"All right, y'all," Cyborg whispered determinedly. "This time it's gonna work."
The cyber-teen glanced behind him for reassurance. His teammates peered anxiously over his shoulder. They all knew how important this event was. Cyborg raised his finger over the switch. Nothing left to lose. He couldn't suppress a shiver. "Just get ready to run."
Starfire raised her hands to her face, while Beast Boy sought shelter behind her. Cyborg drew a deep breath. "Here goes!" he yelled, and flipped the switch.
A grinding noise came from the device. Lights glowed brightly. The Titans backed away uncertainly as a pungent smell filled the room. The mechanical monster shook like a thing alive.
A fierce roar cut the air. Three pairs of eyes widened in horror and expectation...
Then with a bang, the door burst open, and a spray of
water and dirty dishes spewed out onto the floor of the
"NOOO!" Cyborg wailed. He stumbled numbly forward, feet sluicing through the filthy mess of two days accumulated cutlery. Reaching the counter, he grasped its edge. For a moment it looked as if the brawny Titan was about to rip the recalcitrant device out from its base. Then his shoulders slumped, and Cyborg gave a low growl.
"I can build a working submarine," he bit out. "I can defuse a thermonuclear device in 12 seconds flat. I can even..." his left eye began to glow red, "...integrate foreign technology into my internal systems and operate them as if they were made just for me." The big man spun on his heel to face his dejected teammates.
"So why is it that I cannot find a way to get this fresh-from-the-showroom warranty-protected seal-of-approval-kissed dishwasher to wash the flippin' dishes?!"
"Do not know dejection, Cyborg," Starfire smiled brightly. "When this conflict of such long-standing ferocity and mutual distaste is finally resolved, we shall celebrate that joyous day in the time-honored Tameranian fashion. Namely, ripping out the defeated's vorp, searing it with heat and then consuming it in a communal manner."
The two boys stared at their furiously beaming friend.
"Starfire." Cyborg hesitated. "Normally I wouldn't know what you're talking about, but I'm beginning to suspect that this thing came from Tameran, so consuming its 'vorp' is starting to sound pretty good to me."
"Unless you're the one who loses, and we have to eat your vorp," Beast Boy piped up.
Starfire let out a squeak and streaked forward to catch Cyborg's face in her hands. "My friend, please believe me when I say that the consumption of your vorp, while necessary, would give me much grief, and only token satiation!"
Cyborg gazed into the alien beauty's innocent green eyes. "I'm...glad to hear it. Star?"
"Yes, my comrade?"
"You're breaking my face."
"Ah." The effusive girl dropped her hands.
"Well, I'm out." Beast Boy gave a lazy wave and turned towards the door. "Lemme know when you're done, Cyborg. I'm going for a dip in the ocean. C-ya."
"Yeah, no need for you to help!" Cyborg called after him. "Not like you live here too!"
The green teen exited, leaving his friends to begin the ritual of stacking utensils and depositing them in their army-sized sink.
"One day," Cyborg swore darkly as he started to fill the sink with hot, soapy water. "One day, I swear, I will wash my last dish by hand, 'cuz I am gonna make this thing work if it kills me."
Starfire emerged from the utility closet with a mop and bucket. "We will all of us join in mirthful adulation on that day."
The young mecha gave a snort. "Yeah, provided some of us take the time to notice." He dropped in the last plate and turned to regard his companion. "You talked to either of them much lately?" His tone was serious. In response, the slender female averted her eyes.
"They are our friends, and their effectiveness in battle remains undiminished. Raven...seems to be much the same. But lately, I cannot help but feel that Robin is..." She glanced up uncertainly.
"Preoccupied?" Cyborg hazarded.
"Yes," Starfire nodded. "Yes, that is the right word."
The two heroes stood together in silence for a time. Even three weeks after Terra's sacrifice and Slade's downfall, the Teen Titans had still not regained their sense of unity. For their parts, both Starfire and Beast Boy had mourned the passing of the former Titan. Having cared for Terra deeply, they had been able to provide each other with a level of understanding and comfort that the others could not supply, no matter how good their intentions. They now seemed to be moving on well. Starfire had, after all, experienced worse disappointment from someone much closer, and Beast Boy had already made a sort of peace with Terra before the end.
Raven, of course, had been noticeably lacking in the sympathy department. This came as no surprise to anyone.
The moody teen appeared to be relatively normal. That is, when she actually made an appearance. They had accepted her account of the nightmare time she had spent entombed in the dark with Slade. Despite the torment she had endured, Raven seemed to have weathered her travails admirably. At least, as far as they could tell. The enigmatic recluse had shown even less tendency towards socializing than before. She seemed engaged in some pursuit that she was not free to speak of, alternating between locking herself in her room and making a lot of private transmissions to people around the globe. Starfire, Cyborg and Beast Boy had tried on occasion to get her to talk about her experiences from that last battle, possibly divulge any lingering personal rancor. But their teammate had refused to cooperate, taking only enough time to assure her allies that there was nothing wrong before retreating back to her refuge. At Robin's insistence, Raven had consented to undergo a series of examinations under Cyborg's care, to insure that the poison Slade had used on her was not still lingering in her system. These scans revealed no foreign devices or chemicals of any kind. This had been a relief for all of them. But for some, a greater foreboding remained.
