The room felt unwelcome to her. It would probably be best just to stay in bed. Burrow under the covers, and try to get back to sleep. That was the most sensible course of action.
Yeah, right, Raven thought as she flung the sheets aside.
With a sigh, she rose and got dressed. A glance out the window confirmed her suspicions. It was still night. If she looked at the clock it would only make things worse. She really shouldn’t look.
She had only been asleep for two hours. And it had taken longer than that just to nod off in the first place. Raven had gone to bed early in the hopes of getting in as much rest as possible. Nowadays a good night’s sleep was a rare commodity. Usually her nightly torpor could be eased along by way of some simple meditation, or even, as a last resort, a quick spell. Perhaps not the most refreshing sleep, but sometimes you just can’t afford to lose it.
This was no longer the case.
Now the sorceress of
And Raven knew why.
This was nothing new. For the majority of her conscious life, the daughter of Trigon had been hounded by the irrevocable shame of a horrible promise written into her blood. Raven knew that she was destined to destroy the Earth. Even if she tried not to, it would still happen. So she had sought to help others upon arriving here, hoping that, in her own small, foolish way, she could thereby apologize for something she hadn’t even done yet. After all, there wouldn’t be anyone alive to say ‘I’m sorry’ to after it happened. Raven thought she knew everything there was to know about self-reproach. How wrong she had been.
Vague guilt over a hazy future was nothing compared to the solid recrimination of a fixed past. It was a sobering feeling to know that she had done something evil. She had destroyed her friend. Unizue was gone.
It had been necessary. That was what she had told herself. If she hadn’t done what she did, Unizue would have killed them all. But how could that alleviate the guilt? It was only because of her actions that they were put in such danger in the first place. And it didn’t stop there. She had psionically assaulted two people who trusted her. Then she had heedlessly entered one of the most dangerous places on the planet, despite numerous warnings to the contrary. And then, after being completely overwhelmed by the menace of that perilous locale, she had stood by helplessly as her friend and comrade was subjected to a gruesome torture in an effort to affect her release.
Raven shuddered bitterly. She hadn’t known the smallest slip about remorse. But now she did. And it hurt. Like sadness, or fear. It stayed with you. In the daylight hours, she could lock it away with the rest of her feelings. But at night, it took its toll. There was truly no rest for the wicked.
Raven knelt by her bed. She pushed her face into the fabric, and her fingers gripped the silk sheets tight. Unizue was gone. That was the worst. And there was no way to really tell her that she was sorry. Nor could she say good-bye because Unizue wasn’t even dead. She was with C’thulhu now, a part of its god-forsaken form. And this was entirely because Raven had sent her there.
Are you happy now, Unizue? Enraptured? I gave you what you said you wanted. And I’m glad there’s not enough of you left to realize it. That would only make it worse.
She would have to find another reason to live now. Strange. As a child, the thought of losing her only friend had been enough to send her into a panic. Now here she was, and her world continued. Could it be because she had more friends?
Raven grimaced, disturbed at the thought. Like if a friend was lost, you just find a replacement. In spite of what the world might think of her, she was not so insensitive. Of all people, friends especially were to be valued, treasured. And for her, they didn’t come along very often. She had to take care of them.
Raven slowly stood up. She knew that it was pointless to wallow in her emotions right now. She should be focusing on the present and not the past, show more concern for the living than those who were lost. She had to be strong. There were people who depended on her, needed her. Even now.
A ghost of pain flitted through her room. For a moment, the shadows held menace for her.
Out in the night, someone she knew cried out in terror.
Raven hugged herself tightly. She closed her eyes, drawing a shroud of calm over herself. Gradually, the feeling came to her less. But not gone. Not completely. This had been going on for far too long. And she had been ignoring it for weeks, hoping that it would go away on its own. So that she wouldn’t be forced to intervene and risk making things worse. But clearly, that was no longer an option.
This, at least, she could do something about.
Calling her cloak, Raven draped
it around her shoulders. The wayfarer stole softly from her room. All was quiet.
She slid down the halls, imperceptible as the fall of dusk. Eventually, she reached her destination. Hesitation. There was no sense of anyone being there. Cautiously, Raven laid a hand on the door. Behind the portal, everything in the room suddenly glowed black. It gave her confirmation. There was no one inside. Where, then?
The sorceress slid back. Slowly, her head turned slightly to one side, then another. She took the time to get a good sense of it.
Ah. The roof. Of course.
Azerath’s daughter wrapped herself in darkness, then rose up through the ceiling. Passing through several levels in an eye-blink, she came out to breathe the fresh night air. Immediately she spotted her quarry, sitting perilously close to the rooftop’s edge.
Raven crossed over to join him. Her cloak rustled lightly, and she did nothing to hide her footsteps. No sense in scaring him anymore than he already was.
She saw his head turn towards her. “You trying to wake the dead, Raven?”
No reason to bother, either. Beast Boy already knew she was there.
The dusky-skinned maiden gave him the ghost of a smile. “I just wanted you to know I was here.”
He shivered. Then the changeling turned back to staring at the ocean. “Sorry. Bad joke.”
“Do you know any other kind?”
Raven moved over and knelt beside him, legs folded beneath her. Resting on her flowing cape, she studied Beast Boy. He was dressed in his jammies, bare feet dangling over the Tower’s drop. A blanket was wrapped tightly around him, and in the bright moonlight Raven could see the tears torn into it.
“So…” she hazarded. Raven left the sentence dangling to see if her conflicted teammate would respond. When he didn’t, she took a deep breath and continued. “Do you want to talk?”
“No.” And at that he looked at her. “I want to sleep.”
He looked worse at night. Beast Boy’s face was slack, and bags hung under his eyes. Everyone had noticed lately that the team kid had been behaving oddly. He couldn’t seem to concentrate, and the normally energetic youngster could now best be described as hyperactive. It wasn’t like he had been trying to hide it either. Beast Boy had admitted to each of them that he was having trouble sleeping. The others had let it go at that. They knew that he had been through a lot recently. And Raven had been avoiding the subject. But now that she was looking right at him, she could see the truth. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been getting enough sleep.
The truth was he hadn’t been sleeping at all.
Gently Raven reached up and touched his face. The unexpected contact gave her teammate’s face a little glow, and his eyes widened with some of that old exuberance she had used to find so grating. It was a start.
“Can you tell me what’s happening?” she asked.
His eyelids drooped shut. Beast Boy’s head sagged into her hand. “I can’t sleep.”
He swiveled around to face her, bringing his knees up to his chest. Raven was glad. She hadn’t liked how close he had been to empty space. “Usually, when I try to sleep and can’t, I just start talking to myself. You ever tried that?” He looked at her, and Raven shook her head. “Yeah, well, then I get tired, and I feel sleepy. And the next thing I know its morning.”
Or afternoon, Raven thought, but she didn’t say it.
The animal boy reached up and took Raven’s hand in his. “But now, whenever I go to bed I just lie there and stare at the room. And I toss and turn and…” His voice was growing more hoarse and frantic. “Gotta go to the bathroom and it sounds so loud. I try shifting shapes and I’m so tired, but even if I do get to sleep it’s not gonna last because of…”
He stopped shaking, and his hands fell into his lap. The demon’s daughter watched with sympathy. “The dreams,” she murmured.
He nodded hastily. “Sometimes I’m sinking, or it feels like… I’m going deeper. And they’re all around me, I can see them, going round and around, or maybe I’m spinning, or swimming. And they’re saying something to me, while they’re wrapping me up like a mummy. And then it’s like they’re all gone. He’s there.”
His voice had faded to a whisper. “He starts to make stuff happen. Impossible stuff. Things that aren’t right. And I feel like I’m watching God, because there’s so much happening, but I’m too small to get it. And he’s so big, Raven!” Beast Boy’s face twisted in despair. “He’s too… BIG, he doesn’t even know I’m there. Then it all starts to go wrong. I start to change, and I really, really wish that I would die.”
He seemed to shrink in on himself, like a frightened beast. “I can’t live like this,” the changeling sniffed. “You know, really, I can’t. I mean how am I supposed to live when I know all of this? It’s too much, Raven, it’s just…too…much!”
“Beast Boy.” He looked up at her then, and she locked her eyes with his. He was hurting bad. Not thinking straight. This had to stop now. “Listen to me. It’s dead. C’thulhu is dead. Has been for a long, long time. And there’s no reason to think it’s going to come back in your lifetime.”
The green teen scrambled up, still clutching his blanket like a shield.
“It doesn’t NEED a reason, don’t you understand?!!” he spit. “It doesn’t work on reason! It doesn’t have to, because nobody can stop it, nobody can tell it to stop, it does what it wants and… and…” He started to weep, and he couldn’t get the words out. Beast Boy’s knees buckled, and he sank to the stone, crying.
Had to stay awake. But he needed to sleep, and he couldn’t do that either. It wasn’t fair, that he be asked to endure this torture for the rest of his life. What had he done that was so wrong?
He felt hands on his head, sliding through his hair, and then he heard Raven’s voice, very faintly. It took him a few moments to realize she was singing.
A lullaby, soft and sweet. A
tune that his mother had used to soothe him to sleep, long ago, safe in
A second later, he was asleep.
As tenderly as she possibly could, Raven maneuvered Beast Boy’s head to lay it carefully in her lap. He stirred, but did not awaken. She continued to hum his favorite lullaby, lifted from his memories when she touched him. This time there was no guilt. It was the right thing to do. She let the natural sleep do its work on his worn-out frame, fingers combing through his unruly mane.
And when Beast Boy’s slumbering
mind began to drift into dreams, Raven reached in and nudged him back from
them. Patiently, she continued her vigil, alert for any signs of her
companion’s sleep being disturbed. As the night wore on and
And in this, she did not fail.
“I don’t hear any splashing.”
Kyle Montcraig finished squeezing the last contents of the ketchup bottle onto a slice of bread. Topping it off with another piece, he deposited the otherwise unadorned sandwich into a Bratz lunchbox. It was Hannah’s latest craze- ketchup sandwiches. She was wild about the taste, and insisted it could improve anything. The single parent didn’t mind. If it kept his daughter eating her peas and carrots, he would keep right on applying the tomato-based condiment to everything in sight.
It occurred to him that there was still no noise coming from the bathroom. He blew out his breath in exasperation. It was a shame ketchup couldn’t help him now. Hannah still remained adamantly opposed to baths, and he very well couldn’t afford to dump a few bottles into the tub. Ketchup was starting to become as big a strain on the budget as gas. As he walked to the bathroom, Kyle toyed with the notion of sending the bath-bubble folk a suggestion for a new product scent. He wondered if they would go for it.
But this daydream was cut short by the sight of his daughter standing before him in tears.
“Honey?” He dropped down before her. “What’s wrong?”
The little girl only buried her face in her stuffed panda and shook from side to side.
“Did something happen? Are you hurt?” Kyle was growing more alarmed by the moment. Usually Hannah huffed and stamped to demonstrate her displeasure at daily ablutions. Screaming was a last resort. But this tearful silence was new, and therefore unsettling.
After a few more attempts at coaxing, the troubled tyke finally pointed a finger back into the bathroom and whispered something.
“What?” her father leaned in closer.
“There’s an alligator in the tub,” his daughter repeated stubbornly.
Kyle had to check himself from laughing. Adopting a serious tone, the relieved parent decided to play along. “Oh, I see. Well, let me see what I can do to get him out of there so you can take your bath.”
He got up and walked assuredly inside. “Hello, Mr. Alligator!” Against the wall, a mound of pink bubbles flowed over the edge of the tub, filling the room with its powerful fragrance. “Or Mrs. Alligator. Now I know its fun to play with bubbles. But alligators don’t belong in little girls’ bathtubs.” He looked at the door and winked conspiratorially at Hannah, who remained out in the hall clutching her doll. “So I’m just going to open up the stop for a bit,” he proceeded to roll up his sleeve, “and you can just go out the way you came in.”
