Chapter 102 – Two Souls

Like rising from the crypt, Raven felt as lethargic as a corpse, lazily waking with a disoriented sense of time. She knew she had slept more that night than the past several combined. With a flit of her finger, the shades parted thinly to a bright streak of warmth. Peering out her window at a different angle, Raven's eyes squinted against the cloudless sky. The sun was already overhead, perhaps past noon time. Her body and heart felt lighter, unchained from the fatigue and effort she had given for Starfire. She felt less of a drag in her movements, better than she had been. It was not enough to make her social just yet, so she sat back on her bed and wrapped her bedsheets around her torso.

Preoccupied in recollection for what she estimated as about an hour, Raven eventually inhaled a deep, controlled breath, and she found that she could do so fully without her chest caving from the shudder of misery.

For a moment, she froze in curiosity, placing her hand over her heartbeat. Nervously, she pressed her fingertips against the bare skin, clawing, and she dug sharply inward. Thankfully she didn't have to draw blood to coerce the Ultima materia to slowly sizzle out of her chest, but the essence of dissolving magics entered her nose pungently, and between that and the pain, Raven's eyes blurred as she fell forward and fumbled across the sheet. Shivers crawled across her naked skin from hips to shoulder blades, everywhere the sheets had fallen away. Ultima, the bleached green materia, so faintly tinted that it was near white, rolled silently forward, and Raven caught the jewel before it slid beyond her reach.

In her hands she felt a peculiar essence, soon realizing that it was the second time the sensation had tingled throughout her. The last time the particular materia orb was placed inside her heart, she had been so distraught by the loss of X that she hardly acknowledged Ultima's cool light and the way her body reacted as she touched it's incredibly smooth surface. She could not name or describe her sensation, nor match the feeling to anything she knew, especially with thoughts of X's loss pervading the moment.

Crying had become so natural over the past several days that she did not notice herself doing so until teardrops fell to the surface of the bright orb. As she stifled her sadness, not burying it, but pushing it to the side so that she could function, Raven inspected and contemplated the materia given to her by X's brother, Forte. Despite her power, her Triforce of Wisdom, her reploid chakra (as she began to think of it), and her prior experience with materia, Ultima would not respond in the slightest. The wisdom of sorcery that came from holding other orbs birthed from Gaia, even powerful aeon summons like Rikku and the Phoenix, was instant, natural. Ultima's core didn't swirl with the same vigor as other materia, yet it was vastly more intense, and a little frightening.

Bearing her teeth for the impact, Raven pressed Ultima back into her chest, right into her heart, burning with furious pain. There it glowed for a brief moment, potently shining through her skin, showing a faint outline of her ribs and the major blood vessels nearby. The sight startled Raven, unsettling her stomach and distracting her from her tears. The strange appearance of herself lingered, imprinted into her mind as the internal glow faded. How had she never noticed before that materia's glow let her see her own skeleton? Perhaps it was just Ultima's unusual potency, but of course, she had been wearing clothes every other time she had fused materia into her body.

"I suppose there's nothing quite as encouraging to make a girl want breakfast than seeing her own insides," the sorceress sighed as she rose and got dressed.

Raven was hungry. Unusually hungry. It was as much her stomach as it was her mind craving food. On the counter across from the always-pristine stack of clean dishes, there were large muffins that had apparently been baked that morning, still faintly releasing scents of...

"Banana chocolate chip," Raven nearly drooled. She reached for the fresh treat, and it leapt into her hand before she was close enough to touch it. Startled for what she considered to be several times too many, Raven took a deep breath, deciding not to dwell on it. Raven made quick work of the muffin. Deciding that she wanted milk to wash it down, she started toward the fridge, then halted.

Curious, she reached her hand cautiously toward the stainless steel handle a few feet away. The door eased open, and the milk had, unseen, started teetering toward the edge, about to fall. To her right, a glass from the stack of clean dishes was floating, anticipatory of her desire even without an outstretched arm. Reaching with both hands, the milk and glass gracefully landed in her grip.

Raven wasn't sure what to think. "Uh... stop that?" she tried. Nothing felt different. She drank her milk, then decided she was still hungry. Eggs and toast with orange marmalade finished off her hearty breakfast, and no other unintentional telepathy occurred.

