Prologue

It's happening the same way. Everything's exactly the same.

Raven cursed to herself. Her opponent was simply too fast with his defenses, and Raven hadn't been able to capitalize on any opportunity in time. She had to change tactics. She was keeping mostly on offense while her opponent maintained a practiced guard. As well, she was being kept in a constant motion from his counterattacks. He was going to wear her out. Again.

She turned her hands clockwise, causing the stream in front of her to twist. The black energy spiraled against the solid blue energy of the barrier until it began to distort. Raven began walking forward, continuing the attack. The man's barrier slowly spiraled along with the black energy attacking it. The whole thing started to buckle from the assault. The guard finally broke, and Raven went sailing through it straight for her opponent. With her fist surrounded in black magic she took a swing at him. He staggered back with a grunt

The man leapt back and into the air, putting up a small field to hold Raven's last punches at bay. She charged up after him, smashing at his new guard with shadow-surrounded fists. A follow-up kick disintegrated the left side of the barrier, causing the rest of it to go down. As Raven jammed her magic-enclosed fists towards the man's gut, he grabbed at Raven's upper arms and prevented the punches from hitting home. It was the wrong defensive move, and the man knew it the moment he grabbed her arms.

The kinetic energy around her fists discharged into the man at point-blank. She watched as her opponent flew back before hitting the ground hard a good distance away. She relaxed her hand, letting the magic dissolve away. That was the moment a sphere of blue energy flew from the crumpled form and slammed into Raven's face. The impact took away her hearing, her vision, her sense of direction…everything except the sensation of pain. Her face stung, burned was more accurate.

She felt a sudden jolt and stinging sensation from the whole of her left side, and Raven could only assume she'd hit the ground. The wind knocked out of her lungs, and she struggled to take a breath. She rolled painfully onto her back, and her sense of direction was so off it seemed to feel as if she was rolling down hill. The world in her mind spun back the other direction, making orientation even worse. Raven hadn't been able to take a breath since she hit the ground and thought she felt herself going unconscious…

I

Late Night Meeting

(Three days earlier)

The halls of the tower were quiet at this time of night. Normally, Raven preferred it to the constant barrage of ambiance produced by her fellow teammates. This evening, as Raven walked those halls, she found it irritating. Not that getting irritated was a rarity for the girl, but it usually took more than most people to really get the emotion rolling. A lot more. Somehow, certain teammates found ways to heighten her annoyance regardless of her concentration. Even then, she knew how to bottle up the feeling relatively quickly.

Regardless, it had been a while since she felt annoyed this long. It was the teasing kind, as well. Just on the surface of messing with her powers without causing them to do anything on their own. There was no immediate worry on that note either. Even if it did cause a slip-up, the effects would have been minor. She needed to go out. Again. Try to get some actual answers this time.

I haven't gotten any real answers so far. Why is this time suddenly going to be so different?

She rolled her eyes slightly and shook her head to herself. It was pointless. The last two times simply succeeded in frustrating her further. Simple enhancement spells with her meditations and on-the-spot calming techniques usually cleared it up. The problem was she normally didn't need to bother putting so much concentration on it. Tonight she wanted to see where the sensation would go. She wanted to know how long it would last--whether it would die away on its own.

At least it wasn't getting worse. She toyed with the idea to simply stop and calm herself as needed. Not yet. A little longer. Just before I head out.

Raven passed by a yawning Starfire on her way down the hall. Her green eyes turned towards Raven, and Starfire smiled in the other's direction.

"Good evening, Raven," she began. "You are still up at this late hour?"

Raven simply nodded slightly as she stopped by her teammate's side. "I could ask you the same thing. Heading off to sleep?"

"Mmhmm!" Starfire answered, giving Raven a closed-eyed smile. "It is past the normal time that I tend to retire, I know."

"It happens," Raven responded. She began back down the hall. "Good night."

Starfire didn't respond right away. Not until Raven was about to turn the corner. "You are heading out again, tonight?"

Raven stopped. She knew how odd it looked. The girl who preferred reading on the couch or staying locked up in her room, taking a stroll out in the night. Three nights in a row. Though, the going alone part still seemed to fit. "I just need some outside space," she told her friend, putting a slight smile into her expression. "I've been feeling a little…I don't know. Smothered, I suppose." Raven put a little more into her smile, trying to reassure the alien girl. "It's better than my usual routine."

