It's very simple. Nothing complicated about it. You put a label on that clearly identifies your luggage as yours, and save yourself a lot of trouble. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
So then why was there always some idiot who couldn't be bothered to listen to reason?
Sgt. Steve Reubens sat in
the office of National Homeland Security and watched the drama unfold. The 3:45
am flight from
In situations like this, cooler heads prevailed, and as anyone who knew him could tell you, Sgt. Reubens was as cool as they come.
"211," he spoke into his microphone, "Respond to an incident involving two white males at pickup 4."
The receiver crackled. "Copy, 56."
On one of the screens before him, a security guard under his command moved away from his post by the door and walked briskly in the direction of the dispute. Reubens was pleased to note that without any need to be told, the officer's partner had already increased his patrol area to include that vacated by his counterpart. The security sergeant had received high marks on the last three inspections of his unit, and he had made sure to pass this news along to his subordinates. They had taken it as their due.
In the handful of years since the establishment of his division, Steve Reubens had effectively adapted to an increasingly rigid and highly regulated method of law enforcement. Protection and prevention. The two went hand in hand, and he for one had found no cause for complaints when the new security procedures had been laid down. As far as he was concerned, it was better late than never. The previous lax methods of handling airport security had chafed his sense of purpose, often putting him at odds with airline personnel, unappreciative citizens, and indolent members of his own detail. Gloom-and-Deubens, they called him.
But now, things were different. Events had transpired that had crystallized Steve's own fears. But whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Rather than break the nation, these terrorists had only served to strengthen their resolve. Whereas before Sgt. Reubens had been considered an agitator, he was now a well-respected and trusted member of his field. The travelers had come to accept that they truly needed his level of protection. The airlines had been informed from the highest office in the land that they were now not just a commercial business, but this country's first line of defense. And the men and women under his command took their duties with a newfound sense of urgency and dedication. Their watchword was vigilance. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of those who threaten it.
Now, those were words Steve Reubens could live by.
Out on the landing strip, Flight 2031 from
Down the gate corridors, Flight 2031's crew was already disembarked. They wouldn't be airborne anytime soon. Now was the best time to ask about the discrepancy in their schedule. "189," he announced authoritatively, "Hold onto the pilots and crew of 2031, ask what caused the jump for their flight." With a single bip of confirmation, a middle-aged woman stepped in front of the approaching group. Reubens watched her direct them off to the side and begin the questioning. However, he found something of greater significance farther back down the hall.
From out of gate C15, the passengers of 2031 were disembarking only seconds after the pilots. As anyone who has been on an airplane can tell you, this was unheard of. Now Sgt. Reubens was definitely suspicious. Glancing briefly at his other camera viewpoints and finding nothing worth his attention, the security chief now trained all his perceptions on the small crowd of people moving through his territory.
At first glance, nothing. Despite differences in clothes and gait, the situation appeared to be behaving normally. No evidence of tension and reservations to imply anything untoward had happened during the flight. Reubens didn't let his attention waver. He had been doing this for 12 years, he knew what was required of him. Don't get careless. Assume the worst and you'll never be disappointed.
Look at them. See what's there for you.
A woman in a business suit and red hair. An old Oriental carrying a newspaper and duffel bag. White male with a tan holding three suitcases, well-made.
"56," 189's voice crackled in the room. "I've spoken to the crew, and they claim nothing out of the ordinary. Thing is, according to them they're here now because they left an hour early. All they keep saying is that they got permission to leave and..."
Two teenagers in tropical attire, seemingly together. Indian woman in a sari holding a baby. Big guy with a beard and his right arm in a sling, carrying a suitcase with a bag over his bad shoulder.
"Sir, did you copy that?"
Big Beard and Tropical Tan: not themselves so much as what they were carrying. The luggage. It was a match set. And far too much to be allowed for the onboard storage compartments. They were both walking together at the head of the crowd, not side by side, but flanking someone, a third party. Immediately Sgt. Reubens focused in.
The subject was a female, short, maybe 5' 6." She was dressed in a long black coat, black fur-trimmed hood drawn up around her head. A pair of dark shades covered her eyes. As Reubens watched, the girl glanced back and spoke to her escorts, after which they both increased their pace. Loaded down with so much luggage, neither man seemed the least bit disturbed.
But the same could not be said for Sgt. Steve Reubens.
"209 through 213, look alive. 3 bogies, 2 male, 1 female, carrying black matching luggage. Approach immediately and detain." His voice was controlled, confident. As the security guards moved away from their posts, they all felt reassured by their commander's steady tones. His voice did not permit them to feel fear, even for a moment.
Truth be told, his heart was in his mouth. This scene could turn into a nightmare at a moment's notice.
Safe in his control room, Steve Reuben's pulse was racing with fear. He watched as his team, men and women he knew had friends and families, approached the suspects. They spoke briefly, then drew the trio aside as unobtrusively as possible. Steve's stomach felt empty. The woman in black clasped her purse in front of her, and spoke a few words. The two men stood behind her at ease. Nothing to cause worry, but Reubens could feel the armpits of his shirt soaked by sweat. He didn't used to get this scared, and nobody else knew any different. But now...
Then one of his men gestured over his shoulder authoritatively. The woman smiled and nodded. Her companions put down their baggage, and three of the guards moved them both off to a safe distance.
Steve slowly let out his breath in relief. On the screen, the woman had consented to be led away by the remaining two officers. As they left, Reubens noticed that each man had retrieved the luggage dropped off. He frowned. That was dangerous. The contents were still unverified.
"209, 213, report your status."
A second later, one of them responded. "Sir, we are coming in."
Steve hesitated. The situation was apparently defused. Still, he would like to know what was going on.
"Copy that," he replied and switched off. Sgt. Reubens stood up, feeling more confident by the second. With a last sweep of his monitor screens, he left the camera cubicle and moved to the Homeland Security debriefing room, taking a seat at the table. Now to get some answers.
Ten minutes later, the two officers made their appearance, loaded down with expensive-looking traveling cases. Sgt. Reubens gave himself a mental note to chew them out over that later. Couldn't do it in front of the suspect. Speaking of whom...
He turned a baleful eye on the figure that stood tranquilly before him. She was young, somewhere in her early twenties, he guessed. Slender and graceful. Her features were definitely Oriental, what wasn't obscured by the hood and glasses. Smooth, pale honey skin glowed softly on an ovoid face with a slightly pointed chin. Round cheeks, delineated by a pair of pert, slightly puckered lips in a distinctive shade of plum lip color. All in all, rather pretty. But Steve Reubens was not some amateur to be taken in by a sweet face.
"This is a security inspection," he said without preamble or introduction. "Let's start with a passport if you have one."
The girl's mouth curved in a smile. Moving slowly,
without a single hint of anxiety, she opened her purse and reached inside. Sgt.
Reubens tensed, even though he knew she couldn't
have gotten a weapon past the inspectors in
The suspect's dark leather-clad fingers came up with a
"Miss Sarah... Nade?"
And the girl opened her mouth to reveal neat white teeth.
"Actually, sweetie," she said in a beautifully soft, echoing voice that sent a tingle up his spine, "It's pronounced 'Nah-de.'"
Steve Reubens smiled at her. "Of course."
Sarah held out her hand. "May I?" she whispered, and Reubens relaxed visibly. He handed back her passport without another word. Behind her, the two guards remained motionless, a look of peace on their features matching that of their officer.
Sarah smiled at the three men. "Actually, Mr. Captain, I don't mean to be a nuisance, but I'm kind of pressed for time here. Do you think maybe we could skip the whole interrogation and just send me on my way?"
Steve grinned. "I don't see why not."
"Oh goodie!" she beamed. The pair of guards turned back towards the exit, when Sarah held up a hand. "Actually, boys, you've both been so nice, I was hoping you could go into your security room, disable the cameras and erase the surveillance footage for about three hours before now." She turned and directed a dazzling smile at Reubens. "I'm sure your superior wouldn't mind carrying all my luggage out for me."
She was certainly right about that. Steve stood up eagerly. The guards trooped out, depositing their bags in his eager grip. Then they went down the hall.
Sarah Nade stepped aside. "Let's go, officer. You need to escort me the rest of the way."
Struggling under the weight of his heavy load, Steve took the lead. He staggered out of the Homeland Security offices with his charge trailing behind him. They moved together through the scatterings of airline personnel and passengers. Some people noticed the peculiar couple, but none of them dared speak up, afraid of having the attentions of Homeland Security turned on them and disrupting their schedules. His own men took note, but they obviously did not know what to make of it, and thus remained at a distance.
Sweating and stumbling, his legs protesting this treatment, Steve soldiered on. Occasionally Sarah would speak to him, tossing out off-hand comments on their surroundings or complimenting his performance. He was just glad to be of service to her. Eventually they reached the airport's drop-off zone.
Several taxis were waiting there, along with some family cars and a limo. This last Sarah flowed on over to, tapping on the window. When the driver rolled it down, she spoke to him briefly. Steve stood at attention, face bright red and streaming with sweat. He did not even consider putting down the bags. At last the chauffeur popped the trunk, and at a sign from his ward, Steve proceeded to load her belongings into the space provided.
When it was done, he closed the trunk and stepped back. Sarah had already entered the vehicle, and now she lowered the tinted window a bit.
"Thanks for all the help. You can go back inside now."
The engine started. As the limo began to pull away, she blew him a kiss.
"Sayonara, Captain Safety!"
And she was gone.
Steve waived goodbye, and then went back inside like she said.
As he walked through the luggage pickup area, dodging travelers and still feeling quite fine, one of his detail, a woman whose name escaped him at the moment, came running up to him.
"Sir," she spoke quietly, "Just what the hell is going on here?"
Sgt. Reubens looked at her, beginning to be slightly irritated by her tone. Didn't she know better than to question her superior like that? And in a crowd full of civilians, no less!
"I'm going back to the office. Is there a problem?"
"But... sir...!" the guard stammered. "Who was that woman you escorted out of here?"
"Sir...I just saw you with her..."
"You’re mistaken!" Reubens snapped imperiously. "I just went outside for a bit and now I'm back."
And with that, he turned and walked away, seething at this breakdown of his command integrity.
"Sir!" the guard called after him. "Sir, I need to report this!"
Report all you want, Sgt. Reubens thought darkly. He was beyond reproach.
In the next few weeks, an investigation was conducted.
While some people interviewed gave testimony as to possibly noticing an officer
escorting a woman, none of the passengers or crew of 2013 could specifically
recall any such person onboard during the flight. Although one stewardess
testified she might have seen someone in black enter the cockpit before takeoff,
she had been all the way in the rear of the plane at the time, and the flight
attendant in first class claimed he saw no such thing. A problem with the
security monitors both there and in
The wave's swell approached the boat.
It seemed high enough to crest the side, but she knew it wouldn't.
She wouldn't get wet.
Raven went back to fishing.
There were a lot of them. They were quick shadows right below the surface of the sea. Each time she caught one and drew it out, she expected to see the real animal. But it was too dark out here. Bringing them into the light revealed nothing more. So she threw them back.
"I'll never stop," she declared. "I'm going to find you."
Raven knew that she was right. She also knew that she wasn't alone.
Vandal was sitting in the center of the little fishing boat behind her. She hadn't turned to see him but he was still there. He was the one who baited her line. Every time she draped the pole over her shoulder, and when she brought it back there was bread on the end. They kept going like this. Working together. Never speaking. They didn't need to.
And then suddenly, when Raven drew her pole forward, she saw there was nothing on it.
She looked back.
Vandal stared at her. Slowly, he shook his head, then pointed over the boat.
She followed his arm. On the shore now, she could see the other Titans. They were close enough that she could make them out clearly. Each of them was screaming at her. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but she knew that they were scared for her.
The boat stopped moving.
