A/N: Ah. Here it is, just as I've been promising for the past two years! It was only after finishing and posting the first act did I realize that the second (which I already had written) was not up to par in the least. In point of fact, looking back on it now, that first version was terrible. So, I made a total overhaul and rewrote it completely, and now it's all the better for it. You can thank me with your reviews.
Disclaimer?: Oh, who indeed. We'll start with Marv Wolfman, Gaston Leroux, T. S. Eliot, and L. Frank Baum, bless their hearts.
Summary?: Act Two of Three. Something dark within Raven has been building, ending in what will become the return of Trigon. Left without a choice, she must abandon morals and place faith in Starfire. But will Starfire abandon faith, or will she rise above it? Mild RavenStar.
Notes?: Have you been paying attention in your lit class? I get funky with classical symbolism sometimes. And I love le double entendre. And parallel story structure. But the foreshadowing? I think the foreshadowing is my favorite.
Also, overanalysis is quirky. The whole Azarath tirade came to me as a random epiphany in the shower after months and months of inactivity on this thing. I hope it makes you think a little, because it made me think a lot. :)
It also appears I made a liar of myself: this chapter is actually thirty pages long, instead of the intended twenty. It was a veritable blast to write though, so I hope you enjoy reading this monster as much as I did writing it.
Phantoms of Azarath
ACT II: Unusual Vicissitudes: People of the Stars
The subway was still empty, dark, and unwelcoming. Hisses of steam crawled across the walls, rustled against aging posters, and escaped up the stairs into the frosty night air. Lights flickered dimly as Starfire passed beneath them. Her hands gave off a warm, emerald glow that faintly lit her way. A giant metal behemoth rested in its tracks, breathing quietly in gnarled twists of steam.
Starfire's steps carried her toward the door of the train, which slid open with a throaty cough. She stared at it for a moment, surprised, but before she even knew what she was doing, the door closed behind her, and the train pulled away from the station. Starfire stumbled against the movement, grabbed for a hand rail, fingers grasping at icy steel posts as the train surged headfirst into the tunnel's darkness.
The car went black for a moment, while Starfire caught her breath. She squinted, peering vainly into the inky shadows. A tiny, shuffling movement caught her attention, though she could not see what had made it. When the lights came back on without warning, she blinked, and when she opened them again, she saw…
Raven, standing before her, dressed all in black, with her face deeply overshadowed by a cowl pulled too low. Her lips quirked in a sly smile.
Behind her, seated and lonely, was a second Raven cloaked all in white.
Starfire stared between them, bewildered. She muttered the empath's name, and both responded with a vague nod.
How very good it is to see you, whispered the black-cowled Raven. I have been away for a very long time, wouldn't you agree?
Starfire nodded hesitantly. She glanced imploringly at White Raven, but that empath stared only at the floor.
Does your heart not long for my presence? asked Raven. Does it not ache, as mine has, for the touch of another?
Starfire turned, startled. Black Raven had come very close, her face within inches of Starfire's, close enough for Starfire to feel the empath's warm breath against her lips.
Surely you have not forgotten, the Raven said, after searching Starfire's face. Surely it meant as much to you?
When Starfire replied that she did not understand, the black-cloaked Raven's face contorted angrily. Her breath came quicker, harsher, and cold.
You are no friend, she snarled. I gave you all that was precious to me, and you repay me with insult. You don't care. You never did. Was it a farce, dearest? Was all we shared a lie? Starfire began to deny that terrible implication, but Raven lashed out with a hand, and Starfire was sent hurtling violently backwards, until she slammed into the car's metal door. Black energy held her there, pressed against the cold steel, as the black-cloaked Raven curled a lip in disgust. You don't deserve a friend like me. You hardly deserve to live. What else have you been lying about, I wonder?
Starfire shook her head widely, pleading with Raven to let her go, to stop her madness --
Madness? Raven looked amused. Oh, dear, no. This is clarity. I see, for the first time, your true colors. I see what you really are. She ran a cold finger down Starfire's cheek. The Tamaranean stared in disbelief. I see the shadows, I see the evil that sleeps in your soul, in the souls of all around you. But you, my dear… Your darkness is the strongest of them all. It is deep and fertile, your hate so very bitter. So very like my own.
For a moment, Starfire's eyes flicked back to the Raven in white -- but that Raven sat quite still, and sighed, resigned.
The dark Raven's hand clasped her chin, forcing eye contact again. I tell you only what you know is already true. And when she smiled then, it was twisted, wicked, and her frosty breath escaped in puffs of white. Tell me, princess... Do you hate me?
Their lips were so close that Starfire needed only to lean forward and accept, but instead she swallowed hard and gently shook her head 'no.' Raven smiled, her dual set of eyes glowing deep red within the shadows of her cowl.
Starfire remembered screaming, remembered fighting, remembered the freezing touch of dark magic crawling across her skin. She remembered it tearing through her, seeping into her pores as the sunlight once would have. She remembered feeling it invade her senses, clouding them, destroying them. She remembered feeling fragments slide across her nerves, burning them open and raw. She remembered how every touch, how every little breath of wind was excruciating to bear.
The darkness growled to her, This is the way the world ends.
And then, she remembered Robin. She remembered Beast Boy. She remembered Cyborg. She remembered Hot Spot, Speedy, and Aqualad. Her mind flicked chaotically across memories, vainly trying to drag her away from pain to happier times.
The darkness hissed to her, This is the way the world ends.
But then the darkness dragged her back. It forced her to relive the horror, the hate, the pain, the fear… and all Starfire could do then was cry, and pray, and scream.
The darkness snickered to her, This is the way the world ends.
And suddenly the pain was gone and she was floating. She could hear her heart beating in the stillness, felt it contract harshly at a wretched thought. She could feel nothing else for several long moments Her entire body trembled, feeling suddenly very cold and very warm at the same time. Raven, she thought… Why?
Not with a bang, the darkness assured her, but a whimper.
… And there the dream ended…
A small, pained sob escaped from Starfire's throat as consciousness returned, gradually. Her eyes opened, lashes fluttered, focused on a stretch of infinite darkness dotted all over by brightly twinkling stars, mere snowflakes that had settled on black velvet. She turned onto her side, feeling her hands shifting through the fine coat of dirt upon the hard ground as she pushed herself up to sit on her knees. She hurt in nearly every place she could think of, aching from betrayal and from very physical pain. Worst of all, she felt as though that beautiful stretch of sky was laughing at her. She could practically hear it, chuckling in the back of her mind.
She stared at the soil for a good long time, gathering her thoughts, before she finally lifted her head to look about, forcing herself to ignore the laughter. There was little to see -- the dusty land stretched for a little ways before cutting off sharply, presumably a ledge, and there was such a build-up of white and airy cloud around them that she had to assume that they sat upon a cliff of moderate height. The inky sky gradated into warmer colors, yellows and pinks and oranges, interspersed with white. Was the sun setting? Starfire wondered for a moment. It did not feel like a rising sun, the way the colors played, so it must have been setting.
At least there is still daylight here, she assured herself, wherever here is.
Cyborg was awake as well, sitting several feet away and rubbing at the human half of his head; he reeled in the excess length of his other arm, finding that in that hand he still clutched a piece of carpet from the theater. He stared at it, a little incredulous, before flinging it angrily to the side.
"Friend Cyborg," the Tamaranean called, "Are you well?"
"Well?" he asked, rather tersely, turning to face her. "I'm in one piece, if that's what you mean. But well?" He shook his head slowly, "We just did the freakin' Time Warp and you're asking if I'm well?" Her wounded expression calmed his bitterness, and he apologized gently. When she still seemed upset, he tried to casually change the subject. "So, uh," he started, hesitantly, tapping at the chaotically bleeping GPS sensor in his arm plate. The reading seemed to imply that they were sitting in several different places at once, and that they were still moving. Cyborg had to assume, under the circumstances, that the sensor had suffered fatal damage in the fall. "Weird… I guess we're not in Kansas anymore, huh?"
Starfire gave him an odd glance, though in her defense, it was an even odder thing to say. "We were never in Kansas to begin with," she informed him frankly.
He had already risen to his feet and was wiping the dust from places it didn't rightfully belong. He seriously contemplated explaining the allusion to her, but thought better of it. "Yeah, well…"
Starfire stood shakily, rubbing at her knees. "This is certainly not the Marvelous Land of Oz, if that is what you meant."
Cyborg looked stunned. He hadn't really expected a comeback. "You… read that? Guess I'm gonna have to start talkin' to you more," he said finally.
She smiled; it was a small, sweet, conservative expression that almost prompted Cyborg to ask, what's wrong with this picture?
Instead, he grinned in return; she'd gotten him fair and square, after all. He probably just wasn't giving her enough credit. "Okay, since we're on the subject, where're Toto and the Lollipop Guild?"
Starfire giggled, and was about to contrast the lack of a certain Good Sorceress of the South… but that alone brought her back to grim reality. Raven. What had been good humor faded rather quickly into saddened calm.
Starfire put on a brave face, deciding that the first order of business would be to find the others, and as Starfire thought of them, something odd happened. She swore that she could feel Beast Boy standing near-by. It was the most extraordinary thing, as he was clearly nowhere in sight. She had a similar, but more distant, feeling about Hot Spot. Other presences, strangely familiar but strange nonetheless, nudged at sight just beyond sight, out of range. As though to add insult to injury, Robin and Speedy seemed entirely absent from the picture her mind painted.
Cyborg watched curiously as Starfire faced the clouded air. Her eyes were unfocused, and she looked as though she were concentrating on something in the distance. She raised a hand, pointing to the space of air directly in front of her, just a step or two from the edge of the cliff. Cyborg scratched his head, eyebrow furrowed. "What's up, Star?"
His words seemed to startle Starfire from her trance. She blinked, then pushed past him, halting at where the ground fell sharply, staring down at the unconscious form of Beast Boy, lying sprawled out on an outcrop a good ten or so feet from where she stood.
