With a mindless roar, the earth rent itself around the Teen Titans, a noise so colossal it was almost solid. And the fear it engendered was all too real.
Somewhere behind them, a traitor fought to save the people she had forsworn.
The geo-path Terra had single-handedly brought down her own avowed master, arch-criminal Slade. But in doing so, her reckless attacks had damaged the earth's structure to the point of unleashing a lava-bomb that threatened to swallow the city far above them. It was as if Slade had pronounced his death-curse on the land he had sought to rule. And now, his apprentice was trying to stem that curse, even if it meant following her master's fate.
But however great the danger to their home, the Teen Titans were preoccupied by their own immediate peril. Nearly a mile below the surface, the five heroes struggled through the collapsing tunnels of their enemy's abode. Debris fell to crush them, the ground itself threw them off. Dust filled the air, mixed with a collection of potentially lethal gases. Trapped in darkness, with death held at bay only by their own skills, the brave quintet raced towards the light. The constant small yet fatal threats actually served to aid them, kept their minds from being paralyzed with terror by the enormity of their own desperate situation. No time to ponder; just dodge, run. And live.
Robin hurled himself to one side as flames gouted up before him. For a moment he thought he was on fire, but as he rolled away he found himself unharmed. In the orange glare of the blaze he could finally see the passage's length clearly. And he was alone.
"Hey!" he screamed. "Titans! Where are you?!"
The rock squealed at him. Noise everywhere, but not the sounds he wanted to hear. Desperately Robin reached into his belt's compartments. Staggering on the rumbling floor, he activated his communicator's emergency signal. On it, the Titans' symbol began to beep and flash brightly. He peered back down the way, searching, hope and dread raging in his heart.
Three gleaming points of light answered his prayers, and the young warrior shouted in relief.
Starfire shot down the tunnel, the fear on her face replaced with pure joy as she located Robin up ahead. A shaggy green shape leapt nimbly below her, the polymorphed Beast Boy finding his way unerringly as a mountain goat. He was followed closely by Cyborg, who for all his bulk was managing to keep apace with his teammates. And bringing up the rear was Raven, her telekinetic powers serving to ward her fellows from their collapsing surroundings.
Reassured, Robin waved the Titans onward. "Six hundred meters left!" he shouted. "Let's go!"
Starfire sailed over to his side, the flames reflected in her emerald eyes. There was so much concern in them, Robin realized that she wasn't even afraid for herself. Just for them, her friends. He briefly laid a hand on her arm.
"We're all going to make it. I promise you."
The Tameranian princess touched his face, a light caress. She had no words for this. Now joined by their colleagues, the entire team resumed their determined bid for survival.
Fire and broken tunnel lights served to increasingly illuminate their direction. In no time, the city's guardians reached the end of the tunnel, coming out into a monstrous cavern. Mining equipment and broken robot ninjas marked this as a familiar area, but there were several other exits from this hollow. The sound of Terra's efforts seemed to be diminishing, but whether this was a sign of victory or failure on her part, none could say. Rubble continued to cascade around them, and the oppressive smells were worsening.
As the Titans hesitated uncertainly, Cyborg tapped a console open on his arm, recalling the layout of this lair that he had unconsciously recorded into his memory. So informed, he activated his shoulder search-light and narrowed the beam onto an open hole in the chamber's far wall. The others responded, sprinting in that direction. With life or death still a matter of chance and choice, they blasted, charged, and dodged towards the only option their brains would allow.
Raven floated after her friends, purposefully lagging behind. Her powers stood the best chance of seeing them through this safely. So long as she kept up a rear-guard action, she could defend them from any threats they did not see themselves. She could have tried to teleport them all away from here, but there was so much noise, confusion. The sorceress knew that she was still not yet restored to full control since her fight with Terra. The only thing that kept her from breaking down and shrieking out her terror of being buried in this tomb was, ironically, her fear for her friends. And with all this added on, she couldn't risk it. If she tried to move them, and lost touch with one...
NO! You are not going to fail, she told herself. The Teen Titans would make it out of here, she would protect their lives, even if Terra didn't...
Cyborg leapt by Robin into the exit. The Titans' leader made sure his teammates were safely away, then looked back. Only Raven remained, but she had halted. Robin frowned. This was no place for hesitation, they had to stick together. But the noise was lessening, he was certain. Perhaps they were safe.
Swift as thought, everything stopped.
No more sound, almost like the earth had sucked in its breath. Robin started in surprise. He looked at Raven.
She was hovering, also motionless. Their eyes met. Robin saw something there, in her face. Like she was about to tell him something. But instead she turned away, looking back behind them. Robin followed suit, scanning the area, alert to any danger. But he could see nothing.
He had just opened his mouth to speak when the scream hit him.
A howl of inhuman intensity erupted from the air itself, bursting with such awesome force that when he heard it, Robin knew only fear. Simple, total fear, like a child trembling before a monster rushing from the closet. He couldn't move! Heaven help us, what was it??!!
So fast. It came so fast.
The rear of the cavern seemed to pull away from them for a moment, leading them to doubt their own senses, defying their basic perceptions with this illogical trick. And before they could tell themselves it was impossible...
Not just the wall, but the floor, the ceiling, from all sides it burst outwards and raced from the direction they had come, a shockwave of elemental destruction that vaporized the bedrock and swept a wall of wreckage three hundred feet high towards them. It was chaos loud enough to burst their eardrums. It was a true titan, a disaster.
It was their death. Nothing could stand against this.
Robin saw her standing before the storm. Seeing its approach, knowing that this would kill them, his primal instincts shattered the paralysis worked by his own imagination. In the split second between self-awareness and self-preservation, the teenager found himself again, and he shouted at his fellow Titan to run, disappear, try to get away.
But she didn't move.
Dwarfed by the lightning immensity of the onslaught, she remained where she was. Robin sprang back into the cavern. He would drag her back, even though there was no hope of evading it, they still had to try...!!
Raven's hands came up, her eyes opened wide, burning with magical force.
Damn you, Terra, she swore.
The wave swept towards them, Robin screamed out her name, and Raven struck.
A detonation sounded through the cavern, and Robin was hurled back against the wall. He staggered, fell to his knees. Complete disorientation, like the feeling when you dive into the swell of a wave. Still alive, how...?
Looking up, Robin thought his heart might burst from the sight before him.
The roiling mass of devastation had halted just a few yards away. The falling boulders, the very ground, it was stopped, frozen in place by a black, cold light. Only the dust continued to swirl silently within the magic barrier, like a tornado caught in a bottle.
Raven stood before it all, arms and legs outstretched. She had grabbed it. Everything around them was being held in place, caged by her spirit. Contained, it was almost peaceful. Robin forgot to breathe in his amazement.
It was quick. Fast, the magic aura flickered. The torment raged again, a high shriek in his brain, only for a second, then back into submission. Raven was clearly shaking.
Robin flinched. It was her voice, intruding in his mind, commanding him. "Raven," Robin whispered, stumbling to his feet. "We... we have to leave."
<Leave> she sighed softly. Then, <Leave me>. He didn't even speak his rejection of those terms when it came again. <I'll live. You won't. Leave me>
He knew she was right. He was helpless. Standing in front of the swelling force, Robin felt himself reduced to nothing before it. Just a bit of flesh and brain. There wasn't a single thing he could do to stop this. The young hero thought he might weep with shame. He should just run.
As soon as he thought it Robin realized something. That wasn't flight. It was abandonment. He knew what he wanted of himself and it wasn't that. That was how he chose it.
Robin stood firm. "I won't desert you." In the dead quiet his voice was the only sound to be heard. He took a step towards the fatal wall, found the next one came easier. He closed the distance between them and reached out a hand towards Raven. Her head dipped, shoulders scrunched down. The room flashed again briefly, the monster returning and gone. Robin's fingers touched her arm.
She spun about, seized hold of him. Her hood was pitch darkness, but Robin caught a glimpse of raging crimson eyes, before he was flung back, across the cavern, into the tunnel, the entrance tearing apart behind him to seal itself. Raven whipped around to face her enemy, teeth bared. The sound of her own hatred roared in her ears.