Raven looked out over the side. All the fish were gone. The sea was dead quiet.
"Don't do it," Vandal said.
She knew it was a mistake. She wouldn't get what she wanted now.
But she put her line in all the same.
And deep down below her, she felt something stir.
A presence. Maybe even an awareness.
A faint tug came on the line. Raven started to wind the reel.
"Stop it, Raven."
She ignored him. Kept on pulling the catch in. The ocean began to glow as it rose to the surface. Or was it the starry sky, now revealed behind the clouds? Was it of the ocean, the sky, or...?
Raven stood and began hauling upwards. The glow was so bright now, it lit the world and beyond. Raven knew. This wasn't what she had wanted. It was too big. Much too big. It couldn't be right. And yet she still didn't stop.
Then the light went out.
She sat down in the boat. No one was behind her now. Or on the beach. Her friends were gone. Raven was afraid. She felt something horrible was waiting for her, right below the boat. If she looked, it would get her. Here she was safe. She would just stay here.
A tug came at the line. Raven didn't move.
Another tug, more insistent. It demanded she bring it up.
"I want to go home," Raven whispered.
She looked over the side.
Something burst out of the water and pulled her into the darkness.
When Raven saw it, she screamed.
She awoke fully, bathed in sweat. The sheets were tangled about her, and she frantically threw them off, loathing their touch against her body. Alone in her bed, Raven sat up trembling. She was breathing fast to match her pounding heart. With profound relief she realized it had just been a nightmare.
But even though she knew this, it gave small comfort.
The fear did not go away.
The young woman rose from her bed and stepped lightly across the cold floor. In her bath chamber, glowing orbs ringed around the tub, casting a faint, soft luminescence, enough to allow her to see. Raven knelt by the edge. The well was empty. At a mental command from the sorceress, abruptly this was no longer the case. From out of nowhere, the tub began to fill with black water, only slightly transparent. Not so much as a hint of sound came as it rose up from the floor until it reached a few scant inches from the lip. Without further ado, Raven slid down into the water.
Neither cool nor warm, the liquid was the perfect temperature for her current body heat. Already she could feel the magic pool having its effect, erasing the unwelcome physical symptoms of her nightmare. She dunked her head down to reemerge with a gasp, flinging her hair back. The water was pleasant and welcome on her skin, and Raven allowed herself a few moments to luxuriate at the feel of it. Sinking down on a curved recess in the tub's side, she leaned her head back against a neck-rest, closing her eyes.
It was time to think.
The dream was still fresh in her mind. Kultuq had been in it, and her friends, peripherally. But wait... she hadn't thought of him as Kultuq. She clearly recalled regarding him as Vandal Savage. They had been together as Raven searched for her answer. But she would never have anything to do with a tyrant, and besides, Vandal Savage was dead, according to Kultuq.
She hadn't found her friend. Instead something had found her.
Just what could it mean?
Kultuq had to be the key.
Raven was certain of it now. She lay in the pool, gazing up at the ceiling. Since his return into her life, she had been plagued by dreams. This was unusual in and of itself, since Raven actively strove to suppress any nocturnal visions, in case they might produce a lethal reaction to her teammates while she lay in slumber. This was something different than chemical misfires in her brain, it was almost like someone was sending these nighttime illusions.
Could it be her?
Raven was tempted to believe so, despite the lack of supporting evidence. After all this time, just what were the chances that she would actually start to contact her now? It defied reason.
But not hope.
Somehow it was Kultuq. By coming to see her, he had revealed the path. Since his settling in their city, Raven had performed a number of spells of varying intent, the end result of which being to try and determine by occult means what reason and logic could not: divine a clue to lead her on her quest. It wasn't like it was the first time she had employed such methods. Both before and after arriving on Earth, she had invoked the exact same rituals, recited the cantrips word for word. At those times, they had produced nothing. Not even an inkling of where to begin. But now it was different. Now whenever she did them, all signs pointed to Kultuq.
He knew something. Raven just had to figure out what. And, of course, do so without him finding out why.
With a sigh, the pearly-gray heroine floated out of the tub. Immediately the water receded back into the base. Grabbing a thin towel, she dried herself off as she headed back into her sleeping quarters. Raven felt refreshed now. She withdrew her regular attire and proceeded to dress.
Sliding on her gloves, the Teen Titan flipped her hood into place. No more stalling. No more fear. It was time to get moving.
Her stomach gave a mighty growl.
His socks and shoes dangled from one hand, and he draped his coat over one shoulder. Sleeves rolled up, shirt unbuttoned, he might as well be just any person going for a stroll on the beach.
The immortal Kultuq chuckled at the thought.
He walked with one foot in the wet sand and the other
on dry, straddling the line between the tide's reach and the grains it could
never touch. Dawn was approaching. Right now many people were beginning their
day by kneeling in the direction of the sun and offering prayers. The focus of
his own thoughts lay towards the western horizon. Within
Maybe if I bow down and pray, she will appear, he wondered, and then grinned good-naturedly. I'm a lovesick fool. Not that he felt in any way ill, or could for that matter. More to the point, he felt great. A new day dawning. A chance to be with the one he loved. He looked forward to every day now. What a magnificent feeling.
And it could all go away in an instant.
He knew that. She was the source of his happiness. Conceivably, it could go on like that forever. Or it might end today. Kultuq grimaced. He hated this line of thinking, but he couldn't help it. The woman he loved was a superheroine. Every week she risked her life in deadly combat against mutants, magic-users, and plain-old human scum. Now granted, in the last month there hadn't been anything major to report. But Kultuq still worried. Over everything. Should some idiot run a red light and crash into that car they all drove around in. Should a stray bullet strike her in a vital spot. There were countless ways for a person to die, but Raven seemed to go out of her way to find new ones.
Kultuq intended to ask her about that.
From experience, the undying wanderer knew the futility
of trying to argue a moral point with Raven. Since he had started living under
her supervision, talk had been the majority of how they spent their time
together. Their relationship had started out complicated and evolved into
inscrutable. There were no set boundaries, no fixed points of reference. Kultuq would simply step out his front door and find her
"Oh, I saved the world, no big deal."
Raven asked the questions, and Kultuq answered. Historical references. Scientific achievements. Social concerns. Sometimes even personal questions.
She never brought up the topic of love, and Kultuq did not press it.
He was patient.
It paid off in small unexpected ways. She was drawn to him, but her motivations remained a mystery. She didn't always seem comfortable around him. Sometimes she would get up and leave after only 20 minutes, and always, he would wonder why. Other times it took longer. Once they had spent nearly an entire day together. She always left him wondering if the time passed in each other's company had changed anything between them. Raven never showed emotion. Kultuq had finally learned that this was done not only around him, but everyone. He knew it was to keep people safe. The love of his life was obsessed with saving lives. Not like him. Why didn't she realize that those peoples' deaths were inevitable? He had pointed that out once. She had looked at him, and left. Didn't return for two days. And until she did, Kultuq never stopped being afraid.
Walking along the beach, he paused.
In front of him lay a small glob of goo. A jellyfish. Left behind by the tide.
He stared at it.
When the sun came out, it would slowly cook. If he put it in the water, it would sting him, and then probably go on to be eaten by a shark. It didn't matter whether it lived or died. He knew that.
So why was he still standing here?
Was it because he had changed to please her? Could it just be a sentimental whim? Or maybe, the purple color of the beast made him think of her.
His shoes and coat dropped to the sand. Carefully Kultuq bent and picked the jelly up in his hands. As per his prediction, the pulpy-headed thing immediately unleashed an electro-chemical shock into his system. His fingers went numb for a moment, but he was all right. Kultuq carried his unappreciative burden out into the ocean and deposited it in the water. Then he headed back to shore without waiting to see what it did.
His pants were wet. His shoes had sand in them. He didn't know why he had done that.
All in all, it left him in no mood to feign ignorance any longer.
"You might as well show yourself," he called out to the empty beach. "I already knew you were here."
He stood alone at the water's edge.
Then, from behind a trash receptacle, Robin stood up. The Boy Wonder crossed the miniature desert to face his enemy.
Waves were the only sound, a timeless backdrop. The wariness each adversary regarded the other with was reserved only for those people who offended you on sight.
"You showed that jellyfish more compassion than you did most humans. Is that because neither of you has a heart?" Robin spoke coldly.
In response, Kultuq bared his teeth. "Still under the impression that you're actually relevant to my being here? I assure you, your presence is entirely peripheral."
Robin brought himself to within a pace of the villain and stared sternly into the big man's heavy-lidded eyes.
"Whatever you're up to, I will put a stop to it. Even if Raven vouches for you, the rest of us are never going to cut you any slack!"
"Oh goodness me," Vandal drawled. "I confess myself utterly unmanned by your stalwart turn of phrase." He smiled at his victim wickedly. "And here I came bearing a gift. It was my intention to pass it along by way of Raven, but since you're here..."
From his coat pocket he withdrew a CD case. The smiling maniac waived it invitingly before Robin's face. The hero did not make a move to accept it.
"You really think I'm stupid enough to accept anything from you?"
"Aren't you the least bit curious?" Savage sneered. "Even on a professional level? You see, the information herein pertains to criminal activities, which as I understand it is something of a hobby for you."
Robin snorted. "I don't need a murderer's help to keep on top of crime in my city. We're doing just fine."
"Are you?" The immortal draped his coat over one arm. He resented resorting to any form of compliance with this boy's black-and-white view of things, but if it served to smooth things over with Raven..."Then you must already be aware of the theft of a significantly dangerous quantity of anti-matter from the federally-funded research facility outside of town."
The Titan regarded him warily.
"Did I spill the beans?" Savage smirked. "Don't look so dumbfounded, boy. Your government seems as intent on covering up its own morally-questionable practices as it is hell-bent on denouncing those of others. It's no surprise that they would keep such a site secret from a vocal promoter of truth like yourself." Vandal extended the disc firmly. His voice held no hint of mockery now, only an undercurrent of insistence. "There is more in here, some of it having to do with areas of your government's infrastructure of which you are not aware. Don't let your pride blind you to an edge. In refusing this you aren't doing yourself or this city any good."
Robin found himself hard-pressed to resist the man's logic. But still he held back. He didn't want to give the impression that he was advocating this monster's being here.
"And just how did you come to posses this secret information?"
Savage's face remained impassive. "I have a large network of acquaintances who keep me abreast of anything in which I express interest. If you're worried about recrimination, I assure you none of the laws of your country were violated. At least, not the ones your leaders tell you about."
With a quick strike, Robin snatched up the disc. Vandal let his hand fall to his side, and the two of them faced off in an acrimonious silence.
The leader of the Titans held the item carefully, and at last spoke.
"This changes nothing between us. So why do something to help me?"
Vandal Savage crossed his arms over his chest. "I meant it when I said you were peripheral. To be blunt, I didn't do it for you."
A new sense of foreboding crept over Robin, and he regarded his enemy now with fresh venom. He knew it was pointless to ask, but he couldn't help himself.
"What do you want with Raven, Savage?"
The criminal's mouth twisted into a smirk again.
"Why don't you ask her yourself, boy?"
Robin’s bo staff flashed forward so its tip rested under Vandal Savage's jaw. The megalomaniac stiffened slightly, the urge to respond to this boy's brashness seething inside of him. But even as it did, he thought about her, and fought the anger down. Robin's masked eyes met his hate-filled gaze.
"You remember this," the Titan whispered, every breath laden with threat. "If you hurt her in any way, I will weight you down and dump you in the ocean. And I swear I'll make sure you never come back up."
Savage's teeth gritted in a snarl. "You had better pray it never comes to that, infant."
Each of them let their threats sink in. Then Robin withdrew his weapon. Vandal rubbed his bearded chin carefully. Without turning his back on the other man, the slender warrior retreated to where his bike was hidden. Mounting it, he cast a last baleful look at Vandal Savage, before revving the engine and peeling off into the city.