No one could deny that the unknown variables of when
and how their common foe would resurface were constant stresses on all of them,
especially the team leader. Robin had taken the news of his arch-enemy's
continued survival with ill grace. More than ever, he could be found off on his
own, looking up crime reports, discussing possible scenarios with city
officials, even going on solo crime-fighting missions. Starfire especially was
worried by this behavior, even though with Slade once again unaccounted for,
there were really no criminals that Robin was incapable of dealing with on his
own. The team's commander had listened to them air their concerns privately, and
had downplayed the situation as an over -reaction. But nonetheless, the issue
remained before them. With two members off in their own little worlds, and two
more still mourning the death of a beloved ally, not everything was going
Eyes closed, Robin concentrated. The next strike could come from any direction. Over-reliance on sight could be a weakness. There were other senses, not all of them known to the uninitiated. His muscles were relaxed, his breathing steady. He waited.
Noise, low to the left!
Robin bent double swiftly, palms anchoring to the ground, bringing his left heel up in the same motion. It collided with a metal globe that streaked in towards the spot where his head had just been. The sphere's surface was crushed by the force of its own stunted assault, and it went careening of a wall to land in a smoking heap.
"Well done, Robin. But then you always did excel at saving yourself."
Robin slowly angled back upright. He prepared for the next attack.
"You should call your friends. Then we can all marvel at your prowess."
He ground his teeth, slow-building fury waking up inside him.
Another globe shot from the shadows, to be met by a razor-sharp disc that sliced it like an orange. The blade whistled back to be caught deftly between Robin's fingers.
"Don't you want them to see what you're capable of?"
With a cry Robin turned and leapt, bo staff extending from his hand. His rage-pumped muscles swung the weapon out, smashing the final drone to pieces in a shower of sparks and metal. He landed near a wall, breathing heavily.
"Really, now. Does that make you feel any better?"
Lights came back on. The training program was ended. Robin was alone in the Tower's workout room.
"I asked you a question."
Robin's fists clenched. "No," he whispered.
Slade spoke to him. No one else could understand. It wasn't that he was losing control or going crazy. He just knew that was how the man would have responded to his efforts. Patronizing. Provoking. He could hear it. The sting of Slade’s words was no less caustic for their being only in his mind.
He hadn't told any of his friends how he was feeling because he didn't want to. The only thing that could make his suffering more intense was their commiseration. Robin raised his fists and smashed them into the wall. He let the pain sink in. "I am not helpless!" he shouted.
"At least not right now," Slade's voice mocked him pitilessly.
A screen on the wall reflected his own image, and Robin quickly looked away.
The masked avenger shut his eyes. You fight crime. You bring bad people to justice. Sure, real bad. Muggers and car thieves. Punks with souped-up weapons they hardly know how to work let alone how they function. Even the occasional super-powered foe. And once again, the city is safe.
At least, until the stone-cold ultra maniac you always let escape decides its time to menace it once again.
"You are helpless."
How could his friends understand? They had not focused all their energies on stopping that man only to come up empty-handed. They had not seen all their prized skills and intellect perfectly countered at each and every turn. They had not known the dark, murderous impulses that had seized upon him unwilling when he had been trapped into being Slade's apprentice.
"Maybe not all of them, Robin. But I can think of one who does."
Robin actually snarled at the thought. He slid slowly down the wall, the stone cool against his fevered brow. His pulse raced with exhilaration.
He had been unable to save her.
Instead she had cast him aside like the meaningless toy he really was.
"She knew better than you where your real strengths lay. Don't hate the poor girl for making clear what is obvious for all to see."
She had been lost to them for hours. He was safe. So was the city. But the person who had saved them, who had stood her ground and fought for all their lives alone, was nowhere to be found.
"But I knew where she was, Robin. After all, I was there too. And where were you?"
Robin slammed his fists over his ears, pressing his knuckles in. His face was red and surging with blood.
"Since you weren't there to act as her protector, I was free to do as I pleased."
Smug, insinuating. Robin felt a scream building up inside.
Blood came from his lip.
"I was very, very pleased with her."
He leapt to his feet with a roar. Grasping two fifty-pound dumbbells from their rests, he hurled them into the screen before him, shattering the glass, crushing the image of himself, the sight everyone else could see. The small, powerless, gaudily-dressed boy in a mask.
Robin collapsed with a groan, hands lifting to cover his face.
"Raven, I'm sorry," he whispered.
Kultuq's body wasn't working properly. His arms and legs were trembling. Uncontrollable shudders wracked his frame. His stomach felt cold and empty.
"It must be love," he mumbled, and then laughed giddily.
It had taken him three weeks to reach this point. Twenty-three days was plenty of time for him to have come to his senses. This was not the case. His conviction remained the same. And now, all his preparations were ready to pay off. The island had been rented for up to a month. Several performance groups were paid off and awaiting a venue. The yacht was anchored in the bay, a Cobra was parked on its deck for cruising along the ocean border roads. The local militias had been threatened into submission.
And all of this culminated in a 50 ft. walk to a 30-story tall T-shaped building. A walk that he had been trying to make for the last ten minutes without success.
Kultuq breathed in, then out. He stamped his feet, bunched his legs to spring forward, and wound up taking three stumbling steps back.
The immortal bared his teeth, not in anger, but helplessness. All he had to do was walk up and knock on the door. It was just a door. A large door, granted. A large door on a big T inhabited by five superhero teenagers, one of whom he was planning on courting in a manner he had last utilized 300 years earlier. This was before he had made several thwarted stabs at world domination, the end result being his classification as one of the most wanted men alive.
So how could he have anxiety about asking a crime-fighter on a date? HA! Absurd! The very idea, anxiety...
Kultuq glowered at the distant portal. "I am doing this." That gate had become his nemesis, separating him from his heart's desire.
Charge! he screamed in his head, and then the door was speeding towards him in a jerky fashion, finally coming to a halt directly in front of his face. Kultuq stared straight ahead, trembling. His hand reached up. Its mission was to knock on the door, or press a bell for assistance.
