Days turned into weeks. The daily routine was set and together Raven and Inga lived quiet, peaceful lives in their small city apartment – or at least as peaceful as one can hope after suffering such a great childhood trauma as they had. Every so often, nightmares would plague the girls, and not always when they were asleep, but they had each other and somehow they made it through every time. For Raven, the odd feeling that she was missing something important persisted, albeit sometimes stronger than others. Usually, it would hit her the strongest when she was physically active, but also at night, when she was trying to fall asleep – she never felt entirely safe in her own bed.
Still, life was calm. Life was . . . easy.
It was a normal morning after a particularly restless night that an unexpected knock at the door broke the established breakfast routine. Raven’s body twitched slightly at the sudden sound, but Inga smiled and went to the door. Before Raven could stop her, the petite girl opened it and squealed with delighted surprise when she saw whoever was at the other side of the door.
“Ash! It’s you!”
Raven got up from the table and moved into the hallway just in time to see Inga throw herself into the arms of a dark-haired man wearing a green T-shirt and military khakis. The man laughed and rubbed the top of Inga’s head gently.
“It’s been a while.”
“A while?” Inga pushed herself away. “You call two years a while?”
“Don’t blame him, he’s a free spirit.” A tall girl with pink-dyed hair appeared in the doorway, popping her head over the man’s shoulder.
Raven stared at the pair, frowning. She knew these two – Ash was a fellow former abductee and Eliza his girlfriend – but her memories didn’t seem to fit very well.
“Hi Raven,” Ash greeted with a sloppy salute. “How’s my number one pal doing? The stunt gig working out for ya?”
For a moment, Raven blanked. In front of her eyes, blazing flames engulfed a dark sky as a desperate wailing pierced her ears. The scent of burning flesh was so strong that it stung her eyes.
“Raven, did you hear him?”
An unexpected tap on her shoulder caused Raven to jump backwards, a kitchen knife already in her hand.
“Whoa, whoa, easy there!” Ash quickly moved in between Eliza and Raven, holding up his own hands defensively. “She didn’t mean to surprise you.”
Inga smiled softly as she moved to Raven’s side and pried the knife away from her. “Everything’s fine,” she whispered repeatedly to Raven before she turned to Eliza and Ash. “Don’t worry about it, you two. Raven’s has just been a bit jumpier than usual since she got a new stunt role. It keeps her on edge.”
“Sorry,” Raven muttered and scratched the back of her head in embarrassment, but her hand suddenly paused halfway through the motion, feeling slightly confused – why did her reaction seem so familiar? She had no time to stay dazed, however, because Eliza had moved to her side again, this time being overly obvious as she moved in for a hug. Raven couldn’t be taken by surprise even if she wanted to this time around.
“So,” Inga broke the silence. “What brings us the joy? I doubt the two of you are here simply to say hello.”
“Ouch, not even offering a cup of your famous hot chocolate before jumping straight to business?” Eliza backed away from Raven and pounced on Ash instead. She playfully forced his facial muscles into a pout that she mirrored herself. “We’re hurt.”
Ash was clearly not amused, but both Inga and Eliza were quick to break out in giggles, while Raven actually smiled slightly, too. Without protest, Inga led them all back to the kitchen, and with the warm chocolate beverage in his hands, Ash started explaining why they were there.
“As you know, Eliza and I have been working as bounty hunters for quite some time now.”
“Four years,” Eliza added promptly, causing Ash to roll his eyes.
“Anyway, so far we’ve picked easy targets, nothing too challenging. Just recently, though, this job came in.” Ash pulled out a palm-sized tablet and handed it to Raven. She skimmed the contents presented and her brows rose in surprise.
“Locate an S-grade felon who escaped into the Dark Forest? Payment in gold?”
“It’s a good job, no?” Eliza’s eyes shone. “20 kilos, Raven. 20 kilos!”
Raven tossed down the tablet on the table. “Too little.”
Ash chuckled. “I know it’s a bit on the cheap side, all things considered, but we have an advantage over others in that place, and with all of us it wouldn’t be that hard of a job.”