Kultuq didn't let this confrontation disturb him. Wouldn't, not even if he could at that point. Because suddenly he felt very relaxed, and yes, even happy. So once again, he did not have to look around to know the presence of another.
"Raven," he sighed, and like magic, she was there beside him.
Kultuq looked down at the unusually-clad girl, and the sight of her made his face split into a magnificent smile. She was dressed as always in a cloak and shroud of deepest blue that hid her body from wandering eyes. He did not begrudge her this modesty. Instead he valued the trait, because she possessed it. It made him appreciate all the more what little of her he could see. Eyes that kept his own locked on them for their abundance of beauty and dearth of emotion. And the matchless curve of her lips, colored a more vivid shade of gray than the rest of her skin, which even in daylight glowed with the subtle inner light of a marble sculpture. In a Romantic vein, he toyed with the notion that she had not been born human, that some supernally talented sculptor had caressed her from inanimate stone, and an equally anonymous god then blessed this miracle with well-deserved life. His very own Galatea.
Standing there, barefoot, with the waves splashing against his feet, Kultuq was honored to have been allowed to live up to the day when he might meet her. Now if only he knew how to make it last.
Raven was at a loss. She had finished her meal in solitude, and without a moment's delay had cast the spell that would send her where she wanted to be. The young sorceress had been determined to pose her query to Kultuq while her resolve was still fresh. But upon coming out beside him, he had turned and looked at her, in that way only he did. Like she had just told a funny joke, or given him a gift, or something equally uncharacteristic for her. Whatever the case, that look completely disarmed Raven. It made her feel guilty, like she was using him, stringing the man along for her own ends. Because he really did love her. Raven knew this. She could feel it. His emotion was unrestrained, unlike the previous guarded jumble of uncertainty, dread and hope she had sensed from him when he first arrived at her door. Here it was, the real thing, reaching out to her in an unprecedented fashion. By its very nature, his love demanded a response from her. It threatened to evoke her own feelings, whose captivity she had labored a lifetime to enforce. And Raven couldn't allow that.
With a surety born of practice she shut herself off from the pervasive rush which sought its mate in her. Her soul withdrew inward, protected, and her mind gained unnatural clarity. As a being unfettered by the evolved instincts of her species, Raven could do anything. Now, she would ask him.
"Kultuq, have you..."
Too intent on the challenge ahead, Raven failed to notice the wave that came surging up against their legs, causing her to lose her footing. Instinctively, Kultuq reached out. Raven grasped hold of his arm, and he caught her before she could fall.
Kultuq stared. It had finally happened.
She was touching him.
He watched her fingers on his broad forearm, registering the sensation of her skin against his for the first time. The hairs on his arms stood on end. He strove to catch the feeling, to seal it away permanently in his mind for future enjoyment. Because there was a very good chance it might never happen again.
LET GO! Raven thought fiercely.
She had to let go. Touching people like this was not permitted. He might get the wrong idea. Don't look at him, you're still in control.
Raven pushed herself out of Kultuq's grasp. She levitated off the sand, her boots dripping salt water. She did not bother to catch the look of disappointment that crossed his face. There was no answering response in her. She was herself and he likewise. They were not two halves of a single soul or any such nonsense that his brain might have conjured up. Time to end this hopeless farce and resume her quest.
"Kultuq, have you..."
She looked in his eyes.
"...been waiting long?"
They both blinked in perplexity, for different reasons. Finally, Kultuq found his voice.
"No. Not long, I just..." He glanced around at the
waterfront complexes, the traffic on the bridge,
Raven looked off to the side. She passed a hand self-consciously through her hair. "All right."
She then allowed her powers to unlock, controlling their reaction with her will. This manifested in a luminous-edged black raven that enveloped them both, carrying them to the spot she concentrated on, an overgrown garden pathway at an abandoned home on the outskirts of town.
Kultuq peered about with interest. Raven didn't have to. She knew they would be alone. The former owner of this house had been a dot-com millionaire. A significant portion of his wealth had gone into the creation and care of his new home. Obeying the dictates of fashion at the time, the landscape and domicile were all done in a Japanese motif. The one-level house had paper-screen doors and windows, and was raised off the ground on wooden stilts. A waterfall cascaded over miniature terraces, fed by an underground spring to fall into a pond stocked with koi and lily pads. A curved wooden bridge traversed the dark pool, symbolizing heaven over earth. Further along the way was a Zen rock garden, and a tiny meditation temple. While boasting a certain hasty splendor in its hey-day, the estate was well past its prime. The market had gone bust, the owner went into bankruptcy and left the place to fend for itself. At that very moment he was selling corn dogs back in his hometown. Fashion marched on. Plus considering the high cost of maintaining all the trappings of this place, a buyer had not been forthcoming. Now it lay derelict, weeds growing up from between the tiled foot-paths, holes in the screens of the house, and frogs swimming and hopping peacefully in their uncontested domain.
Raven knew this place. Her first opinion of it was low, a frivolous testament to passing fads and meaningless wealth. But as it continued to sink further into dissolution, day by day, week by week, the place took on a morbid charm that appealed to her proclivities. So Raven would come here from time to time, to check out its progress, and to think.
Kultuq's eyes flickered about, then settled on his companion. "This is a gross display of impermanent pop culture gradually evolving into something incurably natural. You must love it."
Raven swept by him, casting a meaningful glance upward as she did.
"I don't love, remember?"
Kultuq hurried to catch up.
"Please, Raven. I don't want to play word games. I thought we were past the point when you were trying to compete with me."
"Maybe," Raven responded. She glided through a curtain of vines, aimlessly traversing the abandoned sanctum. "Speaking of competition, just what did you and Robin have to discuss today?"
Kultuq had stopped to put on his shoes, and now caught up. "Ah, that," he remarked negligently. "I gave him some information about certain illicit activities in your city that didn't make the evening news. Quiet stuff, the kind that is much more dangerous. I thought it might go a short way towards healing the dispute, or at least getting him out of our hair for a while."
Raven reached up to trail her fingers along some orchids. "You don't know Robin."
"No," Kultuq paced beside her. "Nor am I on close terms with any of your friends. But then, they're not why I'm here."
He stopped and watched Raven continue to drift along.
"You are," he spoke quietly.
The all-obscuring cloak came to a halt. "You don't understand," her voice floated along back to him like the down of a milk-weed pod. "I gave you a home here, and stipulated what you could not do. And what you could do, I left up to you. But I can't be the only thing in your life. I don't have enough to give to fill all that up." She realized that she was being harsh, that by saying this it could drive him away and she could lose her chance without ever realizing it.
And what chance is that, Raven? To have a friend? To fall in love? Or just to pump him for information.
"I think you do, my love." He smiled a little sadly. "You're just afraid to let it out."
With her back turned to him, Kultuq felt a slight shiver, even in the early morning sun. It came to him how little he still knew about this girl. Despite having spent weeks in her company, they had never been able to duplicate the natural openness that had lent their first meeting such savor. And he knew why. Their relationship had changed. Sometimes you could talk to a stranger, with an implied understanding that you would never meet again and have to elaborate on that discussion. That was just how some people lived. Isolated from long-term contact and commitment. But they were more than ships passing in the night. She had faced down her friends for him. He had put his life in her hands. She had given him a home. He had told her he loved her. He could live like this forever, and he might just have to. But still, Kultuq hoped for more. He hoped that, when she turned around now, he might see love in her face.
Raven passed over the arch of the bridge. At its apex she stopped, and looked down. The shallow depths held more substance than might be thought at first glance. Algae-covered rocks, frantic tadpoles, and cautious koi that hunted them.
"I can't," she droned in resignation. "Haven't you figured that out about me by now?"
Kultuq sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "Of course I have." The immortal moved down the path to join her on the bridge. She continued to look into the water, and Kultuq stared in turn at her. "Your emotions affect your magic. When you feel, it activates, and seeks out the world and people around you. And if you feel too much, then someone gets hurt."
Eyes half-closed, Raven continued to watch the pond. "Then someone dies," she said sadly.
"HA!" Kultuq threw up his hands. "There, that's exactly my point, Raven!" he exclaimed excitedly. "You keep yourself disconnected to prevent others' deaths, especially the ones you feel for most strongly. But are you honestly telling me that you haven't realized the futility of that precaution for me?"
He thought she wasn't going to respond, so caught up in her own self-loathing that she couldn't even be bothered to think. But he had to get this through to her. And so Kultuq reached up.
"Have you forgotten what I am?"
His fingers touched the edge of her cowl, and slowly began to slide it back. Raven made no resistance. It might not even have registered with her what he was doing. And so unopposed, Kultuq continued, until finally the thick fabric rested about her shoulders, and Raven's face was revealed fully, lilac hair that fell in curves to match the rounded lines of her own features. Dark, heavy eyebrows that gave her eyes more intensity, a small arched nose, and a deep red diamond on her brow.
But then slowly, her head turned. In the look on her face was a tremor, a slight hint of emotion, or the memory of one.
"You are an immortal," she stated simply.
Kultuq exhaled gladly. "Yes! And so therefore you don't have to restrain yourself around me. Because I am the one person you need never fear killing, Raven!"
Her eyes roved over his face. It was a view that had not changed in 50,000 years. Black eyes, set deep into his skull. They reflected the light, and Raven could see herself clearly in them.
With a shudder, she looked away, back into the shadows of the pond. On its surface she watched the two of them standing together.
"But I can still hurt you," she whispered. "And I don't want to hurt a friend..."
Azerath. A place of curves. Curves that went nowhere. Edges and turns that couldn't take her anywhere because she couldn't get around them.
So Raven sulked.
She did this on purpose, so that everyone around her could know it. Though they might not be looking right at her, Raven knew for sure that they were watching. Someone was always watching her out here. Mother said she shouldn't let things upset her, and Raven agreed with her. When she was around. But Mother couldn't be here right now. And when she was alone, that was when Raven felt the worst.
The little girl stood before the curve, staring at it all. It looked like one of the walls of her house, rising up before her, big and solid. The surface of the curve swam with colors that glowed in ways and forms that Raven had convinced herself was some kind of secret language. The other Azerathians certainly paid attention to it like it was. She knew that if she could just figure out how to read it, then she could walk along the curve too, and enter all the places she was not allowed to go. Raven already knew two different dialects, and Mother was now teaching her a third. But there was no one willing to tell her about this one.
They were all afraid of her.
Behind her, a group of floaters had just bid farewell to some people with whom they were conversing. Raven watched them approach out of the corner of her eye. Not a one of them resembled any of the others. There was a flat Ibbli seer, the top of its head the only part of itself visible from the two-dimensional hovering puddle in which it resided. Sometimes the girl imagined being able to look down into the pond to see what the rest of it looked like. But she couldn't get up that high, and anyway, none of them ever let her get that close. Then there was a Bagamer Won, one of the invisible species, who had to paint parts of their bodies to be seen. At the head came a long winding ribbon, as thin as one of Raven's hairs, the home and body of one of the DiVuCle slip teachers. Glowing on either side of the fabric was the moving, thinking picture that was this mysterious species. Raven did not know much more about them. Like everyone else, the DiVuCle avoided her. Mother said they were afraid because she was different. But none of them resembled one another, and they all got along. It wasn't fair. As they drew nearer, Raven could hear them talking.
"I was sorry to have to miss that assembly, but I simply couldn't put it off any longer. It was the last symposium he was hosting before leaving on the next pilgrimage."
"We can always watch it later."
"So many things I want to do. Azerath has granted me the peace I sought, but now it confounds me with an endless array of learning and experience. I just don't have the attention for it all."
Raven's lip curled. She never had a choice of what to do. It was either learning with Mother or being by herself.