Instead it changed its course and proceeded to pat the slim case he had concealed in his jacket pocket. He had done this twenty times already, and each time he felt a little thrill of fear that he wouldn't feel it. When he did, it was small comfort.
Fear, he asked himself? No, you're not afraid. You're a warrior, the victor of countless battles. You're the commander of armies, toppler of empires that had stood for thousands of years. A historian, artist, scientist, statesman, KING!!
His fist still hung impotently before the doorframe.
"For pity's sake, you're 50,000 years old!" he gasped between clenched teeth. "How can you be nervous?!"
Because you never had so much to lose.
This acknowledgement seemed to unfreeze his muscles.
Kultuq now felt stable enough to reach up and press a button on the side of
Starfire brought her head up as the noise rang out in the community room. With an exclamation of disgust, Cyborg retracted his bulk from the confines of the gutted dishwasher. He cast a dismal eye on the wet, greasy parts that littered the floor. Then he popped open the console on his arm.
The erstwhile mechanic raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Starfire observed him curiously. "Have you called for outside assistance in your conflict?"
"No," the shiny marvel huffed.
"Oh... Then perhaps it is the Pizza Boy?"
Cyborg shrugged distractedly. "I don't know, he looks kinda like a mortician."
Starfire's eyes grew very wide.
"The Pizza Boy has died?" she whispered frantically.
"What? No, I meant..." Cyborg again appraised his work area. "Look, Star, can you go see who it is? I'm kinda tied up here."
The young alien floated up determinedly. "I shall learn our visitor's mission, make him welcome, and assure him that we have no dead folk here," she announced. Then she streaked from the room.
Cyborg sighed, then returned his attention to his enemy.
A light flashed red under the broken console. This was usually accompanied by an image, but the heavy metal weights lodged in the screen precluded any such communication. Robin was not in a state for visitors anyway. He was sitting on the floor of the gym, wrapped in thought.
Why did Slade let her live?
This was the question that haunted him. Past all the angst, the feelings of shame and self-reproach, there was the certainty that something more was coming. Slade would inevitably return, and the Teen Titans would face him again. But what did Slade have planned, and did it somehow involve Raven? Was there more here than was readily apparent? What had really happened between them beneath the city's streets?
Robin gripped his hair and groaned. So much he didn't know. About Slade, and Raven. Now that he thought about it, he realized that he was as much in the dark about one as he was the other. Since the day he had met her, Raven had never volunteered any information about her past or her intentions. But he was willing to let that go. After all, Robin knew what it was like to live with a person who kept secrets. It was not an insult, if you trusted that person sufficiently.
And when you came down to it, he did trust Raven.
She might not behave like it, but Raven was a deeply conscientious and moral individual. She had the power to take or do whatever she pleased, but instead she chose to use her gifts to defend others. So he could allow her some measure of privacy as they fought and lived side by side. That was why he had not questioned her about her account of the incident with Slade. Raven had never demanded he open up about what had transpired during his brief servitude under the madman. So why couldn't he just let this go, like he did the rest of her unexplained past?
Robin stood up quickly.
He knew why he couldn't. Because Slade was involved.
It always came down to that. He wouldn't press her about her private life because as far as he knew, it didn't pose a threat. Not so with this. Robin knew the face of evil here. He had been exposed to the devious undercurrents of Slade's mind. Nothing was ever done without purpose. If he had an enemy in his grasp and he let her live, then it was done with a goal in mind. Wherever Slade was right now, he was planning something. Robin had to be ready. He had to be prepared for their next confrontation. And if there was something, anything, that Raven could tell him, then he would just have to insist that she do.
Robin opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. It wasn't that he mistrusted her judgment. It was just, maybe there was something crucial that had escaped her attention. Walking along the corridor, Robin had to admit that he had misgivings. He and Raven had always accorded one another a silent and patient admiration. He didn't resent how the other Titans had become more intimately involved with her. But he was leery of confronting the mysterious sorceress, should it turn out that it might cost them that mutual respect. Robin hoped it wouldn't come to that. Raven had always been someone he could depend on to do the right thing. In the end, that was what mattered most about a person.
So resolved, the young hero set out to find his teammate.
Kultuq fumed. Just how long did it take to answer a simple door chime? He knew they were home, he had seen them arrive from out in the bay over an hour past. Maybe he should ring again. Or shout. Or pound on the door with his hands and feet, screaming like a lunatic until they came to cart him off.
Kultuq let out a nervous chuckle at the thought. "Lock you away in a padded cell," he muttered. "Don't worry, you're just talking to yourself. Besides, there are a hundred nations and entities who want you for crimes committed, it'll take at least 1,000 years for them to decide who gets you first. First bite at the apple!"
He was shaking with frustration. Just knock on the door. It'll be a game. If the person who answers doesn't recognize you, then you win. If they do, then you lose. No more thinking beyond that. Just GO!
His arm shot up, and he gave three quick raps with his knuckles.
Or rather, he gave two raps and halted on the third as he realized he was knocking on the forehead of an orange-skinned female.
"GUH," Kultuq grunted, his arm dropping limply to his side.
Before him, a slender redhead with alien features and huge glistening green eyes touched her brow tentatively and gave him an inquiring look. Utterly flabbergasted by this encounter, Kultuq gaped silently.
Starfire was very confused. She knew several different Tameranian customs that involved ritual striking of a doorkeeper, but previous experience had shown her there were no such customs on Earth. Still, she had never met a mortician before. Perhaps it was how they made introductions? How unusual, but she should make one thing clear before proceeding.
"My name is Starfire. We are all very much alive here thank you for coming and would you like to wipe your feet on our welcoming mat?" the young princess exclaimed in a rush.
