Gunfire pelted the police cruiser, adding to the cacophony of sounds that already filled the air. Sirens blared. People screamed. Angry gang members shouted at each other. The cruiser offered little shelter for the trapped police officers caught in the middle of a vicious gang war. The two officers watched anxiously as the detective tried to get through to the station.
"This isn't a fucking mugging, this is a god damn war!" the detective screamed over the gunfire, ducking as a stray bullet hit the brick wall behind the cruiser, showering the huddled officers with rubble. "I need a SWAT team here now!"
"Detective!" one of the officers said, getting the attention of the others. "Someone is trapped behind the dumpster!"
"Damn it!" the detective said, eyeing the young man squeezed behind the dumpster to avoid the crossfire. "We need SWAT!"
"I'll get him!" the young officer said, standing and taking a couple cover shots before darting out from behind the cruiser, crouching low to avoid the shots being fired at the gangs on either side of the abandoned park.
"Lindstrom! Get your ass back here!" Officer Lindstrom ignored the detective, determined to reach the trapped man and get him out of harm's way. It was clear from the detective's shouting that the SWAT team would not get there soon enough to save the poor man. Lindstrom made it the man, reaching out to take his arm.
"Come on, you can't stay here. I'll cover you, go!"
The man ran towards the cruiser, Lindstrom following, eyes up to take shots at any gang members that turned their way. The two reached the cruiser, diving behind it.
"That was stupid, Lindstrom. Don't disobey me again."
Lindstrom didn't answer. She was lying on the ground, half propped up against the wall, her hand on her side.
"Detective," she managed to grunt, eyes closed in pain. The detective looked around at her and swore loudly.
"Hold on," the detective said as Lindstrom felt her head swimming, blood seeping through the cracks in her fingers. "You'll be alright."
This was the last thing Karina Lindstrom heard before she blacked out.
She gasped loudly, eyes flying open as she sucked in a long breath of cool air. Karina fell back, eyes closing again, letting her breathing steady. It felt as if someone had just tried to suffocate her. It took a moment before her eyes snapped open once more. Something wasn't right.
She sat bolt upright, staring at the sky above her. But it wasn't sky. Green leaves hung across her field of vision. Pale golden beams of sunlight squeezed in between the leaves, making her blink at the brightness. As she took in this unexpected sight, her other senses began picking up additional oddities. The air was clean. There was no smog or trash smells in the air, just the sweet smell of growing things. Though, there appeared to be a fire nearby. The smog wasn't the only thing missing either. There were no sounds of traffic or crowds or, thankfully, gunfire. Only the sound of the wind through the trees, and the sound of a river flowing somewhere behind her.
Slowly, Karina looked around her. She was in the woods somewhere, alone in a mossy clearing. She was obviously not in Chicago. Or anywhere within a hundred miles of the city, judging by the peacefulness of the place. Something else was weird, too. She couldn't quite place it, but something was…different.
It was then that she caught sight of her own legs. As she started examining herself, she was surprised to find she was wearing only a light brown dress, no shoes or socks or, to her dismay, her gun holster. She was out in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but the thin dress she wore. Standing slowly, a feeling of pleasure ran up her body as she felt the soft moss between her toes. She liked nature, having grown up on a little farm in the American Midwest, but this sensation was new to her. It felt like she belonged there, not just in nature, but as a part of it.
Walking towards the sound of the river, hoping that it might give her some answers or at least give her a direction to go in, she gazed around at the surrounding trees. They were bigger than anything she had seen before. Some must be over a hundred years old. It was rare for trees to get that big when they could be used for lumber. She wasn't an expert on trees, but she didn't recognize some of the varieties she passed.
It took Karina much longer than she expected to reach the river. It should have been only a few hundred yards away, but she walked well over a mile to reach the bank. Curious.
Karina sat on the bank, looking around to try and figure out where she was. But there were no signs of civilization anywhere. She must be in a nature preserve or national park to have so much forest without any signs of development. How had she got to a nature preserve? Sighing, she glanced down at the water below her and did a double-take.