The Won whistled a merry tune as it came up. "F-pooa said it only took three grip for them to reinstate the wanderer from the Pira dimension's full citizenship. That must be a record. Makes me anxious to meet it, I hear they don't converse with just anyone."
The Ibbli's pond bubbled in consternation. "At least we didn't have to be subjected to another of Trigon's emissaries. Watching those demon souls unfurl always horrifies me."
In response, the DiVuCle glowed a new sentence. *They cannot enter here, but Trigon won't stop sending them. All because of...*
"SHH!" the Ibbli gurgled, and they all grew silent as they approached her. But Raven had stopped listening at the mention of the name. Her father's name. So the assembly had begun, and already her parent's servant had been rejected. Sometimes it happened right away, but other times it was not so obvious. At least that was what Mother told her. All she told her. Mother always insisted on attending any assembly whenever someone with a connection to the Demon Highlord made a petition for entry. Her influence had been instrumental in barring a number of potential candidates. Raven was very curious about these proceedings, but her Mother was very tight-lipped about them. And she never permitted her daughter to attend one. She said that Trigon only sent these people to try and catch a glimpse of Raven, to report back to him on her and maybe try to woo her. Mother was determined to thwart Raven's father at every turn, and the Demon was forced to writhe with the uncertainty of what his daughter might learn and become in the free-dimension of Azerath, where his power held no sway.
These were the only times that Mother wasn't with her. So Raven was completely alone. Mother had asked her not to leave the house. But Trigon's daughter was not in the mood to be good. She wanted to go somewhere, do something. Unfortunately this was Azerath. In order to go anywhere real, you had to know how to get there. Places like this, on the outside of the curves, were accessible to anyone at all, but that did not mean you could actually do anything there. You had to move along the curves for that. If you were well-trained, you could do it by yourself. But if not, then a guide was needed. For a few people, like Mother and herself, this guide came in the form of a Soole, one of the small, gentle beings that were the natural inhabitants of this dimension. Mother had taken their Soole to attend her duties, and there was only one. Once Raven had been permitted a Soole of her own, and she had rejoiced in her freedom. Too much. So caught up was she in being able to explore, Raven had not paid any attention to how excited she had become. And seeing the horror with which people viewed her unprecedented arrival into new places had upset Raven. She became angry at them, and without even knowing how, her power appeared. It was brief, but intense. Things around her were damaged. But the only other life-form close to her at the time was the Soole.
Raven vividly remembered the awful keen of pain, and how it had fled, abandoning her. She had felt awful. And without any means of leaving that place, Raven had sat and cried, causing even more harm, until Mother came to calm her and take her home. Sitting in her room, she had heard other Azerathians arrive, and Mother pleading with them. It was only because she had not intended to hurt anyone that they were unable to expel both her and Mother from the only place in which they were safe. Raven's lapse had nearly cost them that security. She didn't really know what her Father was, but she knew Mother lived in terror of him. She didn't want her to be afraid. The secluded child just wanted to help somehow. But how could she, when she was the whole problem? Nobody knew what to do with her, least of all herself. Raven couldn't imagine what the future held for her. She wasn't even supposed to cry when she felt like it, but how do you stop from feeling sad?
The little girl sat on the translucent matter that fringed this zone. The gossiping trio took a wide berth around her, and then moved along the curve. They passed around it, turning in, and then were out of sight. Raven knew that they had entered this particular fabricated zone, but what it might look like beyond that fabulous wall, she could not say. It was beyond her ability to reach.
The other milling Azerathians gradually began to follow their brethren. One by one, they vanished, until finally only Raven remained. Left behind. Nobody liked her here. No one even tried to talk to her. She hated them, and she hated herself, and she wished she was never born! Dark magic slipped out of her in a swell of force, but there was nothing to attract it. No matter, no life. Just a stupid path that wouldn't let her walk on it. Her anger went away, and the power with it.
Raven curled up on the floor and stared at the hazy non-zone of distorted perceptions that comprised the majority of this dimension. She would have to go home soon. There was nowhere else she could go. Your home was the only place in Azerath you didn't need a curve to reach. She just didn't want to yet. Raven closed her eyes and wished to go to sleep. Then, she changed that.
I wish I was never born.
Time staggered on. She dreamed of home, and a place called Earth. She was only half awake. But Raven felt like someone was standing near her.
The slim child screwed her eyes up tight. This is my place, she thought. You go and be somewhere. I'll stay here and be nothing, so just leave me alone.
She waited for whatever it was to follow the curve and be gone. But several seconds passed, and still the intruder remained.
Raven started to get nervous. She didn't dare move or look to see. If it was scary, it might hurt her. Or she might hurt it. Those were both bad. But she didn't know what else to do. So she did nothing.
-What are you doing?-
Raven stiffened. It was speaking to her! No one did that, what was going on here?! I'm doing nothing, she thought desperately. Why don't you go away?
There was an odd sound, and the little girl felt something flutter at her ear.
-Nothing? You can do nothing when you are still alive? You know a great secret-
It touched her face, and Raven jumped away with a squeal. She saw something before her, a jumble of edges and movement, something glowing red, and without even thinking it a ribbon of black light spilled from her temple and struck the thing, driving it back.
Raven froze. She had hurt it! She hadn't meant to, but she had, and she wasn't supposed to do that. Now they would send her and Mother away. She had to apologize quickly, maybe then it wouldn't...
Startled, Raven stopped. Did it just say it was sorry? To her? Though her first instinct had been to run, the fact that it had spoken to her made Raven hesitate. Fear was replaced by childish curiosity. This was a new experience for her. She wanted to know what it meant. Cautiously, the little human edged closer, peering at the heretofore unknown entity. With nowhere real to run, she examined the alien before her.
It didn't look like any other Azerathian she had ever seen. It was tall, and seemed to be broken up into two halves. The lower part reminded her of dresses her mother wore. It was a smooth and shiny tube, broadening down from its top to a loose array of silky garlands that fluttered above the ground. This part was floating, as many Azerathians tended to do, and it glowed a mixture of soft whites and blues from within. On either side of the base were what looked like two long slender arms that curved high up. At its top the tube-dress opened, and from out of this hole sprouted a glassy rod about as big as Raven's arm. This implement branched out in opposite directions, both flattening and expanding as they moved upwards. The material began to divide into individual segmented plates that had a hard, metallic sheen to them. The blades curved towards a central point, and nestled between their tips was a Y-shaped head, its long, firm snout stretching back down between the supporting members. At the front of its face were what looked like two closed eyes, with the longest, blackest curved eyelashes Raven had ever seen. Above all this there hovered a ball of red light.
The lashes fluttered.
-I sought only to learn more. I have been a long time away from Azerath, and my guide has left me. So eager was I to find another that I did not consider you might not be willing. I regret my haste-
Raven stayed quiet, twisting her feet on the ground. Someone was finally talking to her, but it was turning out to be even scarier than being ignored.
-Do you teach?-
The alien floated a little closer. Nervously Raven edged back, but there was really nowhere to move. IT stood between her and the way back home. She risked a glance at the semi-solid curve, wishing that she could follow it out and away from here.
-You wish to enter the Clearing? I will accompany you-
It moved forward quickly, and a strand of gossamer unwound from its base to grip Raven's arm. This was so unprecedented that the astonished child could make no response. The thing drew her along with it, towards the curve. Raven realized it was taking her in, but before she could even think to protest...
She was moving, with the curve. Or it was moving, sliding aside like a door. The space around her pressed in suddenly, like she was being flattened. A sensation too bizarre to even cause fear. And before she could think of how to respond, just like that it was over.
Raven's eyes widened. Her body began to shake.
She was standing somewhere. Not the in-between nowhere she was used to in Azerath, but a place that was real. Solid, like home. But unfamiliar. Lights winding about in long lines. Things flowing by her feet and waving around her. And worst of all, people! People of every kind, floating and talking and doing strange things. It was more activity than she had ever seen.
Then they all caught sight of her, and stopped.
Someone somewhere uttered a small cry.
And as if on cue, chaos broke loose.
Spells were cast, enchantments screamed, devices deployed. Everyone tore about her, desperately fleeing this place. Raven... panicked!!
Her father's legacy burst out. Objects spun and shattered under the force of her emotions. Black energy ripped open the ground beneath them. A tumult of racing beings, gripped by fear, were abandoning the Clearing as fast as they could. Raven wanted to flee, go home, find Mother, anything but be here.
But the thing was still right beside her, holding onto her arm. Raven's small hands tore desperately at its grip, to no avail. It stared down at her, its eyelashes waving.
-Please. What does all this signify?-
Teeth clenched, Raven shook her head wildly. Tears streamed down her face.
And the monster bent down, its mouth coming towards her!
-I am confused. I wish to know. Please show-
"LET ME GO!!" Raven screamed, and a thunderbolt of magic shot from her mouth and struck the creature's head. It cracked, and immediately a glowing liquid seeped out and dripped onto the floor.
It let go of Raven, who collapsed numbly to the smooth ground. She had gone cold. It was hurt. She had hurt it, it was bleeding.
Well, maybe I should hurt it some morrrNO!!!
The globe above it dimmed, and the alien's head began to glow. What little features it had melted into light. So unexpected was it, and really so beautiful, that Raven stopped and stared, mesmerized.
Then the light faded. And the cracks on its face were gone.
She blinked. "What?"
Its lashes flickered. -You relieved me of my confusion. Now I know why the others left-
Raven immediately felt guilty. But also, a bit upset.
"You started it. When you brought me here. I didn't want to come here!"
-But that cannot be true- it responded. -You are a fellow sorceress of Azerath. The spell could not take you anywhere you did not wish to go-
The tiny powerhouse wrapped her arms around her legs stubbornly. "Leave me alone."
This wasn't her fault. The thing had scared her, it should have known better. Everyone knew to leave her alone. But still, she felt really bad about hurting it. With her head pressed into her knees, Raven muttered, "I'm sorry I hurt you."
Now there was silence between them, the only sound that of crumbling magicworks and the drip of spilling liquids.
-It was a most tacit instruction, sorceress. I have learned my lesson-
"I'm not a sorceress," Raven huffed.
The creature turned in a circle, perhaps surveying the damage. -This says otherwise-
Raven didn't want to talk. She had had enough. "I wanna go home."
-Then why do you remain?-
"I don't want to talk to you anymore!!" And Raven clamped her jaws firmly shut.
They remained quietly before one another.
-I am confused- the thing stated. -I must meditate now-
A sliding noise reached her ears, and without thinking, Raven looked up. Her companion's head was tilting, its snout facing the ever-present ball of light. Slowly it sank to the ground. The tube-like mouth gave off a sort of glow. The orb turned clear as water, and from it came a thin beam of wavering ripples that fell directly into the creature's mouth.
In spite of herself, Raven was fascinated by the unusual display. She had never seen anything like it before. Eventually, she could no longer resist.
"What are you doing?"
It blinked at her. -Meditating. Clearing confusion-
Raven didn't understand this term, not really. She glanced around, hoping to see some way out of here at least. A door, or something like the curve, or...
And then it occurred to her.
She was here at last. In the secret place.
Beyond the curve.
The lonely human child had always wondered where Azerathians went to and now she knew. Forgetting about the area's other occupant for the moment, Raven stood up and wandered about wide-eyed. The first thing she noticed was the sky. Mother had shown her pictures, but she had never really understood. It was so unbelievably big. The natural, unformed space of Azerath involved no concept of distance or size. Movement was entirely objective. Up, down, forward, these held no significance. Just like the Soole, who could lead you anywhere in Azerath but went nowhere unless someone influenced them. Now for the first time Raven saw a horizon, and distant objects made small by her relativity. She was standing on a solid ground of uniform flatness. Strange objects, some opaque, others ghostly, floated by or remained stationary. Raven walked slowly around, spinning, trying to take it all in. There was just so much here, it was making her feel dizzy. She bumped up against something that resembled a floating half-sphere with reeds sticking out of it. It lifted up and away from her, emitting a collection of musical croonings.