"YOU BITCH!" she screamed, and dove into it.
It all came at her. The force of the explosion tore around the cavern, and Raven unleashed her power. This time there was no subduing, no quieting in her soul. She attacked it. She tore into it. Spinning about in the howling eddy of frenzied earth, the demon came to the fore. Every rock, each nightmare cloud of dust had Terra's face on it, and she rushed to destroy them. Her power lashed out, smashed the granite, countered every blow that strove wildly to hurt her and her friends. She still had it all trapped here, tied up in a net of magic, she would never let it go. Again and again she hammered at the seismic fury, tearing her fingers through those hated features. It was coming after her. And she wanted it to! Do it now!!
The demon burst up over the top of the hurricane. Her back pressed against the ceiling, she saw it below her, coiling, vicious, like a crouched animal preparing to strike. It wanted to kill her! It was going to kill her!! She felt the power born in her body, her soul. Just let it all out!!
The galaxy of force and earth screamed so high, a call to battle, and the entire gruesome thing vomited up towards her.
"DIE!!" her raw throat tore.
The shaft of black magic lashed out of her form, a sword that hurled itself swiftly against the oncoming threat. They met, and the blade cut clean through it!
In that instant, one of them perished.
Raven hit the floor and lay there, shuddering. When she tried to move she couldn't. Everything was quiet. Was it over? Was she dying? Dead? The girl found she didn't want to open her eyes. She wasn't even sure if she could. Her nose was bleeding. She could taste it. Taste. Must be still alive. She reached up to wipe the blood away, then opened her eyes.
It was too dark to see. But there was light. Over there, on that stretch of wall. The light was shining so bright, electrical. Why there? No damage, except for some boulders piled up, blocking the tunnel. The one her friends had escaped through, before she...
Raven's stomach twisted, and she threw up right there.
On her knees, she knelt in horror. Mother help her, what had she become?
She had been pure hate, destruction. She had lost control, and fought that thing like she was fighting Terra. She remembered it. Her deranged mind had actually thought it was Terra, and she had...
Raven's eyes opened wide.
She had killed it, thinking it was real.
With a groan, the damaged spell-caster wrapped her arms around her body and sank to one side. Her forehead pressed against the rock, and she sobbed. Whimpering, Raven lay there, telling herself it wasn't true, not wanting to believe that this was something she had felt and done. She had thought she was better than that. She could control herself. But when the time had finally come, when it had seemed like it was either her life or someone else's, she had chosen to kill. She had cut the cord of that thing's existence, destroyed it everywhere.
"Nooo..." Raven moaned. She hadn't really done it. But she had thought she was, and it was a shattering revelation about herself. "A killer," she whispered. "You're a killer." Best she should just die. Couldn't go home to...
A sound came from high above her head. Something came whistling down, and before Raven could think any further a slab of granite smashed into the ground a few feet away. The force of the impact threw her back. Shocked, panting, Raven just stared at it. Then more noises reached her ears, and her gaze swept up.
In the dim illumination of the electric light, Raven watched the ceiling of the catacomb crack and splay downwards. The shockwave had left a vacuum in its wake nearly half a kilometer in diameter. With this area's natural support now ruptured, the weight of earth pressing down from above was shattering the gutted cavern's roof. In moments she would be crushed. Maybe she should be.
Before she could finish that reasoning another spear of stone tore loose directly above her. Cart-wheeling end over end, it spun down, and without thinking, Raven wrenched herself aside. She was hurled away again, only this time she did not land. Though exhausted, Raven called on whatever resources remained to fly. A deluge of rock and earth was descending, and she dodged away from it, too drained even for fear. It was instinct that drove her now.
The exit her friends had taken was blocked, and the desperate mystic knew she had neither the time nor the strength to unclear it. Zipping about uncertainly, she strained to find something else, anything. Half the cavern had been obliterated by the rockwave, but there had been several tunnels leading in here, if she could only locate...
YES! There! One opening revealed itself to her. The shower of rubble was increasing, and without another moment of hesitation Raven flew down her escape route. Total darkness enveloped her. Her flight was erratic, unplanned. She caromed off a wall, went spinning. Keep going, her instincts told her. The destruction was following. Raven was no longer certain which direction she was headed. For all she knew, she might be flying back the way she came.
Suddenly her powers gave out, and she dropped stumbling to the shaky floor. Her feet got their bearing, and she pressed on, one hand on the tunnel wall to guide her. Dimly, she recalled if you are in a labyrinth, you keep one hand on the wall, and follow it. Don't lose touch. Raven began to stagger forward, distractedly taking one turn, then another. Had to keep going. Her pace quickened even as her legs began to ache. She lost touch with the wall, and couldn't regain it. Lost in the dark, the black sorceress raced desperately forward, hands outstretched.
Her fingers jarred harshly against something. Too late to stop, she slammed against it. Then Raven crumpled to the ground, and simply faded away.
Kultuq came awake.
He did this, he told himself, because he was hungry. And why are you hungry, he asked? Because you did not eat yesterday evening, he replied. Because you were reading, and did not want to stop. Because you had gone to sleep hungry before, and knew you could do it. Because...
immortal sat up and blew out his breath. Thinking too much. Movement. That was
nothing new. Why did he suddenly find it so fascinating? Again with too much
thinking. He should talk to a psychiatrist. Of course, he was a licensed
Blast! Doing it again.
The troubled soul flopped back down, then stormed up, threw his pillows against the door, and rolled off the bed. He crawled to a chair, dragged it to the window, threw up the curtain, and clambered into it. The world went by outside, faster than usual. He had grown accustomed to the persistent shaking of the Elipsos train, its clamor no longer disturbed him. So then what did disturb him?
Kultuq did what he had been doing a lot of lately. He asked himself why.
was he here? He was taking a train to
What did he want?
Not food. He did not want food, didn't really need it. He wasn't hungry, hadn't felt hunger since the time he had transcended mortality. His stomach had not rumbled at him for tens of thousands of years. Kultuq had awoken from sleep, something else he did not need, because his mind told him to eat something so as to keep up appearances. Living in this world required him to behave in certain manners to avoid being caught. Kultuq was a free man, but Vandal Savage was a wanted criminal. He always had to be wary, circumspect, paranoid, not like when he had spoken to Raven.
Kultuq stared out the window. The swift-racing trees, the mountains, houses... They were all going by too fast, they would tear themselves apart, crumble into death and disappear! He lunged for the light switch, savagely flicked it on. Immediately the contents of his cabin appeared in stark unmoving reality. The window became a solid rectangle of night by comparison. It was just him now, in this room. That was all the world, and Kultuq sank back onto his bed, consumed by powerful emotions.
had been a month since he had left
had not asked himself for a reason. He had just stubbornly waited until the
date to leave for his arrangement in
Since that night with Raven, he had remembered what it was like to simply be Kultuq. He had talked to her easily. He had been cautious concerning his past, he admitted, but not out of fear for himself. It was because he did not want her to leave. He had enjoyed her company. She was interesting, and unique. And she seemed to value something about him as well. He had forgotten anyone could appreciate him outside of the advantages he could offer them. He had even told her his given name. Nothing alive knew that. Kultuq asked himself again: Why? Because he, Kultuq, had no need to hide?
He had thought about it then, and Kultuq had decided that he did not want to hear Raven speak the gross cognomen of Vandal Savage. It was a name she might already know and despise, even if she did not seem to have recognized him. Kultuq groaned and bit his fist. What had he been thinking when he thought up that ridiculous pseudonym? It had seemed clever at the time, but now it left a bad taste in his mouth. Pity he could not go back in time and warn himself. The undying human rolled face down on the bed and lay still.
What was he trying to decide here? Give up Vandal Savage? Throw away 7,000 years of planning, study, hard work and exploration? He knew why he had chosen this path, it still made perfect sense, even now. But he had been considering discarding this course before, because the obstacles in his way seemed to be mounting, not receding. He had actually decided to clean house and disappear for a few centuries when Raven appeared. She thought she had saved his life. That was one thing he was never in danger of losing. But she had kindled a spark in his mind, his soul. For the last couple of weeks Kultuq had felt dynamic and active again, even while accomplishing nothing of any significance.