Kyle plunged his arm into the brightly colored soap, searching for the plug. “And from now on you…”
In the doorframe, Hannah cringed.
With a shriek, Kyle tore himself away from the tub, scooting frantically across the floor. Full-blown panic set in. He turned and grabbed up his daughter, who was now screaming shrilly. The two of them dashed back into the living room, knocking over lamps and tables.
The phone! Grabbing it, Kyle sprang to the door and fled outside.
In the hallway, several of his neighbors had poked their heads outside, curious at the early-morning commotion. Kyle was having difficulty dialing the numbers, he was shaking so badly. At any moment he was afraid of what he might see coming around the corner in their apartment.
What had it been?!! Only for a few seconds, his fingers had touched something, but it was long enough to register a hard, scaly feel. And his hand stank, like it had touched something polluted. He didn’t know, he just didn’t know.
“Help,” he gasped, holding his screaming six-year old and staring fearfully back into their home. “I need animal control, I think… I think there’s an alligator in my tub!”
It was simple work, and
peaceful. Fulfilling. This was exactly what both of them needed. There wasn’t a
lot going on in
If he ever did, Raven thought
morosely. There was no telling if this would ever go away, or if
Well, if that’s the case, I’ll just have to watch over him forever. If that was necessary to make it right, she would…
What’s going on?
Raven’s senses had picked up on something. The feeling of contact, dimensional overlay. There had been an instance when this universe shared space with another realm, a familiar one.
Was it Azerath?!
While part of her remained intent on Beast Boy’s protection, the sorceress turned her attention on investigating this occurrence. Now things were becoming clearer. There had been three, no, four separate events. And each time, something had been left behind. Specifically, one of them had been left near her. Inanimate, for the most part. But the same couldn’t be said for the other three.
That was disturbing. So now she had to tend to her friend, keep watch on the thing before her, and try to ascertain the nature of the three.
Suddenly things had gotten complicated again.
He was awake now. Enough to recognize that he was still half-asleep. He didn’t know how long it would take for that realization to propel him into full wakefulness. He hoped it wouldn’t be soon. It had been too long since he had felt like this. And he had been so out of it lately.
Now he felt great. Totally relaxed. It was a little chilly. His feet were cold, and he snuggled up into his blanket, burying his face into the pillow. He realized he was drooling. Oh well. His own he could deal with. Other peoples’ was gross. And it just meant he would have to relocate to a dry side of the pillow. He turned his head, the warmth of the cushion feeling good on his cool cheek.
Warm? His pillow shouldn’t be warm, he hadn’t had his head there. And it smelled different too. Not the usual funk imparted by his head being on it and neglecting to clean the pillowcases for a month or two. But not in a bad way either. It was nice. And familiar. He just couldn’t place it.
Maybe if he tasted it that might help…
So he did.
The first thing he saw was
himself, reflected in a great round red eye. Fortunately he was still too tired
to do anything but stare right back at it. And this gave
And that was when he came fully awake.
I’m sleeping, Beast Boy thought, in Raven’s lap.
With this dawning comprehension came a confusing blend of emotions, both intimate and terrifying. With his selection spread out before him, Beast Boy chose the one he felt best suited the situation.
He jerked upright with a squeal, an apologetic flood already pouring from his lips. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I don’t know what happened Raven I wasn’t trying to I mean I didn’t mean to…to…ah…”
The anxious teenager lost his train of thought, if he had ever had one, subsiding to stare in dread at his unpredictable comrade. He took a good, long look at her.
Raven hadn’t moved since he had awoken. Now that he thought about it, it didn’t look like she had moved from last night. She was staring straight ahead at him. Or more like through him. Her eyes were open, but they never blinked. Her lips were parted, like she was just about to speak. At last Beast Boy decided that he was in no danger. Raven didn’t seem to be aware of his transgression. She hadn’t even reacted to the drool.
Garfield Logan froze. Slowly his eyes traveled down, down, down.
He had been drooling. On Raven’s legs! And he almost…
Suddenly the youngest Titan wasn’t feeling cold anymore. Quite the reverse. But the question of how Raven might react to her waking up in this condition served the same affect as having a bucket of ice water thrown into his face. Avoiding said reaction suddenly became top priority. And before he could stop to consider the merits of any course of action, Beast Boy took a handful of his blanket and began to carefully daub Raven’s thighs.
A gray-skinned hand clamped firmly around his wrist.
His eyes closed, and a tiny whimper escaped his throat.
Raven’s eyes still had that lost look, but her lips were moving.
“There’s something here.”
She stood up, letting go of his arm, giving no indication that she had felt what he was doing. The girl ghosted past him, and Beast Boy whirled about. “Raven, wha…”
He stopped short.
There was something huge
floating in the air before
She was in midair, circling the column. The enchantress seemed to be following one ring of symbols after another. As she moved, Beast Boy saw Raven’s eyes widen, and her normally composed features took on a look of apprehension. After a while she broke away from the floating enigma and rejoined her companion on the roof.
The species shifter didn’t know quite how to handle this. Okay, what have we got? For starters, I feel great. I think I actually got to sleep last night. Raven didn’t seem particularly upset by all this. But maybe she was, just a little.
“So, Raven, are we being invaded or what?”
She gave him a look, a very
unpleasant look, and
Then Raven looked back over her shoulder at the weirdly shifting lights.
“It’s a message from home,” she said simply. “They say that I’ve broken the rules, and that if I do something like this again, they’ll revoke my citizenship.”
Beast Boy stared. “Just for helping me get some sleep?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’m not sure why. They say that the ‘candidates’ I sent were rejected, but I’ve never sent anyone to Azerath. I tried to, in R’lyeh, but…”
A pause. And then Raven snapped her hood up, rising again into the air.
“Wake the others now!” she ordered Beast Boy.
“Wha…?” he blinked. “Raven, what’s going on?”
Suddenly the Titan’s signal flashed on the clasp of her cloak. Raven’s eyes drifted down towards him.
“I made another mistake.” The red glow lit the shadows under her cowl, and Beast Boy could have sworn there were tears in her eyes. Then she was gone, her voice a whisper in his mind.
They’re here, Beast Boy. Three of C’thulhu’s creatures are in the city.
With a grimace, the young detective pushed his head up. A quick glance at the clock confirmed what his body was trying to tell him. 7:00 am. He had only gotten two hours of sleep. Working outside the Tower in his personal sanctum tended to allow him to indulge in some questionable personal habits. Most notably, overextension. And sleep deprivation. He would be feeling this later, he thought as he reached for his com-link.
Flipping it open, he was greeted by the image of a clearly anxious Cyborg.
“I’m here,” Robin coughed as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“We just got a call from the cops,” the bionic hero wasted no time. “They picked up some ugly characters. Look familiar?”
His face was replaced by a digital photograph. Several police officers stood at a wary distance around a prone figure on a stretcher. A gleaming, gray-green humanoid with gigantic bulging eyes.
Robin swore. “A Deep One!” A thought occurred to him. “Could R’lyeh be rising?”
Cyborg reappeared. “Raven says no, she would have felt it. And Beast Boy agrees. There are three of C’thulhu’s boys, apparently. Two are already at the 56th precinct, and Raven went to pick up the last of them. Seems they’re not putting up any fight.”
Robin considered. “Everyone meet at the precinct. We’ll decide what to do then.”
The connection was broken, leaving only static. Feet propped up on the console, the young woman flipped off the switch without taking her eyes from her laptop screen. Her hand languidly drifted across the controls until she found what she wanted.
Pressing a button, the sentry leaned over slightly and murmured, “They just said the magic word. Time to introduce ourselves.”
Then she went back to concentrating on the latest spring fashions.
“So animal control gets called in, and the joke’s going around when we get another call, this time from some rent-a-cops at the university. They said some night-owls were complaining about a really nasty smell, so they investigated and tracked down this dead-fish-man in a science lab. While we were picking it up the beast brigade calls screaming that the thing in the bathtub is a monster. That’s when I thought you should know.”
Lieutenant Ambasso opened the door and motioned Robin to follow her. They moved down the stairs to the detention area of the precinct. “We were keeping them in a holding cell, but the drunks and winos started complaining about the smell, so we moved them to an interrogation room. One with windows.”
Approaching their destination, she gave a brief nod to the pair of officers on duty. Before proceeding, the police lieutenant pulled a perfume-soaked handkerchief from her pocket. “Hope you don’t mind,” she said as the door slid open, “but I’ve smelled abattoirs more fragrant. I’ll be out here.” The Titans’ leader nodded his thanks and stepped inside.
He almost stepped right back out. The room was equipped with a ventilation system, but even with that and the windows open, the stink that came from the two identical shapes on a table was enough to make his stomach lurch. The source of that fetid aroma were indeed what he thought they were, but the city’s defender needed to know something more.
Cautiously he approached the nearest alien entity. It gave no sign of noticing his presence. C’thulhu’s devotee lay completely limp, its tendrils trailing over the edge of the desk, eyes staring blankly up at the ceiling. With only a slight twist of the lips to display his revulsion, the crime-fighter reached his gloved hand outwards, pushing through the nest of tentacles until he found its throat. His fingers searched blindly until he found it. Faintly, even through the mesh armor of his gloves, he could distinguish what could be called a pulse.
Quickly Robin exited the room, closing the door securely behind him. The head of detectives looked at him quizzically. “So what’s the deal? Are we being invaded again? Gotta say, aside from the extraterrestrial B.O., these guys don’t pack much of a punch.”
“I’ll have to discuss it with Raven,” the masked hero stated. “For the time being, I don’t think we have to worry about more than three of these things. But I do know that they’re supposed to have psychic powers. If you don’t mind, I’d like for them to remain in this building until we can arrange transportation.”
“Sure,” the police lieutenant dead-panned. “No problem. We’ll just break out our psychic head-gear.”
“Good idea.” And with that, Robin strode back down the hall.
The three law enforcement agents watched him go. Ambasso lowered the kerchief from her face a fraction. “I really wonder if he knows when a person is joking.”
The hydraulic winch let out a whir, and another cylinder of space-age plastic and titanium was carefully laid to rest next to its mates. Two figures stood off to the side, supervising the loading. Both wore masks. One looked as if he were comfortable among shadows. The other was so bright he seemed to demand people notice him.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
The loading process continued in relative silence.
“I’m not trying to contradict you or anything, all I’m saying is it seems like a really big risk for not enough profit.”
A solitary eye turned to regard the speaker. “We profit from what is useful to us.”
His companion raised his hands in a conciliatory fashion. “It’s your party, chief. I just do my little thing and get paid, right? You want it, I can get it for you.”
The rest of the procedure was undisturbed by conversation.
“Raynes, what did you eat today?!”
As Raven rose up into the building with her captive, she was greeted by these and many similar complaints. Couldn’t really blame them, her guest was of a most pungent nature. Most of the officers present had already donned their helmets. Good thinking. But for those who had sufficient self-control, keeping one’s gorge from rising was just another exercise in discipline. And now was not the time to engage in pointless displays of overreaction.
The cloaked crime-fighter turned. Drifting over the heads of the massed civil servants came Starfire. She settled in beside her teammate, casting a worried look at the life-form prostrate at their feet. “I see you were successful.”
“It wasn’t hard to find. Are the others here yet?”
The Tameranean’s attention shifted back and forth between the pair. “Robin has moved the other R’lyeans to a room three floors up. There are fewer people present, in case they attempt to exert their influence. Beast Boy is on the roof, and Cyborg is arranging for a vessel with which to transport them.”
“Right.” Raven glanced around, assessing the situation. “How much time until Cyborg arrives?”
“I believe he calculated thirty minutes.” Starfire watched her friend closely, but Raven didn’t seem to notice. The pallid teen pulled herself out of her reverie.
“I’d like some time by myself with this thing. I’ll bring it back when the ride comes.” Of a sudden, Raven felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked down at it with a frown, and then back up at its owner. Starfire continued to stare at her earnestly.