Fascinated, Raven followed her new toy, and when she reached it she pushed it with her hands. The reed ball shot away even faster, making more noise until it slowed. She moved to continue the chase, when of a sudden, she stopped.
She looked down at her feet.
Then around her.
Slowly she began to move. As she went along, her pace began to quicken.
And when realization dawned fully, Raven did something she had never been able to do before.
She was awkward and uncoordinated, of course. After only a few seconds, she became dizzy and fell down. But the ground was soft, and she sustained no injuries. Quickly Raven scrambled up, and began to run again. Her heart raced, her feet thudded on the turf, and her breath came in gasps. Again she fell, only to pick herself up and begin anew. Time after time she repeated this, never stopping, exulting in the newfound freedom of space without walls and limitless stretches of places in which to move and be in. This was totally unlike the home she shared with her mother. Here was freedom! Raven shouted 'til her throat was hoarse, she was absolutely overjoyed!!
She didn't feel it coming. Didn't think about it at all.
A ring of black fire erupted out of her body, obliterating everything around her for a hundred feet.
The half-demon fell to her knees. She looked about. The toys and lights and instruments were all gone.
And with that, her euphoria died.
It was the same. She was the same. Even being someplace different, where she could do real things, she still managed to wreck everything. Raven sat back heavily. She didn't want to be here now. She wanted to be home with Mother, where everything was quiet and safe. Where she didn't have to feel hurt by something she hadn't meant to do.
There was a soft whistle, and Raven glanced behind her to find the eyelash monster at her back. She stared at it dully, too tired and too disappointed to even feel afraid.
"I... broke it all," she sniffed.
The tall thing bent down, and its lashes brushed gently against her face.
-You felt the rapture. That is what caused this-
Raven looked away. "I can't stop it. It happens whenever I feel. I can't help it."
It wasn't fair. She hated messing up all the time.
Her companion blinked. -Have you tried to meditate?-
The little girl twisted her fingers, staring at them. "I don't know what that is."
-No one has taught you?-
"No one likes me," she sniffed. "Except Mother. Nobody talks to me."
The plant-creature lifted its snout towards its light ball and hummed, like it was debating something. Its arms waived to and fro.
-Untapped knowledge- it spoke in musing tones. -Never before revealed to another- The light dimmed again, and it dropped its head back down. -I came to the Clearing to meditate, so as to thwart my confusion and begin my search for knowledge again. But the way appeared when I did not expect it-
Raven didn't understand. She laid her head on her knees and peered despondently up at the creature as it discoursed to itself. Suddenly it bent down towards her. The girl found herself staring entranced at the opening of the proboscis, like a great black eye.
-Will you teach me?-
"Teach you what?"
-All that you know-
"But I don't know anything," Raven protested.
-If I show you how, you can learn to control what you feel. Then we may learn more about your magic and you- It drew itself up again. -I will be yours, if you let me-
Raven frowned. "My what?"
-Yours- it said again, as if that explained it all. -I wish to know who you are. To learn what you may achieve with your power. I must learn more. May we do so together?-
Raven rubbed her eyes blearily, as a thought occurred to her.
"Do you mean you want to be friends?"
The creature blinked its long lashes at her. -What are friends?-
Staring up at the odd life-form, uncertain, the lonely child could find no answers. "I don't really know," she admitted. "But... I think we might be."
The entity blinked. -A splendid thing, to both know and not know. You have many things to show me-
Raven clambered to her feet. "You're weird," she stated simply.
Her new friend floated up. -Are friends weird?-
"I don't know," she shrugged. "But I know they know each others' names."
Above its head, the light brightened a little. -First I must learn your name-
"I asked first."
-I have no answer, until you tell me-
"Well, I'm Raven. Now what's yours?"
The light increased considerably, and the creature seemed to stand up straighter.
-So be it- it intoned. -While I am yours to teach, I shall be known as Raven's Unizue-
"Oh." Raven stared at this odd new friend. "Um, Unizue?"
"How come you talk to me when no one else will?"
Unizue's eyes fluttered. -I do not know why no one speaks to you. Let us both find out together-
At this, Raven smiled.
A gingko leaf dropped down into the pond, disturbing its dark reflections. Raven was drawn back from her own musings. She chanced a look from the corner of her eye at Kultuq, who was still waiting patiently beside her. As a child she had never dared hope to have friends. Now she had several. But even in her wildest fantasies, it had never occurred to her that someone might fall in love with her. Now here was this man, who apparently wanted nothing more than to win her heart.
The idea held no attraction for her.
Romance was something reserved for those who did not know their own destiny, and could hope for a better future. Raven knew what Fate held in store for her with certainty. She turned and looked into her suitor's face fully, studying him. He reciprocated.
He wasn't what she would call handsome, not in the way other men in her life had affected her. But she also knew better than to let it stop at that. Maybe he didn't awaken desire in her, but that was the last thing she needed anyway. What he did was...
She thought about it for a time. What did she feel around this man? Relaxed. Since she had gotten to know him better, Raven had found Kultuq to be more than intelligent, engaging, a supremely unique individual. They could discourse on a variety of topics together, engage in debates or games of skill. And he even knew when not to speak to her and simply be there. Just to share in each other's company, like they were doing right now. It was not the same camaraderie that she experienced with the Titans. No matter how serious the danger they might face together, when the battles were over, Raven couldn't help but feel that she was fundamentally disassociated from them. Even when she participated in their activities and, yes, on the rare occasions that she found herself enjoying them, the half-breed girl knew that they were living different lives from her. She didn't want them to have to share her burdens, seeing them all so carefree at times. Her presence would always be a danger to them. They just didn't understand.
But somehow, without even being told, Kultuq did.
Raven felt herself staring at him now, but lacked the inclination to stop. Here stood a person who truly had no reason to fear her. He could accept her. Raven felt that even if she told him about her heritage, that wouldn't make any difference to him either. Because he loved her.
It dawned on her, making the young woman shiver. No, she didn't love him. She didn't understand love, or even know for sure what it was. She might ask him, but something prevented her. Fear, perhaps. Of what he might reveal, about his hopes for them. Did he expect them to get married? Raise a family? This was unnatural to her. Raven was the product of a rape. She had never really been in a family. She didn't even know if she could. But she also hadn't known if she could be a part of a team. And she was. Maybe not perfectly, but successfully. Her destiny might be set, but what she did with herself until then was entirely up to her.
Could she be with him? Could she ever let herself feel love, even if she was certain that her emotions could not kill this man like they could everyone else? Was he also a part of her destiny?
Raven felt like she was standing at a crossroads. Or, more precisely, on the edge of a cliff. If she took this step forward, her whole life would change for certain. It wasn't impossible, she realized. She had an opportunity here to leave her old ways behind. She could change, if she only let herself.
I want to try, Raven decided. Try to love someone. And she was surprised at how strongly that decision made her shake. The enchantress pulled herself back into the moment, and felt a calm descend on her timorous body. She would indeed take this step forward, and give it a shot.
But there was something she had to take care of first. A chapter of her life that had yet to be closed. Today was the day. She just needed some time to prepare.
"I'm going back home now."
Kultuq's face twisted in disappointment. For a while there he had hoped to be getting through to her. Now, it was back to square one.
Then she reached up and laid her hand against his cheek.
"So let's meet for dinner tonight," the enchantress murmured. "Just us. At your place."
He nodded his head faintly, fearful of displacing her
warm, dry fingers. His eyes were vacant, and Raven felt a bit nonplussed at
provoking such a reaction. Quickly she dropped her hand and cast a spell that
took her back to
Lost in bliss, Kultuq eventually decided that he would go shopping.
An airplane from Hawaii arriving one hour ahead of
schedule, and a security detail that might have conspired in smuggling a mystery
passenger through customs. Three semi-trailers missing requisite interstate
inspection points, as a result of transporting unreported prisoners of war to a
military installation across the border from
Robin leaned back in his chair and sighed.
The disc Vandal Savage had given him left him feeling cold and sick. It was disheartening to be faced with just how much his own government strove to hide from him. Robin was no bright-eyed optimist, but he was at heart a basic believer in human decency. And to be confronted with such a horde of shady dealings, illegal activities, and suspicious morality, much of it stamped with a government seal of approval... Well, it was a let-down, to say the least.
The Teen Titan shook his head to clear it. The
crime-lab he was using was located in a vacant building that had come under
municipal dominion. It was sometimes utilized by the police as a base for
conducting sting operations, this being a bad part of town. The young
crime-fighter had appropriated a small room for himself, a sort of lair. It was
here that he would often go when he wanted to examine any evidence that he
didn't feel comfortable bringing into
So far, nothing hostile had been detected. The disc appeared to contain exactly what Savage said it had: a lot of information related to unreported potential and positive criminal activities. Of course, Robin wasn't about to just take all this at face value. A little confirmation was in order. So he had picked out three random reports and followed up on them himself. Just to be on the safe side, he had enlisted Cyborg and the police in his endeavors, requesting that they take one apiece. The three were small incidents, with the lowest possibility of danger. And so far, all evidence he had received served to verify the information. Still, Robin had misgivings. Maybe it was time to check in on...
"Cyborg! Have you found anything?"
The metal-shod Titan paused in the hallway and looked at the screen in his arm to see Robin's face. "Well, so far, it looks to be on the level. I mean, the university staff tried to give me the run-around, so I had to explain to them about us being legally sanctioned law-enforcement in this town. They talked to some lawyers, and then finally spilled the beans."
"So it's true then?" Robin spoke grudgingly.
"Yup." Cyborg continued down the cheaply-furnished hallway, his sensors registering low voices and television noises coming from behind the doors. "It happened about a month ago, if you can believe that. Somebody just took the Scrolls of Thomas the Apostle and left with them. No security alarms, no explosions, nothing that would get a lot of attention. Just a theft, and a big cover-up to try and keep the world from finding out. Who says you can't keep a secret in this town?"
"Not me." Robin frowned. "So they're gone, just like that? What kind of security do they have at the campus museum?"
Cyborg shrugged. "Not bad, from what I saw. Nothing I would personally hang my hat on, but also nothing that some brain-dead goon with a crowbar could get by. Not without finding himself in a laser-fence surrounded by a bunch of cops."
"Do they have any suspects? Or witnesses?"
"A little of both. That's what I'm checking out now, man. Look, I'll call you if anything comes up, okay?"
"Agreed. Stay sharp."
The screen went blank as Cyborg came to the right door. This was the one the museum had told him. He reached up and knocked as gently as he could. From within, he detected the sound of a TV being shut off, and footsteps approaching from the other side.
"Who... who's there?" a female voice with a British accent timidly called.
Best to get this out of the way. "Most folks call me Cyborg. I'm one of the Teen Titans, lookin' for Patricia Hastings?"
There was a pause. Then the voice spoke querulously. "Is this some kind of sick joke?"
Cyborg heaved a sigh. "No ma'am, I'm not joking."
"Yes, well, you would say that, wouldn't you? How am I to know that you’re telling the truth?"
The bionic hero gazed at the flat facade calmly. "You could always look through the peephole."
"What? Oh, right then..."
There was a slight shuffle from behind the frame. "My word...!"
"That all right now?"
The sound of a latch being drawn, a bolt turning, and finally the click of a lock. Then the door creaked open a bit, and Cyborg was confronted by a medium-sized, trembling woman in her early twenties. She might be kinda’ cute, he thought, if she wasn't such an obvious mess. Her clothes were wrinkled and her long dark hair was in total disarray. She blinked despondently up at him from behind a thick pair of glasses. Then, as if finally convincing herself that this unusual character was not a threat to her, she opened the door all the way and stood to one side.