The morning was quiet. No one seemed to be around. Tidus wasn't waiting by the water. Saria was gone somewhere, as was Mewtwo. Nanaki, Beast Boy and Sonic were apparently sleeping. Cyborg was in his workshop, and Raven didn't want to bother him, not after how emotional the previous day had been. It seemed like the only people whose presences she could count on were Shadow and Protoman, who were almost always in the same respective places.

Starfire. Raven had meant to check on her. She cleaned up from breakfast and hurried through the corridors to the medical ward, knowing who to expect in the far corner.

"Protoman," Raven greeted the reploid. He merely nodded in return.

"How is... how are both of them?"

The Sage of Light uncrossed his arms. "Sleeping. No change in Zelda. Your friend, on the other hand..."

Raven came past the first curtain and saw for herself. Overnight, Star's cheeks were less sunken, her eyes more full. She was still gauntly thin, but even that didn't appear as hollowed as before. Someone had washed her more thoroughly with simple wipes, clearing her of the potent odors she had accumulated, presumably Protoman. Raven breathed with relief, feeling guilty only a moment later as she imagined the unchanged, weakening princess beyond the next curtain.

"She is of a very resilient species," Protoman complimented, avoiding talk of Zelda. "Her deteriorated musculature has devoured the nutrients pumping into her, and her heart is stable. I would say that her physical condition should be quite normal in a few days, though it will likely be several weeks until she can fight at full strength. Speaking of which..."

Protoman gave her a firm stare, turning away from both patients. A silent contest existed across the short distance between their eyes, and Raven knew quickly what he was getting at.

"I haven't had any combat training since..." she squinted her eyes shut, nervous at the prospect of violence, "...since X died. I have new powers, and my old ones aren't stable. I'm going to need a lot of help."

Protoman glared for a moment, or at least Raven thought he did. It was never possible to tell with his shades conveniently helping hide his emotions and thoughts. A brief grumble, and the eldest reploid and Sage of Light returned to his woman of fixation for a moment. He nodded, as if responding to something Zelda said, then stood with the same mechanical grace as X often did.

Had, Raven reminded herself. The same grace as X once had.

"In the city," Protoman responded. "The next shift starts in twenty minutes, we can take it and resolve two things at once."

Raven raised her eyebrow, still trying to decipher his stoic expression. Was that a way of copping out? Most of Raven's intuition disagreed with that thought, instead wondering what, perhaps, Protoman had in store.

The flight across the river was uneventful, but mostly because the faint brine of low tide and cool winds weren't enough to shut off Raven's mental autopilot. Long before she had met X, she had flown across the river too many times to think much of it.

The city had grown more silent, a dusty spread of rubble, wounded buildings, and onlooking skyscrapers that had been far enough from the battle to remain mostly or entirely unscathed. Fires no longer occurred, partially due to heavy rains, and all the structures that had been on the brink of collapse had either done so or had settled onto the foundations that remained.

Protoman stood waiting at an intersection that was barely recognizable as a crossing of streets. Piles of concrete slabs, tons upon tons of human effort and technology, were spilled out in hills of debris that smothered the tarmac, sometimes only a few feet high, sometimes as high as five stories. Glass and steel speared the mounds, occasionally mixed with smashed furniture or other, small personal items that gave faint character to the destruction. Only the distant stretches of clear road in four directions identified the intersection for what it was.

Raven gently landed a short distance from Protoman, and the flap of her cape kicked up a small cloud of dust that lingered. The reploid's arms were crossed, his shades lowered, and the rhombus sapphires embedded in his knees joints and Buster gauntlets reflected overhead sunlight onto the broken concrete. His cape glimmered with swift streaks of white energy, a sign of rising power and readiness for battle.

"Are you prepared to fight me?" Protoman asked. "I've honed my new reploid systems in the Dreamweaver's holodeck, and I don't intend to go easy on you. You've barely used your new chakra at all."

"You haven't practiced that much," Raven remarked, knowing how little of his time was spent apart from Zelda.

The reaction from him wasn't she expected. He picked up on the sleight, and a long lasting smirk appeared, clashing with the Sage of Light's usual demeanor.

"Fair enough," his smile slowly faded. "But I've practiced against holograms of X."