“Raven?” she whispered. “Are you at all harmed? Has it done anything to you?”
She’s really worried about me, Raven thought. It was enough to make her relent a little. The sorceress laced her fingers over her friend’s palm. “I’m fine, Starfire. Really. We don’t seem to be in any danger. I’m just not comfortable putting them all in one place yet. And I want to see what I can learn. Look, if it makes you feel better, I won’t leave the station, all right?”
The warrior-girl beamed. “That is well. I am glad.”
She floated off. Raven watched her for a few moments, then turned to regard the closest law-enforcement officer.
“So. Who wants to loan me their office?”
Two red eyes gleamed a lurid pallor in the dark. “Okay, we’re good to go. Who’s driving?”
From the shadows along the wall, a tall form arched one long leg up onto the platform and settled into the front seat. It made hardly any sound. Its companion folded his arms and threw himself into his spot.
“Figures,” he muttered darkly. The fashionably-dressed Oriental gave him a honeyed smile, then turned and walked out of the room.
With a soft whir, the vessel rose up into the air with its occupants.
Robin leapt nimbly down the stairs. He didn’t like where this was going, but that was hardly a surprise. Minor crime set his teeth on edge. An invasion by the worshippers of an insane deity was not going to make him leap up and shout for joy. He hated to feel like he had no power to stop this, but the truth was, he didn’t know what precisely was going on. So he needed to ask the only person who apparently did. At least now he knew where to find her.
The city’s defender reached the basement level of the police headquarters. Another interrogation room had been cleared at her request. It was small. And dark. And located in the center of the building. Robin’s nostrils twitched. He was not looking forward to this. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped inside, making sure to leave it ajar.
What little furniture there was had been stacked neatly in one corner. The center of the room was now dominated by several eerily glowing planes of light. Etched with unearthly symbols, they rose and fell through the inert body of C’thulhu’s spawn, guided by another visitor from beyond.
For a moment, Robin paused, uncertain how to proceed. Raven’s eyes were closed. She floated with legs crossed a few feet above the floor. The glow of her own magic washed over her body, drawing patterns of light and shadow across its surface. Were it not for the smell, he might have stood there watching her for hours. But instead he moved across the small space and stood quietly beside her. No need to rush here. It might be dangerous, he told himself. So he just stood there. And waited.
After a few minutes, Raven’s eyes slid open. She lowered herself to stand upon solid ground again. The blue-light arcana continued to do its work on their uninvited guest, and the Teen Titans watched it together.
Robin crossed his arms. “So what’s the story?” he asked.
Raven’s head fell to one side.
“This is my fault.”
He regarded her carefully. “Why?”
The hood fell from her face, and Raven pushed her hair away. “Back in R’lyeh, when I finally… found Unizue, I tried to send her back to Azerath myself. She resisted. The spell I cast had no affect on either of us, but we weren’t alone at the time. Three of the Deep Ones were in the room. The magic took them, but I didn’t think about that. I was too upset over what went wrong.” Her brow furrowed with profound self-loathing. “I didn’t even think about it. We stayed, and the three of them went to Azerath. With a call for citizenship. The people evaluated them, and naturally when they realized what they were dealing with, they denied them entry and shipped them right back here.”
Raven’s voice had grown quieter. “Only they didn’t specify a place. They sent them back to me, to wherever I happened to be at the time. The message that accompanied them was a warning against trying anything like that again.” She sighed. “And now they’re our problem.”
Robin cocked an eyebrow. “Well, if you don’t mind my saying, Raven, it seems to be all these guys can do just to keep breathing. Not much of a problem there.”
“It’s not how they deal with us.” Raven stared at the recumbent monster. “It’s what we do with them.”
“No one’s going to be making any return trips to R’lyeh, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I wasn’t debating it,” she assured him. Once again Raven lifted herself above the demands of gravity to hover in the air. “Cyborg will be here shortly. Until then, I’d like some more time to try and communicate with it. Don’t worry,” she said as Robin seemed about to object. “I’ll be careful. The more we know about them, the better off we’ll be in the long run, right?”
The leader of the Titans stood pondering. His first inclination was to move these three to a more secure location before starting any interrogations. But then again, putting all three of them in one place together might be dangerous. It could serve to awaken them from the catatonic stupor they were currently residing in. The best course of action might be to move them separately, leave someone here to keep an eye on Raven, and then fetch her along with the last.
“All right. Cyborg and I will
transport the other two to
Raven stayed quiet. Then she gave a brief nod. The cloak once again obscured her features.
Robin watched her for a moment. Then he pulled out his communicator and flipped it open. “Cyborg, you copy?”
“Loud and clear.” The response came at once. “I’m just a few blocks away. See you in a couple minutes.”
The com went dead.
They had settled on a rooftop across the street from their target. Cloaking technology kept the craft virtually invisible. However, in the last few minutes a light rain had begun to fall from the overcast sky.
The man in white stood out of sight from the ground. Gathered around him were several hunched, motionless shadows. No one moved, or spoke.
After a while, the man gave a curse and flung out his arms. “Well?” a voice in his helmet spoke.
“It’s no good,” he snapped. “I can feel them, for sure. But it’s not…I can’t get a fix. They’re like… water, and I’m oil. We just don’t mix!”
“Stay calm,” the voice spoke patiently. “An easy solution was too much to ask for. We’ll continue as planned. Your first target has just pulled in. Are you ready, Manifest?”
The ghostly criminal smiled inside his helmet. “Ready to earn my keep. You getting all this, Kyoto Cutie?”
A new voice came on. “Sorry, did you say something?”
“Enough chatter. Get to work!”
The com went dead.
Manifest frowned. “I need to buy some new friends.”
Beast Boy took the stairs two at a time. He was feeling energetic, a definite improvement over the last few weeks. Whatever Raven had done, it was just what he needed. It occurred to him that the sullen sorceress just might care about him more than she let on. Yes, there were the hostile glares, the chilling threats and casual insults. But maybe, he reasoned, that was just Raven’s way. Maybe it was just as important what she didn’t do as what she did. Like this morning. She didn’t kill him when she woke up to find him pawing at her. Okay, there was the whole alien email and something to do with the Deep Ones to get her attention. But still…
Wait, where had he been going with this?
Well, at any rate, once this was over, he would definitely find a way to pay her back. Something heartfelt and real. A book? Maybe, if he could only figure out one she would like.
Beast Boy shook his head, hoping to scramble his brains before they got him into trouble. Just then, Robin turned a corner.
“I didn’t…!” Beast Boy squeaked.
Robin halted. “What?”
BB grinned nervously. The
crime-fighter eyed him with suspicion. “Cyborg just got here. We’re going to
take the first two back to
“Right,” the shape-shifter nodded. “Me watch Raven. Good.”
Robin took a step closer. “Beast Boy, are you sure you’re up to this?”
“Up, up, and away!” the kid snorted. He strove to control himself. “I can do this. No problem.”
“Its just that… lately you’ve been…”
“Dude, I’m better now. Raven helped me out last night. Best night’s sleep I ever had.”
Beast Boy gave a start. “I mean, we were just…!”
Suddenly the communicator in Robin’s hand beeped. “Hello? Is everybody listening?”
Starfire glanced around her as a rumble shook the building. Atmospheric electric buildup and discharge was still strange to her. But the humans around her hardly gave it any notice. One of them offered her a cup of coffee, but she politely refused. Certain incidents in the past had taught her to be wary of the effects of caffeine on her system.
The situation disturbed her. She was not accustomed to feeling helpless. Her people did not lack for courage or intelligence. But the affairs of other races were often complicated. Feeling suddenly confined by her environs, the affable alien moved over to a window. Opening it, she surreptitiously climbed outside to hover in a mild rainfall over an alley. There she stayed, thinking about all the things that had happened to them recently.
So absorbed, Starfire failed to notice the slight movement behind her.
From out of a storm drain, something came forth. Its skin gleamed wetly, and its eyes gave off a lurid ochre glow. One arm extended out to join it, the fingers spiraling and hardening into points. Slowly, it reached out towards its victim.
Something prickled at the back of her neck, and Starfire pivoted in midair. For a moment she thought she caught a flash of something moving. And then there was just the rain.
The princess of Tameran cast her gaze about, a sense of foreboding creeping up on her.
A minute later, her com beeped.
“Starfire,” Robin spoke. “Where are you?”
“I am outside,” she responded. “Has anything happened?”
“Can you come up to the roof? I need to have a talk with you.”
“I will be there shortly.”
“Where are you?” Raven whispered.
Nothing happened. The mind of the Deep One was like a computer. There was information and little else. No presence. No personality. It was virtually devoid of any of the traits she had come to associate with a conscious mind. Even beasts had a sense of self. But that was noticeably lacking here.
It disturbed her.
Raven’s work had not gone unrewarded. From experience she knew that this particular R’lyean had been alive during C’thulhu’s reign over this world. Whether or not it had been born during that period or before was impossible to determine. The memories she found showed a world gone mad. Obscene perspectives with no distinguishable horizon. Towering structures that dwarfed mountains and bowed down when their master passed. An image of the god diving into the earth’s crust like it was an ocean to subvert the underground civilizations that clamored for its presence. Strings of memories in no discernible order. In their previous encounter, Raven remembered a being that had little awareness outside of its devotion to C’thulhu’s song. That music had filled it at the time. Now, for whatever reason, it was gone. What remained was hardly recognizable as living. But there was still something here. Knowledge, at the very least. She might be able to glean some news of C’thulhu’s life-cycle, and when it could be expected to return.
Raven broadened her search, and began to filter it in slowly.
Cyborg turned off the ignition and stepped into the underground parking lot. Attached to the back of the T-Car was a mobile unit that carried three suspended animation chambers, the type used to contain those criminals too dangerous to even be allowed to remain awake. He only hoped it would be enough to keep the Deep Ones subdued.
The metal brawler was just about to contact the rest of the team when a buzz of static came over the police intercom. “Hello?” a weirdly modulated voice came on, and something in him clenched at the sound. “Is everybody listening?”
“That’s my cue,” Manifest laughed. And with that, he jumped off the roof.
“So, Nadine, you think I got a shot?”
Officer Nadine Walters glanced over at her fellow sentry. “At what?”
“You know.” Zack Tanner winked at her through the visor of his helmet. She made a sound of disgust.
“Get a grip, Zack. She’s a teenager, for heaven’s sake.”
“She’s also obviously an alien, but that doesn’t bother me. Haven’t you noticed her skin color? Maybe where she comes from they start dating young. And we’re in the same line of work, that’s a place to start. Y’know, inter-office relationships.”
Nadine sighed. “Why are we having this conversation? How can you even think about that when you’ve got two rotting alien meat-slabs in the room behind you?”
“Can’t smell it in here,” Zack rapped on his helmet.
“Too bad I can still hear.”
“Hey, you never answered before. If you had a choice, which Titan would you…?”
Both officers stopped as a voice came over their headsets.
“Is everybody listening?”
Nadine Walters tapped her helmet. “What the…?”
“Go to sleeeeep/ Go to sleeeep/ Close your big, bloodshot eyes…”
“La da dah da, la da dahhhh…”
Somebody was singing a lullaby over the police band! And it sounded like they were gargling on razorblades. The voice was hoarse, raspy, and thoroughly unpleasant. It was almost absurd in its monstrosity. She was just about to ask Turner what he thought, when she heard a thud beside her.
Looking down, she found her partner lying unmoving at her feet.
“Zack!” she shouted, dropping beside him. “Zack, are you all right?!”
Quickly she removed a glove and touched his neck. Finding a pulse, Nadine reached up to remove his helmet.
Movement down the corridor caught her eye, and she looked up to shout for help.
The sight at the end of the hall stopped her.