Can I just live like this, he thought? Let the world and its people go their own course? Without Vandal Savage?
Kultuq looked up at the wall over his bed. The bell to ring for service was there, a tiny plastic button. Vandal Savage required food. Kultuq did not.
Press the button. Or not.
Kultuq thought about why he had decided to rule the world. What he could do for it. All the things that made him want to do it. He raised his hand to make the call.
He remembered how Raven looked when she had smiled at him. Vandal Savage could never make her do that. Kultuq hesitated.
She would leave him eventually. She would die. Someone in this wretched world might even kill her. That was the world they lived in.
Vandal Savage pushed the button.
He was not crying.
It was so quiet. Raven could hear her own heartbeat and breathing. Through her eyelids she discerned a light. She must have left it on while reading. Wasteful. She really should turn it off, but it hurt to move. Why would it hurt? What had she been doing?
Raven decided to open her eyes. Where was she? She sat up.
Something went wrong.
As her vision began to focus, Raven suddenly felt her heart rate increase. To her confusion, her body began to grow unnaturally hot, and she collapsed back to the ground. Trembling, eyes wide with fear, the mystic lay helpless. What was happening?! Her vision was interrupted by flashes of light. Without warning, pain like white hot needles flared between her eyes, pushing into her sinuses. She clenched her teeth. Pain pain pain please stop go away it can't go on forever can it?
The fire died out, leaving a lingering aftershock. Her pulse slowed, body temperature cooling. Raven realized she was not going to die, and she was sick with gratitude. Her body was slick with sweat, gleaming in the light.
Light? It came to her. She was...
Raven sat up again, warily. Nothing happened. She was sitting on the floor of a tunnel. The coarse rock rubbed against her fingers. Lying off to one side was a glowing red stick that lit this subterranean passage faintly. And right before her was a large, smooth sheet of metal. Groggily Raven reached out and clasped the lightstick. She raised it a little higher, and the phosphorescent glow revealed a machine of some kind. Cylindrically shaped and about seven feet tall, the device took up most of the tunnel. It had heavy tank treads on its sides, the plates festooned with spikes and...
A metallic clank came from within the construct.
Raven's breath stopped. She heard a rustling sound now. Someone was inside this thing.
She was not alone.
Raven got on her hands and knees. She crawled softly over to the machine. Along its length, a hatch was open. The young woman got to her feet, let the light reveal what it could. Inside the cylinder, a figure crouched before an open compartment. Its back was to her. Raven saw it raise something to its face. She heard a faint click, and carefully brought the light up.
The figure's head rose. Its shadow was now visible on the wall before it.
"I'm glad you've decided to join me."
It was his voice. Unmistakably smooth, controlled...
And cold as ice dripping down her back.
He rose, turned to face her. Until the very last moment she prayed it wouldn't be him.
To no avail.
It was Slade.
Raven dropped the lightstick. The powerful sorceress took a few steps back, raising her hands before her. Black magic encased her wrists, ready to lash out and crucify this maniac to the wall if need be. She tried to think of something to say, but couldn't. A threat was standing just ten feet away from her. Why talk? Just kill it, her blood whispered at her. He tried to kill you. No, Terra did that. Before, then. Don't think! Just DO IT!!
Raven shivered. "No," she whispered finally.
They both stood watching one another. Neither made a move.
"Come out of there," Raven commanded. "Slowly."
Behind his mask, Slade's single eye gleamed in the light. A cold glow, hypnotic and deadly. His featureless, bilateral helm suddenly reminded Raven of an Oriental demon mask, a face designed to terrify and intimidate all who came before it. It was the unreadable mantle of a hooded executioner, raising the blade to chop off your head and lift it up by the hair for all to see. Here stood death.
Slade brought one foot forward, his boot making a hard clank on the metal floor. Raven saw that despite being undeniably alive, the villain had not escaped his confrontation with Terra unscathed. Pieces of his armor were missing, and fresh bandages were visible under his bodysuit. The price he paid for his wickedness. It did not suit the crime.
The criminal's heavy form filled the opening. He ducked beneath the arch. Raven tensed in preparation of an attack. Slade paused.
He stared at her. She did not quail before him. He continued to watch her intensely.
Then his eye widened.
A pain hit Raven like a blow to her stomach. With a cry, she fell back against the wall. Her body was boiling with heat again. Eyes closed, she slid down the rock. Her sense of equilibrium was fluctuating. Raven 's heart palpitated wildly in her chest. She was sick somehow, and before her Slade was...
Raven's eyes opened wide. Though her vision danced all around her, yet she could see that her enemy had not taken advantage of her state. He stood at ease, completely calm. As if he had total certainty regarding the situation. He was in control.
The catastrophic change in her body seemed to be subsiding. Raven did not wait to be sure before she spoke. "What did you do to me?"
In response, Slade raised a hand and waved it idly in the air. "Nothing I haven't done before," he replied. "You can set your mind at ease. I merely guaranteed your cooperation."
The sorceress forced herself back up again. Her heart was beating fast now but not out of fear. "You are seconds away from experiencing new territories of pain yourself," she bit out. "So talk!"
Her foe leaned against the side of his machine and crossed his arms. "You're not at your best, Raven. I can only assume that's why you haven't figured it out yourself." With that, Slade bent and retrieved the lightstick. He then took a few steps further down the tunnel, and Raven noticed something that had escaped her attention earlier. Illuminated by Slade, the purpose of this device became clearer.
At the front of the armor-plated worm was a huge, heavy bladed drill, the kind that could chew through solid rock. Slade had used this type of weapon before. But this one's potency was diminished by its current condition. A slag-tide of black, steaming rock, which Raven assumed had once been lava, had spilled over the tunneler from one wall. The magma had seeped into the tank treads and fused them together upon cooling. While relatively undamaged, Slade's escape device, for clearly that was what it was, had also just as clearly lost its functionality. Raven glanced back down the tunnel's length. "You're trapped down here."
Slade turned around. "Indeed. We are."
"And you've poisoned me..." hidden beneath her cloak, Raven 's fingers began to sparkle,"...in the pitiful hope of forcing me to save your life." She pressed her hands against her stomach.
"Isn't that what you do?" Slade remarked. He turned to examine his creation again. "And Raven..."
Suddenly liquid heat shot through her veins. Her ears were filled with a high-pitched continual squeal, and Raven lost her balance, crashing to the floor.
"You should know by now that I do not plan to lose."
From the corner of one eye, Slade took in the girl huddled on the floor in agony, then moved back into the borer to continue replacing his uniform. "While my tactic is admittedly unoriginal, the venom in your system is anything but. A complex molecular strain, my own design. Specifically engineered and border-line alive, enhanced by occult means to harbor a fixed sense of purpose. Once activated, it will destroy its host slowly, but effectively. And it will resist, to your death, any attempts to expunge it, whether natural or otherwise." He was lecturing, coldly delineating her torment as if he were teaching a class.
"So now, my dear. Do you find yourself more amicable towards my rescue?"
Silence. He continued his rejuvenation.
"You have..." her voice rasped out from behind, "...a cure?"
Slade slid on a gauntlet and smiled to himself. "Assuredly."
"Then what's to keep me from snapping your limbs and searching you until I find it?"
"A great deal," Slade replied coolly. "Not the least of which is that I carry a number of unusual or lethal serums on my person. I wouldn't recommend you trying them at random. And, so you know, there is only enough antidote for one of us."
Raven looked up at him. Her gaze was cold and accusing. "You're lying."
"While you are dying," Slade whispered. He finished and turned back around. "Morality or life. I really don't see why the choice would be so difficult."
The solitary Titan regained her feet and stood before the looming menace. She had no doubt that he had poisoned her. Whether or not he had a cure was uncertain, but one thing was sure: Slade would never give it to her willingly. She would have to get it on her own. Raven finally noticed that her communicator was missing. No doubt her locator was deactivated also. There would be no viable rescue. This time it was just her and Slade. She considered this. Robin had been in a similar situation, only then it was herself and her friends whom the criminal had infected. Their leader had managed to out-maneuver Slade, using a risky yet effective form of persuasion. He had threatened to destroy something the other man valued. That something was himself. Now Raven had to think of a strategy that would wrest just a little control away from this sadist.