“Yeah!” Eliza chimed in, smacking Ash on his shoulder. “Besides, isn’t it about time for you and Inga to have a bit of an adventure with us?”
“Ha ha, count me out,” Inga laughed. “I haven’t kept in shape at all; I would only slow you down. Raven, though. . .” The girl paused and looked over at Raven. “You should go. The fresh air will do you good, and we could use the extra money.”
“But the filming-. . .” Raven hesitated and Inga didn’t let the opportunity pass. “-is no problem,” she filled in. “You have a break coming up anyway.”
Raven was silent for a moment. She was indeed set for a month’s vacation starting a week later, but to go hunting down felons in the Dark Forest? It wasn’t exactly what most people would call a holiday. Raven was about to decline the invitation when blurry images of a forest clearing flashed through her mind. The smell of blood and gunpowder lingered in her nose a while after the image had passed. Raven frowned. She was getting tired of all these weird visions. Perhaps a trip to the forest would help her straighten everything out.
“Fine, I agree.”
It took almost a month for the new-formed trio to journey into the Dark Forest and locate their target. The forest was enormous, the entire body covering almost five percent of the planet; there were plenty of areas that had yet to be fully explored. If not for the fact that Raven and Ash had trained there as kids, and therefore knew which areas were suited to hide out in, they would most likely never have stood a chance of locating the missing felon – much less get there safely.
They had fought their way in, facing humans and wild beats alike; sometimes they would sneak by their opponents, other times force their way through. When they finally found their target, immobilizing him while taking out his goons had almost been more than the trio could handle, but in the end they had succeeded with only minor injuries. They had transported their captive to the nearest forest outpost and claimed the token for their reward.
For Raven, the journey had been exhilarating. Every day’s challenges and occasional near-death experiences had made her feel oddly liberated.
Now, Raven found herself sitting on a large boulder at the edge of the Dark Forest. It was only a few hundred meters in, but even here the woods lived up to their name. Only the most stubborn rays of morning light managed to fight their way down through the thick foliage, leaving small specks of light on the otherwise dark forest floor. A few songbirds braved the dangers of the darkness and twittered to each other in bright yet melancholic tones. Raven listened absentmindedly to their song. Further in there had been no birds – at least no songbirds.
As she sat there in silence, Raven thought back on her time since she left the city and couldn’t help but feel conflicted. On the one hand, back there Raven had a calm and stable life. Together with Inga she was slowly healing and becoming . . . more normal. On the other hand, out here, Raven felt . . . alive. Every day she could go wherever she wanted and challenge what or whomever she wanted. Raven wasn’t normal here, but she was herself.
Then again, that odd feeling that she was forgetting something only grew stronger with every passing day. Sometimes, Raven could swear she heard someone calling to her in her dreams, but there was never anyone there when she woke up.
Raven sighed and glanced over her shoulder. With her mouth twitching slightly, Raven stretched her arms out and yawned. In the next heartbeat, she shifted her hips and effortlessly grabbed the two hands that had appeared where Raven’s shoulders used to be. With a light tug, Eliza’s body was pulled out and flew forward, nearly somersaulting into the closest tree.
“Damn it!” Eliza swore as she got to her feet. “Why can’t I ever sneak up on you?”
“Because you’ve been taught by an oaf like Ash.” Raven flicked a pine cone off in between the trees and a muffled grunt quickly followed.
“Raven!” Ash stepped out from his hiding place, rubbing his forehead. “Was that really necessary?”
“Was ambushing me on such a fine morning necessary?”
“Actually,” a third and unexpected voice cut in, “it was.”
Raven spun her head around just in time to see Inga’s blonde curls bouncing towards her as the girl attacked her with a surprise hug.
“Ash might still not hold a candle to you, but I’m glad to see I haven’t completely lost my touch.” Inga giggled and tightened her hug.
“Inga?” Raven felt confused. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, it’s been a month since you left and Ash informed me that the job was done – thank you for letting your friend know, by the way.” Inga glared at Raven accusingly for a brief moment. “So, I figured I’d join you for a few days, for old times’ sake.” She smiled. “Besides, I’m afraid you might not come back if I don’t come and get you.”