"Would you like to come in?" Patty sniffed.
"Thanks." Cyborg eased himself through the tiny opening. When he was inside, the owner quickly closed and locked the door securely. As he entered the apartment, the former athlete was hit by an unusual odor. And hit hard. He recognized it as the stagnant smell that came about when a person lived in a confined area 24 hours a day; the pungent, moldering odor of the recluse. Raven's room sometimes had that same scent when she spent days at a time in there, but never to this degree. It smelled like the woman hadn't cracked a window or left her apartment in weeks.
Patty moved gingerly past the big teen into the living room. Scattered everywhere were books, papers, written memoranda, and take-out food containers. She shoved some articles best left unmentioned off the couch onto the floor.
"Please have a seat. I just prepared some tea. I'll bring it right out."
She headed for the kitchen. Cyborg shivered at the thought of touching anything in here. It reminded him of Beast Boy's room, except it was noticeably lacking in any personal touches. There was nothing that could serve to make this place feel like a home. Eventually he mastered his squeamishness and sat in the space reserved for him, thankful for once that he no longer had sensory perceptions in his lower extremities. A minute later Patty returned, bearing a tray with a teapot and two cups, one of them recently washed. Setting it down, she poured the steaming beverage and then sat down in a chair next to the sofa. The whole time, it looked like she was on the verge of tears. She rested her elbows on her knees and just stared at the water evaporating into the room. Neither of them reached for the tea.
The British informatics designer flicked a glance at her guest and shrugged apologetically. "I'm sorry, I haven't had much of an appetite lately. I only brew it because I'm used to doing it." She looked around at the disheveled environment. "And I really don't have much of a desire to do anything."
Cyborg felt a stirring of genuine sympathy. The university had tried to impress on him that this woman was a suspect in the incident. Seeing her now, he found that hard to believe.
"I won't take up too much of your time. I just wanted to ask you a few questions about what happened to you last month."
Patty continued to stare fixedly at the teacups. Cyborg was about to speak again, but hesitated at the last second. Maybe, he thought, I should let her take her time.
She shivered, and stopped. Drawing a deep breath, Patricia Hastings' face took on a very cross expression. "They think I was involved in it, you know." She passed a hand through her hair. "They didn't believe a word about what I told them."
The bionic Titan was feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Even he could tell that this woman had experienced something deeply traumatic, and he wondered how those college officials had not bothered to pick up on that. Looking at her, he realized that what he was feeling was compassion, a very slight emotion, but still easy enough to recognize. He started to think about how he might help.
Patty was beginning to feel like another bout of crying was coming on. She was just about to excuse herself, when the bulky young man reached forward gingerly and picked up his teacup. He blew on it for a bit, then took a sip, and smiled. "Hey, y'know, that's pretty good. Best tea I've ever tasted."
Startled, Patty peered at him over the tops of her glasses.
"I wouldn't think someone your age would drink it."
He shook his head politely. "I don't, really. A friend of mine makes it, but she usually sticks to the herbal kind, to help her relax. This stuff is, well, I guess you could say it’s kinda’ like the difference between Coke and Pepsi. You can tell it's something, but no one can agree on what."
He smiled at her, very open and friendly. It made Patricia realize just how long it had been since she had sat and talked with someone socially, even if it was a stranger. Her fingers, which she had been twisting nervously, now settled in her lap. Suddenly she felt very self-conscious of the wreckage that constituted her living quarters, and she blushed.
Cyborg felt a little proud of himself. His words seemed to have had a positive effect on the young woman. Her face was looking a lot healthier, and she seemed more alert. So he decided to get back to business. Setting down his cup, he rested his chin on his hands. "Miss Hastings, I know that you're probably tired of telling people this, but I would really like to know what happened to you three weeks ago."
At this, Patty shivered, and her eyes grew unfocused. She reached unsteadily for her own teacup. She meant only to take a sip, but it turned into a gulp. Still, it had the intended effect of calming her. She looked at her curious houseguest, letting her eyes wander over the polished metal and gleaming tech that comprised the majority of his frame. Maybe he felt self-conscious every day of his life. He certainly didn't seem dismayed by it. Something so unusual was just a part of his life. Maybe he could understand.
"You know, I... I thought about calling you," she stuttered softly.
Cyborg raised an eyebrow. "Me personally?"
"No, no." She waived her hands, coloring slightly, and looked beseechingly at the bulky superhero. "You, your organization, the Teen Titans. I didn't know what to do. It seemed like something right up your alley, more than the police. And nobody else believed me when I told them, and I told them everything. Well, everything I knew. And I wanted to try and help, but then they made it quite clear that I was being investigated as a suspect, and they took away my passport and my computer. And of course they fired me." She glanced around bitterly at her books and papers, no longer arranged and sorted steadfastly as they had been for so many years. "I had to wire home for funds just to survive. This incident has ruined my whole life, and I've just been feeling so bloody helpless that I couldn't muster the energy to even try and defend myself anymore. I couldn't even call you, like I said."
"And you wanted to get us involved," Cyborg hazarded, "because there's something abnormal about the robbery."
"Yes." Patricia stared disconsolately at the wall before her. "Very abnormal."
She came to a decision, and stood up. If anyone could help her, he could. Moving over to a huge pile of research journals and papers, Patricia Hastings reached in and without hesitation extracted a notepad. Returning to her seat, she handed it over to the Titan.
"This," she said simply.
Cyborg accepted her offering, and opened it. He glanced up quickly at his host, and then returned his attention to what presented itself before him.
It was a series of drawings, sketches, all in red ink. Not without talent, but it was the subject that drew his attention. The figure represented on these pages was some kind of freakish clown. It looked like a Conehead, with a bill over its forehead and distorted facial features. Eyes, nose, mouth; they all seemed crooked and wrong. Its smile was a toothy crimson leer that gaped eerily below a pointed nose flattened to one side. Only one eye was open, and it was drawn with far more strokes than anything else. They were heavy and frantic, bursting off the page, and Cyborg couldn't help but be impressed by the horror that this entity had imbued into the artist. The rest of the form was long and skinny. He flipped through the pages. There were many versions, with revisions added in as the mind had recalled something. It had a sort of light armor for its chest, and a cannon attached to one arm.
"I don't know where he came from," the young Brit managed. "I was in the hall, talking to the guard, and then before I knew it I was alone with... that!" She gestured at the drawings. "I don't know how he got in, but he was there, with me. And I thought I was going crazy, and he told me I was. And he was mean... nasty!" Her lip curled with sudden vehemence. "He made some very cheap remarks, like a lot of the creeps a girl meets in life. Then, I think he drugged me, and when I woke up it was all over. The guard was found passed out in an alley across the street. None of the cameras had picked him up leaving the building, or that other man coming in."
Patty hesitated fearfully. ""Do you... do you recognize him?"
Cyborg looked up at her. She was hugging herself, shaking furiously. Her face pleaded with him for help. He recalled how the dean of the university had brushed off her story of an attacker as a hallucination at best, and a fabrication at worst. But what he saw here left no doubt in the Titan's mind. Patty Hastings had been confronted by something real.
"It kinda’ reminds me of stuff I've seen, but I gotta be honest, I've never met this guy before."
Patty's shoulders slumped dejectedly. "I'm not crazy, you know," she whispered.
Suddenly something cool encased her hand. Startled, she looked down to find the young man's metallic fingers closed over her own.
"I didn't think you were." He looked at her seriously. "Miss Hastings, I know as well as anybody that there are some really scary pieces of work in this world, and they don't think about just how much they hurt people. But I promise you, if I ever meet this guy, he’s gonna get a Texas-sized helping of beat-down."
Patty blinked open-mouthed. "You'll pulverize him?"
"That's my job." The teenager grinned. "Well, actually, it's just one of the perks, but, you know..."
Her throat tightened, and Patricia felt tears approaching again, but for a different reason. "That's all right, then," she finally managed.
Robin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You're positive she doesn't know anything else?"
On the screen, Cyborg's face was grim. "She's clean, man. I know it."
The team leader closed his eyes. "Then this case falls under our jurisdiction."
"Good to hear. But until we find anything solid, couldn't we do something for this lady? She doesn't deserve what they're putting her through."
"I've got some friends I can contact," Robin affirmed. "They should be able to help."
They were silent for a while. Robin sat and pondered. Small things. Little crimes and big ones here and there. Were they random? Was it all unfocused? Or...
"What's on your mind, fearless leader? You look tense," Cyborg quipped.
Robin stayed quiet for a while, measuring his words before he spoke next.
"I think there's something in this city."
"I don't know," the Titan's tactician mused. "But it's quiet. Smart. Whoever these guys are, they don't want us to know they're here." Robin smiled then.
"And that's all the reason I need to get interested."
It was surprisingly warm up this high. Must have something to do with the sun.
Careful, Raven thought to herself. Don't fly too close to the sun, or your wings will melt. This got her thinking about vampires, which made her consider immortality, and that brought up him. Again.
Raven had decided to fly to her destination rather than teleport. She had hoped the time spent in-between would enable her to overcome the misgivings she had about all this. That had not proven to be the case. Why did it seem like nothing in her life was solely up to her anymore? Now there was always someone else to afford consideration. In the intervening hours since her departure from Kultuq, the unearthly heroine had found herself unarguably nervous. It was like something she had known was coming all her life but that she had convinced herself was still a long way off had suddenly manifested. Today was her day. Not the day, that was yet unconfirmed. She just knew that it was going to be a momentous day in her life. Those didn't come around very often, and knowing it was even more rare.
Raven had been agonizing throughout the whole interlude. Should she tell her friends what she was doing? Certainly Robin would want to know. But he wasn't in the Tower when she had gotten back, and Raven had chosen to take that as a sign. She cared about her teammates. But sometimes you don't tell the people you love things for their own sakes. And other times you did it for your own.
Raven had spent the last few hours thinking. She knew the value of asking yourself why you were doing something. There was always an answer.
She kept secrets. None of the others knew for certain about her parentage. In Azerath that had not been the case. There her shame was public knowledge, the source of much resentment and fear, if not outright contempt. There people had avoided her. So when she had arrived on Earth, the lonely indigent had told herself that she would never let anyone in on her family secret. It had seemed like a no-brainer at the time. She hadn't consciously wanted her own people to shun her. Not that she had been really eager for them to approach her either, but...
It was like moving. Once you're away from the people who know you, or think they know you, there is greater latitude in how you are able to present yourself to others. A refashioning of the image. She had decided that it was done primarily to expedite her quest. The thought of building a life for herself here on Earth had garnered only brief interest from her at the time. After all, being here involved no small amount of personal peril, not to mention the ramifications for every living thing in this universe should she remain. So there were many reasons to leave, and only one to remain.
Raven knew that most of the Titans thought they were her only friends. But they were wrong.
There had been one here all along.
She glanced behind her to see a spiral propelled by long watery fins coming towards them. Chancing a peak at Unizue, she knew what she would find there...and she was right.
Her roots were unclamping, her eye-snout was turning down, and she was preparing to depart. It had been two months since the last such incident, but the result was always the same. And, of course, it was her duty to resolve it. With a small groan of exasperation, the mage-in-learning dropped to her feet and prepared to act as mediator.
"T*We's Unizue, do you remember me? We shared a trip from the Total Dimension Splendid Point," the entity called as it approached them, but before it could move any farther, Raven interposed herself between them. The being, a Fabonu, one of the latest arrivals to Azerath, scrunched in on itself upon sighting her. "I know who you are, they told me after I arrived," it trilled. "I cannot speak with you, please, let me by, you are frightening T*We's Unizue."
"Raven's Unizue," the girl snapped.
The Fabonu wound up even smaller.
"What was that?"
Raven glowered at it darkly. "Her name is Raven's Unizue, and you know what that means, right?"