A breath escaped her throat, a miniscule sound that drew Cyborg to her side to see what the matter was. He let out a shout, dropping to his knees, leaning as far over as he dared, examining their supine teammate through his mechanical eye; he muttered something, an oath, or the changeling's name, or both, but regardless of whichever it really was, he received a wavering groan in reply. The bigger teen let out a nerve-ravaged laugh as Beast Boy sat up on his own, clearly dazed.
"Beast Boy!" Starfire piped, leaning forward, hair falling about her shoulders, a veritable halo of flame-red locks.
The changeling blinked, glanced upwards. "That you, Auntie Em?"
"Oh, good," Cyborg grunted, though inwardly he was considerably relieved. "His ego must've broken the fall."
"I heard that," Beast Boy yelled, getting to his feet. He took a moment to dust off the leggings of his costume before flapping his way up the ten foot difference and reforming behind his comrades. They didn't turn, instead remaining leaning, staring into the distance. "Uh, guys? I'm over here. Guys?" Beast Boy, as a delightfully green woodpecker, settled onto the cranium of his comic foil and gave the metal plates a tap or two.
Starfire waved a hand to capture the changeling's attention and pointed a finger to redirect it. Beast Boy popped back into human form, still sitting on Cyborg's broad shoulders, and stared at the massive, gleaming white civilization laid before them as the clouds thinned and parted for a moment. It shimmered in the light, as though it were made of gold, and sat upon a hill across from their mountain, separated by a small field filled with flowers, through which there ran a single road that led through the archway that served as the city's entrance.
"Dude!" He was suddenly silent and reflective, but it was only for a moment. "Dudes!" he crowed, bouncing a little, poking more at the back of the half-metal teen's head. "It's like we're looking right at the Emerald City! All we need now is our own yellow-brick road!"
Cyborg shook his head, reaching back and grabbing the changeling by the collar, pulling him off, sitting up, and glaring into the nose-twitching face of a bunny-shaped Beast Boy. He set the rabbit to the side, and with a roll of the eyes said, "No roads up here, Scarecrow. Only road I saw was down there, and if we wanna get down there, we're gonna have to climb." Beast Boy, reformed, stared blankly at his friend, then down at the cloud-shrouded cliff-side, then back at Cyborg and so forth, until the bigger teen stood up with an aggravated sigh. "It's not that bad. I mean, if my readings about the atmosphere are correct, I really don't think we're that high up."
"That's just what it wants you to think," the changeling muttered conspiratorially.
"The mountain?" Cyborg shot back, without missing a beat. He waved off any of the green boy's further protests by turning to Starfire. "Think you can fly?"
"Yes," The Tamaranean answered, hesitantly, before shaking her head sadly. "But I have not had the chance to recover any energy. I wish to conserve what remains for an emergency."
He gave a polite nod, pondering for a moment; he glanced down, his mechanical eye recalculating the estimate. "Understandable. Well," he began, grinning at Beast Boy. "If she can't fly, I know you can. Why don't you scout out some handholds for us?"
The changeling blinked quietly, "Oh." An ear twitched, a corner of his mouth perking as his own importance slowly dawned on him. "Yeah! Yeah, I can do that!"
Cyborg waved a hand to urge him on. "Well, get to it."
"Yes, sir!" Beast Boy yelled, saluting enthusiastically, before he stepped back over the cliff's edge and was replaced by a small green hummingbird, which zipped down and was lost in the blur of white cloud.
Cyborg chuckled softly as he carefully took a seat, large metal legs dangling over the cliff-side. He seemed serene, if not a little sad, as he stared into the clouds that had crossed again between them and the mysterious city. Starfire sat next to him, and suddenly felt the same wash of sorrow, the spite of knowing she had failed to save a friend -- that she had failed to save three more. Tears pricked at the backs of her eyes and she thought she heard the laughter from before. The amusement of a galaxy, focused solely on her. The tears began to turn bitter in her eyes, but before they could make their appearance, she felt the sadness lift.
"Hey," Cyborg said, gesturing with an immense hand to point out a shape in the clouds. "If you look closely enough, it looks like a duck."
Starfire did look up, following his gaze while the tears vanished and the laughter quieted, and she stared hard into the mists, cocking her head to the side. When the image finally occurred to her, she blinked at it, and then at him. "It is upside-down."
He laughed, nodding gently. "Well, nobody's perfect."
Just one glance up at his kind face informed Starfire of his objective of comforting her. She smiled, rather grimly, but did not reply. Cyborg noticed it immediately, and nudged her lightly with his elbow. "Hey now, what's wrong? Tell ol' Cy what's buggin' you."
Starfire thought about it for a minute, but there were too many things to list.
"Oh, I get it," he murmured, "You're worried 'bout Raven, huh?" He smiled again, weakly, as he rubbed at the back of his head. "I wouldn't worry too much… I mean, the girl's tiny, but she packs a heck of a punch."
"She is vulnerable," the Tamaranean whispered; her tone was muffled by the resurgence of tears, eyes locked on the cloud as it disassembled itself, as it floated away. "I felt it."
Cyborg grimaced, unsure of how to reply. He hated to think of Trigon as being the reason for Raven's… "We'll find a way," he stated solemnly.
Starfire restrained from shaking her head as the universe began to laugh. In thought, she commanded it to stop. She resented being the butt of a universe's obscure, if not divine, joke. Teeth clenched, she averted her eyes from Cyborg, staring down, staring away, fearful that he'd noticed. The universe laughed, on and on, every single molecule shaking with a terrible humor that she felt in her bones. All she could hear was its cascading accusations, horrible and blunt and ever-present, until her own thoughts began to join in. He sounds so sure of himself, does he not? What makes him believe that Raven is even redeemable? Look at what has become of you. Look at where you are. Look at what she has done.
Something clicked in Cyborg's mind – the human half, the half that knew Trigon was coming. As he watched Starfire turn from him in seeming panic, the irrational part of himself muttered that she was different now. It was in the smallest of ways, but Starfire was no longer Starfire. His machine half carefully shooed that absurdity away, and passed off her current behavior as post-traumatic stress.
Starfire shuddered, her knuckles shock white as rock began to crumble in the grip of her monstrous strength. She begged the voices of the universe to be silent, to stop these terrible thoughts -- she believed in Raven, she trusted Raven, Raven would not hurt them!
And it seemed to reply. Raven tore the group apart, Raven sent you here, Raven kissed you. She was cold and dying and she gave herself to you so that she would not die, and how did you repay that? How did you return her gesture? You did not. You ignored her, you reprimanded her, you disregarded her final words and now you have what you deserve. How does it feel? How does it feel to know that you were not the one betrayed, but that you perpetrated the betrayal? It was not Raven who sent you here; you brought this on yourself. You didn't care. Raven went to you for help, and you didn't care.
I do care! Starfire screamed inwardly, I care so much for her! I cared! I did not abandon her! I did not--
You left her to die. You killed her. Murderer. Murderer!
And, as though the cosmos sought to insult her further, a magnificent green albatross rose grandly from below, riding an upwards draft. It squawked happily as it soared over the heads of its sitting comrades to reform quickly as their plucky changeling. He saluted once more to Cyborg, "Mission objective, complete!"
The older young man glanced worriedly at Starfire, but turned a quiet smile towards Beast Boy. "Stand down, soldier," he said, carefully rising to his feet, chuckling a bit, as Beast Boy had already morphed into a friendly-looking Labrador, wagging his tail enthusiastically. "You find us a way?"
A bright green parrot bobbed its head, "Affirmative!" He then, as a chimpanzee, waddled back over to the cliff-side and began descending.
Cyborg winced somewhat, reminded of the two hundred pounds of metal he carried. "You sure it'll hold me?"
A hefty-looking gorilla nodded back up at him. "Yup!"
The bigger teen sighed, and then shrugged. "No other choice, I guess." He leaned over, still troubled. "You sure you don't want to carry us?"
An emerald orangutan focused a glare back at Cyborg. "I'm a monkey, not a bus. Star's not the only one around here who's getting tired, y'know."
"I know, I know." Cyborg pushed out another sigh, this one of resignation, and turned a look to Starfire. She still seemed so distracted. He put a heavy hand on her shoulder, and she slowly turned her eyes to him. He was surprised to find she had been crying; the tear trails were prominent on her cheeks. He kneeled and Starfire felt the concern coat her. And even though his steel fingers were cold, she felt that he was unmistakably warm. "Com'on, Star," he murmured, his tone tender, paternal. "We'll find a way. We'll save Raven -- it's not an option. I promise."
Her eyes watered -- when she blinked, another stream of tears followed the path down her cheeks. She nodded slightly, a very small gesture, though she said not a word.
"You guys!" Up trailed Beast Boy's voice, "It's the end of the world, not a pity party! Are you coming or not?"
"Alright already!" Cyborg snapped loudly. He turned a sheepish grin towards Starfire, who did not smile, but did seem relieved. The universe had fallen silent, though what had prompted it, she did not know. Cyborg took a deep breath before he slid himself off the ledge, maintained a steel death-grip on the rocky face as he slowly followed after Beast Boy, who directed his steps with absolute confidence. Starfire trailed after, listening as Cyborg instructed her own steps. The universe chortled then, and once more the echoing choir of accusations and self-doubt resounded between her ears, drowning out the Cyborg's words. She did not hear his cry of surprise or the sharp whistle of wind past her ear, and though she felt the stone tearing through her fingers, she could not grasp that she was now falling. Beast Boy launched himself from the cliff-side once he'd realized what had happened, a hawk spiraling through the updraft, but physics was cruel, and the ground was nearer to Starfire than he…
Starfire landed heavily in the overheated arms of Hot Spot, who skid to a halt, belly to the ground, breathing hard. He grinned broadly, from what she could see through his molten skull. "Hey. I thought you could fly."
Her eyes and ears cleared, turning questioningly to the honorary Titan. "Friend Hot Spot?" Starfire asked, perfectly confused, and yet somehow unsurprised.
He shook his head as he set her down in front of him. "Nevermind. You have no idea how glad I am to see you!" He rose to his knees, pointing behind himself. "You gotta tell these whackos that I'm not a demon or whatever!"
"These freaks are trying to push me through that thing--" He gestured to the massive door before him. "You gotta tell them I'm not whatever it is they think I am!"