Crawling along the dimly lit space was a phalanx of menacing figures. The majority of them were hunched, black-clad characters whom the veteran police officer recognized immediately. They were called Skulkers, android ninjas utilized by the criminal mastermind Slade. These characters had appeared in force during their master’s aborted takeover of the city. They were known in every precinct.
It was the creature walking at their head that gave her pause.
Even in a crowd of hunchbacked androids, it was tall. And bizarre. Its feet and hands were abnormally large for its long winding limbs, and it appeared to be naked. There were no toes, while its fingers were long points. Its skin was a grayish-purple color, and the joints of its arms and legs were twisted, like cloth wound around itself. The same effect happened at its midsection, and its neck. It loped haltingly towards her, its shoulders lurching up and down with every step, yellow eyes the only distinguishable feature on a head that looked like a soft-serve ice cream cone.
And this horror was leading a pack of robot assassins her way.
Officer Walters let go of her partner and raised her laser rifle. The singing was still echoing in her helmet, but she was not about to lose whatever protection it provided.
“Freeze!” she shouted over the noise.
The monster’s arm rose, and without further warning Nadine fired.
A concentrated burst of heat shot from the nozzle, lighting the passageway briefly red before striking the target in its chest.
Then, as if nothing had happened, it gave a flick of its wrist.
Before her eyes, Nadine’s rifle barrel twisted and bent back, the spout now aimed directly at her face.
With a gasp, the weapon fell from her finger. She backed up a few steps. Her legs were shaking, and she could feel her heart pounding in her breast with unpleasant intensity. Her eyes sought out Turner, still sprawled on the floor a few feet away.
Without breaking stride, the enemy made another motion of its hand. As Nadine watched, the corridor between her and Turner gave a shiver. Then walls, floor, ceiling, everything began to move, contracting in on itself with a soft swishing sound. Her jaw dropped as solid matter simply spiraled shut, closing her off from her partner. She stared at the ribbed wall before her, its colors blending into the center like a tie-dye T-shirt design.
Then the wall shuddered. And it began to move towards her.
Flowing around its center like water draining into a spout, it began to pick up speed. Walters turned and ran. She fled without looking back. Her only concern at that time was self-preservation. The out-of-place lullaby taunted her, and with a scream she flung off her helmet. But she could still hear it, coming seemingly from everywhere. She looked behind her to see the helmet get picked up by the twisting wall and drain down into it without stop. Still running full-tilt, Nadine stared in horrified fascination.
It was this that kept her from seeing the wall before her.
She slammed into it, putting up no resistance as unconsciousness claimed her.
The distortion reached her, and stopped. A hole in the center opened swiftly, growing wider. The police helmet clattered to the floor. The walls of the corridor curved neatly back to their natural state, leaving no trace whatsoever of any abnormality. It was as if nothing had happened.
Going back to where all of this started, the disparate procession had come to a halt. Several of the Skulkers took up positions down the hall, moving the supine forms of both police officers out of the way. Their leader faced the door they had been guarding, and opened it.
With an unnatural shriek, the entity flung itself back.
The Skulkers sprang forward to stand between it and the room.
“Twist!” Slade’s voice came from a device hidden in its ear. “What happened?”
The monster’s eyes scrunched tight, and it vainly covered its face with both hands.
“Stinks!” a soft voice hissed. “It stinks, like death in there! I cannot…”
Inside, the Deep Ones remained motionless on their bed.
“Are they?” Slade demanded.
Glancing at one of the android attendants, Twist made a curt gesture. It turned and entered the reeking space. Approaching one of the fish men, the cyber-ninja conducted a brief thermal and auditory scan.
“They have heartbeats,” Slade announced. “And they’re breathing. No more delays. Bring them to me now.”
Cyborg pitched forward suddenly. The breath left his body, as in between one step and the next he found himself hurtling straight down. The wind howled against his face, his body accelerating under its own advanced weight.
For a split second he saw the pavement coming up at him with perfect clarity.
And then he smashed into it.
On the roof, something moved behind her, and Starfire turned. A momentary glimpse, the recognition of a familiar foe aiming a weapon. Green eyes flared with luminous fury.
The android fired.
And he began to dream.
Cyborg moaned. It was bad. He had landed poorly. How had he even gotten outside?
A part of his brain was supremely aware of how much pain he was in. The inhuman part was assessing the damage done and shutting down unnecessary systems. Normally it would take a very high fall to cause any significant harm. It was the shock as much as the pain that served to incapacitate him. How did he get here? Hadn’t he just been inside the underground garage? What was happening?
A woman’s voice was still singing inside his head. The human half of his cerebral cortex heard a very lovely voice, but the bionic components were picking up a rattling, croaking tone with some unusual harmonics mixed in.
It was hard to breathe. A sound reached his ears. A door being opened. Footsteps, coming closer. Two red shoes came into the field of his bionic eye. But were they facing towards him, or away? It looked like both.
I’m hurt, he thought. Please help.
“Hey. Teen Titan.”
Fighting against the tears, Cyborg’s real eye opened. Hovering over him was a white face with a bulging red eye and a wicked crimson leer.
“Y’know, maybe you oughta change your name to ‘Tin Turkey,’ cuz you sure fly like one!”
He burst out laughing, a high-pitched cackle. The cyborg teen’s eye closed, and a familiar voice cried his name.
Sifting through memories, sounds and images drifting like seaweed in an otherwise empty ocean, revealing thoughts and a plan. Water, water, everywhere…
Raindrops hit her face. Raven was so startled that she lost focus and dropped down to land in a puddle.
It was daytime, she was outside! But how…?
Before she could finish the thought, Raven looked down and saw Cyborg lying before her.
“Cyborg!” she gasped, and dropped beside him. The armored covering seemed little more than scratched, but inside, something organic was bleeding. Swiftly, Raven called up a web of healing energy between her fingers. Pressing them against his chest, she worked to save her friend’s life.
It was getting worse, they were starting to call for it. But it was here, it was always here. Reaching out and wrapping him up in its huge flabby hands, squeezing out everything that mattered to him. What that was seemed less and less important with each drop, because its song was filling up the space, growing bigger and bigger. It was going to eat him! Wake up, wake up! Pleasepleaseplease IT’S GOING TO EAT ME!!!
Thrashing frantically, the small green kitten sprang upright, its fur standing on end and hissing in blind panic.
Realization of the dream came to him even as it faded, and Beast Boy suddenly wondered where he was.
The kitten twisted its head, ears pricking up. A communicator lay before him, and someone was scraping out a song on it. He remembered. Sort of. That sudden decision to go to sleep. When he thought it, there was absolutely nothing that made more sense. Why was that?
The beast looked over and saw Robin lying beside him, eyes closed and breathing peacefully. The young Titan was just about to change back and wake his friend up, when a thought struck him.
It was the song. That was what had put him to sleep. But then the nightmares came and he woke up, turning into an animal instinctively as was usually the case. And now, when he had the body of a beast, the song didn’t work on him. So then Robin…
Suddenly in the kitten’s place stood a small green monkey. It peered about, trying to think of something to work with. A faint scent touched its nostrils, and the monkey followed it. Stuck beneath a bench was a freshly-chewed wad of bubble gum. The primate peeled the gum off and tore it into two pieces. It scuttled over to its teammate. Sorry, dude, it thought, and then pushed the masticated mess into his ears, completely sealing them.
A minute passed. In that time, the monkey turned off the communicator, even though the song was still resounding through the hallway. Then Robin stirred. He sat up, and looked around in confusion.
Spotting the monkey, he was about to question it, when he realized that he hadn’t heard his own voice. Robin reached up and tentatively touched the goo in his ears. The green monkey waived its arms, then pointed at the communicator and pantomimed sleeping.
The Titans’ commander understood immediately. They were under attack. And they needed a plan.
He crouched down on the floor. “You can still hear me, right?”
It flashed a toothy grin, and nodded. Robin’s head lifted for a few moments as he felt for something. “I’m betting that whoever piped that sleep message through our coms is also broadcasting on the police band. They want us all out of the way…”
It hit him then, apparently at the same time as it did Beast Boy. The viridian simian pointed up, and then down, and transformed into a small flailing octopus.
“The R’lyeans,” Robin whispered. “Maybe someone is coming for them.”
Unconsciously he reached for his communicator, only to stop half-way. “They’ve separated us,” he muttered, and looked over at his ally. “Beast Boy, we don’t have time to find the others. If we split up to search for them, we’ll just be dividing ourselves further. The first thing we have to accomplish is to secure the Deep Ones.”
The octopus curled up its arms, and then expanded until it became a velociraptor. A sharp hiss came from its snout.
Alien energy seared through the morning air, decapitating a robot and sending it pitching from the roof. The struggling princess of Tameran caught another opponent in midair and swung it around by the leg like a club, scattering the remainder back for cover. Her communicator was still jammed, no help would be forthcoming. In all likelihood her friends were facing the same peril as herself.
The cybernetic assassins had at first attempted to lead her away from the building, but she had immediately rejected any notions of pursuit. The idea of abandoning her comrades, while clearly a viable alternative for these animated dolls, was not an option in her world. The Skulkers had then chosen another tactic, and proceeded to attack full force.
Now Starfire was determined to mow down their ranks sufficiently to give her an opening back into the police headquarters. If only she knew what was happening to the others…
The building shook, and a terrific boom tore through the air.
A torn blood vessel. A fractured jaw. Raven had never asked Cyborg just how much of his body was still organic. She was finding out now. He had almost blacked out, and for a moment, the healer had the sickening feeling that she was losing him. Then he had recovered, and she could breathe again.
There. That was it.
“Cyborg,” she whispered anxiously. “Can you hear me?”
His eye flickered open, and focused in on her face. His mouth worked as he tried to speak. Finally, he managed it. “Red Eye.”
Both palms came to the pavement, and he pushed himself up. “It’s him,” Cyborg grunted. “Patty’s thief.”
Above their heads, something exploded, and Raven quickly threw a magic shield over them.
The decision of which way to go first was decided by a detonation somewhere above them. Robin couldn’t fully hear it, but it still registered. Action took precedent. The two Titans took the stairs as fast as they could. Coming to the floor with the interrogation room, they maneuvered through the cramped corridors. It was on the east side, and…
They both tore around a corner, and froze.
Thirty feet away from them, Twist turned its head at their arrival.
Both parties watched one another with varying degrees of surprise.
Then Twist seemed to lose interest and simply closed the corridor between them again.
Robin and Beast Boy stood stock still. Each looked at the other, as if to ascertain that what they were seeing was correct.
Then Robin crouched and sprang, driving the heel of his boot into the distorted terrain’s center. To no effect. A great green bear lumbered up behind him and sent its paws raking across the surface. Nothing, not even a slight chip.
The martial-arts master pulled a detonator disc from his belt. Before he could use it, he stopped. Whatever was going on here, it didn’t seem like a full-on attack was the answer. And the most obvious route wasn’t always the best. He put a hand on the bear’s back to get its attention. It looked down, and he pointed. Just to their left was another room. The Titans opened the door and entered what was obviously a janitor’s closet. A narrow window allowed some of the occluded daylight to enter for illumination. Robin withdrew his bo-staff and sent it smashing through the pane. The bear, restricted by the narrow confines, became a fly and buzzed on through. Robin leapt up and stuck his head outside.
Down the way, a hole had been blown into the side of the building. Before it hovered a flat transport ship the size of a tank. Several Skulkers were securing the last of three identical cylinders in place. While this was happening, two large purple hands extended from the opening and grasped a handlebar, pulling the rest of Twist onto the craft.
The villain’s head turned and spotted Robin.
A birderang sprang into his fingers, and he sent it soaring in a fraction of a second. Twist’s response was to blink, and the spinning missile suddenly bent around itself, its deadly flight converting into an awkward dive that went wide of its target and fell towards the street far below. Twist settled in, and the ship took off to coast over the lanes of traffic.
