After bushwhacking for a few minutes, Hannah and Roger came across a well worn footpath that ran through the trees. The sunlight filtered down and speckled the ground with leafy shadows. The loamy soil was covered with a layer of leaves dropped from the trees, and had a soft springy feeling beneath their feet.
“I like this forest,” Hannah said, trying to start up a conversation.
“It’s not bad. A little hotter than I would like, but the shade helps.”
“Yeah,” Hanna agreed, “So. The manor should be...” she paused, looking intently both up and down the path, “This… way.”
Her attitude didn’t exactly inspire Roger with confidence, but he set off in the direction she had pointed regardless.
Together they walked down the trail. It worked its ways through the woods, winding around rocky hills and dense thickets. The trail would sometimes skirt the edges of a wide wet meadow, and the occasional clearing let them know that the sun (or whatever the star this world orbited was called) was moving inexorably across the sky. Less and less sun reached the forest floor, and Roger and Hannah found themselves walking in twilight under the forest canopy.
“We should be coming to a fork in the road some time,” Hannah informed Roger, “On the map Esther showed me, the manor estate wasn’t too far after that.”
“Perfect,” Roger said between breaths, “My body’s killing me.” To be quite honest, Roger couldn’t remember the last time he had walked further than the distance between his computer and the refrigerator.
True enough, the two soon came upon the fork in the road that Hannah had mentioned. It was barely discernible in the gathering darkness, but there was just enough light left that they didn’t miss it.
“Ok, which way did Esther say to go?”
Hannah took a moment to respond, “Say what, now?”
“Which way,” Roger restated, “Which way did Esther say we should go?”
“Yeah, umm. Left! Probably.”
“Well, I don’t remember!” Hannah exclaimed before continuing quickly, “She had me look at a map that showed the area from above, and it all looked very different on a map, and then she said that it would be either left or right, but I don’t remember which one!” She hadn’t taken a single breath through the whole explanation.
Roger groaned. “So you’re just guessing?”
“Pretty much,” Hannah admitted.
“Ok.” Given that there were two choices, the odds were just as good or bad when it came to randomly choosing one of the forks. “Left it is then, I guess,”
After the first hour or so that they walked without arriving at the manor, Roger thought that perhaps it was just a little bit further on than Hannah had supposed. However, when darkness fell in the forest, Roger began to feel a sinking dread that they had taken the wrong turn.
“Hannah, we have to stop,” Roger said, “I can’t see a thing, I’m exhausted, and we have no idea what could be out there. It’d be better to try to find somewhere that we can sleep for the night.”
Looking up, they could see stars twinkling between the branches and leaves. Something that was not quite the moon glowed vaguely up in the sky without illuminating their path at all. Various night animals made their calls, so similar to the frogs, crickets, and cicadas that Roger had heard before, but with their own strange signature that reminded him that he wasn’t home any longer.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Hannah said, “I think I may have taken us the wrong way.”
Roger didn’t respond. To be quite honest he was pretty put out with the girl. His stomach was rumbling, his feet were probably a pile of blisters, and his hips wouldn’t stop hurting no matter how he stretched or flexed. He was properly miserable when he could have been a guest in some quaint medieval cottage or something. He was perfectly well annoyed with the whole situation.
They got off the road, found a patch of grass that seemed to have less roots and rocks in it, and laid down for the night. Hannah made a point of maintaining a very specific distance. Far enough that he didn’t have any ideas, but not so far that she felt lonely.
The warm night air was thick with the sounds of the night, and the darkness created a false closeness that made it easy to forget that they were lost in the woods. Hannah snored softly next to Roger, and he too soon fell asleep.
Roger awoke to a bright, dewy forest scene. The leafy canopy had kept the sun from reaching them until later in the day, so the early morning had already past. Roger sat up and stretched, Hannah was already up doing what appeared to be one of the many exercise movements that Roger was not familiar with.
“You sure are the chipper one,” Roger said through a veil of sleepy stupor.
“Bodies require maintenance. I don’t know how long I’m going to be stuck on probation, and I don’t want my body to break down before the end of it. Besides, I was bored. You sleep too much.”
“Also–and this is awkward–but a divine visitation woke me up to give me this.” She held up a small, rolled-up, piece of paper.
Roger waited expectantly for an explanation.
Hannah cleared her throat, “Well, see, it’s a written notice of angelic probation.”
Roger was not surprised. “Is it because you accidentally killed the wrong person?”
“Nah, we covered that one up nicely. Nobody will notice that,” Hannah said, “I’m in trouble because the last person I reaped fell in love with me.”
“How does that even happen?” Roger asked.
“I thought he was cute, so I decided to chat him up a little bit. I thought maybe… After I collected him…” Hannah started blushing and pushing leaves around with her feet.