The words were English, but they made no sense. At this point, some part of Kultuq's brain gave itself a mental backhand across the face as he was off picking metaphysical dandelions in a cerebral field. As he came back to full awareness three things impressed themselves on him. One, this girl was not Raven. Two, she did not seem to know who he was. Three, she must be another Teen Titan. He had scanned some of the general information about the team, just enough to learn about the group's powers and tendencies. So this one was Starfire, an alien on whom there was only slightly more information than Raven herself. For her part, there seemed to be no recognition. So far, so good. Now for the important question.
Starfire waited patiently, hands held behind her back. Always eager to converse, she hoped to communicate with this strange individual. Hopefully she had not offended him. Interaction with humans was never easy for her. Then the man cleared his throat.
"I wished to inquire if Raven was currently in attendance today." Wonderful, Kultuq groaned inwardly. He was going formal, a sure sign that he was nervous.
Starfire was even more confused than before. An acquaintance of Raven's? It sounded as if he was asking whether her friend was undergoing any religious observances, the next step in some half-a-dozen introductory rituals from her own world. Could this man actually know the customs of her people?
The alien was eyeing him in an incomprehensible manner. Kultuq felt like digging a hole and hiding in it. He had absolutely no idea what to do next. Perhaps he should charge the girl to get by...
Her visitor was clearly awaiting confirmation, and Starfire, thinking furiously, found that she had no Earth reply suitable, having no prior knowledge of native religious festivities. And so she fell back on Tameranian customs.
Before Kultuq's eyes, the citrus-fruit female suddenly clapped her hands, closed one eye, and then spun her body in a 180 degree half-circle to end with her feet sticking straight up in the air and her hair hanging down .
Face to inverted face, Starfire announced solemnly, "One called Raven is present. And how might you be referred to her?"
Kultuq was close to despair. Was this girl playing games with him? He took a moment to decipher that last comment, and realized she was asking for his name.
Panic seized him.
What name could he give her?!
Why had he not foreseen this problem, it wasn't like his name might never come up with anyone but Raven! He certainly wasn't about to tell this stranger his true name, and that was how Raven knew him. But at the same time, he couldn't say 'Vandal Savage' because that was precisely what he had to avoid at all costs, and anyway, Raven didn't know who that was! So what was left?!
Calm down, he told himself sternly. Nothing's over yet. Just get through this somehow, and you'll be one step closer to seeing her. Kultuq thought for a moment in silence. He glanced at the girl hanging before him. That certainly looked uncomfortable. It reminded him of the night he had met Raven, when she had caught him over the...
Now, there was an idea.
"You can tell her," he stated simply, "that I am the man with no home who thought he could fly."
At this the girl gave a high-pitched squeal and dropped to the ground at his feet.
She scrambled up, took two steps backward, and then flung herself into the air to go speeding back into the Tower's high-vaulted entranceway.
"I will find Raven please do not go anywhere thank you very much happy tronskatting!"
Kultuq watched her go. Apparently he had won the game. So now he would just wait here until Raven arrived.
He suddenly felt dizzy.
Starfire shot down the corridors. She sang to herself merrily. She spun. She twirled and glowed. Anyone seeing her might have mistaken her for a vocal brand of fireworks. But this was just too amazing to be a coincidence!
An aggressive visitor who observes religious solemnity, asks for someone by name, and gives a description in place of his own! There was only one Tameranian ritual that began in such a way.
"Oh special day! It is Kiaman LeyQuok!!"
"I'm sorry, did you say '
"No!" Raven snapped. "You're not listening to me."
She glared darkly at the on-screen image of a slightly
irritable cartographer who was currently in
Since the resumption of her quest several weeks before,
the introverted Titan had quickly learned that the preceding years had opened no
new leads. Sitting in the computer room of
It was truly amazing. No one, whether magically inclined or strictly scientific, had any information to provide. She had combed libraries, on-line resources, and mystic enclaves. She had spoken to archaeologists, government officials, tribal shamans, even conspiracy theorists. She had wasted countless hours in this manner, and although her position as a recognized crime-fighter had served to open a lot of doors, the outcome was the same as before.
No one had heard of it. Nobody knew what it was. And nobody but her seemed to care.
The dark spell-caster took several deep, calming breaths. Her head slowly came up, and the nettled mapmaker actually drew back from the screen at the look on Raven's face. This was going nowhere fast. None of the people she contacted had the faintest clue as to what she was talking about. The blank stares were all melting into one, and the questions posed were all rote at this point. Oh look, here comes one now...
"Could you spell that for me?"
Raven glowered sullenly.
"Unless you read Di Vu Cle sound images, I don't know how to spell it precisely."
The man leaned back and looked prepared to start huffing at her.
"But I have made some phonetic translations. Should we start with English or Mandarin?"
Her audience gave her a sour look. "English," he bit out.
"All right." Raven ran her fingers through her hair. Maybe now she could actually get something started. "It's R-L-YYyyyA-HEY!"
Raven yelped as her computer went dark. The next instant she was yanked form her seat and hauled across the room by one hand which was clutched in the grip of an explosively beaming Starfire.
"Starfire!" the dumbfounded mystic exclaimed. "What are you doing?!"
The energetic alien dropped her hand and hovered before Raven. She was clutching her fingers and almost vibrating with emotion. What could inspire such a reaction from Starfire?
Well, actually, a better question might be, what couldn't?
The Tameranian suddenly reached forward to grip Raven's shoulders. Bringing their faces to within an inch of each other, she whispered, "Kiaman LeyQuok!"
Raven was feeling decidedly uncomfortable, not to mention utterly bewildered.
"Starfire. It's me, Raven. I don't understand what is going on. Would you please explain?"
Starfire released her with a squeak and started soaring around the room, gabbling and spinning, performing cartwheels. Her dark-clad teammate watched this performance in astonishment. She wondered if perhaps Beast Boy had tempted Starfire into eating store-brand children's cereals again.