Starfire stared at him, glanced briefly at the engraved and oddly ancient door, and then past him, focusing on a solemn knot of blue robed and hooded people. At their forefront was a woman in white; beneath her cowl, Starfire could see an uncanny resemblance… "Raven?" She asked, before she could stop herself.
The group tensed quietly; the one in white turned to the following and they conversed in inaudible tones, with faces like immobile stone. When her attention returned to the Titans, several blue robed individuals started forward; Hot Spot leapt to his feet, hands suddenly engulfed in roaring flames as he growled a warning. They stood still, neither afraid nor confident in the face of his threat.
They scattered suddenly, scrambling back as Cyborg materialized from the foggy skies, the ground buckling beneath his feet, his joints creaking noticeably in the wake of his heavy landing, and aimed a ready cannon in their direction. Beast Boy fluttered down and reformed next to him, ready and willing to join the fight.
But no fight broke out. The cloaked assembly stared blankly at the incomplete team, a few exchanged glances between themselves, and that was all. In that heavy hush, Starfire pushed herself to her feet and calmly circumnavigated Cyborg, Beast Boy and Hot Spot. She crossed the distance that Cyborg's decibel cannon had put between the groups and stood eye to eye with what seemed to be the leader.
"Please," she implored softly, mournfully. "We are looking for our friends."
A murmur circulated quickly, rippling from back to front, and then ended as it had started.
"That's not ominous at all," Hot Spot muttered beneath his breath, flexing a hand.
"Starfire," Cyborg barked, "Get back."
"I am able to take care of myself," she replied sharply to Cyborg, without turning. She stared into icy blue eyes nearly utterly obscured by a white, drooping cowl. The face was smoothness worn by horror and a life that had been most unkind, and cracked not a single semblance of emotion. She pleaded with it, "Please."
"Uh," Beast Boy chirped. "Maybe they don't speak English?"
"Well, what do you suggest?" Cyborg snapped. "French?"
"I say we blast them and get it over with," Hot Spot interjected crossly. "That won't need a translation."
The changeling grinned, "We'll try my idea first, then yours!" He took a few steps forward, a mighty ambassador taking his stand at the podium, and asked, quite impeccably, "Tout parlez-vous français? Nous recherchons nos amis."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" The cannon dropped an inch, along with Cyborg's jaw. "When did you learn French?"
"Si vous n'étiez pas un tel cancre," Beast Boy said with a grin, looking perfectly smug all over, "Vous pourriez apprendre aussi."
"I don't know what you just said, but when I find out--" A movement from the white-cloaked one drew Cyborg's weapon back to eye-level and cut his threat short.
Her hands pulled back the cowl, and a dark-haired woman, raven locks pouring in waves over her shoulders, strangely reminiscent of a certain sorceress and yet nothing like her, presented a hand to Starfire. Her striking blue eyes focused on Beast Boy for a moment as she replied, warily, "Oui, je sais un peu… You must be the Teen Titans. Welcome to Azarath."
Starfire studied the offered hand, and saw it to be a frail and delicate-looking thing, with long fingers, one bound by a small golden ring that Starfire guessed must have been at least as old as the woman herself. She took the hand, finally; its grip was stronger than she'd estimated, but then she felt an overwhelming calm blanket itself over her mind. She smiled thankfully up at the dark-haired woman, but the expression that met her relief seemed markedly grim. The alien had the sudden, sinking feeling that this woman could see straight through her -- could she, then, see the wickedness? The stain of the betrayal that marred her lips?
"Azarath?" Cyborg echoed, lowering his cannon, and only that. "Wait'a minute, isn't that the place where Raven's from?"
"Dude!" Beast Boy bleated, the thought registering with frightening rapidity. "No way!"
"Are you guys serious? Azarath?" The metal teen asked again. He received a series of solemn nods.
"Uh, 'scuse me?" Hot Spot interposed, waving a hand in front of Cyborg's stunned face. "I seem to be left out of the loop, here. Where are we, exactly?"
"Azarath!" The green boy exclaimed, as if it were obvious.
"Yeah, I heard." The fiery Titan raised an eyebrow. "Is that in Europe or something?"
"No, dude," Beast Boy clarified, "It's in, like, space."
"Space." Hot Spot had ceased to be amused quite some time ago. In fact, he was quickly developing a very annoyed look. "We're in space?"
"Kind of," was the tentative answer.
"No, really. Where are we?" Hot Spot turned a quick glare at Cyborg, who was utterly amused by the exchange, to silently notify him that he needed to wipe that stupid grin off his face if he wanted to keep it. The Azaratheans looked on in a sort of dignified bemusement, though Starfire found herself unable to focus on anything but the frost in the eyes of the woman in white.
This one sees the darkness that wells within you, the universe informed her gleefully. What do the others see, I wonder?
"Well--!" The changeling wrapped an arm about his comrade's shoulders, but let him go with a yelp, belatedly realizing that the Titan, so flustered at the apparent lack of explanation at every corner, was on the verge of bursting into flame. "Geez, dude! Chill out, will ya'? Literally," he added, rubbing at his stinging arm and shoulder.
"I'm going to ask this one more time," Hot Spot growled, fists clenched. "Where the H'San Natall are we?"
Cyborg and Beast Boy took a precautionary step back. "Uh, well," the changeling began, twiddling his fingers. "We're in Azarath. It's, like, Raven's home world, only kind of a home and not really a world."
The heat died slowly, reducing itself by degrees as Hot Spot searched his teammates for a more satisfying answer. "So you've been here before?"
"Um," Beast Boy murmured, straining for a proper, fulfilling response, but came up staggeringly short. "No. Not really."
There may have been an extra connotation tagged onto Beast Boy's emphasis on really, but the oncoming headache made the fiery Titan feel too tired to try and analyze it. "But Raven told you about this place, right?"
"Well…" Beast Boy gave a weak smile, scratching at the back of his head. "No."
Hot Spot then closed his eyes and wordlessly started counting to ten. The temperature of his body was soaring, rolling off him in waves of heat. Sensing that he was the source of such barely concealed fury, the changeling scurried senselessly to dive for cover behind Cyborg.
"Azarath," one of the blue-cloaked people quickly fielded, so as to deter the mounting hostility before Hot Spot could mutely reach five, "Is a traveling dimension. It has been in existence for more than a century as a place of true peace." He bowed graciously when the Titans turned to regard him with surprised looks. "The Raven you speak of was born here, and here she was raised by our goddess Azar."
"Now, see, was that so hard?" Cyborg and Beast Boy breathed a sigh as Hot Spot's mercurial temper just as quickly cooled, as the boy gestured faintly to the anonymous Azarathean. "That's the kind of answer I was looking for."
Starfire carefully released the hand of the white-cloaked woman and stepped back, away, breaking eye contact, though she still felt the inscrutable gaze locked on her, boring holes into her soul. She feared the woman, harmless though she was, for it occurred to Starfire that if this woman could indeed see into her, she would reveal her secret. The thought clicked oddly, like the dim tick-tick of a hidden clock -- secret? Was it any secret that she was an awful friend? Was it any secret that she had left a comrade to die? That she had betrayed a frail little girl, left her to undeservingly suffer the most horrendous of tragedies? That she--
"Raven was a part of us, though we had no part in her," the Azarathean continued solemnly, as though reflecting quietly on a piece of literature that had been read to him countless times in the past. "She spoke to no one but Azar. She avoided the priests -- she meditated only. She questioned our ways and rebelled against our teachings."
The universe seemed to find that funny, snickering in the back of her mind. As though to counter it, Starfire intensified her focus on the words of the Azarathean.
"That…" Cyborg murmured, brow furrowing, "That doesn't really sound like Raven."
"Yeah," Beast Boy interjected unhelpfully, crossing his arms over his lean chest and nodding furiously.
"It is a complicated matter," the Azarathean defended gently. "The death of Azar affected us all in different ways."
"Friends," Starfire gasped suddenly, perhaps now more frightened than she had ever been before. "Where are our friends? Where are Robin and Speedy?"
"Ah," he breathed, "There were two outsiders found on the city's border, injured quite severely. They were taken to the Temple Azarath so that our priests could care for them. Please, let us lead you there." He gestured for the group to follow as he and the rest of the Azaratheans turned back down the path.
The woman in white did not move at first, her eyes still trained on Starfire's gilded face, pale and dusty though she was. "There is much conflict within you," she said finally, in a voice so low that the Tamaranean almost didn't hear it. Once the woman turned to go, Starfire shakily raised her hands to rub her burning eyes, for upon hearing those words she had come quite close to tears again.
"Comin'?" Cyborg asked, and Starfire belatedly realized that the Titans had already started out after the group. Once her focus settled back onto her friends, she felt their overwhelming reluctance, their distrust, burning brightly like a lantern in total blackness, for there was no other emotion here. She stumbled in her hurry to catch up, laughing awkwardly when Cyborg caught her, preventing her from doing a direct face-plant into the white stone path. He was regarding her sternly, his steely eyes trying to look beyond her hastily built wall. "You feelin' okay, Star?"
"I--" No, the universe whispered, in poisoned tones. You're not feeling okay. Not in any sense, and never again. "Y-yes, friend Cyborg. Like peaches."
His eyes were vacant for a moment while he processed (and translated) that answer. "Oh. Well, you seemed kind'a… I dunno… distracted. It ain't really like you..." He had known her to become easily distracted, yes, but never like this. "You sure you're okay, Star?"
"Yes," she lied. "I am merely tired."
"We can stop an' rest, if you want."
"N-no!" Starfire snapped, perhaps a little too quickly. Cyborg looked markedly concerned. "I mean… I do not wish to delay us. We must find Robin and friend Speedy – they are in much worse condition than I."
He stared at her for a long while, searching her face, mulling over her bold-faced fib. Finally, he nodded. "Okay," he said. "I understand."
He doesn't, the universe snapped viciously. He can't. What machine can ever know or comprehend your deepest thoughts and feelings? Starfire strained to ignore it, taking long strides to make up the distance she'd lost. Cyborg looked after her, still skeptical, but he followed without another word.
