Luck was one twisted son of a bitch and when I met him one day, I was going to punch his lights out for doing this to me. All of this.
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes, staring at the dirty wall in front of me. Its coldness hadn’t helped me calm down and the sound of someone pacing behind me was making me even more agitated. On top of that, my goddamn powers refused to cooperate, no matter how desperately I called for them.
We were stranded in the worst place possible - Earth. Well, second worst, since it would have been even more problematic if we had ended up giving Hathan an unexpected visit. Then it really would have been the end of the line for us.
“I can’t do it! I don’t know how to do it! Nothing is happening!” I growled with annoyance, pushing myself off the wall and turning to look at Arden. He stood close behind me in case I somehow started glowing, but no matter how much I prayed or focused on reaching that mind space where the spark happened, it just felt like I was trying to push through the worst constipation in the world.
“It’s alright, you are just overwhelmed right now.” He said, his hand rubbing my back. I wanted to lash out at him for being so calm and understanding, but I bit my lip until the words went down my throat. This was my fault. I brought us here somehow and I couldn’t get us back, so he definitely didn’t deserve to be the target of my anger. “We should find you some clothes. It is quite chilly and you might catch a cold. Not to mention that this thing is almost transparent.”
And unsuitable for running or fighting, I thought as I looked down at the thin undershirt that reached the middle of my calves. We needed to find weapons too and a hideout. I needed to scout and see if anything had changed. Once I knew we were safe, I was going to spend more time trying to get us back.
I turned to face Arden, forcing myself to meet his eyes. One look full of blame or disappointment and I was going to lose it. This whole thing was a nightmare; I didn’t want to come back here when everything was finally going well back in Jernen.
“I…” I started, licking my lips when I felt his hand smooth my messy hair.
“I know.” He said, stepping closer and kissing the top of my head. How the hell was he this calm when he was just teleported to another world? When that first happened to me, I was confused as fuck and in full denial. And leaving this place behind was nothing to me while Jernen was everything to him… “We’ll get back somehow. Let’s find somewhere safe and we’ll figure everything out. From what I have heard of your world, being this exposed is dangerous.”
“Right.” I nodded, trying to stop the urge to hug him. As much as I wanted to hear ’It’s all going to be alright’ coming from his mouth, I couldn’t afford to rely on him right now. He was the one out-of-place, and he knew little of the dangers here. His looks were only going to make him stand out even more. Not to mention our clothing. It was actually better for me to be in just this thin underdress than wearing that damn ceremonial gown - I would have been like a beacon for all kinds of crazy.
“Let’s go,” I nodded, heading towards the roof door. I only hoped that damn thing would open since climbing down the walls or jumping over the roofs after the day I had was just going to be too much.
I turned the handle and pulled, sighing with relief as the metal budged. Its screech made me wince as I stepped inside the steep, dark corridor. I wasn’t entirely sure which building we had landed on, but the chances of it being empty in the very middle of the city were slim.
“Keep your eyes open,” I whispered, glancing at Arden. “If you see someone, punch them. Hard. Don’t bother asking questions or giving warnings. They might have weapons too so be careful.” I stopped at the last step and gave him a pointed look. “Do not try to protect me. This would only make us both vulnerable. I can handle my own. I just need a second to switch my brain to this place.”
Arden gave me a puzzled look but nodded, following closely behind. We exited the staircase leading to the roof, and I looked around, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. The building seemed like an old office space, but only piles of rubble and dust remained to keep the naked walls company. Everything looked relatively sturdy, so the chances of the floor or roof collapsing seemed small. The problem with that was that there was no way people left this place empty, even if it was just a short distance away from the closest Orion center.
I gave Arden a sign to follow, then tiptoed across the big, dark floor, wincing as small pebbles dug into my bare feet. All that time spent in the other world, it had made me soft. I wondered if I could survive in this place now, where one wrong move could easily be my last.
Just as the thought crossed my mind, the shadows shifted in front of me and I almost screamed. The only reason my voice didn’t fill the entire space with painful echo was thanks to the fact that I had no more air left in my lungs to shout. I hadn’t seen the thick pipe flying towards me and as it hit my chest, all I could hope was that the broken ribs wouldn’t pierce my organs. I knew I could heal from almost anything, but I didn’t really want to find out where ‘almost’ ended and ‘sayonara, life’ began.