Her opponent was now so compact it looked like a porcupine. "You...are...?" it stammered, shifting its attention from the girl to the now clearly departing Unizue.
Raven waited. According to experience, one of two things would happen now. Either the intruder would apologize to her and continue to speak with Unizue, or it would...
"I may not remain here, I am too frightened of you," the Fabonu declared. Then, to Unizue's retreating form, it called, "I do apologize for the confusion..." it inched away from the gray-skinned child, "... Raven's Unizue." And with that, it stretched out, connected its two ends together, and was gone.
Raven spun about and stamped off. Reaching Unizue, who had stopped and settled down again, she dropped to the ground, crossed her arms, and proceeded to scowl blackly. Unizue flicked her tongues.
-Was everything made clear?-
"Yes," Raven sulked.
-Rapture. All is well-
"NO IT'S NOT!"
Lines of black light crackled out from her, lifting into the air to wave like the magic appendages of a blind hydra. Several people around them backed away fearfully or fled altogether.
-Raven- the tall sorceress crooned.
The little girl hung her head slightly. She took a deep breath, held it, and let it out. Then, eyes closed, she began to chant. "Azerath Metrion Zinthos. Azerath..." The words flowed easily now. They unclenched her throat, soothed the burning. With these words as her guide, she concentrated on the pain, the frustration and anger. Her mantra was a line she drew between herself and them, and with every syllable of her chant, the distance between them grew greater and greater. Until finally, she was at peace.
-Well done, Raven-
The little girl opened her eyes and gazed calmly at her companion. "Thank you, Unizue." She then connected herself to the dark half of her soul. Opening it, focusing it, she was able to direct its purpose. Continuing her chant, in a few moments her body had drifted off the ground. Beside her, Unizue settled back down. She turned the tip of her mouth upwards and sent a mental command to her ever-present light familiar, slipping into meditation alongside her friend. She used light as a mental focus, while Raven relied on sound. Either way, it worked. The other Azerathians visibly relaxed and returned to their own endeavors.
Raven floated on the bliss of her controlled calm. After over a year spent learning from Unizue, Azerath's most undisciplined resident had experienced a miraculous change. No longer was she the eruption of unrestrained force that had caused such concern to the dimension's citizens. Raven had finally been granted some control over her life. Without the danger presented by her emotions, she had discovered that the power within her could actually obey her commands, and she was eager to explore her potential. As was Unizue. Both could now move freely along the curves of Azerath, and Raven no longer needed her Mother to accompany her. With this liberation had come the realization of just where it was she lived.
The free-dimension of Azerath! It was a place that was inaccessible to those seeking to do violence, no matter how great their power. Here, where there was no penalty for race or faith, travelers, teachers and exiles from all planes of existence had congregated to construct a land without limits. The natural layout of Azerath defied measurement. Unrestrained, there was nowhere you could not be, which on its face might seem quite liberating. But in terms of actually living there, the first colonists had found it necessary to impose a few familiar limitations. Fortunately, the dimension proved to be readily malleable. Hence the construction of personal residences, public meeting sites, information storage centers, and other niceties like gravity and the forward flow of time. Everything Azerath lacked. But what it had in abundance was peace. Individuals or groups lived in the domiciles they crafted from the ether, and followed the curves to reach any other contrived zone in Azerath they wanted. To study, learn, and explore. For those who could not perform such a feat on their own, there were always the Soole, who effortlessly responded to the impulses of their new neighbors to move anywhere in Azerath, regardless of curves or boundaries. Here, everything was safe. Any conscious attempt at violence resulted in the precipitant's immediate and natural expulsion from this dimension. That was Azerath's appeal.
And Raven could finally appreciate it.
She was still not exactly popular. No others besides Unizue had yet to seek her out. The business with the Fabonu was not unusual. Unizue knew a great many people, but her method of socializing was very odd. Unizue was a weird person. Having spent a great deal of time in her friend's company, Raven knew this for a fact. For starters, there was the way she looked. What Raven had assumed to be Unizue's head was actually just her mouth. The long eyelashes turned out to be a kind of tongue, which vibrated to produce sound. Her light-globe was really an artificial eye that collected light and transmitted it down into Unizue's mouth, where it was then filtered to her lower segment wherein was housed her brain and other vital organs. Unizue had explained to Raven that her people had developed all these devices in order to communicate and respond with other races, their own natural language being a sort of telepathy. Raven had thought it funny that her friend was turned upside down in terms of her brain and guts, but had quickly decided that it made no difference. And of course, she had come to the conclusion that Unizue was a girl, like her. This, of course, had necessitated an explanation of the concept of "girl," followed by the much trickier "boy." But in the end, Unizue had accepted Raven's declaration of her girlhood with only moderate confusion.
That was another thing. It turned out that Unizue could only process two recognizable emotions, which she referred to as confusion and rapture. The first came about when Unizue did not understand something, and the second occurred when she did. But feeling either one of them tended to make Unizue very distracted. This was why she had picked up on meditation, a means by which she could regulate her own emotions and thereby proceed uninterrupted on her quest for knowledge. For this was Unizue's goal: the acquisition of learning. Not the kind that Raven knew best, through recorded words and images, but through long-term association with individuals. Unizue would search until she found someone intriguing, someone with whom she could learn. The experience apparently always had to be mutual, Unizue freely giving what she knew to the person whom she had designated as her teacher. They were thus connected together as they grew and evolved, learning everything about each other and themselves. In this way, the ancient traveler had met and collaborated with hundreds of thousands of people, but only one at a time. For each companion she decided on, Unizue would change her name to reflect their new association. Hence her proceeding to adopt the title of "Raven's" Unizue. Raven had once asked if this made her Unizue's Raven, but upon seeing how confused this made her friend, she had quickly retracted the question.
Names were very important to their friendship. When Raven had first brought Unizue to meet her Mother, things had not gone well. Mother had begun by greeting her as Unizue, at which point the Piran wanderer had turned her back and refused to speak. Both parent and child were mystified, until after a few minutes of anxious pleading, Unizue finally relented enough to explain that by becoming Raven's Unizue, only Raven was allowed to address her by a shortened moniker. All others had to use her full name, or be met with total rejection. Once this was made clear, the introductions went much more smoothly. Mother had questioned Unizue about herself and her intentions regarding Raven. At first the young girl was concerned that Mother's habitual worry over her daughter might scare away her new friend. But Unizue had calmly explained herself, and Mother at last accepted her at face value, secure in the knowledge that, by the nature of Azerath itself, no one could intentionally do her child harm.
Though Unizue was now more than willing to communicate with Mother, Raven's presence was always necessary. This was one more of the unexpected duties that resulted from becoming friends. It was Raven's responsibility to inform anyone who approached Unizue of her new name. Even then, it was never certain that Unizue would acknowledge them. The sorceress just seemed to determine whom she might converse with on a case-by-case basis. Once Raven had asked her why she treated people this way. Unizue had responded with, -I do not always wish to speak to everyone. It is not necessary- Still confused, Raven had let the matter drop. Sometimes there was just no understanding Unizue.
The girl broke away from her reverie. Apparently her student was sufficiently recuperated for their next lesson. Raven purposefully directed her gaze to the light globe and not the eyelashes. Unizue could never quite grasp why Raven tended to look at her tongue when she spoke.
-Do you wish to go home?-
Raven looked around, debating. "No," she decided. "I'm all right. And Mother is visiting her friends, so there's no reason to go back."
Unizue's tongues dipped gracefully. -It was your other home to which I referred-
She stared up at the towering alien. "I've only got one home, Unizue."
Unizue detached herself and floated about. -There is also the place of your Mother's birth. The planet which she is from-
Raven turned her head aside. "I..." she hesitated. "I can never go there."
-But you can go anywhere. Do you not wish to see the sun of your world, and the giraffes? I am still very curious about giraffes-
Unizue's pupil wrapped her arms around herself. "I'm never leaving Azerath," she stated.
-Hum- Unizue flickered. For a few minutes they rested peacefully side by side.
-Perhaps then I will visit there-
"NO!" Raven shouted in horror. Her fragile calm shattered, and eruptions of black magic fountained up around them. This time there was no hesitation. Everyone else vanished en masse. Only Unizue remained.
"You can't go there!" Raven cried. Her voice was cracked and raw with emotion. She had known this would happen. Ever since Unizue had explained their relationship, Raven had realized what it entailed. One day, when Unizue felt that she had learned enough from Raven, she would leave. She would go off to find a new teacher, and Raven would be left alone, relegated to one more of the people whom Unizue might choose to simply ignore on a whim. Suddenly she rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Unizue's trunk. Magic poured out of her in waves along with her tears, but she didn't even notice.
"You can't leave me, Unizue!" She slumped to her knees, shaking miserably against the smooth surface of her one and only friend. Around them the display of power had lost some of its force but was still evident. Raven cried in utter misery.
One of Unizue’s arms bent down, wrapping protectively around the small form of her teacher. -Forgive me for troubling you, Raven. I did not mean to imply that I was ready to seek a new mentor. There is still so much for me as Raven's Unizue-
The sobbing had been reduced to a slight sniffle. "I don't want you to go away."
-I would not leave you behind, Raven. What benefit would that do us? And I need not depart Azerath. There are many ways to visit somewhere. In dreams, for example-
Raven's outburst had quieted. She wiped away at her eyes. Snuffling, feeling ashamed at her tantrum, she looked up, and gave a small gasp.
Across the front of Unizue's body, a spider-web of lines crisscrossed, weeping a dark yellow viscous substance. A testimony to Raven's violently warring soul. And Unizue's devotion to her.
"I hurt you again."
Seeing it, Raven felt herself going dead inside. She looked up at Unizue. "Why do you stay my friend when I hurt you?"
Slowly Unizue bent forward at her middle until her eye-globe hovered in front of the child's tear-streaked face. Her long lashes fanned out, sweeping back and forth. -I am yours. You are my teacher. There is nothing you do to me from which we cannot both learn-
As always, Unizue could take no offense from Raven. It made the young sorceress feel even worse, like she was taking advantage of their friendship.
Unizue blinked. -You do not believe me? Then let me show you. Raven, would you like to learn how to repair this?-
Raven stopped short. "I can't heal you. My magic is... evil, it can't do something like that."
-Hum- Unizue sounded skeptical. -Why not? Have you ever tried?-
She thought about it. "No."
Unizue straightened up. -There are more ways open to you than just one. Parts unused that you have chosen to neglect. You have more than one magic available to you. Different magic for different results. Does this seem like something you wish to know?-
Raven glanced at the cuts marring her friend's surface. "Please show me," she begged.
The Piran glowed. -Rapture. We shall experiment on me. What a fascinating way to learn-
"But what if I hurt you more!" Raven cried.
-Then the more necessary it will become that you learn to heal-
New tears gathered in the dark blue eyes. "Don't ever leave me, Unizue."
Cloak fluttering gently, Raven descended to earth.
On the furthest reaches of town, in a redwood forest patch whose true ownership was buried under a mountain of false government legalities, there was a house of singular design. It was a two-story structure, composed entirely of wood burnished a deep, reddish-brown. The ground floor was a rectangle about an acre long. From experience Raven knew the roof of this lower edifice boasted a number of windows that allowed in light in the manner of a hypostyle hall. The main entrance was a solid wooden double portico with purposefully uncoordinated timber striations. On either end of the ground level there was a sweeping staircase that lead up to the second floor, identical in every respect save that one curved towards the front of the house while the other went towards the back. The second floor was fronted by a balcony connecting the two staircases. Its dominant wall was a series of glass doors, and the roof was a curved hemisphere that arched towards the rear of the house, bisecting halfway down to allow for a back entrance before sloping right down into the ground.