"I am ready to leave here," Slade purred out in a satisfied tone.
Raven remained silent before him, eyes downcast. She drew a deep breath. Then, without sparing him a glance, she reached out and rested her palm against the rock wall. "Try to be patient," she said, letting her flesh press into the bedrock. "It'll take me a few hours to tunnel my way up to the surface."
In a flash Slade leapt through the door and closed the distance between them in one stride. Raven realized she had never been so near to him. There was danger in his presence, but when he spoke his voice was soft, almost chiding. "Are you playing a game with me, Raven? Because I am more than familiar with your capabilities."
The grim spellweaver kept her eyes locked firmly downward. "I wouldn't recommend you relying on my ability to teleport. With the condition I'm in, your poison working its magic, and the none-too-subtle emotions I feel for you, I guarantee you would not end up where you intended. I would probably just send you to hell." Now Raven met her opponent's eye squarely. "However much you belong there, I do not intend to follow you. We go a safer path, or you resign yourself to dying."
Slade suddenly leaned in close, bringing the lightsick up to Raven's face. Seconds ticked by, and she resisted a strong impulse to shrink away from this man. She had set her resolve. He would just have to live with that.
Whatever Slade saw in her visage, it seemed to convince him. He stretched out his hand over her shoulder and laid it flat against the wall next to hers. "You may proceed," he acknowledged. "I will let you know when time is running short for you."
"For both of us," Raven affirmed, keeping her voice from trembling. Then she turned to face the stone. That was it. Now she had options. The more time they spent in this mutual stand-off, the more chances she could determine the location or existence of the antidote. Should it prove impossible, she could translate herself away and leave him to die alone. Raven, at least, would die with her friends. And so...
"Azerath Metrion Zinthos!"
A disc of swirling solid night spread from her hands, ripping apart the rock at its basic components. Raven moved forward. And Slade followed.
Now, this was a dream. That was because he knew where he was going, and he knew that he would get there. The catch was, he wasn't anywhere right now. So that could only mean that he was already where he needed to be.
Walking up the hill. He was not wearing any shoes. When he crested the rise, he would see her. Yes, there she was. In the wrong place. So he crested the rise again. That was right. The sky was purple, orange, and cloudy. Wrong. No clouds, there hadn't been any clouds. He remembered that. But she was still waiting on the rock, standing on it, it was much smaller than it should be so now she was as tall as him. He was careful not to step on the roses he was carrying as he walked over to her.
Her cloak was blue for sure. Her back was to him, and her hood was down. He had never seen her with her hood down. This was the first (second?) time. He would look at her face under the stars half the stars the rest of the sky was sunset rising.
He began to walk around her. It was a rule. He had to see her face. But she was turning as he walked, always keeping her features averted. He kept walking. He was starting to despair. He could not start until he saw her eyes. He could start over, but he was afraid that when he crested the hill she might not be there. Had he said something wrong?
He stopped walking, but his feet were still moving. And then he realized what the problem was. She was not moving to confound him. He was standing still, and it was the world that was turning. The world was turning, she was turning with it, and he was standing still. He was always that way. He couldn't help it. He wished he could tell her to stop moving, to come with him. But he couldn't say that. He stared at the ground sliding beneath his planted feet. The roses in his hands were fresh, but the ones falling from the sky were dying. So would she. It was all moving and leaving him behind alone. He looked up at her. The hood was back. If he didn't do something soon he would lose her. Think, man, think!
She taught you to think. So he thought.
Everything was turning around him, sky and trees, sun rising and setting, no ocean this time, just trees and fields. But her back was turned to him.
If it was all moving, and he was standing still, they why could he not see her face? She should have turned by now unless...
Unless she was like him too.
Of course, they were both standing still.
That was it. Neither of them was moving, which was why she was waiting here and he couldn't see her face. It was because she didn't know he was there because her back was turned. He had to tell her, and there was one thing he could say because he had been honest about his own.
It came out in a whisper. She didn't hear it. So he cleared his throat and tried a little louder. "RAVEN."
She turned and saw him. Raven smiled.
She dropped her hood, stepped forward and kissed him.
He woke up.
Kultuq remembered the dream. Even with the noise of the city now so loud outside he knew that he had been dreaming about her. The spell-casting girl hero Raven. Teen Titan. She was just like him. A relief.
And she had kissed him!
He had felt it in a dream, and it felt great. Kultuq had never actually felt anything in a dream. But his mouth still registered the imprint of her lips. He had made the right conclusion, in his dream. Merciful gods, he was happy! This was the emotion called HAPPY!! He let out an astonished laugh. So this is what happiness feels like, it was fanTASTIC!!!
She kissed me, he thought again, and rolled over on his side.
Kultuq smiled. Raven had kissed him. In a dream. He kept thinking about it until he was ready to get up. The feeling you get when you're ready. You don't need to invent excuses. He was ready to go where he needed to go and that was...
Kultuq caught sight of the clock. Six fifteen A.M. Today he was supposed to go to a lunch meeting with the young heiress to the Madame. To elicit her cooperation in the business angle of his latest endeavor. He wanted their support. Rather, Vandal Savage did. He felt dazed. What had been so important about this? He wanted to stay happy. He had never been happy. Would this meeting make him so?
He had to go. He had already decided on the train to remain Vandal Savage. Why? Because he wanted to rule the world, or because of Raven? She could not stay with him forever. Better to have the world for all eternity than a love that lasted only a few dec...
For Raven, it was the easiest thing in the world to destroy. You just take hold of something, let it know how to break and it will. Anger helped that because then she could encourage it to destroy itself. But she knew that when she was angry, she tended not to differentiate between what to rend and what not to. She couldn't let her emotions do this for her, otherwise everything around her might be wiped out. Including Slade. And she couldn't...no, she wouldn't do that.
The determined heroine was vaporizing the rock ahead of her, shearing through stone at an acute angle, with Slade right behind. He kept her in the nimbus of his lightstick, and remained in close proximity. Dangerously close. Although, Raven considered, as far as Slade was concerned, there was no such thing as minimal safe distance. Not while he was alive. And it was beginning to seem as if he always would be.
The pain in her body was growing more constant as she worked. She was being turned off, system by system, from the inside. Her telekinesis worked by transmitting a portion of her own soul into the objects around her. So Raven had to disassociate herself from her raw, sick body, retain her calm, continue to work relentlessly, and not listen to her own emotions that were telling her to turn around and blast this man to meaty bits.
All of this, and she still had to figure out a way to beat him.
As a citizen of Azerath, Raven had received training in dividing herself from body and soul, and dividing her thoughts was much easier. If you let yourself, you really could be in even more than two places at once. Part of her made progress on the excavation, another kept her feelings in check. Other sides dealt with her body, kept watch on Slade, and lastly, the dust-gray avenger planned her escape.
She could immobilize Slade physically, reach back and lock him tight in that combat gear of his. Doing so would also have the added benefit of incorporating her spirit and awareness into every artifact on his body. This would enable her to analyze each item's purpose and determine if the curative serum was present. A good plan. However, supposing it wasn't as simple as that? Slade was devious. If the antidote did exist as he claimed, it might not be kept in a bottle. It could be a word, one that only having Slade speak would prove effective. Also, if the drug was hidden inside his body, say in a false tooth, then Raven couldn't reach it. Her human-anchored spirit could not penetrate the living flesh of another soul. Raven shuddered. It might even be his blood. To get to it, she might have to kill him.
Time passed by, each minute of hesitation an opportunity lost.
Raven's stomach churned as the memory of her behavior only an hour ago resurfaced. She almost stopped moving forward, almost stopped thinking and started feeling, almost turned on her captor and...
Don't make the same mistake twice.
