter.’ The flesh was both sweet and tangy. It reminded me of a Winesap. I absently glanced down to take another huge bite and discovered bloody teeth with chunks of hairy skin. I launched the disgusting thing away with a cry and puked.
I coughed and spat, trying to clear my mouth of the horrid taste of vomit. I shrugged her hand off my back when she touched me.
Standing upright again, I pinned her with a glare. My body was hot. “What the fuck is wrong with you, woman?”
She backed up. “Carter?”
I closed the distance between us. “Why would you give me something like that?” Each of her steps backwards were answered by one forward from me until her back was against the trunk of a black walnut.
“Something like what?” Her voice was high. “Carter, what’s wrong?”
I pointed at the remnants of the apple I’d been eating. “That!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you don’t like apples.”
“Does that look like a fucking apple to you?”
“Are you kidding me?”
I was so close to her face and yelling so hard, flecks of spittle landed on her cheeks. She cried out and cringed away. “Whu-what did I do? Why’re you so mad at me all of a sudden?”
“Look. At. That.” I all but bit the words out as I jerked my finger at the discarded fruit.
Shivering, she turned her head to see what I pointed at. “I don’t know what you want me to see. It’s just a half-eaten apple.”
I whirled to pick it up and stopped in my tracks. The only thing on the path was an oddly lumpy red spheroid with rough white pieces exposed where I’d bitten pieces away. There was no sign of the teeth or the skin. “What the fuck is going on?”