Instantly, Raven's heart rate increased, but she breathed deeply, calmed herself, and she saw the moment of Protoman's first move. Twin plasma swords collided with the longer blade of the Lotus, flames and white sparks showering in a hot exchange. The swift, white extensions of Raven's mind lashed out in sharp spikes. Protoman vaulted backwards, slashing the two weaving limbs away, leaping to a tall mound out of their reach.

"I thought that would unsettle you," taunted the reploid as Raven extended two black projections, thicker and more powerful than the white ones, but slower.

"It did unsettle me," Raven answered. "I don't think I'll ever live a day when it doesn't. X is dead. But I'm not. And as much as I might feel like being dead myself, I'm not going to disrespect X's memory, ever."

Moving cautiously, Protoman approached, barely closing his wide distance as he paced in a wide arc. "I see. In that case, let's see what you're capable of!"

Protoman's attacks were scattered, easy to defend against with reflexes and the combined efforts of her light and dark auras, but there seldom time to counter. His double Buster energy blades swung and collided with the Lotus several times, but it was often misdirection for when one of the two blades swerved at the last moment to slice elsewhere, searing cauterized wounds into Raven's forearms most often. When one of the blades aimed for her legs, she was fast enough to dodge or deflect using her energy projections.

In between energy sword assaults, Protoman fired various bursts from his Buster, but all of the blasts, from simple pale spheroids to massive, comet-tailed throngs of plasma, were possible to absorb with her white tendrils. Volleys that narrowly escaped her first line of defense were then stopped by the bulk of her malleable darkness barrier. Though the larger ones took longer, it was rare that Protoman could sneak one past her defenses. Every shot that did sucked the fighting ability out of her, and she was only able to graze him with stabbing tentacles of light. The dark extensions of her mind, she quickly learned, were too slow to be worth the effort. Protoman had become much faster on his feet since his reconstruction.

As the combat intensified, neither fighter gave significant ground, both as a wise rule of battle and to avoid the risk of being stuck by sharp objects littering the larger piles of rubble.

Powers of the Triforce were different. Raven could do nothing but shield herself from his Ray Splasher shotgun, with the onslaught of holy pellets too complex to deflect or absorb. Even though the wide cone of radiant energy pellets was originally a reploid power, it had been commandeered by the Triforce into an even greater, more potent threat. The drain on her stamina was sickening, and her sloppy block to his close-range lunge allowed Protoman's double-armed slash to knock her back into the lumpy, jagged debris on the street. Glass and metal cut her ankles and calves, and the sharp, cold pain told her that one of them was sliced deeply.

Both fighters were struggling for breath, injured by magic and blade. Blood dripped down Raven's arm just as deep maroon fluids ran hot from the reploid's upper arm muscle to his wrist.

Protoman's Triforce mark gleamed. A cage of light sprang up in a massive circle, rising too high to see. Thick, massive chains encased the column of light, and Raven knew what was about to happen. The very sight of imprisoning luminescence was overwhelming, burning at her skin, forcing tears from her eyes as she struggled to see. What could she do?

"Shining Bind!"

Raven remembered the agony before, the repeated wash of energy cycling inwards and simultaneously toward the sky, pulsing through her cells . There was no outrunning or blocking that would protect her, but if she timed it right...

The sorceress's astral limbs sensed the attack before her physical instincts could react, and all of her darkness and light propelled her into the air at the moment that the pulse struck. Rushing skyward like a rocket, Raven careened at blinding speeds, propelled by her own force and the shockwave of Protoman's unstoppable sorcery. Rippling surges of energy singed her body. None of her limbs could stop the holy chains from penetrating, burning her inside and out, irritating her lungs with smoking flesh, searing her insides clean strand by strand. More speed built with every flash of pain, and all she had to do was hold firm for a second more.

Deafening as the sensation tore through her, Raven felt her knuckle bones pop as her fist collided with Protoman's crimson pelvic armor. Astral energy coated her hand and wrist, and without it, her hand would have shattered. Stunned, absolutely motionless for a moment, Protoman merely gasped as his Shining Bind chains faded away, rapidly retreating into nothingness.

The two both tumbled downward, and Raven felt a splinter of something smack into her face, realizing only by the color that it was a fragment of Protoman's armor. Dizzy but unsure if she had won, Raven balanced her descent as Protoman did the same, and sparks were sputtering from the reploid's leg sockets.