The Boy Wonder reached for a grappling line, and then reconsidered. This opponent seemed able to bend any matter he wanted into a different shape. But he hadn’t done it to the Titans themselves, which could mean that his power only applied to inanimate objects. So that made the best course of action…
“Beast Boy!” Robin cried. “Pterodactyl!”
From seemingly out of nowhere, the extinct aerial burst into view. It circled about in the air, screeching furiously. Robin leapt forward into empty space, trusting his partner. Beast Boy did not disappoint. His claws extended to clamp firmly but gently around his leader’s shoulders, and together they pursued the band of misfits.
The explosion was enough. Starfire clasped her fingers together and closed her eyes. All the tension drained from her body, just as she had been taught. Around her, the assembled Skulkers exchanged identical glances.
Then they all raised their weapons.
Far out in space, a military satellite recorded a burst of green light on the North American Pacific Coast.
Opening her neon eyes again, Starfire surveyed the wreckage. That was settled.
“You sure you want to do this?”
“You mean, am I sure I wanna catch this guy now and smash his face so bad he’ll be talking out of his butt?”
“I guess that means you’re sure.”
It was a race, over busy streets, past crowded office buildings. Robin had already determined a long-distance attack was out of the question. If Raven or Starfire were here…
No, he couldn’t think like that. There was him and Beast Boy. That would have to be enough. They couldn’t fail in this. There was too much at stake. The adrenaline was surging through his body, and he focused with supreme concentration on his target.
It had finally happened. Slade had reappeared.
Those were his androids, and the precision of the attack had his signature. No way of knowing what the connection was between him and C’thulhu, but there was also no way he was going to let it happen.
So they were going in. Their target wasn’t moving any faster than they were, which was surprising. Unless you factor in that it was sporting three heavy canisters, one ringleader of questionable makeup and over half a dozen robotic ninjas. The craft was making sharp turns following the layout of the streets, obviously trying to lose them before proceeding towards their true destination. Robin had ditched the gum from his ears. The ball was in his court. Time to make a play.
“BB!” Robin yelled. “Launch me!”
The pterodactyl suddenly closed its wings, arching forward in a power dive. At a certain point it unfurled its pinions again, banking upward with vastly increased momentum. At the same time the changeling unleashed his grip on Robin.
To that burst of power, Robin added his own. His armored boots came together and ignited twin jet engines in his heels. A pair of wings emerged from out of his cape, and suddenly he was soaring through the air like his namesake.
It was enough. The hover-pad seemed to shoot towards him, and stretching forth his hand, he reached out and caught hold.
Two attentive Skulkers were waiting for him. For their dedication, they each received a boot to the face that sent them flying off into space, taking two of their brethren with them.
Robin came to his feet, entering into a combat stance. The remaining Skulkers countered. At the bow of the ship, Twist’s head rotated around 180o. The cold orbs took in the scene, and then swiveled back ahead to continue piloting.
In the next few seconds, there was a furious war-cry, and the sounds of steel and flesh colliding. After that there was only the hum of the motor blades.
Twist’s head cocked to one side. It reached down and flicked a switch, activating the vehicle’s auto-guidance. Then the towering terror swiveled itself about.
Surrounded by fallen robots, the leader of the Teen Titans watched his opponent.
“Let me tell you how this works,” he shouted. “You wind up on the floor, how depends on how smart you are. And then,” his face took on a menacing cast, “you tell me everything you know about Slade and R’lyeh.”
Twist stared at him,. And then, the braided cords of its neck seemed to quiver and contract. “Teen Titan,” it said, and Robin blinked upon hearing his own voice come from the creature. “The fight is already over. Do you know who won?”
Robin leapt before it finished its sentence. Surprise was always best, and most people had trouble talking and…
Claws sliced out, and only instinct saved him. The former circus performer vaulted aside, catching hold of the craft’s railing and perching there. He had been nowhere near it, well out of reach of even those long…arms.
Before him the mammoth appendage still hung, attached to an arm that now extended ten feet off the monster’s body. As Robin watched, something rippled through that limb, and it retracted, winding along its length like so much taffy, until once again it hung by Twist’s side at its usual length.
Robin descended to the deck, keeping a close eye on his adversary. It could change its reach, and was fast. What he needed was to get inside its guard, up close. As if reading his mind, Twist took a step forward and crooked up its arms, looking for all the world like a giant preying mantis. The fingers merged and wound in on themselves, fashioning into two great spikes now aimed straight at him. The form was a blend of several styles, a new technique apparently adapted exclusively for this aberration’s benefit. It scooted forward, inch by inch, decreasing the distance between them.
It wanted to drive him back, Robin realized. Corner him and push him off so it could get away. But that wasn’t going to happen. This thing’s body was so tall and long, it seemed to prefer using that twisting power to attack instead of relying on natural movement. He had to try and out-think it, work against its expectations. It seemed to have realized that he had abandoned any weapons for fear of having them be turned away. Well, he could use that, too.
The teen hero sprang right for it. One of Twist’s arms drew in close to its body. The other lashed out to skewer him for his bold move. Robin ducked beneath it, letting the momentum of its own attack take it past him. He was light, skilled. Robin could react faster than an average human his size, it’s what kept him alive. But thinking fast was what brought him victory.
To his mind, things began to happen in lightning bursts. Twist’s second claw dove for his face. He brought up his arm to deflect it, and at the same time sprang straight up, performing a 90o turn in midair. From there he swung a vicious kick at Twist’s head. The monster’s neck bent straight off to the left, and the blow went whistling harmlessly over it.
Just as he had expected.
Before Twist could draw a breath, Robin’s bo staff was already deployed and dropping toward its skull.
But he was not the only one blessed with perception and quick thinking.
As the weapon streaked for its target, swift as thought it bent near Robin’s wrist, warping backwards on itself. Before he could react it had coiled across his arm, over his shoulders and along his other outstretched limb. In seconds, he was effectively pilloried. The shoes around his feet suddenly twisted in their middle, crushing him. Like a graceless scarecrow, Robin flopped onto his back.
Filled with frustration and self-reproach, the helpless crime-fighter struggled against his self-made bonds. Twist planted a foot on his chest, further immobilizing him. It watched its victim squirm with an inscrutable air.
“If I throw you over now,” it whispered in a totally new voice,” you will die.” One hand descended to waive before his face. “Well?”
Robin’s features betrayed nothing. “I’m not about to beg, if that’s what you want.”
“No. You don’t know what I want.”
The pointed fingers began to wind about like drills, descending towards his face. He’s going to blind me, Robin thought. I don’t want this. I don’t want the last thing I see to be… that!
Twist’s digits descended, down, down. They brushed against his skin. And took a grip on his mask.
Robin jerked his head away with a gasp, and the material pulled off slightly.
Twist leaned in closer.
A loud scream sounded, a noise no human could produce. Viridian flames sprang up around Twist, and a flaming green meteor smashed into the escape-craft. The spindly creature was flung back to collide with one of the canisters. The whole vessel went spinning wildly, careening off-course to crash against the side of an office building. It tore a long swath across the surface of the skyscraper, and one of the propeller blades ripped itself to pieces against solid concrete. At that, the whole thing pitched forward to crash into a mezzanine level balcony, coming to a final halt.
From its place on the deck, Twist looked up to find itself confronted by a raging Starfire. Elsewhere Robin’s shackles had fallen back to their normal state, and he quickly rose to his feet.
In Twist’s ear, the communicator came on. “That’s enough,” Slade spoke. “Come back now.”
The mercenary rose to a crouch. Both Titans turned to face it. A third settled in as a bird. Twist’s gaze peeled off to one side. It took note of its surroundings, and came to a decision. The yellow eyes narrowed in concentration.
In a high-rise office building, a slight tremor was felt. The employees looked up at one another, fearing the worst.
They got more.
At a point two-thirds up the way of the tower, Twist’s power took hold. Glass and steel, walls, ceiling, everything was caught in an invisible vise. Contracting, shrinking, the whole upper complex suddenly rocked forward, its structure hanging over the street on its twisted midsection like fruit on a branch.
The sound was horrendous. Office equipment, furniture, and people suddenly were hurled from the floor to collide with the walls. The glass front of the building shattered in several places, and people fell screaming to the pavement far below.
For a moment Robin stood transfixed. Then the cries reached him, and without hesitation he and the other Titans sprang from the listing craft.
He was seeing something in the flailing limbs and contorted faces of those falling. Almost he could hear the cries of the audience as the trapeze rope snapped and two human bodies plummeted helplessly towards the ground. He had stood and watched as his world ended with their impact.
You can’t let that happen again.
There were over two dozen people. Starfire streaked in to grab one in each arm, and caught another between her legs. Beast Boy had assumed the form of a pteranodon, enabling him to catch up several on his back and in his claws. Grappling lines snaked out to snag a few more.
But even as those were saved, others still plummeted towards the street.
They’re going to die, Robin realized as he watched them grow smaller.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
The world went black before his eyes.
The falling citizens suddenly halted.
It’s magic. Or a miracle.
Myriad globes of darkness coalesced, wrapping around individuals and drifting slowly to earth. Their occupants were deposited without harm on the sidewalk.
Or a friend.
The T-Car came screeching to a halt. Several minor traffic accidents prevented it from coming any closer. Raven and Cyborg emerged and looked up at them. The remaining Titans joined them. Before a word could be spoken, several cries came from the surrounding crowd.
Looking up, the superheroes saw the building drawing away from them, returning slowly to its original location. In moments, the uninterrupted edifice was restored. Other than several smashed windows, there was no sign at all that anything untoward had happened.
Cyborg dropped his bulk to the sidewalk with a groan. “Does anybody know what just happened?” he asked quietly.
“A new supervillain,” Robin supplied. “He can twist matter around.”
“And he’s ugly too,” Beast Boy pointed out. “So what kept you guys, anyway?”
The shiny metal-man scowled. “We had a run-in ourselves. Don’t know how, but he dropped me off a building before I knew what hit me.” He cast a grateful smile up at Raven. “If it weren’t for you, I’d probably be dead.”
“Don’t say that,” Raven shivered. “Speaking of which, I’m going to see if I can help anyone inside that building.” With that, she conjured a gate at her feet and dropped in.
“I will assist her,” Starfire asserted, and flew up into one of the broken windows.
Robin exhaled loudly. “The rest of us can finish what we started. We’ve got some R’lyeans to take care of.”
They trudged over to the downed hovership. Passing through a mob of people still gaping around it, they ascended to its resting place, Beast Boy becoming an elephant beneath Cyborg to offer him a boost.
The three transport pods were still securely anchored in place. Of Twist, there was no sign.
“You think they’re still alive in there?” Beast Boy watched the containers nervously.
Cyborg stepped in. “One way to find out.”
Locating a console on the side of one of the tubes, he quickly determined its functions. Pressing a button, the tech-titan stepped back as the top half of the container slid off with a hiss of cold mist. Waving his arm to dispel it, Robin peered in while Beast Boy shied away.
Within the titanium tube, there was nothing. Nothing at all.
All of them stared back and forth from the chamber to each other. Cyborg then reached over and opened another container. And the next. The results were the same. Empty.
“But how?!” Robin spit angrily. “When did they…?!”
On Cyborg’s arm, the communicator beeped. He looked at it distrustfully, aware of how their com system had played a role in today’s disaster. “Don’t worry,” he assured the others. “Whatever that woman’s voice did to everybody else, it never worked on me. I think that’s why Red-Eye came after me. I’ll keep it on my internal band.”
He keyed it up. “Robin?” a woman’s voice came. “Are you there?”
“It’s Cyborg,” he responded. “And who’s this?”
“I’m Lt. Ambasso. We’ve met before. Are you kids all right?”
“We’re okay here, ‘cept we seem to be missing a few fishmen.”
“Well, all the officers woke up a few minutes after that broadcast cut off. But we’ve got something missing too. The supercriminal transport van isn’t in the garage. I was hoping that you might have taken it.”
“Huh?” Cyborg frowned. He glanced at Robin. “It’s Ambasso. She says the supertransporter is missing. Did you bring it here?”