The conflicted girl pushed apart the cold earth, telling it to give way before her. She was shivering dreadfully, and the bad air of this tomb felt like a knife-blade down her throat every time she breathed in. She thought she tasted blood, but if she used her magic to verify it the poison might sense it and increase its death-rate. Raven's legs trembled with exhaustion from the warfare inside her. She was hurting, and no one could help her. The ground was shaking from her efforts. Noise surged in her ears, she felt so cold. She couldn't stop. Couldn't make up her mind for sure, to die or live, kill or be killed, someone spoke her name but she didn't care. There was still a long way to go and she heard her name shouted but she was Raven and she was afraid to ki...
Suddenly the resistance in front of her vanished. Raven stepped out into nothingness. Before she even realized that she was falling, an arm wrapped around her waist and dragged her back.
It was a river. An underground waterway, surging beneath the city. With all that was going on, the sound of its course had not even registered with her. She had tunneled right out over it. But that was not important. Because as Raven's body made contact with Slade's, she caught his thoughts, and he was thinking about drowning her.
Raven frantically tore herself from Slade's grasp. She whipped around and stood in the opening she had made, back to the current, hands gripping the wall for support. Her breath gasped in quick horror. It had been brief, but totally vivid. He had been on top of her, pushing her head into the water, disregarding her ineffectual blows as she grew weaker, body heaving for air under him, pulse fluttering between his thumbs, finally lying still, the satisfaction of her murder.
Raven's shock was overpowering her. Kill him! Kill him now, before he kills me, how could anyone like that be allowed to live it's sick and vile wrong...
"You almost died, Raven," Slade intoned in a tombstone-cold voice.
She started at the human sound coming from this thing. The young mage was totally unnerved, couldn't make a decision because there were too many contradictory impulses. Raven was caught by warring states of choice.
Slade's head came up. He never seemed to blink. The arch-villain examined the way before them. "The other side is only thirty feet across. I recommend you take us there now."
He was talking to her like she was still alive, but he saw her as dead. Was that how Slade thought? Was everyone just another potential victim, their execution only temporarily delayed? There was too much going on. If she actually made a decision now, in this state, she might not be able to live with herself. Raven did the easiest thing she could. She knelt by the lip of the tunnel. Water churned beneath her in a loud torrent. The conflict of her emotions bestowed on her a fragile sort of calm.
"Azerath Metrion Zinthos." She could do this in her sleep. A black energy disc formed under her hands and expanded outward until it was large enough to accommodate them both. Raven stepped wearily onto it, followed without hesitation by Slade. Carried on her magic, she levitated them across the river slowly, oh so slowly.
Halfway across. Drop him in.
Almost there. Let him drown.
Touching the wall now, you're missing your chance!
Raven shoved against the stone, destroying a huge swath of it in a rush. She pushed blindly forward, no longer trying to go up just trying to get away, forward, right, left, she had to get away!
Everyone had limits. The drained Titan collapsed to the ground. The parts of her that were not numb were in torment. Her head was spinning, it was killing her. All she could do was breathe and wait for it to end.
She felt Slade's presence come up behind her. At first he said nothing. Then...
"You're of no use to me if you wear yourself out. Rest for a time." She heard him take a seat.
"I'll tell you when to begin again."
Everything was starting to die down. Rest. Gather your strength. But don't sleep. Don't let yourself go around this man.
If you didn't wake up dead, then he would be.
One thing you can count on is for women, from any level of society, to keep you waiting. Of course, the upper crust referred to this as being "fashionably late." A self-serving statement, but for now, Kultuq was relieved by it. The more time he had to himself the better.
He had arrived at his rendezvous precisely on time. Upon being escorted to his table, he had ordered a Dom Perignon which was now chilling unopened beside him. On impulse he popped the top and smelled the bouquet. The aroma was enticing, but like most wines that Kultuq knew of, it probably smelled better than it tasted. Everything was better in your imagination. And that explained why he had used the word 'love.'
From his position on the balcony, he heard a flurry of activity downstairs, the paparazzi and staff reacting with mutual frenzy to the arrival of someone of exceptional prominence. For his part, Kultuq had used a back entrance and a simple disguise. The formal apparel had been waiting in the owner's office. His entry into the restaurant proper had not gone unnoticed, but it had created no particular stir among the assembled diners. No surprise, the clientele here being a jaded, self-important lot, convinced that nothing outside their own personal considerations regarding money or society could have any significance.
And besides, it was common knowledge that world domination was out this year.
The young woman who entered the dining area had no interest in what was commonly known. She was dressed in an ensemble of black, white, and turquoise. A bulbous head ornament sported a long tail that wrapped around one arm to anchor at a bracelet on her wrist. Kultuq thought it made her look like she was being devoured head-first by a flashy python. The low-cut skirt showed off her long legs to anyone who happened to be in the area. The lady moved deliberately towards his balcony, giving only one desultory glance to the lone socialite among many whose well-used greeting was worth a response. Kultuq found himself staring entranced at a spot on the floor two feet away that was soon filled by the woman's shoes. It took an effort to wrench his gaze up and rise to take her fingers.
"Le Petit Madame," Vandal Savage greeted her cordially.
"Vandal," the girl lilted. "Such a thrill to see you again."
Did she really mean it, Kultuq thought? Ah, it didn't matter.
Vandal brought her hand up to his lips, but at the last moment he pressed it to his forehead. The action seemed to startle her, but not offend. Indeed, she seemed almost pleased at the unfamiliar style of introduction.
Kultuq did not care. He was still recalling the event from his dream, and did not want to spoil it.
Le Petit Madame, whose real name, he now recalled, was Sophie (or Soufflé as had been her childhood nickname) took a seat opposite him. Strategy there, she had avoided either chair beside him, preserving some measure of distance. Upsetting any preconceived notions of familiarity. Almost on cue, she smiled, and Vandal had to admit it was a good trick. Perfect shaping of the lips, the right lift to the cheeks, eyes opened just wide enough; all masterfully calculated to appear open and joyful, disarming the prey with its own satisfaction upon seeing it. Make the target feel good about itself. One of the oldest rules. No surprise. The line of the Madame was, after all, founded by a whore.
Sophie's face was done up in the style of the cinema stars. Her skin was covered by layers of artfully blended makeup, simulating a tone and glow that did not exist outside of entertainment elite. The eyebrows were solid and sharply delineated, thin lines without a single individual hair out of place. Perfect. Nothing at all original about it, just perfect. She looked exactly like a million other women Kultuq had seen in the last century alone.
Vandal forced these thoughts from his head. This was business. She could look like a warthog for all the difference it made, he only wanted her cooperation.
"I envy the way you moved through there," he remarked with a smirk. "I can't tell you how difficult it is not to cause a stir when you're supremely capable of doing so."
"You could," Sophie leaned forward. "But that's not why you came to me."
"Then why don't you tell me."
Yes, tell me, Kultuq thought. Tell me what you think I'm doing here, and I'll tell you if you're right.
"You're juggling more than one sword, Vandal Savage. Reacquainting yourself with me, enlisting me to act as your courier to the Madame, and evaluating my usefulness in your plans. Have I hit my mark?"
Yes, Kultuq thought. And you have no idea how much that shames me.
"Vandal?" Savage noticed her again. His companion regarded him with a cautious mien, totally unlike her previous polite bantering. "You went away for a moment there. Your face was completely dead."
Kultuq let a slight sneer impose on his features. Something had to. Let her wonder what it meant.
"An area in which I have no personal experience."
Sophie hesitated, and smiled again. A bit less easily. "Well, who does?"
His perspective was off. He had come here with a clear strategy and this wasn't it. He just had to remember what...Ah, yes.
"A troublesome subject. Also not the reason I wanted to meet with you. Tell me, my dear... have both Madams seen fit to consider my proposal?"
Sophie clasped her hands together and leaned in again, more confident now. As she did, the strap of her dress shifted, revealing the tattoo of the Fleur-de-Lis. The custom of branding had ended only 70 years before. "Of course we have. Such offers seldom come to our table, so when they do, we always take the time to savor them."
She was only eighteen, Kultuq realized. And already she spoke as if she knew it all.
"And?" Vandal poured her a glass of wine. Sophie accepted it and splayed the vial between her fingers, examining the contents.