Starfire simply hummed an agreement. Letting her head drop a little in thought. "Is there…"

Raven let her friend search for what words she wanted to use, but the girl never found them. Starfire simply answered Raven's previous smile in kind. "Be safe."

Raven nodded. "Always do." Then she turned the corner. As she continued walking, she realized that part of the sensation of annoyance had dissolved. Starfire had a knack for cheering people up even when it wasn't her intention. Still, underneath it all, Raven could feel the irritation pushing its way back to its previous stage.

All right, I get the point. Time to settle down.

Raven closed her eyes a moment, began muttering a calming spell. Within a short time, she was running the spells within her own mind, her lips simply moving with the thought. A handful of seconds later, the emotion was gone. Contained. Raven decided it was time to head out. She began to concentrate her powers and her mind on where she wanted to be. Raven tried to hold off thinking about the fact that such a simple breach of emotion should normally have been suppressed with all of two thoughts instead of a full-cast spell, lest the idea irritate her all over again. Her form took to the shadows in the hall, and the raven within spilled out of her, overtaking her. Then, all mass seeped into those same shadows and was gone.

-


-

Raven appeared over the center of a mass of concrete slab raised off the ground level. She didn't immediately check her surroundings. She instead began sensing the area. Oh yeah. Much stronger feeling here than where I'd just been. This is the spot.

Raven raised her head and looked around. Then, she put two fingers around her nose and lowered her head. "Could…someone explain to me why you people enjoy these clichés? If it's not an old, abandoned building, it's a freshly-started construction site after-hours."

"I figured you would prefer it to something with a lot of street-lamps," someone answered.

Raven quickly half-turned her body towards the voice's direction. She turned her head the rest of the way, letting the hood hide most of her face. "That's the fastest you've made yourself appear."

The man stood ahead and above Raven on a section of concrete framework. His face was silhouetted by dark shadow. Darker than even the surrounding shadows cast about around the site. His face, Raven eventually concluded, must have maintained a shadow-layer of some kind. A masking spell, no doubt.

The man gestured to nothing in particular. "You've been gauged enough the past two nights. I just guessed you wouldn't fire first this time."

"What's to say I still won't fire the first shot?"

He began slowly walking along the framework as he answered. "Because we both know how that all ends up. We've done it twice, now. Did you really want to do that all a third time? Now, mind you, I'm up for it if you are."

Raven kept her stance. Great, stern pose hidden under my cloak and hood. I'm sure showing him now.

"We'll see if it's needed," she answered him.

"It won't be. But, who knows? Might happen anyway for the hell of it." He stopped walking. "Hey, at least I can count on you showing up alone."

"You assumed I'd come alone this time? It isn't as if I trust you."

Through the shadow over his face--a shadow that still allowed some reactions to show through--Raven could see him smile. Barely. "Still haven't told anyone about me, I see."

Raven scoffed at herself internally. Bluff called. Nice effort, though.

"It's quite all right," he continued. "I'm glad you think you can deal with this whole situation on your own. That's part of what I'm looking for."

Here we go. We're finally getting somewhere. "Um…okay, I give up. What exactly are you looking for?"

He didn't answer. He did keep his smile going, Raven could see that much. The shadow over his face was not a deep, impenetrable black. She could make out his eyes, his nose, mouth. The features surrounding and adding to those portions of his face blended into a deep darkness Raven couldn't read into. This guy could walk right past me in a regular crowd, and I wouldn't even recognize his face.

She continued. "Okay, if you're going to keep playing these games with me, then I'm wasting my time here."

"Hey, now," he began again, "it's not like I asked you to come here."

"You wanted me to come, just the same," Raven retorted.

"I have my desires, you have yours, blah-blah-blah." He walked back to where he'd started off. "The end result is the same. You chose to come here on your own. It just happens to work well with what I had hoped for."

This isn't working. I really am wasting my time here…

"You know," she started, "I can't just let you wander around the city with your abilities. I don't even know what you really want. At some point, I'm going to have to let the team know. We might have to fight and capture you."