The team leader raised an eyebrow. “No. We flew.”
His voice cut off, and he turned to stare at the ruined hovership.
“Trick,” he swore darkly. Beast Boy and Cyborg exchanged glances. “They tricked us. The R’lyeans were never on this ship. It was just a decoy to lure us away from the precinct and give them time to steal them out. That’s why…”
He kicked the ship in sudden anger. “It was all planned, it was all…!”
Robin bent and picked something up. The shattered visage of a Skulker.
Manifest opened the door of the transporter with a laugh. “Special of the day, fresh fish!” he crowed.
Several Skulkers moved in and began to unload the canisters, carting them out of the room. The grinning superthief sauntered over to the back of the chamber, where his two associates stood.
“I know, I know. I rock.” He turned to Twist. “Hey big man, nice moves out there. Caught the whole thing on my head-cam. You kicked serious keester, fella!”
Twist’s ovoid eyes narrowed to slits, and a low growl came from its throat. Manifest leapt back in mock horror. “Whoa, guess the thrill of victory doesn’t improve all of us.” The criminal’s attention went swiftly to the young woman on the couch absorbed with her cell-phone display. His mask winked in a frozen suggestion, and he pivoted on one heel, revealing an identical licentious face emblazoned on the back of his helmet. “I hope you liked the show, Serenade. Tres’ impressive, oui?”
Coal-black eyes glanced up at him from beneath her brow, and a pleasant smile curved her plum-colored lips. “Very. Especially for a guy who’s got to think about which way to face the urinal.”
Manifest went rigid, and whipped back around. “What’s with you?” he whispered. “I’m just talking here, why are you always insulting me?”
Serenade only shrugged, and went back to her chat session.
Finding himself completely rebuffed, Manifest turned his sights on Twist again. “How about you, Long Johns? You got anything to say?”
Twist only crossed its arms and continued to watch the unloading of the cages.
“C’mon, don’t be a killjoy.” Manifest’s tone lightened. “Tell you what, I’m feeling flush tonight. What do you say us two good-looking guys go out and find some more sociable ladies, eh?” He reached a hand for Twist’s shoulder, and the looming nightmare jerked quickly away, stalking off.
“What?” Manifest snapped. “You too good to talk to me also? Hey, your loss, buddy,” he called after the retreating form. “I could’ve shown you how to pick up chicks. As it is, you better be ready to run up a tab, cuz it’ll take a lot of Tequila shots to drink you handsome!”
Twist spun about. Its fingers clenched, and Manifest’s helmet suddenly closed in and crushed his throat.
The villain gagged, and automatically switched. In the place he had just occupied, Serenade dropped to the floor with a yelp. On the couch, Manifest reappeared, the helmet still wound tightly around his neck. He collapsed, thrashing and spilling cushions onto the floor. Inside his helmet, the view-screen still functioned, and he brought his hand cannon up, aiming it at Twist.
The purple-gray fiend made another gesture, and the weapon twisted and curved until it pointed at Manifest’s face. The helpless super-thief gave a whimper and slumped to the floor.
From a side of the room lost in darkness, Slade emerged into the light.
“Let him go, Twist.”
Furious yellow eyes sought out the arch-criminal’s form. “He insulted me! He called ME…!” Twist’s voice broke off and it stood trembling.
“If there is punishment to be meted out, that is my decision, not yours. Now do as you’re told.” Slade did not move a muscle, but his tone held no room for argument. Twist gave an inhuman snarl. It lowered its arm, and Manifest’s helmet sprang back into shape, leaving him gasping on the floor.
The looming horror turned and fled. Serenade rose to her feet with ill-concealed displeasure and followed suit. Slade watched, then casually stalked over to stand beside his fallen employee.
“Your recklessness does nothing to impress me, or anyone else for that matter. If you wish to continue in this lifestyle, I suggest you develop a sense of when to quit.”
With that, he tossed a packet at Manifest’s feet and left without a sound.
Alone now in the room, the solitary soldier reached out and grasped his payment. Clutching it with trembling fingers, he stood and limped away.
“That’s it?” Cyborg glanced around at the others. “They knock out practically the entire building, blow a hole in it, attack us, rearrange the city skyline, and it was all just a diversion?”
“They played us.” Robin stood gazing out the bay windows. “They knew just how we would react, and they led us around by the nose.”
Beast Boy looked up from the couch. “So. Who are they, Robin?”
Their leader shrugged his black-caped shoulders. “Don’t know.”
“I thought you knew every crook in the world, from pursesnatchers on up.”
“You thought wrong!” Something in his voice told the changeling that it was time to quit.
“Wherever they took the Deep Ones, I can’t sense them anymore,” Raven sighed. “So what do we know? There were at least two of them.”
“Three,” Starfire interrupted. “Whoever’s singing made Robin and Beast Boy go to sleep must be counted as well.”
The mystic’s hood dropped. “Right. The one who sounded like she was being strangled.”
Robin turned from his contemplation to look at them. “Say what?”
“You remember, we were both there,” Beast Boy prodded. Then he frowned. “But wait, wasn’t I? I mean, I knew someone was speaking, but I … don’t remember what was being said. I just wanted to go to sleep.”
They all stared at Robin, who stared right back.
“I don’t… remember that at all.”
For a moment, nothing was said. Then Starfire perked up. “So it was only the boys who were affected by the singer, and that is why I was tricked into going to the roof where I was attacked.”
“And,” Cyborg frowned grimly, “That’s also why they went after me too. They must have figured that with part of my brain being a computer, the song might not work on me. So they found another way to get rid of me.”
“And the same to me,” Raven stood up. “We were both teleported outside. You went first so that when I came out, I’d go to work healing you before I went back inside. Each of us was dealt with separately. And in case that didn’t work, there was the big explosion and the transport to bring us all running.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t that skinny toothpaste thing Robin and I saw who sent you outside?” Beast Boy looked at Cyborg.
“I’m sure,” the half-android stared at his hands, flexing the fingers. “I never saw that one. But I did see this creep. He stopped to gloat before he brought Raven out. It was Patty’s guy. Mr. Red Eye.”
“Who?” Robin asked.
“I’ll tell you later.”
“All right then, three,” Beast Boy drawled. “Three new mystery supervillains…”
“Four.” Robin interrupted. “Don’t forget about whose Skulkers were swarming all over the place. Someone who knows exactly how to manipulate each of us.”
Starfire hung her head sadly. “Slade.”
“He’s back,” Cyborg muttered.
“And he has three of C’thulhu’s Deep Ones.” Raven added. “Of whom we know only slightly more than we do about Slade.” She sat down beside Cyborg. “This can’t be good.”
“We need to do something,” the Boy Wonder asserted. “If we wait around it gives Slade time to accomplish whatever he’s setting out to do. We’ll start with…”
“Uh, Robin?” Beast Boy raised a hand. “Last time we played catch-up with Slade we wound up fighting you. And I, for one, do not want to lose any more friends.”
It was a pointed comment, and Robin did not miss it. He took the time to steady himself, knowing only too well how his impetuosity had more often than not played right into his enemy’s hands. And unless he missed his guess, what was at stake here could very well be the fate of the world.
“Why does this feel worse than getting our butts kicked?” The youngest Titan wore a hangdog expression. No one spoke after that.
Raven pondered silently. It was true. There was nothing quite as bad as knowing that someone had outsmarted you. And with Slade, it was becoming a very bad habit. You were always one step behind. He didn’t think the way a normal person did. To them it was a duty, an obligation. To him it was war. You never knew what was coming next. How could they possibly try to find someone they couldn’t even start to understand?
The spell-caster rose slowly and surveyed her friends with some concern. It was time for another hard choice.
“Would you mind standing up, please?”
They all looked at her a little funny, but complied.
“Thanks. Azerath Metrion Zinthos.”
In the next instant a great black raven engulfed the Titans and flew out of the building. Across the bay, over the city, out into the woodlands off the interstate. There it descended into a glade and disappeared, leaving several young heroes looking around in befuddlement.
“Raven?” Starfire turned her head back and forth. “Why have you brought us outside?”
The blue-robed mystic walked by them. “Come on. We’re going to ask someone who knows about these things.”
They turned to follow her, and found themselves standing before a two-story wooden house. Staircases from a balcony traced down to either side of the complex. Though assuredly well-made, there was a sense of something bizarre about the design.
“Who built this place?” Cyborg wondered aloud.
Robin stopped suddenly, planting his feet on the woodchip walkway. “This is his place, isn’t it? That criminal’s.”
Beast Boy blinked. “You mean Slade?”
“No!” Raven snapped in exasperation. She stood motionless at the entrance. Starfire noticed her friend’s unusual tenseness, and understanding hit.
“It is the home of Vandal Savage.”
“Why did you bring us all here?” Robin demanded.
For a moment, Raven remained with her back to them all. Then she raised her hand.
“Because I’m afraid to face him alone.”
She knocked on the door.
A voice called out from within the house. “Enter.”
Raven grasped the handle and pushed. She took two steps inside, and flinched.
It was exactly as she had left it. Ruined. Furniture exploded, glass and electronics smashed. No attempt had been made to undo the damage she had caused. The others trooped in behind her and stood peering about uneasily. It was not a comfortable reception. Even less so when the owner of that disaster rose to a sitting position from behind a table.
Vandal Savage’s gaze swept over all of them without interest. Finally it settled on the petite young woman at the head of their party.
Those eyes had not seen her in weeks. Now they focused on her. Absorbed her.
Then they closed.
“Still alive,” Kultuq murmured.
Raven hesitated. They had parted last in total silence. She had ignored his warnings, and nearly paid with all she had. When he had come to her again, she refused to speak with him.
He said that he loved her. It had been very confusing, and somewhat irritating. But now, all she was feeling was remorse.
“I need your help.”
With a grimace, Kultuq hauled himself up off the floor. He wore a white silk shirt and tan pants. Nothing else. His curious condition kept him from ever appearing in anything but the bloom of health. In spite of this, he still did not look well. It was more body language than anything else. There was something almost broken about him.
Kultuq raised his hands, and then let them flop to his sides. “You would be embarrassed to know what I’ve been up to. Can anyone guess?” He looked at Starfire. “You?” He swiveled his head and pointed at Robin. “You, Halfling? No? Then I will tell you. Drinking! Drinking without pause for nearly three days. 200 proof vodka, not nearly as illegal as your laws imply, and do you know what I have come to realize? Unless you’re able to get drunk, alcohol is perfectly vile.”
He stepped over a broken chair and moved to stand before them. “That’s two things you can experience that I will never know. Death and intoxication. I was born before alcohol was invented. Can you believe it? People talk about being hung over and a buzz, but for me it’s always going to be poisonous swill whose toxins are vaporized in my bloodstream and never reach my brain. Something, yes?”
Cyborg moved to stand between him and Raven. “I think this was a bad idea.”
Kultuq gave a bark of laughter. “Bad idea?! You call this a bad idea. No, my boy, bad ideas involve doing dangerous things for stupid reasons. Something you lot do on a daily basis.” He swiveled around and kicked his way through the debris. “This is no ‘bad idea,’ it’s par for the course with you.”
He crooked his head back and eyed the object of his affection. “Especially you.”
She returned his gaze steadily. It came as no surprise that his assistance would not be forthcoming. This had been a gamble, born of equal amounts guilt, frustration, and fear. A spur of the moment thing. She should have known. Such haphazard, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants tactics weren’t her style. So why had she done it? Was it a sign of something deeper? Had she wanted to come here? If so, then why…?
“Why did you bring them here?”
Startled, Raven broke off her musing. Kultuq was now seated on the low table in the center of the room.
He hadn’t known what to do with himself. Ever since Raven’s return from R’lyeh he had lived a desolate existence. Not only had she spurned him, but she had disregarded his most fatal warnings about the perils of attempting such a journey. This girl, no, this young woman, whom he had known for less than a year, had inexplicably become the most important part of a life that had transpired over 500 centuries. He could have laughed at how utterly jejune it all was. Love. As foreign to his system as being drunk. Yet there was no denying that was exactly what he had felt.