I fell on my back with a grunt, my vision blurring as I struggled to catch my breath and shut out the pain. Another shadow stepped past me, moving to meet my attacker. A shout rang out, followed by a loud thud, and then Arden’s face came into view as he crouched by my side.
“Can you stand? I can hear more coming.” He asked. I gritted my teeth and pushed myself into a sitting position, groaning from the pain that was digging its nasty nails into my chest. Arden helped me to my feet, and I moved to take the lead. When he tried to argue, I raised my hand to stop him.
“I can heal a broken bone much quicker than you. We need to run.” I said, glancing at the bloody pipe he was now squeezing between his fingers. My eyes stopped on the guy that had attacked us - now lying on his face on the ground - and I turned my back on him, sprinting across the room.
I saw them then - at least half a dozen of them - keeping to the shadows of the supporting beams that were holding the ceiling up. I didn’t see any flashes, which meant they didn’t have guns, but there were too many of them to fight bare-handed.
“Run!” I yelled. I spun around and darted in the opposite direction, noticing with relief Arden catching up to me. Somebody shouted from the other end of the floor, but we had already reached the staircase. My feet were burning from slipping on stones and glass, but I couldn’t even afford to think about that.
We had gone two floors down already when voices coming from below made me look over the railing. A blast from a gun flew right past my face, the smell of burned hair tickling my nostrils.
“Back up, back up!” I shouted gingerly, pushing Arden back the way we had come from. We returned to the door on the floor we had just passed and I twisted its handle, growling with frustration when it didn’t open. I threw my shoulder against it, but it only screeched mournfully.
“Let me,” Arden said with a tense voice, catching my shoulder and pushing me aside. He took a couple of steps back and threw his entire weight against the door - the metal budged and almost fell off the hinges while he stumbled on the other side. I rushed after him, then we pushed the fallen unit that had been blocking ithe way back behind the door. Looking left and right to make sure we were alone, I grabbed on the fabric of my nightshirt and tore it to give my feet more freedom. I grabbed Arden’s hand and pulled him along just as somebody slammed into the door we had left behind.
The floor we ended up on was quiet, so the only sound came from our heavy steps and labored breathing. The banging from the other end suggested they were still struggling with the door, but that couldn’t last for much longer.
We had just crossed half of the floor when a figure jumped from behind a tall, rusty vending machine we were about to pass, brandishing a long, thick pipe. I ducked under it this time, but Arden wasn’t as lucky - instead, he raised his arm and just blocked it like it was nothing. I stepped forward and punched our attacker in the stomach, kicking under his feet and sending him flying to the ground. He dropped the pipe as he writhed, gasping for air, and I straddled him, pressing his own weapon against his throat so I could finish him off.
His fingers gripped the pipe, trying to push it off, but I was in a better position and so majorly pissed off that I could probably overpower a freaking Orion suit in that moment. Just a few seconds and he was going to be dead. Just a little more force and…
“R-R-Raven?” the man beneath me croaked, and my attention snapped to his face. Once I looked carefully at his features, it wasn’t hard to recognize him.
“Zhang?” I exclaimed, easing the pressure on his throat, but not removing the pipe. “What the hell?”
“I could… ask you the same… thing.” He said breathlessly, letting go of the pipe and raising his hands in surrender. “Where… have you been? No! You’re alive? We thought you were dead!”
“That’s a long story,” I murmured, pressing the pipe back to his neck. “Are you with them?”
“That’s also a… long story,” Zhang replied, lifting his chin to give himself more space to breathe. “But now that I know it’s you we’re chasing, I’ll… help. I can get you out.” His eyes darted towards where Arden was standing before returning to me. “Both of you.”
Before I could answer, a loud screech reverberated through the floor as a chorus of voices cursing and shouting filled the air with tension and threats.
I got to my feet, offering Zhang a hand. He took it hesitantly, rubbing his neck before giving us a sign to follow him. I shot Arden a glance, only to find him looking around with a frown. I had the same nagging feeling in my chest, but things were getting out of hand and Zhang was one of the few people I could actually trust in this world. No matter how strange it was for him to join a gang when he had resisted for so many years, I could get his story once we were safely out of there.