"I doubt you'll take it to that point," he said. "You still have all those questions you act like you don't really want to ask. It'll be that much harder to ask when I'm under heavy supervision in some cell-hold. Plus…" The man hopped off the framework, floating down to the level below him. He was directly across from Raven. "What makes you think I'll want to come out and play as often as I have been after that? And up until now you've been rather fortunate sneaking out on your own. If the rest of the team knew about us, I'd think they wouldn't be as willing to let you head out alone. Always lurking in the shadows behind you. For concerns over your personal safety, I'm sure. But, that makes our little private sessions harder to maintain. Then you really won't find the answers you're looking for."

"I could just take the time to track you myself," Raven said, "without the team. They'd understand. You really shouldn't be so hard to find."

Again, under the shadow was that smile. Suddenly, Raven felt like a bright light was turned out on part of her senses. That aura she'd been sensing--tracking to this point—was gone. Just…turned off. She kept her glare on the man, searching for that slight buzz in her external senses. As she was about to let it be, the sense came screaming back.

That's not his aura. He's projecting that on purpose. A lure. Raven shook her head. So, tracking is out…

"You aren't unstoppable," Raven finally stated.

Zerrich smirked. "I don't pretend to be."

"You didn't exactly walk away clean the last time. It's not like I've come at you with everything yet."

"I recall you having to limp back into your shadows yourself," he answered. "And yes, I'd rather gotten that sense from you. It's as if there's something in you that you're afraid to tap. Now, trying to figure that out--"

"It's not your business," she retorted, feeling a flash of anger and quickly settling it back down.

"Hmm," he put his head down slightly. "Then you can't, in all honesty, expect me to answer anything you might ask."

That right there was the worst kind of compromise. Raven despised revealing her secrets. And to get answers from him, she was expected to start opening up to this guy.

I barely started opening up to my friends…

Her intellect kicked in. "Okay, aren't you the visiting team here? I think it should work the other way around. You answer first, and we'll see what I respond with."

Now, the man chuckled, amused. "All right then. Sounds fair. Can't guarantee an answer, though."

"Sooo…what's the point in asking anything?"

"Well, I'll tell you what. You keep asking questions until I answer one. That'll be your question. Then it's my turn."

Raven sighed. This was as good as she was going to get. For now.

"What do you want?"

"That's a pretty broad question. Could you break that down a bit?"

Oh, for spite's sake...

"FINE. What do you want with me, exactly? Why have we been…'sparring' all this time?"

"I'm trying to figure you out. Now, I had prefered to do it in question-and-answer form since the beginning, but I had a feeling that kind of reveal-all would get pretty one-sided."

"I don't see the importance with figuring me out. I'm nothing special."

The man put a finger in the air. "See, that's just not true. I mean, how many other black mages exist on this planet, anyway? You don't give yourself enough credit."

"All right. What makes me so important to you?"

"It has to do with your importance to the future. A possible future, anyway."

Raven raised an eyebrow under her hood. "That's…vague."

The man shrugged. "My turn. You were holding back before. Why?"

"Let's just say I have a bit of a…temper."

"Yes, we saw that the other night. You aren't revealing anything new."

"That temper nearly creamed you, if I remember correctly," she answered. Which wasn't entirely true. She actually didn't recall much more than a fog at that point…

"It kept me off my offense. Which would have been great if the rest of your team were here to take advantage of it."

Raven didn't change her expression in the least. "I don't need them here for this."

"As it stood then," he continued, "you succeeded in breaking down my defenses, yes. Then you wore yourself out so much you couldn't follow through. Or wouldn't."

"And you didn't counterstrike afterwards...why?" Raven countered. "You were just as tired as I was."

"To my original point, there's more you're holding back, besides that temper. What is it you're afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid," she said, coolly. "I'm just aware."

"Of what?"

Now, Raven smiled, if only for effect. "That's a different question."

"It's still related. Besides, I answered your follow-up question."

Raven's expression went neutral. "Doesn't change the end result. You chose to answer that question, and it happened to work well with what I had hoped for."

The man shook his head, smiling. "You know, there's this Earth term I learned recently. Touché, I think. Is that the right response in this instance?"

Raven had to stifle a chuckle. It did end up translating into a slight smirk instead. "Gods, you're cocky."

"I try to think of it as 'self-confident,'" he recovered, casually.

"Uh-huh." Raven narrowed her eyes. "Where do your powers come from?"

The man didn't answer. He kept his face kept neutral.

Raven modified the question. "Where'd you learn magic?"