At some point the effusive redhead broke off the display and flew over to face her again.
"Oh Raven!" she exclaimed. "I have been concerned for you and I thought you might be upset or ill because you would not talk about it but now I see that it was Kiaman LeyQuok the whole time and it makes me so happy for you I will sing of your good fortune for all to hear until the sun explodes and my heart along with it!"
The run-on sentence made no sense, but one term in particular stood out for sheer incomprehension.
"YES!" Starfire trilled. "The magical rite of Kiaman, right here on Earth all this time and I did not realize it!" She paused, and a look of horror came to her face. "Oh, but we cannot waste time discussing it. He is waiting right now!"
"Who?" Raven asked carefully.
"Yes, yes!" the active alien whirled about in the air. "He performed the ritual Blow of Undaunted Passion, and inquired for you and whether you were occupied by religious observances, and when I asked for his name he gave none but only a title. I am so relieved that you are now for Kiaman, Raven!"
A dull pain was growing in Raven's temple. "Starfire," she said wearily. "Who are you talking about?"
Her glowing female friend leaned in close. "He said," she whispered in conspiratorial tones, that he is ‘The Man With No Home Who Thought He Could Fly.’"
Raven stared into Starfire's big green eyes. Okay, work this out. Apparently, someone is here to see you. He won't give his name, but he seems to know you, and he says he has no home...
"Oh!" Raven blinked, remembering. "I know who it is, it's..."
"Boundless jubilation!" Starfire cried. "I shall go and inform him of your approval." The joyful girl sped from the room. "And Raven!" she called behind her. "Insist that he wear a burflyp during nadeoke."
Raven stood and watched her friend depart. She was not sure she should try to make sense of that last statement. Starfire seemed to be overreacting outrageously. The girl couldn't help it, that was just the way she was.
He was back.
The indigo-bedecked enchantress reached up to touch the gemstone on her forehead.
"Takkem," she whispered.
The jewel glowed warmly, and from out of her thoughts, the world of her own mind, it brought something forth. Before her a tiny black sphere came into being. It grew and grew until it was the size of a small child. Raven reached into the blackness. Her fingers touched something light and fragile. She withdrew it, and the magic globe faded.
In her hands, Raven held a bouquet of roses. They were wrapped in tissue of a blue shade that was completely inferior to the hue of the flowers themselves. For these roses were unlike any others. They were rare and precious as sapphires, and even more blue. The blooms were as fresh and vibrant as the day she had received them, preserved with great care in the pseudo-reality of her inner being where they held a place of honor. Raven had never known how they came to be, whether by magic, science or nature. But she did know who had given them to her.
"You swam in a circle," Raven mused. She smelled the roses' fragrance, letting it kindle memories of a quiet night spent with an unusual man.
She said to wait here. So he waited. It was a big tower. It might take the girl (Starfire?) a few minutes to locate Raven. Nothing had gone wrong so far. He was still in a good position, and he was not nervous in the slightest.
For the hundredth time, he reached up to pat the case in his coat pocket.
A rattling croak came from beside him, and Kultuq looked down to see a bright green penguin.
Well, I'm seeing things, he thought. Finally cracked up.
"I have no fish for you. Please leave now." Kultuq made a shooing motion with his hand.
The penguin cocked its head at him. "Dude," it said, and Kultuq blinked as a green boy suddenly popped up in the flightless bird's place. "Number one, I don't eat meat. Me vegetarian. And number two, I live here, so I don't have to go anywhere."
The two of them stared at one another for a few moments.
"I'm Beast Boy," the kid introduced himself. "You the owner of the big boat parked in our front yard?"
Another of Raven's friends. Kultuq was relieved to find he was still sane.
"M-a-a-a-n," Beast Boy crossed his arms sulkily. "I was hoping I'd won a sweepstakes or something. So you need saving or what?"
Kultuq only stared.
"You do know you're standing in front of
Kultuq frowned. "I don't need superheroes. I'm... here to see someone."
"You are?" The emerald animorph raised an eyebrow and perused the visitor from top to bottom. Dark shoes, dark suit, and the Complexion from the Black Lagoon.
"Lemee guess. You're here for Raven."
The gloomy giant gave a curt nod and then turned his attention back to the Tower's interior. Beast Boy hesitated uncertainly.
There was something about this guy. Something off, even a little scary. He wasn't sure what to do. Obviously someone had let this person in, but if that someone was Starfire, that might not be a reassuring sign. He could call Robin, or Cyborg. But doing it in front of the guy might seem a little rude, if he did turn out to be a friend of Raven's. Beast Boy did not want to attract the wrath of the goth Titan any more than usual. But then again, he didn't feel secure leaving the creepy fellow by himself. So eventually, the shape-shifter just decided to wait right here until somebody who knew what was going on came to explain things to him.
He was used to that.
"Two down, two down, two down," Kultuq chanted to himself. Two down and two to go. If Raven arrived before the others were alerted, they might be able to leave before the remaining teammates could make an appearance. That would be preferable. His eyes strained for some sign of her down the long hall.
I'm mad for doing this, I'm going to get caught, I just know it.
Something zipped into sight, and Kultuq's pounding heart skipped a beat.
Beast Boy looked over as Starfire shot up before them. The joyful princess was whirling and singing like a wind-up toy. She floated up to the looming stranger and grew still.
"Your petition has been received favorably," she announced solemnly.
Then her face broke into a huge smile, and she giggled merrily. Her teammate stared blankly from her to their visitor. The latter paid him no attention, only continued to gaze intently past them into their home. But Starfire finally seemed to notice him, and she whisked over to hoist him up in the air.