She also saw his Buster charging a monstrous fount of bright light. There was only one safe place. Raven propelled herself toward the elder reploid and tackled him around the abdomen, but the plasma ray, a golden column with spiral ring accents, grazed and bloodied her shoulder, shredding away part of her cape. Momentum sent her out of control, but not without a firm grip around Protoman's wrist, for she knew better than to touch his living cape.

Having the advantage and a clear sight of the ground, Raven accelerated and torqued hard on his arm, sending him at a massive velocity toward the protruding rubble that he soon slammed into. She drove her heels into the spot where he landed, unable to see past the debris cloud from the impact, but the recoil of his chest told her all she needed to know.

Raven found that her knees and ankles would not hold. She collapsed backward, thudding against girders and concrete.

"I concede," called Protoman from the slowly clearly cloud. "Though I can tell that you have little left in you."

Relief was a meager word for Raven's thankfulness. "Did X ever tell you how much you suck at compliments?" Raven toyed, but only to compensate for how right he was. When Protoman, breathing heavily himself, did not answer, Raven changed the topic that she wished she hadn't brought up. "How's your, uh, nether regions?"

His visor had been retracted into his helmet, and The Sage of Light's white eyes narrowed. "That was... unorthodox. The blow itself was quite phenomenal."

"I could tell by the way you went limp. And, I'm really sorry. I wasn't sure if that was considered an off limits place to hit with you where you... I don't know if... well, you don't really..."

The reploid huffed and rolled his eyes. "Nothing will be off limits when it comes to Zero. And no, I don't have the anatomy you're referring to. The effect was much the same, however. Your punch was so powerful that I felt it ripple from my 'crotch' to my skull. In short, it was debilitating. What about your hand?"

"Hurts more when I think about it," Raven frowned. "But it will heal, especially if I use my new chakra."

Without the same grace as before, Protoman lopsidedly rose to his feet. "Good. Because we're going to do this again tomorrow."

She was given no time to object, and the implications were obvious. Raven knew that the next several days would be hell, though she did not voice any complaint to the elder reploid. Better to be prepared for hell than to have it overcome her, she thought. The remainder of the day was spent mending her hand, meditating, and helping around Titan's Tower as much as she could.

Protoman and Raven did indeed fight the next day, and again she defeated him. He had been much heavier with materia magic the second time, trying to test the limits of her combat since her astral limbs could only reach so far. Nothing quite as climactic occurred as a groin shot during a Shining Bind, but it was an intense battle that she won by constricting him with both dark and light tendrils, then pumping as much magic into him as she could, forcing him to surrender as his systems were overloaded by conflicting energies that he couldn't absorb or withstand. It took an excessive amount of her sorcery to actual push him to that point, impressing upon her the sheer amount of power that Protoman could consume.

Rain fell hard the next day, but thankfully with little wind. For a change in pace, Raven instead battled with Mewtwo, but despite the superior telepath's grace, precision and trickery, Raven defended herself from his illusions and ultimately overpowered him with her swordplay. Part of her felt embarrassed as the telepath lay bloodied and singed in the sewer below, but he humbly accepted defeat. She slept terribly that night, shaken more mentally than physically from Mewtwo's abilities.

The following day, though bruised and exhausted from the previous three days' worth of practice, Raven was given a new opponent selected by Protoman, both Red XIII and Saria at the same time. It was the most difficult yet, protecting herself from Nanaki's speed, brutal flame and materia magic while also deflecting Saria's constricting vines and swift slashes from her doubled bladed nature staff. Since the Sages of Fire and Forest had little in the realm of pure magic that Raven could absorb with her light limbs, she had less use for them defensively. After being bloodied with small cuts all over her body, burned enough to tatter her clothing and leave only one eyebrow, poisoned by Saria's clever use of nature, and worn down by the sheer length of the battle and how much the Lotus had sapped from her strength, a last ditch effort brought her victory. After near-collapse, sight hazy from fatigue, Raven dropped the Lotus, sending it tumbling down the mountain of debris she stood on, well out of reach.