"One of us harbors a distrust of you. The other is keenly interested." Her eyes flickered at him momentarily.
Oh, wonderful, Kultuq sighed to himself. A guessing game. You would think this girl was immortal the way she dragged things on.
Savage raised his wineglass. "And to which lady should I offer more persuasion?"
Her lips parted. "Why, I suppose the one whom your plan, whose scope no doubt reaches far into the future, can rely upon for such an ...extended ...length of time."
And there it is. The hint of betrayal. Kill the old woman for me, get me out from under her control, and I will be your partner, etc., etc,. How predictable.
"Then perhaps, my dear Sophie, we should order our meal, and talk further."
The girl now smiled. "Thank you, Vandal. I am famished."
Vandal Savage signaled their waiter, and ordered for both of them. They sat together for a while in silence. But Sophie typically could not let that last.
"I knew I could rely on you, Vandal. You, if anyone, know the importance of planning for the future. I sometimes think that there is nothing which you have not already considered at some point in your life. You are almost like a living repository of all the world's thoughts."
"You might be right." Beneath the table, his hand was clenched.
Something fluttered behind him, and it caught Sophie's attention. "Oh look, my dear, we have another guest!"
Kultuq turned his head, grateful for the distraction so he could look away. A dark shape perched on the railing.
"A crow." Sophie's voice was rich with irony. "Symbol of mortality, betokener of death. Now how often does the universe give such easily-interpreted approval?"
Vandal continued to stare.
"Never," he whispered.
It was a raven.
The jubilant young woman did not notice, continuing in a sing-song manner. "I've often pondered that. How does one know beforehand if the path they take will pan out? Indeed, how do we even know that we are living properly, or at all?" Vandal did not look at her, and Sophie admired his intense profile as she continued her monologue. This was one of the most prized philosophical conclusions which she had drawn.
"I used to be fascinated with my hands as a child. I would look at them and move the fingers and realize that it was me doing that. I don't get that feeling anymore. So how do you know that you are alive? I think first you must feel something, and examine your choices in reaction to that feeling. If, say, you are in a Korean prison cell, in the dark, sentenced to lifetime incarceration, your options are limited. Can you really say that a person in that situation is alive? They are the ones who decide that, since I have come to believe, in my own opinion, that we are only..."
"ONLY REALLY ALIVE..." Kultuq interrupted loudly, and Sophie blinked.
Vandal's hands clutched his chair.
"...if we have options and know it," he concluded grimly.
Sophie drew back from him. She noticed some of the other diners were eyeing them unobtrusively after his outburst.
"Why...yes," the girl stammered. Could he read minds, she thought?
Vandal still had not looked around, and Sophie twisted her fingers, a little irked.
"I'm sorry, Vandal, have I already told you this beforehand?" she asked in an icy tone.
"No," his voice cracked harshly. "I've just had this exact same con-ver-SA-tion before!"
Vandal turned back to her, and Sophie gaped. The look on his face was one of naked contempt.
Her expression only left Kultuq more repulsed with his situation.
"Yes, the same conversation!" he exclaimed angrily. "I might have been sitting in the same city, at the same restaurant, talking to an ancestor of yours! One hundred years ago, a thousand, it doesn't matter!" His voice was rising as a pent-up frustration he had been ignoring came spilling out. "And every one of you behaves exactly the same, there's no chance of committing something new! I've experienced every possible permutation that could result from your kind, and the problem is, you just keep repeating yourselves!!! It's simply a matter of something I've seen a billion times or only TWICE!!"
The restaurant was frozen in shock, including Sophie.
"Keep your schemes, Soufflé!" Kultuq sprang up and threw his napkin to the table with disgust. "There's nothing new you have to offer me!! And I am sick to death of repeating myself!!!"
outraged immortal then turned and vaulted over the balcony, disturbing the
raven as he did. He fell forty feet to the street below. On landing he felt
something break, but Kultuq started off anyway, and it healed completely by the
second step. He ran in the direction of the docks, pushing through the crowds
and disregarding the traffic around him. Kultuq didn't care if he was making a
scene. Let them try and arrest him. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn't this
and it wasn't here. It was in
He left behind him an untouched meal, an unwanted persona, and a girl whose social status had just dropped significantly.
No matter what you feel, it can always get worse.
Raven was well aware that life held an infinite supply of wrath and misery to give to anyone who accepted it. She tried not to imagine what additional torment could make her look back on this moment fondly.
The feverish delirium had left her. Now she sat hunched over on the hard ground, her cloak wrapped protectively around her body. Slade remained in the same spot, about ten feet away from her. Neither party had attempted conversation. How would it go anyway?
'Killed anybody today, Slade?'
It did not make her laugh. She was hungry. Her mouth was dry and full of dust. Also, she was tired. And, oh yes, she was dying. Beast Boy had vowed to make her smile one day. Things were very bad, because she actually hoped he would get his chance. Even one chance. She could still give it to him. At the very least, she had that option: to escape.
As if reading her mind, Slade suddenly stirred, and Raven tensed.
She watched him reach into one of the compartments on his belt, and remove a small canteen. He brought the contents up to his visor's air slits, and Raven's throat clenched as she saw water cascade out of it. It seemed to go on forever.
Slade finished. A droplet fell glinting from his mask.
The sorceress' thirsty body commanded, and she obeyed. The flask snapped from Slade's grip and flew in her direction, to hover in the air before her. She needed this. But she had regained enough control to be suspicious. So what if he had drank some? Starfire had forced her to watch The Princess Bride three times. The cask floated invitingly in front of her face. Raven turned a wary glance on her enemy.
Slade leaned against the wall, one arm resting on his upraised knee. He turned his head to meet her silent accusation. His whole body seemed to say, Oh, please.
Raven took a painful breath. Then she drew the canteen in to her mouth, her magic angling it to let the cool liquid flow. She was careful not to let the metal touch her lips. She had seen Cleopatra too. The first mouthful was heaven, but she resisted the natural urge to swallow, and instead used it to wash the dust out. She spat the water onto the floor, and then proceeded to drain the flask, stopping to breathe only at the end. The empty container clattered to the ground. Raven scrunched back against the wall, closing her eyes. She waited.
She knew he was still watching her.
"Stop staring at me," she whispered hoarsely.
Then a low, nasty chuckle.
"You needn't be concerned for me, Raven. You're not unpleasant to look upon. Far from it."
A new wave of unhealthy heat wracked her body, and Raven shuddered, fingers gripping the fabric of her cape tightly. Her eyes slid over to him.
"I hate you."
She had never, ever said those words before.
Slade did not even blink. "But here you are doing as I command. Just like Robin..."
She knew what was coming next.
Raven realized he was baiting her, but she was not the sort to hold her tongue. Especially not now.
"Every person you chose as your apprentice has tried to kill themselves, Slade. Do you think maybe that should tell you something about the value of your instructions?"
This was so petty. What was she aiming for, here? To hurt his feelings? Raven shivered, remembering something Robin had said after his escape from Slade's control. Cyborg had commented about the villain probably feeling bad after his defeat at their hands, and Robin had shook his head.
'Slade doesn't have feelings,' he had muttered. 'Just cravings.'
He was completely right. When Slade spoke next, there was not the slightest hint of disturbance in his voice.
"Person, Raven? Terra never even amounted to that much. Spare me the half-hearted defense of her," he spoke languidly as Raven opened her mouth. "It's just a natural reaction to argue with whatever I say. And what would you bring to bear? Her flagrant insecurities? Her selfish, sniveling impulse to run away? Her inability to master her power on her own, or her pathetic unwillingness to try? A lot of nothing, Raven. You can't build a person out of what they don't have. And Terra had enough to fill up a room."
"But what she did have was power."
Still in pain, Raven could not bring herself to even try and contradict him. It was all true anyway.