The group, however, did not walk in silence. Hot Spot was grossly under-informed as to the matter at hand, so the Azaratheans tried their best to explain the complex nature of Raven's familial troubles.
"So, this Trigon guy. We gotta stop him before he can get to Raven." Hot Spot repeated, not seeming particularly convinced. "Uh-huh. And what, exactly, is gonna happen if he does get to her?"
"Were Trigon to possess Raven," one announced quietly, her voice soft and peaceful. "It would be the end of us, the end of Azarath, and the end of your world as well."
"Trigon would destroy everything," another agreed, his tones equally as eerily calm. It was as though they were reciting poetry. "And everyone. Not just those who would stand in his way. All would be lost."
"You see, we have been doomed to die from the very beginning," one added serenely. "Before Raven had even come to us."
Hot Spot raised his eyebrows -- from what they could see of his face -- and looked thoughtful. "Oh," he said finally. "So, it's just the end of the world as we know it? …Well, isn't that just the biggest pile of--"
Cyborg sharply elbowed the honorary Titan, who nearly fell over from the sheer force of the nudge.
Hot Spot let out a hiss of pain, holding his sides. "--of goody-goody gumdrops."
Another woman continued, gazing now directly at the fire-headed Titan, "I hope you will forgive our earlier behavior. We are not used to such… arrogance, and anger is forbidden here. We feared you might bring harm to our way of life."
"Way to live," Hot Spot growled, still rubbing at his sore ribs.
"Please," one of the men said. "I hope that in time you will absolve us of our error. For now, we are willing to take you all in as guests of Azar."
"Sure," Hot Spot muttered sulkily. "Whatever."
"So, uh, if Azar's not around any more, who's, like the, uh… who's Vice President of Azarath?" Beast Boy pondered aloud.
"No one person is greater than the other," yet another blue-cloaked stranger filled in. "We continue to follow the word of Azar, whose spirit and wisdom extends beyond death."
"…Right…" At learning that, the changeling began to look somewhat disturbed.
"So you're still takin' orders from a dead broad?" Hot Spot asked, incredulous. He found himself in a very uncomfortable situation when every Azarathean in the group halted in their steps in order to turn and stare at him. There was no emotion in their faces, but he figured that if there was, they'd be shooting daggers at him. "I mean, uh… That's… awesome? Go Azarath." He said quickly, attempting reparation, but they did not move. "Uh… Hip-hip-hooray?"
The other Titans sighed, groaned, and shook heads at Hot Spot's behavior; Cyborg made mental notes to tape the fiery Titan's mouth shut later.
"Do not mock our faith," said the Azarathean in white. "If you knew what Azar has done for us, you would not be so quick to judge."
Hot Spot fidgeted under their blank scrutiny. "Okay, okay! I'm sorry. Really, I didn't mean it. I was just… I was joking, get it?"
"I do not," the woman replied.
Hot Spot winced. "Oh. Well, I, uh… I'm really, really sorry?"
Collectively, their emotionless cohorts seemed to contemplate the sincerity of his apology. The Titans could not tell what their decision had been, but with a nod, the Azaratheans turned and continued to lead anyway.
Cyborg grabbed the fiery Titan's shoulder before he could move again, and waited a moment for the Azaratheans to pass out of earshot. "Quit antagonizin' these guys, alright? We ain't in a position to be doling out insults."
"These people are crazy," Hot Spot countered furiously. "Every last one of 'em. How'm I supposed to take them seriously if they're the ones who're listening to what a dead lady said a hundred years ago about waiting on an interdimensional demon to end their civilization?"
"I know it sounds wild, H," Cyborg said, in a softer voice, "But these are Raven's people, and this is what they believe. We gotta trust 'em. We ain't got any other choice."
Hot Spot groaned, then gave a reluctant sigh. "Okay, but if your creepy little friend's cult ends up getting us killed," he said, looking sternly at Cyborg. "I am going to be so mad at you."
Cyborg chuckled warmly, and patted Hot Spot on the shoulder. "Alright, H. I'll keep that in mind." And with that, the two hurried to catch up.
The Azaratheans had led the Teen Titans to their white city on a hill, beneath its grand pillar archway. It was a place that they could sense had been expunged of all its evil, so peaceful did it feel, and they were told that it was a home to one and all. Many of Azar's followers had come from Earth, and had given up their sinful lifestyles to begin anew there in Azarath. "You are welcome here, for as long as you like," the Titans were told.
The Azaratheans led them through the center of the city, where beautifully decorated stone houses lined the street, and the road itself was punctuated at intervals by giant, bird-like statues, whose heads all stared grimly at the temple in the distance. As they walked, people gathered at the edges of the main road, to see the procession, to see those whom Azar had told them of so long ago. All of them, every man, woman, and child, wore blue robes, their faces hidden from one another by hoods.
Starfire walked near the back, painfully aware of the sterile expressions, the purposeful lack of emotion among the cloaked throng that had since flanked them, leading them to the temple like lambs to the altar. It bothered her on many levels, for she felt nothing else but the sharp contrast of the Titans' tense paranoia against nothing. It made her agitated and wary, and she knew she could not blame them for feeling as they did. The universe chuckled, agreeing with her, and she suddenly found herself praying that their suspicion would not be proved correct.
As they passed through the silent city street, she heard Hot Spot muttering, "This place gives me the creeps."
Beat Boy nodded his agreement, whispering in return, "I know what you mean. Hey, you know what this place needs?"
"Their sanity back?" Hot Spot answered, smug. "A life?"
"Nah! Like… a comedian. We ought'a--"
"No." Cyborg interrupted. "And they can hear you."
"So?" Hot Spot spat.
"So, you need to shut it before they decide that they don't want us here anymore," reprimanded the bigger teen.
They fell into silence for a little while, before one of the Azaratheans leading turned. "We are nearly there, Teen Titans. The Temple lies just ahead," he said, pointing. They marveled at the grand building in the distance, the massive, shimmering marble temple, gloriously ancient, lovingly crafted by the hands of the faithful, and shrouded in strange warmth.
Starfire had been unnaturally quiet, until now, when it suddenly occurred to her why this place frightened her so. She had not noticed it before, but now, seeing the golden light reflecting from the white stone, she knew what it was. She stopped dead in her tracks. "There is no sun here," she said, in a weak voice.
"Seriously?" Beast Boy said, before turning his eyes skyward and looking about. The rest of the Titans did the same. "Dude! That's so cool."
"No," she murmured, suddenly on the verge of tears. They could hear her voice crack, overwhelmed by a belated flood of emotions. "No, it is not cool, it is terrible! If there is no sun here, I cannot recharge. If I cannot recharge…" Starfire trailed off, breathing hard with a barely contained hysteria. How could this be? What sort of place was this, to exist without a sun? What sort of people were they, to derive their living necessity from just the cold and distant stars far above? She stared up at the heavens, which glowed very gently gold and red, as though lit by a setting sun, though there was no such life-giving star to be seen anywhere above or along the horizon.
"Aw, Star, don't talk like that. We'll--" Cyborg put a hand on Starfire's shoulder, but she shrugged it off violently.
She looked vehement, her eyes snapping embers while the universe far above howled with laughter. Her voice was eerily calm, "Please do not touch me."
Cyborg took a step back, blinking in confusion. The other Titans looked equally baffled. "I… I'm sorry?"
She couldn't bring herself to tell him that in that passing moment, while his hand had rested on her shoulder, she had felt his pity, his fear, and his anger. For a moment, she had felt each of them vividly, as though they were her own, and she knew he had said the words without thinking. He really didn't understand.
Starfire's gaze softened. "Do not be, my friend. I am merely…"
"Tired," he finished, and she nodded. "It's… it's okay, Star. You'll…" His gaze briefly washed over the onlooking crowd, and over his friends. "We'll all be okay."
He didn't understand. She didn't blame him.
Many of the Azaratheans began dispersing as they neared the temple stairs, returning to the streets, to trades, to homes, and perhaps even to family. The Titans moved forward with caution as the remaining Azaratheans led the way through the standing pillars and deep into the heart of that holy place. The woman who wore white stood to the side of the main entrance as they filed past. When their eyes met, Starfire felt a shudder rattle through her body. When the woman grasped her arm, Starfire halted in her steps, frozen with unwarranted terror.
For a bewildering moment, Starfire felt a sudden upsurge of anxiety funneling into her from the hand that held her; she could see for just a moment the snapping embers of a flame that hadn't quite died, a life smoldering behind those blue eyes.
"There is no need to fear us," she told Starfire gently, firmly, and released her. "When there is a moment to spare, you and I must speak in private."
Starfire nodded hesitantly; as she gained distance from the woman, she was suddenly keenly aware of the fear simmering quietly in the pit of her own stomach. She dropped her head shamefully, and kept it low even as she hurried to catch up with the rest of the group.
The universe, however, was already laughing, the loud and raucous kind of laugh that echoed through the halls, shrouding her in its mocking sound. Starfire fought to push it from her mind, covering her ears, distracting herself with thoughts of other things, focusing on her feet, breaking into a run…
There was already a gathering of more white-cloaked strangers, standing side-by-side in a ceremonial circle. They shuffled uncomfortably when Starfire burst into the room and skid to an awkward stop, and seemed a little taken aback with her entrance. Beast Boy and Hot Spot snickered, though each received a fierce shut up now glare from Cyborg, who was still bothered by the unexplained change in her behavior.
He nudged her gently with an elbow, mouthing, Where were you?
Starfire shrugged noncommittally, pretending instead to be more interested in the goings-on taking place with the Azaratheans before them.
Whatever it was they had been doing, they already had seemed to finish before the Titans had arrived, for the white-garbed individuals turned to them, bowed, and filed quietly out of the room -- in their place, two blue-cloaked sheep hurried in to take a place near each of the two make-shift beds that had been set up there, around which the previous group had gathered. Two figures lay there, eyesores upon pure white sheets, the reds of their costumes horribly reminiscent of blood.
Starfire was first to Robin's side, with Cyborg in close second; Hot Spot shuffled nervously to Speedy, oddly dumbstruck by the sight, while Beast Boy stared between them.
"Are they...?" He swallowed hard, voice sounding very meek, pointed ears drooping visibly.