“So you’re going to follow me around for now?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Wouldn’t you rather spend your time with your spirit friends?”
“That’s assuming I have friends,” Hannah said with more enthusiasm than Roger would expect, “besides, I don’t think I can go back. It looks like I’m confined to a physical body until my leave period ends.”
Roger had been suspicious before, but now it was confirmed. This girl was seriously dumb. He rolled his eyes widely while pushing himself to his feet. He didn’t feel particularly good. His lower back and hips were aching, his eyes felt sandy, and his mouth was completely dry. He also had a gnawing hunger in his gut that refused to be ignored, and a headache that he knew came from going too long without eating.
“How long has it been since we got here?”
“Something like twenty hours. Why?”
“I just haven’t eaten that whole time. Do you need to eat?”
“Oh yeah, that’s what this unpleasant feeling is,” Hannah said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to worry about that.”
His joints creaking and popping, he made his way back to the path. Hannah followed.
“So which way was the fork in the road?” Roger asked, “We should retrace our steps and try to find our way to that manor.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Hannah said, “Follow me!”
Hannah led them back out onto the trail again. After a while it started to broaden, and the forest became less thick. As the sun rose high into the sky, Roger had a realization.
“We’ve never been here before.”
“Yeah! This is a whole new world that neither of us has ever experienced. Isn’t it exciting?”
“No. I mean, we’ve never been on this specific part of the path before. We’re not retracing our steps at all. We’re still going the wrong way!”
They just stared at each other for longer than was comfortable. Hannah’s stomach rumbled.
“That’s starting to be pretty painful,” she confessed.
Roger slumped against a tree. “What are we supposed to do now? We’ve just spent all morning walking away from the place we were trying to get to. I’m so tired and sore, I don’t think I can just turn around and walk all the rest of the day without even knowing if we’ll find this place.”
“I guess we just keep going this way then?”
This is so stupid, Roger thought. He was astounded at how incompetent Hannah was proving to be.
“Sure. Sure, why not,” Roger said, his voice rising, “This whole thing has been a total cluster cuss ever since you killed me. Why should I expect it to ever get any better?”
Hannah traced something in the dirt with her toe. “I said I was sorry.”
Roger glared his most intimidating glare before standing up and continuing down the track again.
He hadn’t gone far when a young woman came running around a corner, her long brown ponytail streaming behind her. Roger only just managed to pivot out of her way, but was still hooked by the tip of the walking stick she was carrying. He spun limply to one side and collapsed onto the dusty trail.
“For all that’s holy,” the newcomer said, exasperated, before coming to a stop. She strode determinedly back to stand over Roger. “Get behind me,” she barked at Hannah.
“O-ok!” Hannah said, doing as she was told.
A moment later the sound of raucous voices could be heard talking boisterously while making various whooping calls. The newcomer took her staff in one hand, slamming it down into the path in front of her.
“Oir,” she began, inciting the name with a sense of reverence, “bless me with the strength to overcome.” She stood there, waiting for a few seconds, before glancing irritatedly toward the sky. Nothing in particular seemed to happen. “Now,” she added through clenched teeth, “please.”
Several short, squat, dusty colored, human-like creatures with horribly dry skin came tumbling into view. They each carried weapons with all different kinds of blades, and they looked at the young woman with wicked yellow eyes.
She stood there muttering to herself, her knuckles on the hand clutching her stick turning white. A long second passed as the creatures worked up the nerve to get closer.
“Now, please!” she repeated more urgently. Nothing happened.
The largest of the creatures chuckled to itself, and started walking menacingly toward her, blowing its long coarse hair out of its amber colored eyes. It lifted its sword up and chopped down toward her head as it approached. Nearly faster than the eye could follow, she deflected the blade with her staff while stepping out. The creature stumbled forward into the space that she had vacated, and she followed through with a blow to the back of its head with her staff. The creature fell in the dirt, causing a small puff of dust to pop up all around its body.
The other creatures all looked shocked for a moment. They stood around muttering to each other, trying to build up each other’s gumption. After a moment, they had regrouped, and rushed forward all together. She stood resolutely in their path, staff held in both hands. They ran toward her, swords, knives, and other various pointy things ready to make quick work of her.
Just as the first of them came within reach of her, there was a loud crack with a flash of blinding brilliance over their heads. All of the creatures toppled to the ground clutching their eyes or covering their ears. They lay there, stunned, before slowly rising while casting about fearful glances.
The young woman stood stiffly, blinking with eyes wide from surprise. She recovered more quickly than the little dusty creatures did, however, and dashed into the group, laying about with her stick.
“Go away, you vermin!” she shouted, as she brought her stick down on their backs and shoulders, “Get your filthy, ugly faces out of my life!