It was not her face that looked back at her in the water. Vaguely, perhaps, it resembled her own. Wavy dark brown hair, almost black, hung around her face, and her eyes were the same pale green she remembered. But her hair was thicker and longer than usual, and as she ran her fingers through it, it was much softer than she recalled. Her fingers were not even normal. Her skin was paler and softer, with no sign that she had broken her thumb when she was fourteen. Returning to her face, she looked closer, seeing her dark eyebrows thin and tidy, which she had not ever put effort into accomplishing on her own. Her eyelashes appeared naturally longer, and her nose was slightly smaller and more pointed. Her lips were fuller, her face narrower and cheekbones higher. How long had she been out? It looked like an expert plastic surgeon had done work on her, but had somehow left no scars. Her skin was absolutely flawless. No scars or traces of her lingering acne to speak of.
She was running her fingers across these new features when her eyes noticed something else. Something was wrong with her ears. Turning her head slightly to the side, she brushed her hair back, her lips parting in shock. Her once rounded ears had small, delicate points on the top. Realization hit her quickly. She had been transformed into an elf. But why the hell would anyone want her to look like an elf?
"What are you doing here?"
Standing and turning rapidly, Karina's eyes fell on three men standing in front of her in incredibly strange garb. They wore identical uniforms of golden armor, swords strapped to their waists and dark blue capes. Two had long dark brown hair, while one had golden yellow. It was this one that appeared to have spoken.
"I am sorry, I appear to be lost," Karina said quickly, her mind rapidly trying to get a grasp of the situation. None of her police training had prepared her for something like this. Was this a renaissance fair thing? She had never been one for dressing up in costumes, and she was a downright lousy actor. If they wanted her to do some renaissance fair act, it wasn't going to happen.
"Are you with King Gil-galad, or King Amdir and King Oropher?"
"I am sorry, what?" she said, gears whirling in her head. The names seemed familiar, but she couldn't remember why. Where they a famous troop? Her cousin was into the LARPing thing, perhaps he had mentioned them at some point.
"Are you with King Gil-galad, or King Amdir and King Oropher's army?"
"I am not with anyone's army," Karina said, convinced now this was a LARPing thing. "I was just in Chicago in the middle of a gang war over drug sales and I think I was shot. I woke up in this forest and I have no idea what is going on."
"I have never heard of Chicago," the man said with a frown. "But if you are not with the armies, why are you here? This is a dangerous place to be. The forces of Sauron patrol this region."
"Sauron?" she said, her mind clicking finally. "Is this a Lord of the Rings LARPing thing? Look, I don't do that fantasy role-playing stuff. I would just like to talk to whoever is in charge and get a ride back to Chicago. You don't have a phone on you, do you?"
"I am sorry, my lady, but I do not understand. What is "larping", and what is a "phone"?"
"Listen guys, I commend you on your dedication, but I really need to get back to Chicago. I have no idea how I got here in the first place, and I need answers."
"If you seek answers, perhaps King Gil-galad will have some," the man said, deciding he didn't want to listen to her anymore. Karina was sure she sounded absolutely crazy, and from the look on the faces watching her, they all thought she was a little mad.
"I certainly hope so," she said, letting them lead her through the trees to the southeast. As they walked in silence, Karina observed her companions. They weren't what she expected. Her cousin and his LARPing buddies all looked nerdy, either too fat or too skinny to be healthy. None of the men in front of her could be considered remotely nerdy looking. They were a bit pale, perhaps, but they had very fine features, and were clearly well-muscled beneath their armor. They had obviously put a lot of time and effort into their costumes. The armor and swords looked functional, and the fabric of their tunics and capes looked expensive. Apparently, her captors were elves as well. She noticed they too had pointed ears. They were very convincing. Though, since hers appeared real, perhaps these men had their own ears surgically altered as well. That was real dedication. And really insane, in her own opinion. Who in their right mind would do that to themselves?
"What is your name, my lady?" one of the "elves" said, falling back to walk beside her.
"That is a strange name," he said, one thin brown eyebrow arching as he looked at her with interest. "What tongue is that?"
"You mean what language? It's Swedish."
"I have never heard of Swedish, before. It is not elven?"
"Certainly not," she said with a laugh. "Why would it be elven?"
"You are an elf, are you not?" he asked. "You are far too fair to be of the race of men or dwarves. Unless perhaps you are half-elven?"
"Thank you for the compliment, but I am human. Though I don't know how, I am guessing some plastic surgeon did this to my ears. There is nothing magical or "elven" about me. I am an ordinary police officer from Chicago."
"You have a strange, vocabulary, my lady," the elf said confusion in his eyes. "But my eyes cannot be cheated. You are elven."
"Well if that is true, it is a new development. Before I somehow woke up in this forest, I was a human. A normal, mortal human."