"No," Cyborg answered, having checked Robin, and now examining Speedy. "It's alright. They're alive."
As Cyborg was checking Speedy's pulse, a slow grin started across the ginger-haired archer's face. "Aw, Cy. It's sweet of you to hold my hand in my hour of need."
The bigger teen jumped, surprised, before roughly throwing Speedy's hand back at him and sending the archer into hysterical laughter. He sat up with a pained grunt, blinking sleepily at the surrounding Titans from behind his mask. "What's up?" Upon receiving only wide-eyed gaping stares in lieu of an actual reply, he moved a hand to his head, smoothing down what little hair there was to be found. "What?"
"You're... you're okay?" Cyborg asked, his tone still bearing some of the chagrin Speedy had bestowed him with.
"Uh," Speedy took a moment to check, patting himself down. "Well, yeah. I think I broke a few things that I didn't know I had, but for the most part, I'm feeling pretty good." He glanced around the room, smiling. "Those hooded dudes took most of the hurt out, so all that's left are a few bruises." Beast Boy hopped onto Speedy's ankle as a pleasantly green frog. The archer grinned, poking gently at the little amphibian. "Where've you guys been?"
"Looking for you," Hot Spot answered testily. "I nearly got mobbed by those hooded dudes. For you."
"Wow," Speedy chuckled. "Sorry about that. There's not really much I can do about being unconscious… lucky for me and Rob that those guys came along, though." He leaned back, trying to see around Cyborg's immense shoulders. "He awake yet?"
Starfire shook her head quickly, feeling her cheeks flush and not knowing why. Do you think they know what really happened? The universe pondered aloud, Do you think that the woman in white will tell them? What would they say, do you think, if they knew?
"Starfire?" The Tamaranean was jerked violently back to reality at the sound of her name. Robin was staring at her, and tears had sprung to her eyes. "Are you alright?"
The universe snickered as Starfire struggled to regain composure. "I am fine!" But she said it quickly, in a way that most definitely aroused the Boy Wonder's suspicions.
Cyborg turned around, the frown on his face a clear indication that his own concerns had been proven. He leveled a hard look at the gilded alien, and she could feel the sudden increase of confusion aimed in her direction by the other Titans. She smiled sheepishly, receding from the group, forcing her feelings deeper into herself. She did not need them worrying about her -- not while Raven was still so lost, and so vulnerable. In a deceptively cheerful way, she added, "I am overjoyed that you are all right, Friend Robin!"
The dark young man considered her bearing carefully, watching for the nervous tics that would surely reveal what she truly felt. "I'm... okay, I guess." He eyed Starfire as he sat up, winced at the fierce pang of muscle strained too far. "What happened? After Raven...?"
Cyborg shrugged. "Don't really know. All we can tell you is the girl sent us to Azarath."
The Batman's apprentice blinked thoughtfully. It sounded as though he should have known what that meant, but nothing came to him aside from the immediately obvious. "Azarath?" He repeated quizzically. "Like in her mantra?"
"It's Raven's home world," Hot Spot supplemented. "Apparently."
"Great," Speedy drawled, grinning ironically. "I was needing a vacation anyway."
"No," Robin shook his head, sliding off the bed, standing and stretching his back. "This isn't good at all. We need to get back to Earth."
"Well, yeah," Beast Boy bleated, reforming as a human, sitting cross-legged on Speedy's bed. "But we don't even really know where we are. Raven didn't exactly leave us a road map, y'know?"
At that, Starfire lowered her eyes to stare at her hands. Would they see you the same, I wonder, said the universe conspiratorially, If only they realized that it was you who had caused their misfortune?
Speedy scratched his chin, his little smirk a permanently fixed part of his expression. "We could probably ask one of these guys," he observed, pointing to the blue-cloaked individual sitting next to his bed.
The group turned its attention to the Azarathean, who glanced up sheepishly. "You must speak with Coman, the High Magistrate," he told them.
And out of the corner of her eye, Starfire thought she saw the shadows flicker.
"No one greater than the other, huh?" Hot Spot muttered, sneering at nothing in particular.
"Don't start," Cyborg warned, "We're in enough trouble as it is."
"I'm not starting," Hot Spot snapped. "I'm just saying it's kind of hypocritical."
Speedy raised an eyebrow at Beast Boy, motioning towards the arguing pair with a tilt of the head. "How long have they been doing that?"
"Like, all day, dude," the changeling replied with a sigh. "All. Day."
Starfire winced, and it went unnoticed. She felt so much anger and so much more fear just bubbling from the group like a fountain. It made her feel crazy. It made her head ache. It made her feel trapped.
The arguing was not helping.
"I'm just remarking on the fact that 'High Magistrate' is a really contradictory title for a civilization that bases its faith in—"
"Will you shut up?!" Cyborg bellowed, grabbing Hot Spot by the collar and raising a threatening fist.
Orange and red flame immediately flared to life around Hot Spot's hands. "Com'on an make me!"
"The both of you stop." Robin's voice carried, sharp and commanding, halting the two squabbling Titans mid-punch. Cyborg released Hot Spot with a snort. "You're acting like children."
"He started it," the two Titans chimed simultaneously, pointing at one another. They then shot each other a glare.
"No, I don't want to hear it. The both of you need to stop." Robin looked over his splintering group, shaking his head slowly. "Arguing like that won't get us anywhere… Literally." The Boy Wonder glanced over at the blue-cloaked sheep who had been leading them. The man was motionless, his blank face hidden in the shadows of his cowl.
"I cannot take you any farther if you are going to continue in this manner," the sheep told them, when he had gained all of their attention. "It is a disruption, a… a blasphemy. Your anger will poison our world."
Robin turned a firm look to Hot Spot, then to Cyborg, and then to the rest of the Titans. He calmly turned back to the Azarathean. "It won't happen again."
The sheep considered that promise carefully, for a long moment, and finally nodded. "Very well. This way…"
Very soon, the Titans found themselves standing at the edge of a beautiful garden in full bloom, surrounded by a ring of tall pillars. Atop each pillar sat an ivory bust of a hooded woman. Within that garden, a number of white-cloaked individuals tended, pulling weeds with their own hands and speaking softly to the flowers.
Hot Spot made a face, but didn't say anything.
"Magistrate," the sheep called, as he carefully navigated the little garden paths set in stone along the ground. "Coman, the Teen Titans would like to speak with you."
A man with a long, white beard sat up, turning to look at the group of oddly-garbed strangers still standing at the garden's edge. "Thank you, Tomsa." He stood, dusting the black, fertile dirt from his robes, though it had already stained around his knees. He did not seem to mind. "Hello, Teen Titans," he said serenely, "I have heard so much about you from Azar."
Hot Spot made another face, but still didn't say anything.
"Thank you," Robin began, diplomatically, with a bow. "We're honored to be your guests."
"It is nothing," Coman replied, with a very vague smile.
Starfire looked upon the exchange curiously, as did the rest of the Titans, all standing nervously behind their leader.
"However, if I might get straight to the problem…" Coman nodded, looking somewhat thoughtful as Robin continued, "Our friend Raven was the one who sent us here, though we don't how, or why, and we don't know how to leave. We need to get back to our own world as soon as possible, and--"
Coman raised a hand, to stop Robin there. "It is nothing, friend. I can tell you why you are here, and I can also tell you the way out. Please, if you and your friends will come with me, I will find you lodging and--"
"It's imperative that we get back as soon as possible," Robin insisted. "We just need to know how to leave."
"I understand, friend," Coman interrupted, gently. He gestured to Starfire, Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Hot Spot, "But while you were being healed, your friends were looking for you, and did not have the chance to recover themselves. I think it would be better for the whole if you allowed the few to rest."
Robin paused, turned to look, and for the first time he saw how haggard the Titans were looking, how tired and beaten they seemed, and how short tempers had become. They had been so lively before, but now that the adrenaline had worn away… Robin nodded, after a moment. "Alright."
"Very good," Coman said, with a bow. "Come this way."
The Magistrate led them to a small, stone house the color of alabaster, which was decorated with the faces of Azarath's past, and where a blue-cloaked woman greeted them at the door. "Come in," she beckoned, leading them into the main room, where six cots had been set up. The woman then informed them that she would begin preparing dinner, and asked that the Magistrate also stay.
The Titans curiously glanced about the bare, white-washed room. Hot Spot patted one of the cot mattresses, frowning a little. If he had to guess, he'd say the thing was stuffed with straw.
"Don't complain," Cyborg warned, sitting heavily on a cot on the opposite side of the room.
"Tch, what do you have to worry about?" the fiery Titan muttered, mostly to himself. "Your ass is made of metal."
"What was that, matchstick?" Cyborg stood, incensed and a giant among men, fists clenched. "Say it again, I dare you!"
There was a moment where the room had gone quiet with dread, as Cyborg and Hot Spot leapt forward, ready to pound some sense into one another. Robin, Speedy, Beast Boy and Coman had all moved forward, as well, to put a stop to their pointless fight, but found themselves halting, unnecessary. Cyborg and Hot Spot were just arm's length away, blinking in confusion.
Starfire was juxtaposed between them, a hand on each of their chests, keeping them apart. She kept her head down, face hidden behind a curtain of tangled red hair.
"Please stop," she whispered, in a ragged, tear-stained voice.
The squabbling boys looked down at the top of her head, still blinking, suddenly calmer, suddenly sympathetic. Fists lowered, tempers died. They didn't quite seem to know what to say, to each other, or to their friends.
Starfire grit her teeth, expression contorted and pained, and bore their fury in her chest, a thing that thrashed and screamed and tore at her like a wild animal. She took their resentment upon her shoulders, a heavy weight around her neck that pulled at her without reprieve, a thing that fought to drag her to the ground in silence. She took their fear, carrying it in her stomach, where it turned cold and desolate and fierce, churning and pleading like a lost soul. She absorbed their shame into her blood, seeping into her frame, where it slowed and froze and burned, a wild, raucous laughter that echoed as clearly in her ears as her own heartbeat.