First one scrambled to get away, then a couple more, and a few seconds later the entire group of them had broken ranks. The young woman chased after them for a couple steps, but when none of them turned around to face her again she stopped. Slowly she panted the anger out and her tension evaporated. She walked over to where Hannah was squatting down next to Roger, her hands hovering over him in a feeble attempt to see if he was alright.
“Move,” the young woman barked before continuing more kindly, “I can help.”
“Sure,” was all Hannah had to say. She scooted back a few steps and rested her head on her knees.
The young woman grabbed Roger on either side of his head. “Be renewed by the blessing of Oir,” she prayed.
“Ow…” Roger moaned, “Ow. OW. OW, OW, OW! Stop it!” Roger sat bolt upright, nearly slamming his face into the newcomers head. She dodged back, releasing him at the same time.
“What were you doing to me? I felt like my brains were being trampled,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, “I’m… I’m sorry I knocked you out.” The apology didn’t sound very natural.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Hannah interjected, “but who are you?”
The young woman stood, and Roger and Hannah rose with her. “I am Ari the Chaste, Priestess of Oir, daughter of Lerol, daughter of Tanath who is descended from the storied clan of the Ferintars.” She was slender with light skin and deep green eyes. Her long thick ponytail reached down to the small of her back, and she wore a light dress with tight sleeves under a red surcoat that was snug and belted around her waist. She had a full looking pack slung over her shoulder.
“I’m Hannah,” she said with a little wave.
Ari stared at both of them, expecting them to continue. After a moment it became apparent that they wouldn’t.
“Nice to meet you Hannah and… Er-ar-hr-o-dz-ar,” Ari couldn’t seem to pronounce his name, “Hrothgar, is it?”
“Sure, why not.”
“Those names are strange to me. Are they southern?” she asked, making polite conversation.
“Well, I’m an angel of death, and he was hacked int-” Hannah began.
“What Hannah means,” Roger interrupted, “Is that we’re from very far away, and have been traveling for a long long time. We also need to eat very badly.”
“Yes, we do,” Hannah agreed earnestly, “Please, can you help us?”
“There is a manor with a village not too far away, but they aren’t the most hospitable people…” Ari considered the both of them, one at a time, “What exactly are you doing so far from your homes without food?”
“Fleeing from war,” Roger said at the same time that Hannah piped in saying, “Pilgrimage!”
We probably should have discussed our cover story before this happened, Roger thought.
“A pilgrimage, huh?” Ari asked. She looked past them into the distance for a moment, as though she was listening to something that neither of them could hear. “Yes, I know that,” Ari muttered to the air with an annoyed wave of her hand.
“You two are in luck,” she announced, her attention returning to them, “My idiot god, Oir, has decided that I have to help you or I’ll be in violation of my vows.”
“Really?” Hannah asked, very nearly clapping her hands and jumping up and down.
“Yeah,” she said, dropping her pack on the ground and opening it up, “Something about how I’m supposed to help people find their faith whenever possible or whatever.”
“I feel like that’s the kind of thing a priestess should know more about,” Roger said.
“I only became a priestess three days ago. So do you want something to eat or not?”
“Very yes, please,” Hannah said.
Roger nodded, feeling unsure about this priestess. Sure, it might be nice to have holy healing powers, and she’d demonstrated the ability to turn away evil. She didn’t seem very devout though, and that made him doubt her reliability.
The three of them sat in the grass beneath the shade of the trees, and ate a brief meal of crusty bread and smoked meat. After having not eaten for the better part of two days, it was the most wonderful meal Roger had ever experienced. Finishing, Ari packed her bag and resecured it on her shoulders.
“I’m making my way to the shrine of Oir’s chosen, Saint Haditheld,” she said, “Are you headed that way?”
“Yes,” Roger responded, not wanting to go anywhere that backpack with the food wasn’t, “It’s as good a direction as any. We’re really just making a tour of as many holy sites as possible, you know.”
“Sure. Anyway, let’s get going. I don’t want to be here in case those goblins pluck up the nerve to come back with the rest of their clan.”
Hannah and Roger fell into step behind Ari as she led them back into the forest that they had been wandering in all day. It should have made Roger feel like he’d wasted his whole day, going back the way he’d come. Instead he was satisfied with the food in his belly and with the idea that he had a place he was going.
“Just by way of fair warning,” Ari said over her shoulder, “I’m going to be moving fast, and not using the safest route. This will mean cutting through wild land. Can you handle that?”
“Of course,” Roger said, causing Hannah to give him a doubtful sidelong glance.
“Alright. You’ve been warned,” Ari said before returning her focus to walking.
Hannah continued to give Roger that same dubious look.
“What’s with the face?”
“Oh nothing. Luckily there are no parking garages around here.”