"Oh, friend Beast Boy!" she sang and spun him about. "The time of misery and meanness is over, for today we celebrate Kiaman LeyQuok! Share in my elation!"
The green boy turned a shade greener as he was whirled around dizzily. "Star!" he gasped from between furiously clenched teeth. "What is up?!"
The alien dropped him with a cry and pointed up rapturously. "Observe! She has arrived!"
Kultuq's head snapped towards the ceiling.
A flaring disc of black light had appeared high above their heads. Two blue boots slipped down through it, followed by a familiar cloak that gave tell-tale glimpses of the body beneath it. Kultuq's legs started to tremble beneath his weight. He felt like time was slowing down for him as he drank in his first sight of Raven in months. A small jolt shook him when he noticed that her skin was light grey, like the flesh of an oyster. Of course, he had never seen her in full daylight before, how could he have known? Such thoughts went by the wayside as more of her became visible, and the thunder-struck immortal found himself dreaming he could float or fly or swim up to her, to draw their meeting even closer.
Once again, he felt himself grow happy. So happy he could sing, except he seemed to be rendered dumb.
Raven sank through the floor into the Tower's entranceway. She looked down at the open portal, and there was Kultuq, staring up at her. He had a lost look on his face that was slightly odd, but it was him without a doubt. The very first visitor just for her. It felt nice. And he couldn't have come at a better time.
Raven had not realized just how much the last few months of her life had taken a toll. Between work and her mission, she had hardly given herself any time to relax. A chance to be at ease, if only for a little while, was a welcome break from her everyday routine. Her quest had not advanced much lately, and she was growing frustrated. Some time spent away from her duties might clear her head, energize her. Going out with an intelligent person, someone who didn't know her primarily as a crimefighter, was a very normal and safe thing to do. She could introduce him to her friends, very briefly, and then they could head out somewhere to catch up with one another. Just like anybody else. Anybody normal. She knew it was just pretend...or was it? Seeing him standing there, waiting for her, suddenly made that irrelevant. If someone treated you as a regular person, then that's what you were. It was that easy. And right now, the thought of being made to feel normal was just what Raven needed.
She was glad that he came back.
As Raven pondered this odd sensation, a door slid open below her.
Robin walked into the room, and his eye was instantly drawn to Raven emerging from the ceiling. What a stroke of luck, them running into each other. He opened his mouth to call out to her. Raven hadn't noticed him. Instead she was staring intently across the room to the main doors, where Beast Boy and Starfire were standing next to...
The shout drew Kultuq's attention back down, and as it did something whistled through the air and collided against his skull with an audible crack.
The immortal's knees buckled, he staggered back a few steps, one hand reaching out to catch the door frame for support.
He hung there for a moment, dazed. Catching his bearings, he looked up just as a masked boy leapt forward and drove a metal-shod boot into his face, pitching Kultuq back outside.
Robin smashed his foot into the monster's head with all the force he could summon. He was 100% certain who this was, the unkillable criminal Vandal Savage, and he couldn't afford to hold back. As he flew by after his quarry, Starfire screamed something, but he couldn't take the time to listen. He had to incapacitate Savage before he could bring any weapons to bear.
Robin's feet touched the ground, and he surged forward. Vandal had rolled several yards down the hill, but already he was coming to his feet. That couldn't be allowed. Robin's whole attention, his entire world focused on the wicked madman who lay before him.
Don't let him get away!
As Savage clambered upright, the boy hero drove in and smashed his palm into the man's nose. As the head snapped back Robin heard bones breaking, but he couldn't let that stop him, couldn't have any misgivings or let up even for a moment. Otherwise he might lose. Swiftly Robin spun behind his enemy, and delivered a hard kick to the back of his knee. As Vandal Savage collapsed forward, the raging martial artist clasped his hands and spun around. Bringing all his inertia and strength to bear, he swung his fists like a mace and slammed them into the back of the arch-fiend's skull.
Savage fell heavily, and Robin pounced.
From his belt he pulled a super-plastic line and wrapped it deftly around the villain's ankles. It had taken less than 15 seconds to bring the man down, but he still had to move swiftly. Vandal couldn't be killed. He could still feel pain and pass out, but his unnatural healing meant forced unconsciousness would last only seconds. Robin reached up and snagged the big man's wrists, proceeding to wind the cable around them. Hogtied, Vandal Savage posed less of a threat. Maybe now he could get some answers.
There was a hum of energy. Robin's suit stiffened around him, and in the next instant he was jerked up into the air to hang helplessly.
"What...did you DO?!!"
Raven floated down before him. Her eyes glowed furiously, and her teeth were bared in a silent snarl. Robin was shocked at how horrific she appeared. He gasped as the magically-animated suit began to squeeze him painfully.
"Raven!" he spat. "LET ME GO!"
She did not.
They stared at one another.
Before another word could be said, Vandal Savage gave a groan and rose to his knees, hands and feet bound behind him. Startled, Raven glanced down. He was still alive?!!
Starfire and Beast Boy raced up to join them.
"Robin, what have you done?!!"
"Dude, have you gone totally loopy?"
Surrounded by hostile, uncomprehending faces, Robin strained futilely against the magic that bound him. "Don't go near him!" he screamed desperately as the others approached. "He's not hurt! That's Vandal Savage, he's immortal, he's a criminal, I..."
They didn't understand. All of his friends just gave him the same bewildered stare.
Robin's teeth clenched as his clothes began to crush his body.
"DAMMIT, LOOK AT HIM! I hit him full force and there isn't a mark on him!"
Now all eyes turned to the man incapacitated at their feet. His shoulders were slumped. Head bowed, he crouched unmoving.