Nanaki lunged toward her neck with his fangs bared, but ridding herself of the petal-adorned weapon of draining flame gave her a rush of adrenaline. Raven used the wolf's momentum to grab him with telekinesis and slam him into a fire hydrant that was, by pure luck, still in tact and attached to a useable supply of water that gushed forth. Drenched by the geyser, Nanaki's powers were stifled enough for Raven to isolate Saria for a moment. Earning a nasty, poisonous gash on her arm as she attempted a quick victory, Raven seized Saria by the face and dumped as much emotion as possible into the young girl's mind, attacking the Kokiri woman's weakness. With two chakras fighting for her, Raven eclipsed Saria's undeniable telepathy and sucked the consciousness out of her. At that point, a damp and impaired Nanaki did not take long.

After the battle, Raven apologized profusely to Saria, knowing how cruel the tactic was. The Sage of Forest nodded, rocking back and forth with her legs tucked closely to her, nervously explained that it was alright. Just as Protoman had said that nothing was to be spared against Zero, Saria agreed and forgave, though the Kokiri woman hid in her guest room with Nanaki for the rest of the day.

On the fifth day, Raven's speed was tested in ways she couldn't imagine. Sonic and Shadow, both blisteringly fast, were accompanied by Terra, who kept a safe distance on a slab of flying earth while hurling rock spears, dust clouds and even tiny pebbles to constantly distract from the rapid fire spin dash and air slash attacks of the two Sages of Wind. Forced to use her dark telekinesis to raise metal slabs as barriers, Raven was constantly on the defensive from all of their attacks. She could not get to them, but they could not get to her either, not without making themselves vulnerable.

Raven knew that she could not keep up the fight for long, just as the one-on-two battle with Nanaki and Saria could not be won with stamina on her end. It was too draining to constantly manipulate massive hunks of fallen buildings on top of deflecting their spin dash attacks with the Lotus, which didn't harm the hedgehogs despite colliding directly with the blade. All the while, the three of them could easily divide their energies and last exponentially longer. Already Raven's arm was bleeding badly from Sonic's successful spin dash into her arm, shredding her cloak and the surface of her skin, all because she had been foolish and attempted to dodge by taking to the air.

Their rapid spinning acts like a sword an a shield at the same time. I can't hope to hold onto them with my powers, and they're too fast for any sort of projectile.

A particularly thick pillar of rock careened for her face, but Raven manipulated the stone with a simple push and a sidestep. Some of the debris behind her peppered her back, and Shadow was leaping fast from side to side, closing in for another attack.

The hedgehog landed low, then lunged with his hands clapped together. "Chaos Spear!"

Raven saw Sonic out of the corner of her eye, flanking her as he had done several times before, and the Chaos Spear was meant to completely occupy her defenses. She couldn't deflect them both, and there was nothing near enough to use to protect herself from one attack or the other, not that any metal or concrete could stop the power of Chaos. If she took to the sky to dodge the spear, Sonic would strike her back and end the fight.

Pulling her mind in two directions, the Sage of Darkness extended her astral light toward the Chaos Spear while using her astral dark to form a shield that she knew Sonic would quickly pierce, but she would have time. The collision with her white projections deadened her muscles, sucking the life out of her as she dropped to both knees, but her dark and light extensions held, holding back Sonic while trying to contain Shadow's

The whirring, shredding sound of Sonic's spinning against her shield was deafening, and the Chaos Spear was like a bolt of sunlight and fire merged together, crashing with relentless acceleration into her telekinesis, trying to force itself past. Raven knew she had knelt in glass and debris, cutting her legs with a simultaneous rush of hot and cold rippling through her limbs as the force pushed her backwards, sliding her heels deeper into the rubble.

Pain vanished in the next instant. Nothing but intense strength and energy flowered through her body. Her muscles clenched, charged and brimming with strength. Raven absorbed the Chaos Spear! Sonic collided with her, and Shadow right after, both back and front, but the blood on her chest and shoulder blades was merely a fact, not as debilitating as it should have been. Chaos protected her, and Chaos fueled her. A shockwave of light and dark sparks blasted the two hedgehogs away, sending them careening and disoriented in opposite directions. The boulder that blotted out light from above was a mere pebble for Raven to toss.

Sonic tumbled not far into the debris behind her, but Raven gave them no chance to recover. She dodged a rain of insignificant small rocks and darted behind where Sonic had landed so she could face both hedgehogs.

With both arms held forward, radiantly pulsing gold with the power of the emeralds, she screamed out. "Focused Chaos Blast!"