She began to bend under the weight of it all. Trembling, she began to sink to her knees; Cyborg and Hot Spot caught her by the arms, crying out in surprise, though she couldn't hear them anymore. She was lost in a torrent of voices and feelings and laughter, and could no longer see nor hear the things around her.
All she could do was breathe, while the laughter boomed across her mind as she wandered blindly and ever deeper into a white, darkness-covered field, destined to never return.
But she stopped. Pausing, gazing into the eternal distance.
She knew that this was not where she wanted to be, nor was this where she was needed. She looked up at the sky, where clouds boiled and rolled, threatening a fiercer storm than the one she experienced now.
And she realized that she wasn't afraid.
The thunder shook her to the bone, a raw and unfiltered power crying out from the storm to dissuade her. But she didn't care what it did to her now.
Others had walked this path, hadn't they?
Raven had walked this path.
Raven had never been afraid.
Buffeted by howling rain, Starfire turned on her heel and began to backtrack. The universe frothed and raged, sending lightning and thunder and hail.
But none of it could deter the Tamaranean's unwavering heart. She walked, shielded from the worst of the storm by a barrier of her own resolve.
The storm broke soon, all its energy burned out of it.
And Starfire breathed a sigh of relief.
In the next dream, for Starfire was positive that it was, she found herself standing waist-deep in a pool of water. In her hands she held a book, and without having to look at it, she knew that it belonged to Raven. It was heavier than it should have been, so she carried it in both arms, like a sleeping friend.
She faced the open water, a vast, blue ocean that grew deeper the further out you went. Turning, she saw Titan Tower, jutting up into the blue and cloudless sky from the little lump of rock that they called home.
On the island's edge stood a figure cloaked in blue, who appeared to be waiting. She smiled, feeling her feet lifting from the ocean shelf and gradually out of the water. With barely a breath, she flew to the island and landed gracefully without a sound. Still dripping water from her skirt, she went straight to the cloaked girl, holding out the book.
A pale hand took it delicately and blue eyes stared out from beneath her cowl. For a moment, they seemed to flicker red, but when Starfire blinked, they were still blue.
Do you know how the story ends? asked Raven, in a voice she couldn't quite hear.
Yes, Starfire replied, puzzled but happy. Dorothy finds her way home.
Do you know why? asked Raven.
She had the power to do so all along, Starfire replied.
Raven nodded, the spark of approval in her eyes. Do you know how? she asked.
She had friends to help her, Starfire replied.
And a gift, Raven said with a nod. Give me your hand.
Starfire awoke to find herself in a dark room, on a mattress that felt well-used and warm from her body heat. In her hand, she gripped something small and cold, which she turned in her hand until she discerned that it must have been a ring of some kind.
Someone brushed a curtain aside, flooding the room with Azarath's eternal, sun-less perma-noon. Starfire shielded her eyes with a free hand momentarily while she adjusted to the change in light, hiding the ring that she held tightly in her other hand.
"Hello again," said a woman's voice. It sounded familiar, and Starfire soon knew why. When she looked up at the woman, she locked eyes with the white-cloaked Azarathean who bore a striking resemblance to Raven, the one who Starfire had so feared… until now. The woman's eyes were kind as she asked, "Do you know who I am?"
Starfire nodded, and without much thought replied, "You are the mother of Raven."
The woman smiled a real smile, with real feeling behind it, unlike the vague, emotionless ones given to them by the other Azaratheans. "My name is Arella."
Starfire stared at her for a long while, musing on how similar the daughter really was to the mother.
"May I sit?" Arella asked, gesturing to a space of bed near her feet.
Starfire nodded quickly, shifting to sit cross-legged, so that Arella would have more room. She wasn't quite sure what to say. "I am sorry," she blurted. For so many things, she thought.
Arella smiled again, motherly. "You should not worry. It was not your fault." She reached over, placing a hand atop Starfire's, the one which grasped the gift ring. She clenched her fist in response, and quickly placed her free hand over Arella's. The Azarathean didn't notice, instead taking her free hand with the same, maternal smile. "That was a very brave thing you did, Starfire."
"I do not feel brave," she muttered.
Arella shook her head. "You took much upon yourself for the sake of your friends, even though it pained you to do so." She tilted her head, to gaze into Starfire's sad eyes. "Almost too much, in fact. You were unconscious for quite a while. Your friends were very worried."
"Where are my friends?" the Tamaranean asked, brows furrowing in confusion and concern. She didn't much care about the first few statements while her comrades were in an unknown state.
"They are resting uneasily, I imagine." Arella gave Starfire's hand a comforting squeeze. "I will take you to see them in a little while. First, we must discuss a few things…"
Starfire pulled her hands away from the Azarathean, a dubious look in her emerald eyes. "Such as?"
"Back in that room… You absorbed the emotion of your friends," Arella explained. "Their anger and their fear. You took it away into yourself, and then you released it into the ether." Starfire's expression turned to shock, though Arella remained cool. "You have never done so before?"
"No! I am not the one who… I cannot!" Starfire stammered, "Raven! She-…!"
Arella quietly studied the gilded Tamaranean's face. "I see."
"I am sorry," Starfire said, quickly.
"There is no need to apologize. When we first laid eyes on you, we knew that Raven was already gone." Arella stood, smoothing out the wrinkles in her robe. She didn't make eye contact, instead choosing to stare at the floor. "Raven would never have done such a thing if she did not think it were necessary."
Starfire had the sudden feeling that the discussion had nothing to do with their arrival in Azarath.
"I… I do not understand…"
Arella turned and regarded Starfire with a sad smile. "I am glad that my Raven had friends as incredible as you."
Starfire felt heat burning in her cheeks and salt pricking at the backs of her eyes. "No!" She lowered her gaze, feeling her insides grow cold. "I am not the friend you think I am… I…" Tears welled up at the thought of what she had done. "I turned her away when she needed me the most…"
"That is not what we witnessed," Arella told her, firmly. "For whatever reason, you bear pieces of Raven within yourself; pieces which have taken root and flourished.
"I have no doubt that she transferred these pieces to you so that you could care for them, as much as you care for those around you. What you carry is the last of Raven, well hidden and deeply guarded from even your own mind. I imagine she intended it as thus, so that Trigon would never find it. How can he, when the soul that holds them is so pure?"
"That is just it!" Starfire shouted, getting to her feet, both fists now clenched. "I am not pure! I am hateful and bitter and I do not deserve to care for her!"
Shaking, Starfire sat down once more. She hung her head, feeling herself unfit to gaze upon the woman in white, a person clearly purer than herself.
"You are not without your own demons," Arella admitted, gently, "But you have the ability to overcome them when the time is right." She placed a hand beneath Starfire's chin, lifting her face so that it could bathe in the golden, radiant light from outside. "I did not witness what happened, but Coman has told me that he saw you perform a ritual that only Raven was capable of doing: taking the unhappiest of emotions and cleansing them, living them for others so that they would not have to suffer."
Starfire let the words sink in, thinking them over carefully. And then things began clicking into place. She knew now why Raven had kissed her. Raven had chosen her, charged her with guarding the most beautiful part of her humanity: her self-sacrifice. Everything that had made Raven, Raven.
And she would not let it go to waste.
She locked gazes with Arella, who looked struck for a moment, before it melted into a teary-eyed smile. "My daughter," she whispered.
Arella knelt, taking a frozen Starfire into her arms and embracing her. The Tamaranean felt an intense and ancient thing take hold of her heart, a feeling as old and as beautiful as the setting sun, a feeling that wrapped her in unconditional warmth. Without much understanding what Arella had seen, Starfire quietly returned the hug.
For the first time, Starfire opened her hand, to peek at the ring there, holding it in the light behind Arella's back. It glistened, small and gold.
With Arella at her side, Starfire walked into the alabaster house where her friends were resting. She was nervous, though she did not know why, and she toyed with the ring, which she had placed on her left pinkie: the only finger that the ring fit. It was much too small for her, clearly a possession of Raven's, dream or not.
They all sat up straight when she entered, calling out in surprise and joy that she was alright. They took turns embracing her, and Starfire had the opportunity to feel just how much they cared for her. Even Hot Spot, whom she barely knew, had a deep and lasting respect for her boldness.
Arella stood silently to one side, not interfering, her smile hidden by the shadows of her white cowl.
"Geez, girl, you had us worried sick," Cyborg laughed, ruffling her hair. "You 'bout gave Rob a heart attack, faintin' like that."
A few of the others snickered, while Robin chuckled and shook his head. "I'm not afraid to admit it. I was just as worried as the rest of you."
"Yeah, and I don't know what you did back there," Cyborg announced, tapping his metal-covered chest, "But I feel amazing."
"For the record, I think you're insane," Hot Spot stated, with a blank and honest look. But then he smiled, and clapped a hand to her shoulder. "Keep it up and I think we might just get out'a this alive."
"I'm inclined to agree," Speedy laughed, though he paused and added, "With the second part. I don't think you're crazy. Well, not crazy crazy, but… good crazy."
Beast Boy, at the moment a small cat, purred raucously and rubbed against her legs. Starfire beamed, finally beginning to feel at ease for the first time since their arrival to this desolate place.
Starfire smiled broadly, gratefully basking in the merry banter and close-knit ties.
"Coman told us why Raven sent us here," Robin said grimly, immediately knocking the smiles from everyone's faces. "He said Trigon's taken over Earth."
"He said a lot of things," Hot Spot spat, his molten skull a tumult of mixed emotion. "A lotta stupid superstition -- more of their cult bull."
Beast Boy, now a puppy, leaned his head against Starfire's shin and made a whining noise. Starfire looked down at him sadly, and her eyes never left his form, though her question was directed at Robin. "What else did he say?"
"Things about Raven," he supplied. "None of it sounded too good."
"Is there nothing we can do?" her voice was quiet, almost a whisper.
"He didn't think so," Robin answered honestly. "He said we'd have to--"
"He's full of crap!" Hot Spot yelled, voice cracking. "I'm not buying into this! You can't just expect me to kill your friend and walk away!"
No one said a thing. Beast Boy let out another whine, pressing closer to Starfire.