Beast Boy needed an explanation, but none was forthcoming. Robin was gasping raggedly. Raven had her back to him. Starfire seemed uncertain about who might need her help first. The green teen hesitated, then took a cautious step closer to the fallen stranger. Carefully he bent down, craning his neck to get a look at the man's features.
He jerked upright with a squeak.
"Dude, he's right!" he breathed incredulously, eyes locked on the sight before him. "I mean, the guy's face isn't smashed or anything. He's not even bleeding!" Beast Boy felt slightly nauseous and couldn't say why. He looked up at his teammates bewilderedly. "What is he?"
In silence, Raven stared.
So much had happened so fast, she didn't know what to think. Things had suddenly just stopped making sense. She heard a moan from Robin, and realized the aura she had conjured was responding to her mood and was crushing him. Hastily she let the spell die, and Robin dropped to his knees with a grunt of relief. Red-faced and trembling, he looked up at Raven, clearly furious with her. Later she would have to apologize, but it wasn't him that concerned her right now.
So he lied to me, she thought suddenly.
The cold enchantress took a step forward so she could stand before the traitor. She felt ice run through her limbs. It took a moment to register the unfamiliar emotion as sadness. Something much more violent started to wake up inside her then, and Raven quickly shut down her emotional center before it could react with the outside world. So protected, she considered her situation.
One night of being treated like a regular girl. A human being even. Finding someone whom she could talk to and whom she actually even liked a little. It had been wonderful.
But it was just a lie.
It had been important to her and now it had become tainted by this man.
This man Kultuq? Or...
Kultuq kept silent.
He held himself very still, and prayed.
Please let this be a dream, or a nightmare. Please I came so close please don't let her see me like this don't let her say it don't let her say...
The broad back flinched, and the head sunk even lower. Raven still had no real idea what that name implied, but it seemed Robin had been correct in identifying the man.
"Is that your real name?"
Raven watched him with an impersonal eye. The stranger remained tied up at her feet. But at her words, his head came slowly up.
He looked at her, and Raven, who had thought she could not feel anymore, felt shock.
His expression was so intense it could not be denied.
It was grief. Total, all-consuming grief.
It affected her, unclenching her own feelings of mingled bitterness and confusion and loss. The air around them all grew heavier. The ground began to tremble with flashes of uncontrolled dark magic. The other Titans flinched as they felt their uniforms slither over them with brief flashes of life.
And as Raven stood in helpless bewilderment, the man looked her straight in the eye.
"I told you my real name," he whispered desperately.
His voice was hoarse and soft, like he was fighting back sobs.
Raven stared down at him, amazed. It was the truth. An image flashed in her mind, their previous meeting, how he had faltered over giving his name, unable or uncertain about recalling it. But he had finally told her. Only now did Raven fully understand where the dread he had exhibited arose from. Whatever this man really was, he had given her something precious, something he cherished.
Astonished, the normally subdued girl glanced around at her friends, looking to them for answers, a way to respond to something like this. But they were all as lost as she was. Raven hesitated, uncertain what to say or do or explain. It was like going numb, becoming a doll and just waiting for someone else to react so she could follow along. Nothing in her life's experience had prepared her for this.
Robin glared suspiciously from his silent teammate to the prisoner on the ground. Was Savage trying to play some kind of mind trick with Raven? Maybe he had cast a spell on her, who knew what the man was capable of? He had to be wary. Starfire and Beast Boy apparently had no clue who they were dealing with. Didn't any of them bother to research criminals outside of their city? Just what exactly was going on here anyway? Did Raven somehow know this villain? Were they acquaintances, or something more? The team leader noticed Cyborg had emerged from the Tower and was making his way over to them. Everyone was here, there didn't seem to be an attack coming. But that could change in an instant. As long as they were in this man's presence, his friends were in danger.
"All right," the Titans' captain stated decisively. "It'll take some time to explain everything, but turning Savage over to the authorities takes priority. Raven and I will handle that." He glanced at the unmoving magic-user, then turned to his comrades. "Starfire, Beast Boy, scout the area and see if he has any henchmen lurking about. Cyborg, get on the satellite uplink and inform the..."
An unnatural hum sounded, and Robin whirled about.
Raven had knelt down next to Vandal Savage. The cable binding him was unwinding from his limbs and coiling neatly on the ground.
"Raven!" the masked hero cried. "What are you...?!"
"Stop shouting at me!" the hooded mystic snapped. "I'm not deaf."
She glared up at her leader.
"I want to hear him out."
"Hear him out?!" Robin blurted. "Raven, he's..."
"A man I met a few months ago," she stated calmly. "We talked. He didn't hurt me, or attack me, and as far as I can tell, none of the others got hurt since he arrived. The only person doing any damage around here is you. This man is here to see me, and until I find out what is going on, I will decide what's to be done with him."
Raven straightened up. She put one hand on Vandal's arm, assisting him to his feet. Robin and the others stared at her in shocked silence. Raven had never spoken to their leader this way.
Savage rose slowly with the diminutive maiden's support. He did not look at her. Brushing dirt from his suit, he instead cast a hostile glare at the boy who had assaulted him. Robin returned the look with equal intensity. The young hero opened his mouth, ready to make one thing perfectly clear...
And in between one motion and the next, Vandal's hand dipped into his coat pocket, emerging with a small device which he aimed at Robin.
Breath caught in several throats, but before a cry could be uttered...
Savage pushed a button.
'Step away from the vehicle!!!'
The Titans froze.
'You are too close to the vehicle!'
All of their eyes turned to the bay. Anchored off the island, a small yacht lay at rest. And parked on the deck of that boat was a Cobra sports car, its lights flashing, alarms blaring. An important voice shouted warnings in seven different languages.