As she said this last part, the memory of getting shot in the gang war returned. She was mortal. And she had been close to dying in that park. She laughed suddenly, making the elf beside her start and the two in front of her look around curiously.
"That must be it. I am unconscious and this is my mind making up a story to entertain myself before I die from blood loss. That explains the weird feeling, too. I am just dreaming. That must be it."
"I can assure you, this is real," the elf beside her said.
"It only seems real when you are in the dream. But now that I know I'm dreaming, I can control it." Karina stopped, thinking about how she wanted the elves to disappear and to have her dream take her to her childhood home instead. But as she stood there in deep concentration, the elves looking at her warily, not sure what to do with the delusional elf lady in front of them, nothing changed. No barn appeared; no windmill, no large lawn and big oak tree with a tire swing.
"My lady?" the blonde elf said after a while. "Can we continue now?"
"I don't understand," she said, confused. "This does not make any sense."
"You are not in a dream, my lady. Now if you will follow us, we will take you to the king. Perhaps he will know what to do."
Karina followed them with a frown. If this wasn't a dream, and it wasn't a LARPing event, then what had happened to her after she was shot? None of this made any sense. She now remembered where she had heard the name Gil-galad before. He was one of the elven Kings that had fought Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance. She had gone through the Lord of the Rings phase in high school, and had read all the books on the subject. The only explanation was that she was dreaming. Her brain had resurrected all that old knowledge to create a world for her to navigate as she recovered from her injury. But then why did everything seem so real? She had never had such a lucid dream before. And never had she had a dream that she could not control once she realized where she was. Something didn't add up.
She was deep in thought for quite a long time, trying to make sense of her situation. But she did not fail to notice the growing sounds of activity somewhere in front of them as they walked on. Eventually, they broke from the trees, and Karina paused in awe.
Laid out over miles in front of her were white tents and colorful banners flapping in the breeze. The sounds of chatter and metal filled the air, assailing her hearing, making her wince. Everything seemed amplified, from the blacksmith sharpening a sword nearby to the soldiers sitting in a ring, cooking and telling stories around the crackling fire. Just as she had heard the river from much farther away than she had anticipated, it seemed her senses were stronger here as well. The smells of fires and sweat and horses were strong, and she could clearly see the tents pitched over a mile away on a hillside.
"Come, King Gil-galad will wish to speak with you," the golden-haired elf said, gesturing for her to follow him. Karina complied, though her eyes wandered, taking in the sights of the camp. Everywhere around her were elves, busy cleaning armor or sharpening weapons. This was far too elaborate to be a simple LARPing endeavor. This was a real army preparing for battle.
It took almost half an hour for the group to navigate the camp to reach the royal tent. All along the way, Karina felt eyes watching her pass. She couldn't blame them. Everyone else was dressed in battle gear. She was dressed only in her thin gown, walking barefoot through the crowds of men. Well, male elves. She did notice a handful of female elves camped not far from the royal tents, dressed in their own style of armor. They watched the newcomer pass, whispering softly to each other in voices too quiet for Karina to hear, despite her heightened sense of hearing.
"Wait here," the golden-haired elf said, entering the largest, most elaborate tent they had seen so far. Karina held her hands behind her back, looking up at the two elves who remained beside her.
"I am sorry, I do not believe I asked your names."
"I am Aradae, my lady," the one she had spoken to before said with a smile and a nod of his head. "And this is Tirfen. Our leader is Captain Corulang."
"It is a pleasure to meet you both," Lindstrom said with a bow of her own head. "And do you think your king will be able to answer my questions?"
"If anyone can, it will be King Gil-galad," Aradae responded confidently. "He is the wisest of the Elven kings."
"I sincerely hope my situation is not so bizarre that none of them can provide me with any answers," Karina said, biting her lip as she did when nervous. "I can't imagine you have many humans turn into elves and drop in from other worlds."
"Not to the best of my knowledge," Aradae said pleasantly before falling silent. Though she still thought this whole situation was just a figment of her imagination or an elaborate hallucination, she couldn't help but feel nervous at the thought of meeting King Gil-galad. He was among the most famous of the elves in the Second Age, at least as far as she remembered from her reading, and she could not be sure of his temperament. Nor was she sure how he would react to her farfetched story of suddenly waking up outside his camp with a different body. If it were her listening to the story, she'd think either she was mad or a spy. Neither seemed too promising.