"She was a vessel, not a person," Slade continued. "A vessel of elemental force, and an undeserving one at that. She lacked even the basic ability to make up her mind on how to use it. She just emulated anyone around her she could find. I knew her, you see. It wasn't hard. And once I had accomplished that, I set about acquiring that power for myself. Because I knew what I wanted it to do. I gave that girl her fondest wish, and mind you, it wasn't control. It was complacency. The opportunity to sit back and give all the power over to someone else's judgment. She never even asked me why I did it. Just like she never asked herself. So don't have any regrets, Raven. The only thing you lost today was the chance to see the fear in her eyes, before you pulled them out of her head."
"That final plea for forgiveness never touched your heart, did it, my dear?"
Raven's breath hissed out savagely between her clenched teeth. She slammed her eyelids shut.
"Why don't you just die?!!" she cursed him venomously.
The faceless tyrant only gave an airy laugh. More time passed. His captive waited miserably. Her mind was reeling, and not only from the poison. This just made no sense. If there was the slightest justice in the world beyond what they themselves could create, then how could this happen? How could a man like Slade even come to exist?
Against all instinct, against her better judgment, Raven spoke again.
"Why are you like this?"
The Azerathian waited for a response. And just as she was certain none would be forthcoming, it did.
"For the same reason you are, Raven. Because I chose to be."
Unable to open her eyes, the Teen Titan trembled. "I didn't choose to be poisoned!"
"Oh yes. You did." His voice was deliberate, self-assured. "You didn't have to come to this world. But you did. And no one forced you to be this self-appointed champion of justice. That was your mistake. You could have let this city's foundation blow itself apart, but no. Another error in judgment." Suddenly, Raven heard him rise and slip towards her. "You could have killed Terra the instant she attacked you," he whispered.
"I'M NOT LIKE YOU!!" Raven howled raggedly. She buried her face in her knees and wished desperately that he would go away and leave her alone. Instead, his even timbre sounded nearer.
"You must have wondered why I did not choose you as my apprentice, Raven. Can you guess?" It was a hushed, pointed query. The huddled cloak made no response.
"Because you...are too afraid to kill."
A tiny whisper came from the bundle of midnight. "Robin doesn't kill."
"Ah, but not for the same reason." She could hear him coming ever closer. "Your leader and I view ourselves in a mutual regard. Only for Robin, his natural instincts have been blunted and caged. This is due to the influence and teachings of an exceedingly strong will, one that has dominated Robin from a very young age. Whomever that will belongs to, it has done a masterful job. Through training, coercion, and simple, relentless repetition, it has instilled a set of beliefs and predispositions in Robin that are completely alien to his own nature. His mind is clenched around these teachings, these heroic moils, so he believes they are his own. When I took Robin on as my apprentice, I merely instituted my own strategy, to break him free from that other's self-serving methods."
"But you, Raven..." his voice crooned right beside her hood. "You do not kill, not simply because you have been taught not to, but because the way you feel when you want to kill terrifies you, to the depths of your soul. I considered all of the Titans for my tutelage. Some I discarded more readily than others. But your case consumed me for the longest time. You wield miraculous power, Raven. An inborn force that could make you queen of this world, if you desired it. But you never unleash its full potential. I puzzled over this for some time. And watching you in combat, I finally understood why. You hesitate before inflicting pain."
The words droned on relentlessly, a cold hiss at her ear. "Always, your first impulse is to contain or disable the wrongdoers you face. The same way you restrain your own destructive impulses. And this is because you are afraid that once you do harm them, you will not be able to stop. You will find that you actually love it, love to kill others. And when you do, you will no longer be yourself anymore. But you still want to kill people, Raven. The way you wanted to kill Terra."The way you want to kill all your friends!"
Raven's head came up, her mouth wide with horror. She raised her hands to push the monster away from her...
And found no one there.
Slade remained where she had last seen him, in exactly the same position. Except now, his eye was closed. Was he asleep?
Had she been...?!!
A momentary flicker of panic, but no, she had not slept, and Slade was not dead. She could still sense him, but his aura was subdued. Perhaps he really was asleep. And if so...
Cautiously the young heroine got to her hands and knees. She crawled towards her slumbering opponent, making no sound at all. Slade did not move. Raven sidled up before him. Still that sinister mask remained blank. If she could enter his mind now, she might be able to locate the antidote. Her hands came up towards his face, and then withdrew in revulsion. Raven recalled how it had felt to touch this man's thoughts even for a moment. She did not want to know that mind again. But this was her best chance at life. She had to be this close, even to cast a spell might awaken him. There was no more reasonable choice.
And with that, the mind-reader pressed her hands to the sides of Slade's mask.
A slow, easy move. Careful not to make a mistake. Find a way, something you both share.
That was easy. Darkness.
She felt him open up. She was reaching in, making the connection. It was almost coming...
...and Raven heard music.
Slade was performing a perfect rendition of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony No.5.
Before Raven could react, something slammed into her chest, flinging her away.
She fell face first, and in the next instant a broad arm crushed her throat. Slade's knee ground into the small of her back. He pulled her to him, bending her body to within an inch of its breaking point. As Raven choked, she heard him now speaking undeniably at her ear.
"You failed to learn your lesson from before, Raven." His voice was angry, malevolent. "So let me make it clear: my mind is not for your prying. It would eat you alive." His hold tightened, and the pain-soaked enchantress pulled desperately at his arm, struggling ineffectively to draw in air. The poison amplified her suffering to an unheard of level with every beat of her rebellious heart. "I'm only thinking about what's best for you, my child." He sounded caring. Eyes squeezed shut, she felt tears come to them.
Slade shoved her harshly forward. He rose off the coughing girl, and stepped back.
"Do we understand one another?" Patiently he waited for a response.
And he got it.
A snarl shivered the air, and before the martial-arts master could react, he was snapped up off the ground. Movement was not an option, his suit was alive. He could feel pure rage crawling through his armor, over his skin. It tightened around him, digging viciously into his wounds, seeking his blood.
Below him, Raven finally looked up. The face was no longer her own. Burning from the living blackness under her cowl were the red eyes of a demon. Her teeth were bared, and the sound of her breath was that of a raging beast. Slade's arms and legs were seized by gleaming ebon bands. They gave powerful twists, bending his limbs at the joints, finding the spot just before they must snap and keeping them there. The arch-fiend hung like a gruesome puppet in midair. His nerve endings registered the cruel violation in all its intensity. How far would she go?
Still crouched on the floor, Demon-Raven found her enemy's pain was not enough. He had not even screamed! There had to be more. He must give the ultimate satisfaction.
His form alive with demonic energy, Slade's mask was wrenched to one side, taking his head with it. The bones in his neck ground together. They sent signals of alarm and pain to the brain, but to no avail. The helm continued to twist back. She was going to snap his neck. It reached the point of no return. Slade's left eye took in the girl who was seeking to kill him. What was in control now?
Then it hesitated, and he knew.
Demon-Raven's eyes blazed. Take the final step, she thought. Crack this man's neck, then burn the poison out of your body and be free!! There's nothing stopping you! It should have been done long ago, you will never miss this man. He wants to murder you, you can do anything, it's your mind, your power! Just KILL HIM! killkillkillkiLLKILLKILLKILL!! JUST KILL THEM ALL KILL THEM ALL ALL YOUR ENEMIES ALL YOUR FRIENDS WHO CARES ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE WHO CARES ABOUT THE FUTURE WHO CARES IF IT'S WRONG IT'S WRONG IT'S WRONG IT'SWRongit'swrongwrongwrongwrong don't do this you're Raven.
Slade fell, landing in a crouch . He caught his balance, limbs reacting with practiced response despite the pain. No permanent damage. Slade satisfied himself of that before turning his full attention on the girl in front of him. The danger seemed to be over. Raven sat in a daze on the floor. Her eyes were back to normal, but they were unfocused. Her mouth hung slack. She did not even seem to be breathing.
Raven came back to herself, and found her insides were flaring with the conflict between her body's defenses and Slade's toxin. She vaguely remembered to breathe. Her eyes flickered at the feeling, and then she caught sight of Slade watching her. She stared back at him, wondering what to do. Something had to be done.
What had someone once said to her?
"The problem with you, Slade," the human child said carefully, “is that you're too sure of yourself. You have no doubt about who you are, or the certainty of your actions. That's not human. You're no longer human. You've turned yourself into something else, a demon. So don't assume that other people think like you because they don't. And another thing," Raven spoke, and there was anger in her voice. "If I do decide to kill, I promise you'll be the first to know it."