After a moment, Cyborg stepped forward. "Hot Spot--"
"No! I'm sick of this place! I'm sick of these people! They don't even act like real people – they don't smile, they don't get mad... They barely blink, for God's sake!" He shoved the bigger teen, or tried, and stumbled backwards. "I tried to be polite, but use your heads! All those people out there, they're just waiting to die. And not just die, but die at the hands of a giant space demon. These people are so far gone, it's not even funny!" He breathed hard for a moment, glowering at the Titans, eyes smoldering with real fire. "What, you can't even look at me now? You know I'm right. If you use your heads, you know I'm right."
"Uhm, H…?" Speedy raised a hand, pointing to something behind Hot Spot.
The fiery Titan raised an eyebrow, and looked behind himself. In the door stood the white-cloaked Coman, and to one side, Arella, still.
"So that is what you think of us," Coman said, eerily composed. "Is this how you repay the kindness of others?" he asked, in a tranquil voice.
"I…" Hot Spot faltered, thrown off by the dulcet, guilting tones. "I…"
"It is almost time," he continued, this time addressing only Arella. "We are gathering at the temple for the ritual."
"Ritual…?" Starfire murmured aloud.
"We will gather and go in peace, as one, when Trigon comes." Arella's expression was emotionless, though Starfire sensed her unwillingness to go.
"Can't you fight him?" Hot Spot questioned, his fists clenched at his sides. "We're here, we can help you!"
Coman looked at the boy curiously, before the expression dissipated back into nothing. "We will not fight Azar's legacy. It is against our creed." He looked upwards, as though requesting strength from a higher power.
"Legacy…?" Starfire asked, brows furrowing.
"It was destined to always be this way from the moment the legacy was born," Coman confirmed with a nod. "It was in the nature of it. Azar foretold of it, and we willingly go to our graves to defend that prophecy. And, though the legacy may have taken our lives, we shall live on in other ways."
It was then that Starfire realized that Coman was talking about Raven.
"How dare you-!" she cried, infuriated by his passivity. "How dare you speak in such a way about my dearest friend-!"
The other Titans looked surprised at her sudden outburst, though it soon registered as to why she had.
Coman looked just the slightest bit taken aback, though he quickly recovered. "I know how you feel, child. At first I, too, saw the injustice in Raven's treatment, but--"
"No! You do not know!" her eyes flashed with emerald fire as all of her pent-up anger began to bubble to the surface. "You speak of her as though she is already dead! How can you possibly know what I feel? You do not even care that she is gone!"
"That is untrue; we loved Raven like she was one of us--"
"She was one of you! She was born among you!"
"Raven was lost to us," Coman's voice had risen in volume, involuntarily swept up in Starfire's passionate tirade. "She has always been so, from the moment of birth--"
"You made her into a pariah!" Starfire screamed, "You separated yourselves so thoroughly that you would not see when she suffered because of it! You are responsible for sending her to her death; it is her blood on your hands, not the other way around!"
"Raven was raised knowing what she was," Coman snapped, his expression agitated, and his posture defensive. "We used no deceit, no trickery. Raven knew what she was, and she willingly adopted our passivity! She wanted to be a better person!"
"Passivity," Starfire spat, practically growling the word, "I said before that you have sent her to her death, but I am wrong. You killed her long ago. You killed her when you forbid her from her own emotions! You dream of the endless peace, of a life without wanton passion! But lives without conflict, without joy, without hate or love or lust are not lives at all! You cannot understand what I feel. You can never understand! You are a people of the distant stars! You pray to a false goddess who preaches only passive silence, and though you may believe that you are doing good, you are no better than Trigon's own!"
"Hold your tongue, girl!" Coman eyes now sparked with anger. "You may not agree with the things we believe, but I cannot allow you to blaspheme our faith!"
"Faith? You speak of faith?" Starfire scoffed, indignant. "Faith requires the passion to believe. Passion which none of you possess! You may have rescued Raven, fed her, raised her, trained her - but you did nothing to protect her! You did not let her feel the good or the bad. You led her to believe that they were one and the same!" Starfire was inches from Coman, staring into his livid grey eyes, his face red from fury. "When she suffered, you did nothing! You are so self-absorbed in your so-called harmony that you did not acknowledge her pain! Your prayers are for only eternal peace! You worship only the silence! You worship cold, unfeeling passivity! YOU WORSHIP DEATH ITSELF!"
"IT IS NEVER ENOUGH!" Without realizing it, Starfire had backed Coman against the wall. He stared at her now with fear in his eyes, and she leaned close to him, and whispered, "You await your martyrdom at the hands of Trigon, but He cannot kill you. You are already dead."
There lapsed a stunned silence as Starfire turned and walked out of the alabaster house. The Teen Titans shared a bewildered glance before hurrying after her.
Arella watched them go. She knew that Starfire had not changed Coman's mind, for he was a very devout man, but she had certainly given him a lot to think about.
Coman slid to the floor, wide-eyed in shock.
The Titans hastened down the road, not speaking for some time.
Hot Spot was the first to break the hush. "Does… does she always do that? Freak out and stick up like that, I mean."
"Yes; not always," Robin chuckled, answering all three questions in turn. "And yeah, pretty much."
"Huh," Hot Spot murmured, with a chuckle. He looked up ahead, to where the golden alien was leading alone, and called, "Hey! Starfire!"
She slowed her gait, and stopped, as though realizing something. She turned to look at him, but did not say a word.
Hot Spot scratched the back of his neck, grinning sheepishly. "Hey, I just, uh. Just wanted to say… I still think you're crazy as all get-out… but you're my kind'a crazy. So… thanks."
The Titans caught up to the Tamaranean, who still stood gazing at their fiery comrade. She tilted her head to one side, like a bird, somewhat confused, but smiled anyway. "You are most welcome, friend Hot Spot."
If Hot Spot blushed, no one could tell for sure, but he chuckled bashfully, and that was good enough. Speedy laughed and cheerfully slapped the boy on the back. Hot Spot immediately regained a sour expression, playfully threatening the archer by shaking his fist. "One of these days, Speed…"
"Are you alright?" Robin asked Starfire, in a low voice.
Starfire nodded slightly. She still was not in the best of ways, not having had the chance to regain any of the sun's energy, and the argument had been mentally exhausting, but she felt better than before now that her mind had begun to find peace.
He smiled one-sidedly. "You're lying," he told her outright, but in a joking tone. "Will you be alright?"
Starfire nodded again, this time more assuredly.
"Good," Robin turned to address the whole team. "We need to leave as soon as possible. Coman mentioned a doorway on the other side of the city…"
As though on cue, there was a dim rumble of thunder.
Beast Boy's ears twitched, and he glanced upwards. His green eyes widened. "Woah…" he murmured, "Talk about your déjà vu."
The sky above them was rapidly becoming covered by thick, black clouds that had appeared from nowhere, created from nothing. They multiplied quickly, filling the sky and blotting out Azarath's unexplained light.
"Great, just what we need. More rain," Hot Spot muttered crossly.
Speedy snickered, jabbing at Hot Spot's shoulder. "I dunno. You could probably use the shower."
"Oh, classy," the fiery Titan grumbled, rolling his eyes. "A you-smell joke. That's real funny."
"Guys--" Robin interrupted, pointing upwards. "I really don't think this is the time to be joking."
Simultaneously, the group looked up, fixating on the eye of the storm as the clouds began to rapidly swirl counterclockwise, picking up speed and creating a violent wind that began to pound against the white marble buildings. From the storm's center there erupted a violent blast of energy, accompanied by a blinding, vermillion light that faded as quickly as it had appeared, followed then by the most horrendous noise any of the Titans had ever heard or would ever hear again. It was a deafening howl, cracking and shrieking, violently grinding against their ears, the sound of the barrier between worlds being torn asunder. It was unlike anything on Earth or Tamaran, a sound so painful and maddening and indescribable that dug so deeply into their minds that they dropped to their knees and tried to block it out.
And then, for a brief moment, all went completely silent.
And then the world began to shake.
Foundations cracked and pillars snapped like twigs as the ground itself heaved towards the sky. The Titans were floored by the power of the quake, unable to do much more than stare at the ground in front of them. It took a full minute before they began to regain their balance, and still the quake showed no signs of weakening.
Cyborg was the first to his feet, being made of stronger stuff than most. "We gotta make a run for it!"
"How d'you expect us to do that, Tin Man," Hot Spot hollered, straining to lift himself from the writhing ground, "when we can't even get up?!"
Cyborg stumbled over to Speedy and Robin, pulling them up by the backs of their costumes, "This is how! Hang on to me when I get to you!" The two boys planted their feet on the ground, instantly off balance again, and each grabbed onto one of Cyborg's shoulders. They followed carefully, mostly hanging off of their taller friend, as he moved to the next disabled Titan.
"No need to worry about me, Cy!" Beast Boy called, zipping around the half-metal teen as a small bird.
"Fantastic," Hot Spot muttered, as Cyborg pulled him off the ground.
Starfire was in the worst shape of all. Though she was physically the strongest of the Teen Titans, she was now far more emotionally vulnerable. She had pressed her ear to the ground, listening as a thousand years of civilization died in collapse and--
"Fire," Starfire whispered, inaudible over the roar of the earth.
Cyborg and the others stumbled over each other when the quake stopped with the force of a racecar hitting a wall, throwing the team ungracefully to the ground.
Hot Spot laughed a little from where he'd tripped and fallen. He pushed himself to his knees, the laugh growing louder. "What, was that it? Was that the space demon's wrath? That's nothing-!"
The eye in the clouds that gazed down over everything on Azarath yawned open, and from it rained a red and evil flame. Then, there came shrieking as something else -- thousands of something -- darted out from that hellish portal. Huge, leathery, worm-like demons swooped down on the poor souls of Azarath, black wings pounding a horrible, irregular beat that filled the air, and belching fire so hot, it could crack stone.
Several of the Titans turned and glared at Hot Spot-- who had stopped laughing altogether-- for speaking too soon, before they scrambled up, tugging each other into motion as they all began heading towards Azarath's dimensional doorway.
Starfire was the last to rise, but she had Robin and Beast Boy pulling at her, forcing her to move with them, though she focused still on the echoes of ancient powers crying out in horror.