A deafening, crimson blast scooped up the rubble and the hedgehogs along with it, tearing a hot hole through the streets. Raven was thrown in the opposite direction, instinctively cushioned by her astral feelers.

Dizzy sensations piled on and on, tugging hard at her consciousness. The loss of her Chaos energy was more than tiring, it was horrific, realizing that her front and back were drenched with her own hot blood. Before the last ounces of waning adrenaline decided to leave her useless and in pain, Raven bolted to the sky after Terra. The surprise attack startled her, and Raven clipped the edge of her platform, spinning her off balance. Raven enveloped the stone disc and swiped it from Terra's control, leaving her falling. It was a simple power struggle, but Raven held on long enough for gravity to take Terra too far away to exert her influence. To make sure that the Sage of Earth couldn't form another one before hitting the ground, the sorceress shouted with fury and bolted down as fast as her flight could carry her, driving her fist into Terra's stomach. Before they hit the ground, Raven slowed both of them, but not enough to negate the punch that slammed into her abdomen and forced the air from her lungs.

Terra gasped for a breath, Raven shouted from her pain and the sight of her blood, which was now on Terra, and the two hedgehogs groaned as they picked themselves from the rubble with bloody cuts, burns, and exhaustion.

"I don't know," Shadow huffed loudly from a distance, "whether I should be aggravated... or impressed... that you caught my Chaos Spear."

"Mmgh," Raven groaned, trying to stay composed. Most of her body was glazed with fresh or sticky blood. It had definitely been the most painful day of training yet.

As with the other practice battles, Saria and Protoman were quick to tend to the wounded.

"This looks worse than it is," Saria ensured, peeling away the damp folds of Raven's leotard around her lower and upper abdomen. "Not too deep, just widespread."

"Hurts like hell," Raven rapidly answered, wasting as little breath as she could. Every movement was pain and discomfort. She knew that Saria was right, that she hadn't lost as much blood as it appeared from the thin coating covering the majority of her, but the damp sensation brought back terrible memories of Vile. Thank goodness he was dead, and thank goodness even more for the numbing salve that Saria liberally applied. The sorceress promptly passed out.

Raven had been freed from all of her shifts on watch in the several days of battle, likely because the beatings she took were so increasingly severe. Her routine was quite fixed, get up, eat a hearty breakfast, meditate for an hour or so, get the living hell pummeled out of her, then recover the rest of the day. Recover was spent mostly in solitude with occasional visits from Protoman to discuss battle efficiency and from Saria to make sure her wounds were healing.

One morning, she was allowed to sleep in. When she went to breakfast, no one was left, so Raven decided to eat a more humble meal, an apple.

After a moment, another late riser approached, and Raven's heart accelerated as she sensed the companion's mind.

"May I join you?" asked Starfire.

Raven swallowed nervously. The expression on her friend's face was oddly difficult to read. Taped to the back of her hand was the injection port for her IV, and there were tiny needle marks around the crook of each elbow.

"Star, you look... better."

The Tamaranian nodded contemplatively, silent for a moment as she grabbed a bowl and poured herself some cereal. She took a seat on the stool opposite Raven, poured in some milked, and ate slowly. "I feel... quite awful," she responded between bites. "But not so awful as I was."

"Everyone was really worried about you."

"And so I am grateful for what you did for me, friend Raven, though I fear that I will never be able to return your kindness."

"Right. Because I'm keeping a tally of who's done more nice things for the other," Raven joked. The sorceress sighed and shook her head, taking another bite of her apple. "You don't have to make it up to me or owe me favors, Star. Real friends will take a beating for each other, and one will always get it harder than the other, even if it isn't the same one all the time."

"But that is just the thing, Raven" Star answered, adamant. "You always seem to take the hardest beating, with Vile, with your father, with X. It is not fair, and it upsets me that I caused hardship for you."

"Hmph," Raven reflected with a mouthful preventing a real answer. She swallowed and shrugged. "Being the Hero of Time isn't all smiles. But really, it's all worth it if I can save anyone, like you, like all the people we need to fight for when Zero comes."

Starfire smiled at that, beamed really, at least as much as her fatigued form could manage. "X would be happy to hear you say such a thing."

Unsure of how to respond, Raven blankly nodded, though every mention of X was difficult. "And I know Robin would be happy to see you feeling better," chanced the sorceress.

The reaction from Starfire was much the same, contemplative, sad, but accepting.