Behind his mask, Slade's eye narrowed. "If you have the strength to philosophize, then I judge you ready to begin again."
Raven climbed to her feet, head spinning. "I think I will," she whispered.
Kultuq finally reached international waters. Even if any French authorities were pursuing him, they would have to give up now. Little chance of any super-agencies having been contacted, not with the state of political escapades as they were at the time. He had managed to make good time too. Dismissing the crew before embarking must have lightened the load. Kultuq had left a lot of people behind him, servants and allies.
Vandal Savage's servants and allies. They could go their own way now. He checked
the instruments. Piloting a yacht was different than sailing a ship. Here you
were indoors, couldn't look up and see the stars above you. He wanted to have
that feeling again. But he knew this was faster. Couldn't risk getting lost. He
had to make it to
It might take time. There were arrangements to make, favors to call in. He wanted things to work out just right. Or at least to be ready if they didn't. Just keep trying, he advised himself. You'll get there eventually.
"I've fallen in love," he said. No one could have been more surprised.
He stepped out on deck, looking at the moon and sun and sea.
"Today," he stated calmly to them, " is the first day of my life in love."
So fast. It came so fast.
Before she could tell herself to stop, Raven had broken through the concrete. Only half-aware, she took one unsteady step into the light. The sun was out, the mist had cleared. But it didn't feel warm. Why?
And with that, Raven collapsed.
For a time, everything was peaceful and quiet.
Then Slade rose up from his grave.
They had come out in the middle of a construction site. No one was visible, the city's inhabitants having committed mass exodus in the face of his forces. That army was now in ruins. Slade slowly drew the silent air into his lungs, and let it out. He would have to re-evaluate his strategies. Perhaps it was time to call in less obvious forces to this fray. Terra was dead, but she had preserved this city and its resources for him. Of course, there was the matter of the Titans to consider. He was certain they had survived.
And speaking of Titans...
Slade turned to examine the girl at his feet. Raven was in the final stages of a great deal of pain. Sweat-filmed skin, brow furrowed, eyes closed. He knelt beside her. She was seething with agony. It was obvious.
And it excited him.
There was nothing more captivating than the sight of a person about to die, and yet be fully aware. He savored her suffering, wanting it to go on, regretting that it must end soon. Pity. Every death was unique in the opportunities it could provide him, and Raven's promised to be an exquisite show. Plus there was the culmination of his own principals...
She lay dying. Raven could feel her murderer close at hand, and knew she had to kill him. A life for a life. That was justice. But who needs it anyway? Just kill him because you want to. You are dying now, no consequences to face, nothing left to be afraid of.
Oh please. That was a coward's reasoning. Hamlet's final act. You should die with regrets, but no shame. If you can't face the consequences of something, then don't do it.
Teleport away, back to your friends, even if you die along the way you can end up with them. That's why you came to this world, remember? To find your friend...
Raven's eyes opened, two black orbs of magic. Slade noticed and leaned in, ready to recite the kill-command at the first indication of her inevitable decision.
The last decision you'll ever make. That's right. She hadn't come here to kill. It would stay that way. Raven felt her eyelids slowly close.
Slade saw her slacken, and his own body stiffened with sudden rage.
This could not be the resolution!
Slade's instincts burned with the desire to destroy something, but this was not a matter for simple brutality. His own personal clarity was being called into question here! This child had played a major role in his calculations for the last few years. Though her past was still a mystery, he had been certain that her end would prove readily agreeable to his predictions. So then where was this resistance coming from? What could possibly prevent her from choosing his way now? His reasoning had been flawless, and yet she was not responding at all!
Though he knew it might cost him his life, Slade remained where he was, keeping his enemy's death vigil.
The pain in her lungs was too great. Raven had to stop breathing.
It was all but over. And she still chose not to kill.
Amazing. She chose not to. Against all reason. What was her motive? Slade reached down and lifted the girl up. Propping her in the crook of one arm, he drew aside her hood to examine her face. No answers there. And in a few seconds, none would be forthcoming. Ever.
He studied her intently.
"What will it take?" the powerful man asked, curiosity and wrath mixing in him.
He had to know the answer.
He craved it.
Swiftly Slade reached up, depressing the hidden clasps to remove his mask. From the hollow of his empty right eye socket, the magician removed a hard blue sphere, its colors swimming with turgid pressure. Holding the orb over Raven's lips, he mouthed a single word.
The marble suddenly became soft to the touch, and Slade squeezed. It burst like a ripe grape between his fingers, and a blue elixir trickled into Raven's mouth.
The effect was immediate. The countermeasure took hold, and simply told the poison to destroy itself and any trace of its presence. Like a chastised puppy, it obeyed. Years of crafting obliterated in an instant. At the same time, the elixir worked swiftly and assuredly to rectify the damage wrought by its death-mate. Then it, too, dispersed. Ah, magic, Slade gloated.
Caught on the precipice of non-existence, Raven's body suddenly informed her that there was nothing wrong with it. So she didn't have to die. The bedraggled enchantress found that she could breathe again without resistance.
An ibis? What was that?
Raven's eyelids flickered up. There was a bright light above. Very bright.
A dark shape wavered on her perception's edge. She tried to focus on it, but failed.
The darkness descended between the light, and Raven felt a hard mouth crush against her lips. It lingered there for a while, and then the shadow pulled away. She was laid back onto a gravely surface, and heard footsteps moving away from her.
Since no one objected, Raven passed out.
"Will you stop telling me to calm down?!" Robin screamed. "How many times do you have to say that before you realize that it's not helping anybody!!"
"Man," Cyborg's eye glowed dangerously. "You keep barkin' at me and I'll launch you into the atmosphere. That'll calm you down." On an otherwise deserted street, the two Titans faced off.
"I don't even have the time it would take to slap you down," Robin retorted contemptuously. He turned and stalked away from his cybernetic teammate. "Do you want to find Raven, or are you just going to salvage your stupid car?!"
Cyborg's heavy feet sounded behind him, and Robin dropped and rolled backward beneath his lunge. He recovered in a defensive stance as the half-robot pivoted to face him.
"Don't you dare pull that kinda crap with me!" the big man bellowed. "You're not the only one worried about her here!"
Cyborg expected another angry retort, but instead, Robin's shoulders slumped.
"No," the Boy Wonder glared at the ground. "I'm just the one that failed her the most."
Staring at his leader, the Titans' strongman gave a weary groan and shook his head. He was just trying to decide how best to handle this, when an alarm activated in his brain. Startled, he took a moment to verify it. But Robin, whipping out his communicator, beat him to it.
"A locator signal," he breathed, almost afraid to hope. "Raven's!"
The young hero pressed a button on the device. "Starfire! Beast Boy!"
"We know." Beast Boy's image appeared next to Starfire's.
"She is close by!" the Tameranian exclaimed.
Robin and Cyborg forgot about their argument and tore down the empty lanes of their city. Within minutes, they had reached the source of the signal, an abandoned construction site. A Titan's communicator lay on the ground. Robin bent to retrieve it as Starfire and Beast Boy dropped down beside him. He looked about desperately.
"Here," a shaky voice called softly.
The four allies looked up to see their fifth member emerge from behind a stack of T-bars. She moved slowly, supporting herself with one hand on the metal. Before Raven could draw breath for another word, her friends rushed to surround her, shouting in relief.
"How did you...What happ...Are you all ... Where's..."
Raven let them fall over her, too weak to protest. The mental exhaustion was just as debilitating as any physical one. After a confusing jumble of seconds, she finally raised a hand. "I'm fine, really," she murmured from the back of her throat.
Starfire took her hand solicitously. "Is there anything I can do to aid you, my friend?"
Raven shook her head, took a step forward. "I'll be all right. I'll tell you everything that happened, just give me a little time..."
The exhausted sorceress looked at the beaming faces of her teammates. Their concern for her touched a memory only recently renewed. The real reason she had chosen to come to this planet.
To be continued...