Raven could never decide what to make of Kultuq's choice of domicile, whether it might be fabulously unprecedented or simply odd. She hadn't asked whether he had made it himself, but it seemed likely. Whatever the case, it hadn't taken him long to establish himself, and Raven had visited several times now. One thing she had to admit: however bizarre its appearance, the place had a certain comfort to it. Dusk was fast approaching. The sound of crickets and night-hunting birds came from all around. She stared at the peculiar complex.
So this was where she would find her answers. It felt right. The journeying soul walked across the grass, stepped onto the threshold and knocked on the door.
Kultuq answered almost immediately. Opening both doors, he stood for a moment at the entrance, absorbed by the sight before him. Golden light from the house flowed out into a rapidly approaching darkness, but not a shaft of it touched the pale maiden who stood there. Several romantic and absurd notions crossed his mind at this occasion, though he knew that her mantle of darkness was due almost entirely to her standing in the shadow he himself cast.
Then etiquette resurfaced, and the joyful host stepped aside for his guest. "Welcome, Raven. As always, my home is yours." And just as always, Raven gave no sign of acknowledgement other than to dip her eyes briefly. She slid past him, out of the night. Again Kultuq was besieged by fancies whose utterance now could only irk her. Having entered, he closed the doors and followed.
Raven floated down the steps into the spacious living room. The ceiling was almost thirty feet above her, and just like nearly everything else inside the house, it was made of wood. Only the interior was much lighter than the exterior furnishings. Here it was the warm, burnished glow of pine, the yellow light of the lamps seeming strengthened and infused by the substance on which it fell. With the vents in the ceiling, Kultuq's home always had an abundance of light. But somehow, Raven never felt like it was too bright in here. It was more like the absence of dark. She couldn't explain it. She of all people felt most comfortable in the shadows, but here, where there were none, she never found herself ill-at-ease. It was magic of a sort with which she had no experience. And secretly, she treasured it.
Kultuq joined her then. She looked up at him, and he smiled warmly.
"I never knew when you might arrive, but dinner is almost ready. Please, make yourself comfortable until then."
Raven stared silently. He was wearing plain black pants and a white shirt with the collar unbuttoned. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing impressively muscled forearms covered with black hair. Right now, he looked every inch the normal person. A man excited at being with the woman he loved. Raven took in the house, the look on his face, and she realized that it was all for her. For the first time that evening, she spoke.
"I'm glad to be here."
It made Kultuq shiver with delight. She really meant that, he could tell. Just by the way she looked and moved, so relaxed and easy in his presence. There was no strain like there had been before. It was just like the first time they met, and his heart soared. Kultuq didn't really know what had brought about this miraculous change, whether it was by some act of his or something completely unrelated. But that couldn't concern him now. His future no longer seemed uncertain. Now it definitely held her in it for him, and he gave thanks that he had lived long enough to meet this girl and share his life with her.
Caught up by powerful emotions, Kultuq suddenly moved toward the kitchen. He dared not try to speak. His head was awhirl, and he could not trust his tongue to refrain from embarrassing him or ruining the moment.
Raven stayed where she was, and drew in a deep breath. She let her gaze linger about the house. The air was flavored with a combination of spices and roasting meat. It made her realize that she was feeling hungry, and so without further ado the silent introvert went and sat at Kultuq's table. It was no ordinary piece of furniture, but the mighty stump of a redwood tree, still rooted firmly in the ground. The floorboards of the house had been built around it, and the top was sanded and polished into a beautiful and functional work of art. Scattered around this prize were an assemblage of cushions on which one could sit or recline in Arabian fashion. Raven proceeded to do so, crossing her ankles as she paused to appreciate the rest of the house.
The redwood table was set in a lowered area in the very center of the first floor, ostensibly making it a dining room and a place to relax and chat. There were no real walls dividing this level, only a series of slender wooden posts that arched down from points on opposite sides of the ceiling to form a penetrable barrier made of equidistant-spaced poles. This architectural oddity always reminded Raven of the ribcage of some titanic wooden whale. The implements stopped about halfway from the front wall of the house into the dining room, leaving you with at least half an unobstructed view into the rest of the space on this floor. To one side there was an entertainment area, with a TV, couches, stereo system, and chairs. On the other end the space was divided between a small library and the kitchen, where Kultuq was now busily at work.
As Raven watched, her ancient adorer removed the covering from a dish on the stove, revealing some green meatballs sizzling in a sauce of spices and chopped vegetables. Picking up the skillet, with his free hand Kultuq retrieved a plate on which a round loaf of fresh-baked bread still steamed, its crust a dark-brown contrast to the savory white delicacy within. He carefully maneuvered his way back into the dining room and placed the dishes before his patient paramour.
"Koffi meatballs," he explained proudly. "A Moorish recipe. Just a small appetizer to begin the night, they taste best with fresh bread." He watched her with keen anticipation. When it came to a person's taste buds you could never tell. There was only one way.
Raven's first movement was to disregard the dish's traditional means of consumption. Instead of bare hands, she selected a fork from the table and pierced one of the juicy delicacies. Then she tore off a small hunk of bread and proceeded to place both in her mouth. Her server had to fight down an urge to ask how it was. Instead Kultuq waited, feeling very much like a chef at the mercy of a food critic. Finally Raven swallowed.
Hands folded in her lap, she stared down at her plate.
"I like it."
Kultuq's eyes widened at those words. The nubile young sorceress reached up and pulled down her hood, letting golden light play over her features.
"It's really good."
A slight nervous chuckle escaped her host's lips. "You can learn a lot of cooking in a life as long as mine. I may be the only person alive who knows how to make them like this. The secret..."
He stopped talking as she took his wrist in her hand. She was touching him again. The feel of her skin, pressure and warmth. This was what he fantasized about. The immortal felt his body temperature fluctuating from hot to cold rapidly. He had to remind himself that he should keep breathing. And on top of this, Raven turned her hypnotic eyes up to him. "Sit with me."
Kultuq obeyed instantly. He wasn't about to refuse. She was behaving strangely tonight. More open, like she wanted him to approach her. Like she wanted him. But she was still Raven, and therefore this was the most confusing mix of closeness and distance he had ever experienced. They were both just sitting there, looking at each other. No words exchanged, and yet this was the only time in months that he actually felt like she was really all there, not hiding from him or keeping him at arm’s length. No previous experience could prepare him for this. What did she have in mind? For once, his imagination failed him. He couldn't think.
Raven watched his face, observing the details. The lines and hairs, color of his skin, the bones underneath. "You've been like this for fifty millennia."
He nodded his head quietly, too lost in the sight of her to speak.
Without looking away, Raven took his other hand in her own. "How did it happen?"
Kultuq's mouth worked. After a few moments, he mumbled, "Meteor." Then he cleared his throat. "Urm, I mean, the meteor, it fell from the sky, as you might have guessed. My father and the others ran, but I..." His eyes became distant for a moment. "I was so tired, and cold. I didn't care anymore what might happen. I just wanted to stay warm, alive. So I went down into the crater, curled up by it, and slept." Kultuq blinked confusedly. "I don't know for how long."
He was remembering his past, from so long ago. Tentatively, Raven reached up and touched his face with her fingers. Kultuq immediately came back to himself, his mouth opened with a soft, surprised sigh.
"Can I see?" she asked.
He gave a very small nod, unwilling to lose this moment of closeness. Raven brought her other hand up and cupped his face. She closed her eyes, concentrating. The connection came easily. She felt the controlled absence of resistance. He was letting her come inside, trusting her with his entire being. A moment of guilt, which she quickly moved by. And then she was there, standing in the snow, in a cold deeper than anything she had thought this planet could produce. It was on the edge of a smoking crater high up in the mountains, the earth burnt and fused together. Down at the very center, she could discern a green glow. And there, huddled against the side of the stone, was a man dressed in animal skins. He was shivering, pressed hard against the alien rock for warmth. Raven knew him. All he wanted was to live, to see another day. Wake up and keep on walking. And then he was relaxing, sinking. Falling asleep. Dreaming.
She now stood close beside him. Something was happening here. She could feel it, but not understand it. The glow of the rock... didn't seem like magic. Was it alive? Couldn't tell from a memory. Now she was curious. Maybe she could find out. She reached for it.
And then there was gold, all around her, light of gold with diamond stars sprouting in it forever. Raven was shocked.
Just like that, the memory was gone. She was in a void, alone in Kultuq's mind.
Alone? What had that been, that had touched her? No explanation from Kultuq, he had never even seen it. But it was somehow known in here...
Abruptly Raven realized that she was wasting time, recalling her motive in asking to touch him. She drew inwards, searching the vast collection of his thoughts. There was so much memory, remembered and forgotten, dreams and men, gods, demons, knowledge. Ages of the Earth recorded in one human brain. She couldn't make sense of it all at once. But the Azerathian mind-reader didn't need to. What she wanted to find was only one small thing, and that meant seeing everything was unnecessary. So she focused on that thing, the word. The one word, written in blood in a language whose translation formed the sound of R'ly...
Kultuq snatched Raven's hands away with a start. Breathing heavily, he stared at her. She was also gasping for breath. Shaking, looking more pale than usual. Kultuq swallowed. "What...were you doing?" he demanded.
Raven blinked. She spoke in a soft, toneless whisper. "I was just trying to see." He watched her, a faint suspicion creeping into his thoughts. Releasing her wrists, he shifted in his seat. "Did you find out?" he asked with some concern. "Do you know how it made me immortal?"
She didn't answer right away. Raven only stared at her lap, drawing her cloak around her protectively. "No," she finally admitted. "I don't know what caused it. There was no magic that I'm familiar with. I'm sorry." She turned her eyes up to him. "I can't tell you more."
The sight of her face, so earnest and beautiful, made Kultuq forget all about his earlier apprehensions. He smiled good-naturedly. "That's no concern, Raven. No one I've ever asked has been able to tell me. I even located that same meteor and have had it analyzed for over two centuries. As far as anyone can tell, it's simply a hunk of ore. No unusual elements or radiation signatures, even the glow is gone. Whatever special properties there might have been about that stone, I'm the only evidence of it."
She didn't say a word, only watched him with a very frank stare. Kultuq didn't know what to make of it. Then, in the kitchen, the oven let out a beep, and the situation became much simpler. He rose to his feet. "I'll go get that," he remarked unnecessarily. "If you like the appetizers, I think you'll be very pleased by this."
He walked away, and Raven cursed herself. Maybe her intentions in coming here were suspect, but that had been unforgivable. She had been allowed into the mind of someone who trusted her, and she had nearly taken shameful advantage of it. The opportunity had presented itself, to learn what she wanted without revealing her goals to Kultuq. She hadn't taken the time to think about what she was doing. Now shame gripped her unrelentingly. So no more deception. No more hedging. Before anything else could happen to snatch this chance away from her, she would just come straight out and ask him.
Kultuq removed the strawberry roulade from the oven. Instead of soft and gooey, now it was light and fluffy. He was satisfied. Returning the roll to bake the last few minutes after adding the filling made all the difference. He was sure she would like it. All that remained was to add the final touches and cut it up.
"Yes?" He reached for the brandy decanter and began to sprinkle droplets over the pastry.
"I've been meaning to ask you something."
He paused in his work, and then proceeded quickly. Had to add the confectioner's sugar immediately. "By all means, do." Kultuq dusted the roll's surface lightly, and then applied more brandy. Some use a little, I use a lot, he laughed to himself.
"I just wanted to know..."
The immortal chef picked up the electric lighter and flicked it on. Immediately the concoction was bathed in a blue alcoholic flame.
"In all the time you've been alive..."
The flames went out, the sugar caramelized and fragrant. Perfect. Only one thing left. He reached for the cutting knife.
"Have you ever heard of a place called R'lyeh?"
Kultuq pulled the blade from the wooden block and turned around.
At the look on his face, Raven leapt upright.
She knew. His eyes said it all.
He was going to kill her.
To be continued...