And was still feeling.
It would be simpler if he only didn’t want to be in love. He had come this far without it. But time and again it had proven to be an emotion that did not make good sense. Oh well.
The next person to speak was Starfire. “Please forgive us any discourtesy, but a situation has arisen in our city that may concern you.”
Kultuq stretched his length out on the table. “Don’t presume, young lady. If you’re laboring under the impression that I am a fellow action-hero altruist, you should reconsider.”
The Tameranean’s features hardened. “I know almost nothing about you, except that you are a friend of Raven’s, and as such you should help her! Especially when it concerns C’thulhu!”
“DON’T SAY THAT NAME!” Savage was on his feet in an instant, and they all drew away from him. “Not in my house!”
“Don’t raise your voice to her!” Robin warned. The ageless madman snarled and stalked forward, hands raised murderously.
“Stop it.” Raven’s voice cracked like a whip though she did not shout. Her tone sent a chill through all assembled, Kultuq included. She seemed to grow taller, and the shadows of the room lengthened and trembled.
“I’m not here because of you and me. We both know how dangerous anything associated with that monster is, and you have a personal stake in this. Right now three of the Deep Ones of R’lyeh are in our city. A criminal named Slade has abducted them, and I want you to help us find them.”
Kultuq stared at her. He looked surprised at this turn of events.
The enchantress relaxed, and some of the tension drained from the room. “I was hoping you could tell us.”
The immortal bent his head briefly. Then he looked up. “Tell me what happened.”
So they did. The Titans seated themselves where they were able. Raven began, informing him first about her disastrous sojourn into R’lyeh and the superhuman efforts her friends had made to liberate her. As the tale unfolded, Kultuq looked at the assembled heroes with a new-found respect. Such bravery could not so easily be brushed aside as stupid or childish. Perhaps there was more to these youngsters than he gave them credit. Each of the Titans then supplied a different take on the events of that day. Kultuq listened patiently, occasionally asking for clarification on some point. Gradually the particulars of that morning became clear for all of them.
“You’re certain that this is all the work of this Slade?”
“Yes,” Raven affirmed. “Even though there was no direct indication of his involvement.”
“It felt like him,” Robin muttered.
“Yeah.” Beast Boy put his feet up on the table. “It’s not the first time we’ve gone up against him and his goons.”
“And now he has some colleagues you’re not familiar with.”
“Yup,” Cyborg eased a crick from his neck. “Anything you can tell us, about any of them? You being a member of that category.” Kultuq shot him a look. “Well, former member, I guess…”
The undying man leaned back in his seat.
“How is Slade connected to R’lyeh?”
The cyber-hero gave him an exasperated look. “Man, I thought you were supposed to supply us with the intel, not the other way around.”
Kultuq’s lips twitched. “I might have some information that could prove useful, yes.”
He gave a rap on the table-stump with his heel. Around one of the central age rings, a crack appeared, and the whole circular section flipped over on itself. What came up from the other side was a glass globe. Beast Boy gave a yelp as the wood beneath his feet suddenly slid apart to reveal a keyboard and input devices.
Kultuq stood and moved over to that side of the table, shooing the polymorph out of the way with a look. Settling down, he typed in a password and username. The sound of software warming up came to them. The globe began to glow, and above it several screens suddenly materialized to float in midair. All showed the same scene, supporting an operating system that none of them recognized. Kultuq chose a directory and opened it. A list of folders came up, along with several search options. The title of the window was “Associates.” Among some of the categories of files were ‘Metahuman,’ ‘Incarcerated,’ ‘Insane,’ and ‘Free-Lance.’
“Let’s see what I have on your playmates and Slade.”
The Titans crowded around the table. Even Robin showed some interest at the prospect of learning more about his nemesis.
“First up,” Kultuq announced. “In regards to yours sleepy songstress who only affects men we have… hmmm. One in a Turkish prison, three dead, eight others married and happily retired, and one… who is free and active.”
A bio and photograph came up on all the screens, showing a passport photo of an attractive Asian woman with long hair and a sweet smile on her face.
“Sarah Nade, known
professionally as Serenade. Age 25, daughter of an anonymous
He keyed up the movie program. Across the windows, a scene came up that looked to be shot by a security camera in a bank. As the Titans watched, five people wearing dark clothes and glasses entered the view-screen. One of them, a woman by her bearing, raised her arms and proceeded to say something. No sound came with the recording, but the result was unmistakable. Every man in the room, clerks, patrons, security guards, all suddenly turned as one to listen to her. The women, on the other hand, showed signs of confusion at this reaction, but nothing else.
Then several things happened at once. Any man standing near a woman grabbed her and forced her to the ground. The guards went to the doors and locked them, taking up positions there and turning away any prospective entrants. An elderly gentlemen, apparently the bank manager, then led four members of the group over to the bank vault and proceeded to unlock it. The women patrons and clerks were gagged and restrained by their male counterparts. All the while, the ringleader stood in the middle of the room and continued talking. After a while she was rejoined by her cohorts, loaded down with duffle bags. They proceeded to leave as if nothing had happened. The guards even bowed to them on the way out. It was over in under five minutes.
“This is the last available
footage of her.” Kultuq continued. “She was fifteen at the time, and it was her
first major robbery. Nearly her last. The lady witnesses identified her and two
other members, and the security footage helped. Of course, there was enough
confusion afterwards to keep a clear record of what transpired from ever seeing
time in a court. Serenade simply talked her way past the police who came for her
and disappeared from public view. Afterwards she was a lot more careful. Took
the time to have her victims erase any surveillance tapes that caught her, and
wasn’t directly involved in any high-profile jobs. Apparently she took to
scamming people over the phone when she realized that it worked that way too.
At 17 she left
“So she’s a hired gun,” Cyborg observed.
“And a damn good one,” Kultuq pointed out. “Professionally speaking.”
“What else?” Raven asked.
“Other than her voice, that’s it. She’s sensitive about being recorded, because apparently the effect is picked up by such devices and could feasibly be used as an alternative to her actual services. She prefers to stay far away from ground zero, and has given up a few lucrative jobs to insure that is so. No particular info on fighting capabilities as such. For all intents and purposes, she’s a regular lady, outside of her talent.”
“How about the other guys?” Beast Boy asked.
Kultuq typed in a new search string. “Next up is your horror show.” He gazed at the information, rubbing his beard thoughtfully. “An unusual power, indeed. The ability to bend and spiral solid matter at will. There shouldn’t be that many…”
He stopped. “Well, here’s something.”
A photocopy of a document in Cyrillic came up onscreen, along with links to several photographs.
“What’s that say?” Cyborg queried.
“It’s a Russian military
document,” Robin peered closely at the screen. “Dated back to 2002, concerning
details about a covert ops team sent into
“The Meta-Human Research Lab.”
They all turned to look at Savage.
“I had many contacts on both sides during the Cold War,” he explained. “It was always good to know what the people in power thought was happening in the world. Both superpowers became very interested in locating superhumans within their borders useful for military and espionage. I can tell you where your government keeps theirs, if you like.” He gave a slight smirk to no one in particular, and Robin fumed. “Metahumans were taken from their families and transported to a facility where they were contained and studied. Even back then, funds were getting tight for the Communist Party, and there were never quite enough scientists to handle the workload. Many of the detainees deemed unsuitable for warfare were kept in lockdown areas, confined to sensory-deprivation tubs and hooked up to a bevy of experimental tranquilizers and nutritional supplements. Until such time as they were deemed worth studying.”
The immortal leaned back in his
seat and continued dispassionately. “And then, as you know, in 1991 there was a
socio-political upheaval, and the
“Until, as this document proves, some enterprising bureaucrat recollected what was left behind and decided it wasn’t wise to leave so many superpowers lying around in enemy territory. Carting them out was deemed impractical, so they decided to just kill them.”
He said it so casually, the Titans almost didn’t register the words. When they did, they were shocked.
“What, just like that?!” Cyborg demanded.
that,” the ancient villains’ face was placid and calm, like he was reading a
grocery list. “A seven-man team was dispatched with orders to terminate all the
inhabitants. They confirmed entering the complex two days later.” Kultuq
absently scratched his face. His audience was mesmerized. “A day after they
were scheduled to rendezvous in
He proceeded to bring up several grainy images on the holoscreens. There were dilapidated corridors, and a room whose walls were lined with tubes containing lifeless forms. “They determined that the food supply tubes had malfunctioned, and the captives had starved to death while they slept.”
Several pictures came up then. They showed what looked like a courtyard open to the sky, presumably at the front of the building. Fallen snow lay in drifts up against the walls, the blank whiteness interrupted by seven mounds. The rest of the photographs showed what the second team had dug out of those mounds.
Beast Boy looked away with a groan, and Starfire’s hands flew to her mouth.
“The snow preserved the bodies. Cause of death was easy to determine.” Kultuq continued in a dry, clinical voice. “One was shot several times, apparently by his comrades. Three others died from gunshot wounds that were found to be self-inflicted. They were the fortunate ones. The last three all showed signs of starvation and exposure to the cold. There was evidence that they had been alive in that courtyard for over two weeks. Why they didn’t leave was not evident. They had shot at the walls and even blown some holes in them with explosives. But they still didn’t leave. They ate all their rations and any birds that they were able to shoot. Never resorted to cannibalism, so thank heaven for small favors. The last to go was a woman, the commander. Before she grew too weak to move, she wrote this on a wall.”
The last picture in the set was a shot of two words written in brown.
“What does it mean?” Raven addressed the question to Kultuq, but it was Robin who answered.
“No way out.”
Vandal nodded his head glumly.
“Her throat was crushed. Like somebody stepped on it. It seems that one of the
prisoners had overcome their catatonic cocktail and broken out of the suspended
animation chamber. This individual lived there until the execution squad
arrived, then somehow trapped them, killed them, and took their transport out of
there. The van was found in the
documents in Mandarin came up onscreen. “Several residents gave reports of their
villages being plagued by a stick demon with glowing eyes. It stole food and
frightened the locals half to death. Played tricks by turning swords, spears and
guns back on people, apparently just by looking at them. This continued until it
He fell silent. Robin perused the open windows, then glanced at Savage. “No personal information?”
The supercriminal gave a wave of his hand. “Soviet-era documents had a way of disappearing. There’s no record to give us an idea of name, age, or even gender. It operates under a codename, nothing more. We call it Twist.”
“What about my guy?” Cyborg prodded. “Mr. Red-Eye who teleports.”
Kultuq tapped on the keyboard, and shrugged his shoulders. “There’s nothing.”
“No items matching your description. Teleporters aren’t all that rare, but that usually refers to themselves. People who can teleport other people is something a little more out of the ordinary. Your description doesn’t ring any bells either, and there are no instances attributed to it, though my information may be a bit out of date.”
“But…” Cyborg stammered. “Wait, he did do something else we know of! The Book of Thomas the Apostle, he stole it from the university a month ago!””
“Oh, those?” Vandal cocked an
eyebrow. “They were up for sale a few weeks past, and went to a buyer in
“So this guy’s a mystery man,” Beast Boy said.
“Not entirely.” Kultuq leaned forward and rested his chin on his hands. “From what you’ve told me, this person doesn’t sound like a professional. More like a newcomer with self-esteem issues and something to prove. My guess is that your Slade has found himself a home-grown super-power right in your back yard, and is providing for him. But the theft and sale of the scrolls was, in my opinion, an independent performance. General opinion was that the buyer got a deal, which implies that your Red-Eye is still new to the game and didn’t bother to haggle on the price.”
The Titans digested this news in silence. Each of them appreciated the bizarre nature of this exercise. Here they were, champions of justice, learning villains’ biographical information from a world-infamous supervillain, like it was a lecture in study hall. Robin especially felt the irregularity of it all. But still, he couldn’t help but ask the question. “Who is Slade?”