"Can't we help those guys-?" Hot Spot asked, pointing back towards the great, majestic Temple of Azarath. "We can probably hold them off if--"
"They beg you to continue," Arella said, quickly catching up to the group from where they'd left her at the alabaster house. "If you linger here much longer, you may not get out alive." Seeing the confusion she'd caused with her appearance, she added, "I am coming with you. Coman has given me his blessing."
Cyborg, alarmed, glanced down at Arella, who seemed to be keeping up moderately well for her apparent age. "Lady, I don't know who you are but--"
"I will explain when we are out of danger!"
"Agreed," Robin stated, his swift steps taking him to the head of the group, leading his teammates with an admirable confidence. Cyborg took up the rear, scanning the sky for the fire-breathing monsters that now flocked among the buildings seeking human prey. Hot Spot and Speedy diverged to either side of their newly formed diamond, keeping Arella, Starfire and Beast Boy within.
Starfire felt useless, sensing the horrifying panic and the paralyzing fear of the Azaratheans on the hill as they fulfilled their prophecy, torn limb from limb and immolated by creatures that were never meant to be seen by the eyes of man. She knew that even if there were some way to stop this slaughter, the Azaratheans would forbid it. They were stuck in their ways, and they had met their foretold end.
Starfire decided then that Raven would not go this way, as her people had. She would make sure of it. Raven did not deserve this fate: she was a kind, gentle, generous person, who deserved life… who deserved happiness.
They were within sight of the doorway. The road led straight to it-- or it had, before the earthquake. Now the road was splintered, stones turned and buried in earth, and made their journey that much harder.
The Titans sprinted around mountainous hills of rubble, springing over obstacles as they charged desperately forward, towards a goal that seemed so far away. They could see the humongous doorway clearly from their distance, a marble marvel with her carvings inlaid with ivory in the shape of a hooded woman, whose face they could not see. She was surrounded on either side by coiling sheaves of wheat, ringlets of flowing water and neauvou birds fleeing into the white sky.
They made it to the door within minutes, throwing themselves against its great doors…
And it refused to budge.
"Is nothing gonna go right today?!" Hot Spot howled, digging his feet into the ground and ramming a shoulder into the unmoving door.
"Are we going the wrong way?" Beast Boy asked, before shifting into the form of a gorilla and attempting to push once more.
Robin glanced at where the hinges should have been and shook his head, "No, this thing opens in. We're going the right way, but--"
"That's it-!" Hot Spot snapped, his fists suddenly engulfed in fire. "I'm blowing this thing to Kingdom Come!"
Beast Boy stumbled clumsily out of the way, swiftly switching to a rabbit form, while the others dove for cover.
Hot Spot let out a fierce battle cry as he loosed a heavy blast, which hit the door and flowed up along its face, crawled up the cliff face, before dispersing violently into the air. When the smoke cleared, Hot Spot cursed. The door, though it appeared to be scorched, was quite whole.
Speedy levered himself up and turned to frown at the fiery Titan. "Do that again. I think there are a few monsters on the other side of the dimension that didn't quite see it the first time."
Hot Spot turned when he heard the transforming ka-chink of Cyborg's decibel cannon. He saw that the teen-machine, Robin and Speedy had all readied their weapons, and were looking towards the sky. He saw the shadows of dark things on darker wings flying directly towards them, sweeping across the field, spewing fire from open maws. He then looked sharply at Arella, "You-! You live here, so how do we get this thing open?"
"The Doorway to the Unknown?" she repeated, looking surprised. "It requires--"
"Great!" Hot Spot snarled, pitching forward as he hurled a fireball into the deformed snout of the leading monster. "Whatever it is, do it!"
Arella turned to Starfire, who seemed to be readying herself for battle, as well. She took the Tamaranean's golden hand, nodding towards the doorway. The alien furrowed her brows curiously and followed.
The screech of the decibel cannon, the hiss of arrows, the crackle of ice and fire mingled in a cacophony of sounds, a backdrop of decisive and deadly motion on a burning battlefield in a place that had once represented eternal peace. Starfire stared up at the mighty door, feeling dwarfed by its significance. Behind it, she knew, there lay a winding pathway through the gaps between the stars, though how she knew this, she wasn't sure. She placed her hands upon the door…
There was a cry from Robin, one of surprise and pain that made Starfire round on the battle like a mother bear. In the midst of the Titans, there had landed a giant, demonic beast, with horns like a bull and the maw of a spider. It flailed about on six legs, one of its wings frozen and the other shredded. Its tail whipped about furiously, lashing out with a sharp stinger and belching fire wherever it could. Robin lay some feet away, clutching his side. He rolled out of the way, barely avoiding being incinerated, and rose after catching his breath. By then, Cyborg and Hot Spot had already put the demon down.
"Show 'em what you're made of, Rob!" Cyborg called, over the roaring dissonance around them. The Boy Wonder moved swiftly, as several of the hoard began also dropping from the sky to attack them by land, while the others dived to claw and snap at the swamped Titans. Robin vaulted onto the nearest demon's head and ran along its spine, dropping small thermal bombs as he went. As soon as he launched himself from the creature's thrashing tail, to swing promptly onto another unwitting creature's back, the bombs went off, one by one, killing the monster almost instantaneously. Cyborg then took the dead demon by its tail and threw it into the oncoming ground force, slowing them down while Speedy and Hot Spot hurriedly tried to pick away at the ones in the sky.
No matter how many they sent packing, more swooped in to take their place, and it was quickly becoming a losing battle. Starfire began to move forward, to aid her friends, but Arella put her hands on her shoulders. "You must help me open the door!"
Torn, Starfire turned back to place hands on the cold marble. "How do I-?"
"Focus on where you want to go!"
Starfire closed her eyes, picturing Earth, ever spinning, ever changing, and her home away from home. She imagined Azarath's improbable path extending its infinite reach to the Titans' little blue planet, straight down into the Tower, where no doubt Raven was waiting anxiously for them to return. She would scold them, perhaps, and tell them they were all brainless for having left without her, and then Starfire would happily tell her of the things they had seen. She would take Arella with her, watch mother and daughter reunite, and it would be such a joyous occasion… There would be pudding, of course, and music and friends and joking and they would never be apart again…
A soft click came from behind the door, or from within, and it cracked open just slightly. Starfire stared at it, and smiled broadly. She turned to tell her friends, to call them to her, and--
And Robin hit the ground in front of her, crumpled and motionless.
This is the way the world ends.
Cyborg cried out in alarm, knocked backwards into the cliff face by an immense clawed hand, one of his shoulders gouged open, showing the sparking circuits beneath. Speedy was on the ground, writhing from a strike that had hit him in the back, while a beast stood over him, ready to take off his head in a single bite. Beast Boy tumbled along the ground, winded, his triceratops form thrown from a duel of horns. Hot Spot swore ferociously, wildly flinging fire in all directions, surrounded by monsters that were wary of approaching, but growing bolder by the second.
This is the way the world ends.
Then the ground began to shake, harder than ever as the entire world began to break apart, though now the terrain made no roar but was utterly silent. The city in the distance crumbled absolutely, and the ground began to fall away and dissolve into empty space, with no sound to mourn its passing.
This is the way the world ends.
And something deep inside of Starfire's chest snapped.
And she began to glow very brightly green. A force the color of her Starbolts, it lifted itself from her body and took the form of a great bird, towering over her and her companions, as tall as the Doorway to the Unknown and beating with the same ancient power.
It separated itself from her, and she dropped to her knees, staring into the distance with vacant eyes -- eyes without irises or pupils, glowing only emerald green. Arella rushed to her side, holding her upright before she collapsed.
The familiar spread its shining wings, sweeping across Starfire's fellow teammates and covering them in brilliant light. With a horrible screech, the demons protested, stumbling away from the light in confusion. The entity then returned to Starfire, hovering above her, and from it, a barrier began growing, establishing a spherical perimeter between the Titans and the demons, keeping the evil creatures at bay. Even while the rest of the ground and the mountain behind them crumbled away into nothing, the land covered by the barrier and the door remained, floating. The demons took to the skies once more when there was no longer earth to stand on, circling the barrier with bitter howls.
The light faded from the others once they were safe, though the barrier remained. Cyborg rubbed his head, looking astounded by Starfire's display. Arella waved to get his attention, and pointed towards the doorway. "Get the others and go! Her soul-self cannot remain out of her body for long!"
Hot Spot rushed to Speedy, helping him to his feet. Beast Boy went to Robin as an orangutan, and lifted him carefully into his arms. With a last, apprehensive look at Starfire, they went through the doorway. When they had gone, Arella hooked one of Starfire's arms about her shoulders and lifted. The alien was not light, but Arella managed to pull her through the door, which Cyborg shut behind them.
Without anything more to torment, the demons returned to the portal, which closed like an eye, in a lick of flame, with soft sigh of black smoke.
Without anything more to defend against, the barrier shrank back into the avian-shaped entity, and the soul-self slipped under the door, returning to Starfire's body. She remained limp, seemingly unconscious. Cyborg took her in his arms, relieving Arella of her burden, with a sad look on his face. "Makes a lott'a sense, actually."
Her eyes fluttered open, and it was a relief to see her emerald irises once more. She gazed into Cyborg's face, vacant and dazed; she said something, which he didn't catch at first, until she said it again, and again, and again, as though she were still coming to terms with the significance of it, a thing she hadn't understood until now… a thing of which they all had been warned. And she said, in a hoarse and fearful voice, "Not with a bang but a whimper."
A/N: To be continued.
You're going to have to give me a bit for the final chapter. Not for lack of trying, mind you, but man, this thing is so freakin' epic that it is practically a saga. We'll see, though. ;) I won't forget you.
Also, just so you know, I encourage you to post your thoughts, guesses, arguments, questions, or overall attitude in your Reviews. In short, please review. This chapter was two years in the making, so I'd really like to know if it stood up to your undoubtedly towering standards. Wild speculation and flames are also welcome! I am positively curious.
FINALLY, if you'd like to correct my Babel-Fish French, I would gladly (and immediately) fix it. Assuming it is bad. I would not know as, alas, I was schooled in the dead language of Latin.