The man sighed. "I'd be lying if I told you self-taught. Self-improved, maybe. If you stretch the imagination a little." He watched as Raven began to slowly pace. At least, his head turned to face her as she moved. "It wasn't any one place or person, either. All though…" He cut himself short.

"Though, what?" This was interesting. Possibly some deeper information...

He shook his head. "No. That's too much for now."

"How am I supposed to trust you if I can't learn anything about you?"

"You already said you couldn't trust me before. I just assumed you meant that as a constant."

It sounded like that was as far as things were going to go. Raven took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Just take this step. You're going to have to if you want to learn anything.

"My…powers. Well, you know that solid concentration enhances our abilities. For me, it's a bit more difficult than it might be for someone else..."

"I know of your burden."

Her eyes widened under her hood. Burden! "Excuse me?"

"I…know about your powers' origins. Where your 'temper' most likely comes from." He looked right at her, and she knew what he knew. "That it, your emotions, can tamper with your powers. That you have to concentrate more than most other mages to keep it all at bay. That wasn't what I was asking about before. There was something else you were holding off."

Raven didn't say anything for a while—just watched him. She didn't need to think hard about where this was going. She didn't like it at all. "That's personal."

"All inner-demons are personal," he responded. "They're called inner-demons for a reason."

"Why do you hide your face?" she asked him.

Through the shadows, she caught a look on his face. It was that same stop asking stupid questions look she would give people sometimes. Raven closed her eyes, reached up and pulled her hood back. She looked back at him, her cards on the table. "I don't need to hide my face. How about you?"

The man stepped forward slightly. His eyes closed a moment, and the shadow dissolved. He was young! Still older than her, but not the older man she'd assumed him to be. Possibly still a man just coming out of his teen years.

But her shock came from something else. The features were all there--all of them, telling. The structure of his face, the texture of his black hair, even his eyes now out of the shadow. And, at least to Raven, his forehead told all. He may have passed for human to a stranger, but she knew what she was looking at. She bit back her emotions, pulled back on their reigns and brought her senses back to their place. Her common sense took hold.

"No," Raven shook her head. "No, you can't possibly be from Azarath." She turned away partially. "The way you speak, the way you act…"

His eyebrows lifted as he answered. "Oh, and you're just the shining example of the Temple teachings. You'd be hard pressed to find a group that instructs on sarcasm better than back home."

"That's not the same. I'm not even…" Raven stopped a moment, rephrasing her words. "I'm half-Human."

"And half-something else," he finished. "Persona is more than just genetics. It's about experience as well."

The young Titan let the impression settle in her mind for a moment. She had known she was a bit of a rogue in the world of Azarath's pacifistic teachings. She wasn't like them. But, it was different for her. She had her reasons. She left for those reasons. What were his? She asked him.

"I left for the same reasons you did."

Raven narrowed her eyes. "That is NOT true."

"Okay, not exactly the same reasons. But I left mainly because I didn't believe in the nature of pacifism. Sometimes, there's a need to fight. You don't go looking for it, but you have to be ready when it comes. Don't you agree?"

Can't argue with that. So, fine, maybe our reasoning is the same. "I still get the feeling there's more to it than that."

"Maybe. Remind me to tell you sometime."

The young girl pursed her lips. "Somehow, I doubt the question will slip my mind." With that remark, she seemed to surrender to the fact that this meeting was ending. Whether she wanted it to or not.

"I think I've said enough," he finally stated. "I'd like to know more about you, but I'm betting you aren't going to be as open as I've been."

"You already seem to know more about me than I do about you. Considering…I don't really know anything about you. Can't really call that a fair start."

"Well, since you now know where I'm from, how I know your past isn't such a shock," the man from Azarath stated. "I guess we'll adjust the rest of the difference later. I think I'll be going." A small blue-black rip in the nearby concrete support slab formed, stretching to accommodate the young man as he turned for it.

"Wait!" She shouted. Her excitement only got the better of her for a moment. "I still don't know your name," she said, adding a touch of impatience to the sound. For effect.

"Oh, yeah. That. Forgot to bring it up." He looked towards the portal for a moment. "Let's say…Zerrich." He smiled over his shoulder. "For now, I suppose." He took a step into the shadows in front of him and disappeared. Leaving Raven alone with her thoughts.

At least we didn't try to kill each other this time…