“Unknown.” Kultuq saw the look crossing Robin’s features and frowned. “The name drew no hits, and the description of criminal mastermind with combat skills and a mask proved less than useful in weeding out the results. On that score, I can’t be of help.”
“Exactly what help have you been?” the Boy Wonder shot back.
The effect this barb had on Kultuq was to reignite a sense of pride. “Do you need me to spell it out for you? Each of the people you encountered today is an independent operative. Twist and Serenade didn’t just board a bus and drive into town this morning. They had to have been contacted, hired and paid well in advance before this. Obviously Slade has been preparing himself before entering the fray again, but today he reacted with greater alacrity and foresight to the arrival of the R’lyeans than any of you.” His black eyes bore mercilessly into Robin’s masked face. “There are two reasonable options for how he knew to react at all. One, he himself is a worshipper of R’lyeh and thus had prior knowledge of their arrival, an option I personally do not support. Two, he gleaned the information from a secondary source, whether by a contact in the police dept. or simply by monitoring the frequencies you and the police use to communicate. The fact that he could so easily tap into those frequencies to enable Serenade to do her part strongly suggests the latter. For that matter, you might want to consider making such devices a little less accessible to eavesdropping.”
He had expected the garishly clad boy to engage in further hostilities, maybe even violence. Not that it made any difference to him. But instead, the normally impulsive youth only regarded him wearily. “You’re right.”
The admission caused all heads previously engaged in other activities to turn.
“I don’t think Slade is personally devoted to R’lyeh. He’s displayed some supernatural abilities in the past, but nowhere on the level of what we saw in that city. It’s probably like you said, he’s been monitoring our conversations, and I know for sure that R’lyeh and its dangers have been topics we’ve discussed. He probably picked up on the name when Cyborg contacted me today, and arranged to capture them in order to find out what they are. Raven,” he turned to address the spellcaster, “were you able to get anything useful out of the R’lyean?”
“I absorbed a few details off of it,” she said, running her hands through her hair, “but what I received was utterly alien. There was no impression of self in that thing. When I encountered them in R’lyeh, they all acted in accordance with the will of… their master. How they even knew what it wanted when it’s dead is beyond me, but here, there wasn’t even that much going on. It was like… a computer with all the executable files removed. The information was there, but it couldn’t do anything with it. There’s no indication that they wanted to be here.”
“Is this the doing of your friends in Azerath?” Starfire hazarded.
“No. The Azerathians wouldn’t do that to anyone.” Raven began to float about the space, gliding over broken implements as she spoke. “And it’s not something they did to themselves. In R’lyeh they responded to the power of the one who ruled there. When I cut them off from that power, it was like cutting the strings of a puppet. But they recovered that connection in just a few minutes.”
She glanced around then. It wasn’t easy to talk about something like this. They were, in fact, the only people on Earth she could reasonably discuss it with. Everyone present had been exposed to the primeval horror that exuded from anything associated with C’thulhu. But in the face of something this awful, what course did they have?
“We need to stop this before it gets out of hand. If Slade doesn’t realize what it is he’s gotten himself into, it’s no better than if he did. It’ll take me some time to filter the rest of my findings through. There might even be an exact indication of when we can expect R’lyeh to rise. I don’t know what, if anything, Slade thinks he can do with them, but we have to find him.”
Starfire moped. “Usually it is Slade who finds us.”
“All the same,” Robin stood up. “We have to try.”
“We should go.” Raven stated. For a moment, she held back. Kultuq was still seated. He wasn’t looking at her. For some odd reason, it felt rude to just leave. They had barged in on him asking for help, and now they would leave the way they came. The others were all looking at her now. She was their fastest means of transportation, and speed was of the essence. Plus, she didn’t know what she would say to him. It was yet another thing she had been purposefully avoiding. The situation could not be resolved by magic, unfortunately for her. Nor was she comfortable with disregarding it altogether. She just still wasn’t used to the idea of someone harboring amorous feelings for her.
“Thank you,” she said, trying not to make it sound stiff and awkward, which it was.
Kultuq only gave a nod, and kept staring at the floor. “You’re leaving then.”
“Yes. This is something I can’t ignore.”
“Whereas I am.” It was a childish response. He regretted saying it immediately after, but there was no way to take it back. A reminder of how confused his life had become, how careless.
Raven had taken all that she could. Turning away, she headed towards the door. The Titans trailed after. Beast Boy paused before Savage. “Um, thanks for helping, and, sorry to just…”
“I don’t need apologies. I don’t even know why I bothered to help.”
He heard the boy move away, and chose to stay where he was. He didn’t want to see her leave again.
Kultuq looked up to find the metal man, Cyborg, before him.
“I thought I should ask, since we were here and all.” The immortal gave him a look devoid of interest. He knew it was a waste, but there was no harm in trying, right? “Look, it’s about these Scrolls of Thomas. Since you’re being so helpful and all, I was wondering if you might let me know where they ended up and with whom.” Asking this guy for favors did not strike him as yielding positive results, but who knew?
Kultuq blinked lazily. “Why should either of us care about that?”
The tech-teen shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not for me, there was this lady, Patty Hastings. She worked at the university, and when the scrolls went missing they thought she was involved, and they fired her, even though she saw the guy who did it. And now I know for a fact she wasn’t making this character up, but still, it’s a raw deal for her. I just thought if I could get ‘em back sometime later, maybe things will start looking up for her.”
Savage just looked at him like he was losing his mind. Before Cyborg could retract his statement, the cold black eyes slid off him and were pulled to the front of the house. Raven stood there with her back to him, surrounded by her friends. People of like mind as her, who helped whenever they could and went out of their way to try and save others from pain.
While he sat here alone in the dark. Doing nothing.
“The university will get their treasure back by 3 pm tomorrow at the latest.”
Cyborg blinked. “For real?”
“If you like, I can arrange for their current recipient to turn himself into the international authorities and admit to no wrongdoing on the part of your woman.”
The offer sent a shiver up the hero’s spine, for what he didn’t like to know.
“Ah… I think just the scrolls will do.”
Kultuq gave a dismissive nod, and Cyborg found himself moving rather more quickly than usual to rejoin his colleagues.
Raven cast her spell, letting the rush of supernatural power enfold them. It drew her attention away from her troubled thoughts, which was a relief. In no time at all, the team had arrived safely back at the Tower.
Robin did not waste time. “Lets get to work. Beast Boy, Starfire, I need you to give the city an aerial scan, see if anything out of the ordinary has happened. Cyborg, get in touch with our friends up top and see if their satellites might have picked up on any activity in the region of R’lyeh. Raven, you need to try and get a positive read on the R’lyeans, maybe try and locate them somehow. I’m going to contact Aqualad and warn him.”
“We will all do our best, and victory will surely be our reward,” Starfire lilted happily. They were feeling refreshed, more energetic. Certainly, they were better informed as to their opponents than they were just an hour ago.
“I’m ready to do my heroic duties,” Beast Boy morphed into a hawk and proceeded to trail Starfire out of the room.
Cyborg followed suit, already tapping open the console on his arm. As he left the room, absorbed in preparations, something occurred to him. The code for the Watchtower blinked on the screen, awaiting his confirmation. But instead, the Teen Titan chose a different number.
The tone rang. Once, twice, three times. Just as he was certain no one would pick up, someone did.
“Hello, Patricia Hastings speaking.”
“Hi, Patty?” He felt a little funny calling her by the familiar name, even with permission.
“Yes?” She sounded nervous now.
“It’s Cyborg, from the Teen Titans.”
“Oh, yes! I remember you. Well, I’m sure people do, you’re rather hard to overlook.” Then, very quickly, “I meant that as a compliment, by the way.”
“Thank you.” For some reason, he found himself smiling. “How are you doing?”
“Well, I fell a good deal better since last you saw me. I’ve been meaning to call, or send a thank-you note at least. Something along those lines, because, I understand that someone intervened on my behalf with the authorities. They gave me back my passport and took me off of house arrest. Not that I was much inclined to leave the apartment, but, it turns out that I also have a line of credit with every four-star restaurant in the city that does takeout. That was all you, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah.” He nodded his head, even though she couldn’t see him. “I told a friend about what happened to you, and I guess he came through for us both.
Patty gave a laugh, her British accent now tinged with warmth. “You really are a hero, aren’t you? I mean, here you’ve come along and saved me. I’m starting to feel like a princess.”
“Just call me Sir Borg, knight of shining armor.”
“Very well, Sir Borg, I’ll put in a formal petition for knighthood with the Queen when I get back home.” She giggled merrily, and it made him chuckle too. After that, a pall of silence fell over the conversation. They each felt it greatly.
“So, is there any particular reason you called, or were you just checking up on me?”
That brought him back to reality fast. “Yeah, actually there is. You might have heard that a police station was attacked today.”
“No, no I didn’t.”
No surprise there. “Well, it was a gang of superpowers, and one of them was your thief. Red-Eye.”
The other end of the line was silent.
He could hear a measure of dread creep back into her voice.
“I’m sorry, Patty. He got away. I messed up. But I haven’t forgotten the promise I made you. I’ll bring him down, and he’s gonna pay for what he did to both of us.”
“Yes.” Her voice was a whisper. It hurt to hear someone that scared. “Please do, Cyborg.”
“Sir Borg, remember?”
He could hear her smile. “Right.”
She came back.
“So I’m a resource now,” Kultuq muttered, casting a dispirited eye over his surroundings. It brought him back to the eternal question.
He could leave or he could stay. He could honor his word to her or break it. Which made more sense? No, there was no leaving. He had entertained the notion, to be sure. But if he hadn’t abandoned the girl and her teammates to their misguided death-wish when this fiasco started, he certainly couldn’t now.
Not when C’thulhu’s taint had washed up into his world again.
And it was his world, damn it!! In love or out of it, this place was his! Kultuq surged to his feet, blood burning, his mind awhirl with unexpected passion. Maybe it couldn’t be stopped, and they were all destined to share a fate worse than death. But was it better to sit there and meekly accept it? Those children were fighting with every breath, and still taking on other peoples’ concerns to boot. Strangers even! While he, a king, a warrior who had mastered nations, triumphed against some of the greatest and most formidable minds in all of history, squatted in rubble and tried to get drunk. Without success!
Kultuq gave a roar and grasped hold of a fallen pillar. With primal strength he swung it over his head and heaved it across the room, smashing the television entertainment center. It exploded into sparks and shards, the sight of which filled him with satisfaction. He was up to the task. He could do more than advise, he would handle this problem himself. He, Kultuq the Immortal, was far better suited to locating and dealing with this Slade person than that gaggle of youngsters with their lofty ideology.
Yes. And when it was over, perhaps they would find that C’thulhu’s beasts had not survived their ordeal. He mulled the prospect over with relish. Who could tell for sure how they met their end? Many avenues were open for him to explore. It might well turn out that this Slade was more reasonable than they supposed, once he understood the nature of the thing he was dealing with.
Who’s to say how this might resolve?
Around him, the house vanished, and Kultuq found himself in darkness.
Disorientation struck. His knees wobbled, and for a moment he was in fear of falling flat on his face. At the last second his arms snaked out and caught hold of something, steadying himself. The ancient clung tightly to it until he felt stable once more.
What just happened?
His fingers edged over a surface, smooth and solid. They brushed against something that gave beneath his touch, and a tone came forth.
Kultuq froze. A piano. He was holding a piano. His piano!
Behind him something moved. Slowly, without concern, Kultuq turned.
Around him was now resolved the unmistakable contents of his yacht’s cabin. Seated in a plush armchair was a heavily muscled figure. Armored plating gave off no reflection; the light almost seemed to shun his form. A helmet concealed his identity, allowing only one dispassionate eye to stare back at him.
“I would like your help,” Slade said.
To be continued…