Once both were finished eating, Star clasped her fingers together and thought for a moment. "Friend Raven, would you like to join me for a brief walk? The weather outside is quite nice."

"Sure," Raven obliged, happy for an alternative to violent and bloody training sessions.

As she had said, it was nice and warm, but it was obvious that they had not come out for a walk. All of the Sages were waiting for her, and all of the Titans mingled with them. Beast Boy stood near the front of the crowd holding a familiar blade, whose violet sheath was trimmed with majestic gold.

Raven's felt as though her heart could have stopped, but the sensation of the organ rebounding against her insides was real enough. She had not seen the sword for many days, and it was more tangible than any other reminder of the love that had been taken from her. Too many memories and emotions filled her, and her eyes overflowed with silent tears as she gritted her teeth, struggling against the pain within. But it was real, the scabbard and the blade within, that reflective, bright metal that never scratched or chipped.

Protoman stepped forward, adjacent to the green changeling, facing Raven firmly. Saria stood on Beast Boy's other side as a representative of the previous war of the Triforce. As Raven gripped the edges of her cloak tightly, Protoman spoke.

"Rachel Roth, sorceress Raven, the bearers of the Triforce carry burdens greater than any but us realize. Through their power, the Chaos Emeralds were born, and the art of magic rippled outward for many millennium. Our fight is a tormented and wounded one, full of more adversity than any can stand, save for a small few. You are one of those few. Your fellow Sages and your dear friends all believe in you, that you can defeat the King of Evil we face. In recent days, you have recovered from what you have lost and proved your courage, power, and wisdom. Will you, the Sage of Darkness, also take up the greatest burden as Hero of Time, bearing the Master Sword as your ally?"

Raven stared blankly for some time. Slowly, she knelt down, hands trembling as she reached for the blade, for X's blade. It didn't feel right to touch it, to wield the weapon, nor did it feel right to leave it without an owner.

Saria touched her shoulder. "I know it's not the same as being in the Temple of Time or the Chamber of Sages, but you deserve this honor the most. Take it, be our leader."

Shaking intensely, Raven reached for the sword, eventually placing her hand over the center of it, gripping without drawing it close to herself. She found herself calmed by its touch, its familiarity and warmth. As she stood, Beast Boy backed away slowly, but so did all others. They had given her a wide berth, but for what she didn't know. Then she grabbed the blue-violet handle of the Blade of Evil's Bane and drew it from its resting place. Memories of X grew stronger, and her eyes continued to let tears flow, but Raven ignored her sadness as she admired the fierce glow of the blade that climbed into her palm and through her arm.

The Sage of Darkness understood why everyone had given her space. As the Master Sword's power transferred into her body, a compelling action came over her, to release the energy rising within the blade. Obliging, Raven unleashed the sacred weapon in a vicious blur of circular slashes, spinning solely on the tip of foot with telekinesis balancing her. Magic flame of reds and whites danced in a disc that magnified the tangible blade's spin slash, extending the reach of the Master Sword well beyond its limits.

As the spiral ceased, Raven found that she was neither ill nor disoriented. She held the Master Sword up, aiming toward the clear blue sky. "I accept the task. I will honor the Master Sword and defeat the King of Evil."

The event was solemn, and Raven buckled the blade to her back, over her cloak with the handle of the sword aiming straight up. Applause came rushing in a moment later, and Raven found herself grateful to have such wonderful friends and allies. A piece f her life felt repaired, placed properly into the hazy puzzle that it has been of late. Now that the Master Sword had an owner once more, at least some small chance existed for them to rescue the flow of time and the future.

The night after Raven was knighted as Hero of Time, Mewtwo joined Shadow in front of the Chaos Emeralds for meditation. Though the dark hedgehog valued privacy, he had requested the telepath's presence for his power of mind, to sense more deeply into the ever shrinking voice of the Emeralds. The sacred jewels were no less powerful in their radiance, but the Lifestream that Shadow had come to perceive grew quieter and quieter with the passing hours.

At twilight's first sign, early into the morning, the last whispers of the Emeralds were extinguished. Still radiant with glow but silent, the combined efforts of the two sensed the finality of the moment.

There was no Lifestream left.

"We must tell everyone, now," Mewtwo insisted.

"I know," Shadow stood. "Zero is here."