Inga poked Raven’s shoulder jokingly, but there was a seriousness in her eyes that Raven couldn’t miss. The girl was genuinely worried.
A lump formed in Raven’s throat. Did she want to go back?
“Actually,” Eliza cut in, looking a bit guilty, “Ash and I were kinda hoping you would join us, more permanently that is. Weren’t we, Ash?”
Ash hesitated for a moment but nodded in the end.
“You did enjoy your time with us, right?” Eliza added. “You need the adventure, right?”
The sound of the surrounding songbirds seemed to die away, as Inga tugged at Raven’s clothes.
“Raven, won’t you return home with me? It’s the calm and normal life we always dreamed of.”
The few rays of light in forest seemed to fade, sinking Raven into seemingly perpetual darkness. She sat alone in nothing. Far to her right stood Inga, arms open wide and eyes filled with sisterly love; far to the left stood Ash and Eliza, brave, energetic and ready for adventure.
Raven knew then that she had to make a choice: stability or freedom.
Feeling torn, Raven looked back and forth between her friends. What Eliza said was true, she liked the thrill of journeying the world as she wanted, hunting whomever she wanted. But with Inga, Raven felt good – at peace – and she could feel that, with time, she would heal together with her. That wouldn’t happen with Ash and Eliza. With them, every day reminded her of the skills she had been forced to learn as a child and exactly how deadly they had made her.
The more she thought about it, the more confused Raven felt. She barely noticed the splitting headache that grew more intense with every passing second.
‘What should I choose?’ Raven repeated over and over in her mind. ‘What is the right choice?’
Could she really have a stable life with Inga? Would she find freedom with Ash and Eliza? Suddenly Raven wasn’t so sure. The images of her past and present started to blur, and memories she didn’t know she had surfaced instead. She saw tall city skyscrapers and ancient wooden houses; guns lining the walls of an armory and people fighting with metal swords; children killing each other to survive and a loving mother cradling her daughter as she sung a soothing lullaby.
And blood. So much blood.
“Argh!” Raven screamed, the pain in her head finally breaking through the mesh of memories. Like a broken water dam, an odd yet familiar feeling surged through Raven’s body. As it passed, it filled her with strength, and once it reached her head, it quickly eased the stabbing pain. Savage rage and bloodlust assaulted her mind instead, threatening to devour her consciousness.
Still struggling for control, Raven pried open her eyes and was shocked by what she saw. Instead of darkness, Raven was surrounded by a sea of blood, the metallic stench suddenly overwhelming. It assailed her senses to the point where she could taste it as if she was drinking the stuff, and it didn’t matter that Raven tried holding her breath.
Standing further away, Inga, Ash and Eliza hadn’t moved, but blood was seeping out of a bullet wound in Inga’s chest, while Ash and Eliza were burnt to the point where only their difference in height made it possible to discern who was who. The sight paved way for a new pain, gripping Raven’s heart and leaving her gasping for breath.
“Why did you shoot?” Inga asked, her voice filled with hate. “You could have refused, like I did!”
‘No. . .’
“You betrayed us!” Eliza spat. “We trusted you, and you betrayed us!”
‘No. . .’
The two girls kept demanding justice, while Ash remained silent. His penetrating stare said everything that needed to be said, though, and his silence hurt Raven all the more. She crouched down, covering her ears and clamming her eyes shut.
“Raven.” A soft voice called through the chaos, unnoticed.
More images flashed by in Raven’s mind, memories of her true childhood that she had forgotten. The pain and torture; the never-ending contract with death; the small child who, unable to resist, could do nothing but embrace her fate.
The sea of blood around Raven churned. Large waves crashed against one another in mad chaos, threatening to swallow everything.
“Raven. It’s okay.”
“Why didn’t you do anything? We are dead because of you!”
“You are strong, Raven.”
‘No. . .’ Raven shook her head. “No!” she finally screamed out loud, forcing the regained power within her to move. Like a shockwave, spirit essence gushed out of Raven, slamming straight into the sea of blood.
For a second, the world froze.
And then everything shattered.