“Here, hide. I’ll distract them. Don’t make a sound!” Zhang instructed, stopping by a narrow door covered with graffiti and grime, and opening it for us. I stared at the darkness on the other end, listening for any noise suggesting the room wasn’t empty, when I felt his eyes on me. “I know it’s hard for you to trust me in this situation, but you have no choice. And no time. Now, Raven.”
I gritted my teeth and stepped through, looking around with my fists raised. Judging by the broken desk lying on its side and the disemboweled sofa, it must have been an office. There were no people inside and no other doors apart from the one we were stepping through, so at least he wasn’t walking us into an ambush.
Arden stepped in behind me, then the door closed with a click.
“Do you trust him?” Arden whispered, his eyes flashing in the dark. The calm look on his face was long gone, so I opened my mouth to reassure him that I did. The words refused to leave my lips, so we just stared at each other for a few long seconds.
“I don’t trust anybody,” I said instead, squeezing the pipe I had snatched from Zhang. Arden just nodded, as if thinking the same thing.
Zhang’s voice rang on the other side of the door, then a few more answered him. We separated on both sides of the door, pressing ourselves against the wall with our weapons ready. It wasn’t good that there was only one exit, but the door was narrow enough so it could give us an advantage if we had to fight them. They couldn’t go through at the same time and if they tried to shoot, there was a bigger chance of hitting their own people than us.
The seconds dragged painfully slowly, but eventually, the voices moved away, their loud steps fading as well. We waited, holding our breaths, when the door finally opened. I raised my pipe at the same time Arden did, both weapons stopping an inch away from Zhang’s face. As if expecting that, he stood perfectly still with his hands raised in the air where we could see them.
He was alone and unarmed, so we lowered the pipes. I almost felt bad for suspecting him, but under the circumstances, anyone would have done the same.
“Try to be as quiet as possible. We don’t have much time.”
I nodded and looked at Arden, who just nodded. Having him move beside me, his hand brushing against mine, gave me a strange sense of comfort, despite everything that was happening.
Zhang took us to a door with a faded sign that lead to a small, narrow staircase probably used for emergencies. We moved down, trying not to make any noise while the voices of the others from the gang echoed through the floors as they searched for us.
Zhang led us through a series of underground corridors and several more doors and luckily, we only ran into two of the others, but Arden and I quickly took care of them. Once we were outside on the street, I took a deep gulp of the heavy, foul-smelling air before Zhang urged us to hurry.
The streets at night were not a good place to be unless you were looking for a score or something to bang, and my current appearance gave people the wrong impression. Zhang barely looked back, but Arden’s glare seemed powerful enough to make people hesitate before following us, so we quickly got away from the lively street, disappearing into a labyrinth of narrow alleys and dead ends.
I was just about to ask Zhang where he was taking us when he stopped. We had reached another main street, but we were far enough from the center so there were no people around. The familiar sight of the orphanage where we had found refuge so many times came into view - or what was left of it. The roof had sunken in and the walls were black with coal, windows - missing and the ground around it was covered with dead grass and broken glass. The place looked long abandoned and judging by the damage on it, it was just the passing of time that destroyed it.
“What happened to…” I started, eyes widening with horror as I thought of all the children and the elderly that had found refuge there. I didn’t get to finish though.
“I’m sorry, Raven,” Zhang said and I turned towards him just as he was stepping backwards, away from us. My eyes snapped to the figures that appeared from the alleys around us, their numbers growing and growing until we were surrounded on all sides. Arden’s back pressed against mine and I raised the pipe, ready to fight, when I realized several of them were holding blasters. “With that bounty on your head, if I hadn’t done it, it would have been someone else. I could really use the reward. I’m sorry.”
“There is no need to feel guilty, Zhang,” a voice spoke, and the crowd in front of me parted to let another familiar face in. “It’s her fault for crossing the wrong people.”
“Killian,” I spat, my fingers tightening around the pipe as he watched me with a mix of curiosity and amusement. Arden tensed behind me as if sensing my own uneasiness growing. “What is the meaning of this?”
Killian stared at us for a few more seconds as if wondering what to do, then turned to look at his men, his smile growing.