The Titans turned their attention back to Vandal Savage. He remained in the same position, but now a keen smirk decorated his features.
Robin in particular stood dumbfounded. Savage inclined his head mockingly at him.
"You should see the look on your face," he sneered.
And then right beside Kultuq there came a muffled snort.
He glanced down at the girl holding his arm.
Raven had laid a hand over her mouth and her hood was shaking furiously. She bowed forward, and then swiftly came back up. Once again her features were dead-pan serious.
She regarded the Boy Wonder steadily.
"Sorry. But you did look pretty silly."
Everyone stared at her. Apparently no one knew how to take this. So Raven finally took the initiative.
"Now," she spoke in a tone that brooked no contradiction. "This is what happens next. You..." she turned to regard the enigmatic Kultuq, "...will go back to your boat and stay there until I come to talk to you. Do not make any attempt to leave. The rest of us are going back inside, where we will discuss this situation in detail. That...is...all."
For a few seconds, everyone remained motionless.
Then Vandal Savage turned and walked towards his ship without a word. He did not look back at them. Robin remained tense, watching the maniac depart. He leveled a look on Raven, who countered with one of her own. Before he could speak, fingers closed around his hand, It was Starfire. The earnest Tameranian beseeched him with her eyes, drawing him imploringly back to the Tower. After a moment, Robin relented. The Titans trooped back towards their home. Raven came last.
At the door, she turned back out to sea.
In the distance, a small figure stood on the deck of his ship, watching her. Who he really was she could not say.
But something told her that she was going to find out.
Vasili lazed despondently by an open hatch. The ship had docked only ten minutes ago, and already the captain was in a heated exchange with the American customs agent. Even down in the brig, he could hear explosive utterances in two different languages.
Three words that had been making Vasili's life miserable:
In the old days, you come into the States, they check
your papers and cargo, then you unload and are free for a little American-style
cavorting. Now instead, everyone is confined aboard ship while U.S. G.I.s turn
out your sock drawers and ask why your second cousin is married to a girl from
As Vasili worked himself into an even fouler mood, a slight movement caught his eye.
He froze, waiting to see if it would repeat itself.
Three minutes later, it did.
A low black shape scurried swiftly behind some pipes. Vasili grinned broadly.
When you're a sailor on a trade ship, you're pretty much the bottom of the food chain. Unless, of course, you count the rats.
Vasili was widely known among his shipmates as a superior rat-catcher. He had to admit that he had a gift for it. He was quick and had good aim. And when he wanted to, he could be patient. You had to be, sitting off-shore while customs checked you out. And wiping out vermin aboard ship helped him deal with his own frustrations. So Vasili rose and followed his quarry. Anything to pass the time.
The lone rat sped deeper into the hold of the ship, and its hunter was glad for the chase. There had been remarkably few of them during this trip, Normally you could count on seeing three before breakfast. So Vasili was intent on not letting this one get away.
The chase led him past the packing crates to the long stacks of industrial pipes. The hunter lost sight of his quarry for a moment as it rounded a bend. Reaching the same point, he looked down to find his prey had vanished.
For a moment Vasili sulked. Then a second later his ears caught the magnified pattering of tiny feet. He smiled to himself. The rat was in one of the pipes. Drawing his Indian rubber slingshot and a steel ball from his pocket, the seaman knelt and quickly began peering into the tubes. Each opening was about as large as a man's head. That much space meant all he had to do was find the right one and shoot into it. An awkward angle, but the narrow confines meant a hit would be assured. Vasili smirked at the thought of the American authorities turning out the pipes only to find a dead rodent.
Suddenly, as he crept along, Vasili caught a glimpse of something.
He hesitated, uncertain if he was seeing correctly.
In one of the pipes stacked about two feet off the ground, he could see a pair of small, gleaming eyes.
The rat-tracker frowned perplexedly. Now how had the little devil managed to climb all the way up there? He continued to peer into the dark hole. A slight rustling came from within. Well, it was certainly in there. With that, Vasili drew taut the rubber of his weapon, aimed into the hole and fired.
Something struck Vasili hard in the cheek, and he fell back against a crate, shocked.
The impact was starting to transform into a very intense pain. Vasili closed his eyes with a gasp, then quickly opened them as he realized what had happened. He had been hit by his own steel shot! He could see it now, rolling idly across the floor, rebounding off things like in a pinball machine.
Vasili stared uncomprehendingly. He couldn't have hit the rim of the pipe, he had been positioned right in front of it. And he was too good a shot. So what just happened??
Blinking away tears, Vasili looked forward again.
What he saw made him wipe his eyes furiously.
The pipe was closed off. Sealed. It looked like someone had just squeezed the thing shut.
Then, before this impossibility could sink in, right before his eyes the hole simply opened up again. Vasili stared into its shadowy confines.
Two eyes continued to peer steadily out at him.
Then something sprang from the darkness, and before the young sailor could open his mouth to scream, his face was seized in an unnatural grip. His body refused to obey the commands his unfortunately still-functioning brain screamed at it. Vasili was forced to sit and watch as something came winding out into the room.
A writhing tentacle emerged, mate to the one that encased the lower half of his head. This was followed by a winding blob. On it were the glowing eyes that continued to watch its prey as it extracted itself. More kept coming, until standing before the simple sailor was a towering nightmare.
The thing withdrew its oversized palm from his mouth, as if satisfied that no alarm would be coming from this tongue. Then in two arching strides it stepped over mounds of crates until it reached the nearest porthole. Vasili's nightmare opened the window, and as he stared in mute horror, it began to squeeze its way through the tiny opening.
In a few moments, it was gone.
The foreign inspectors found him an hour later, along with the desiccated corpses of vermin stashed throughout the room. Vasili still had not dared to move.
To be continued...