In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
When the stars
threw down their spears
And watered Heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who make the lamb make thee?
-William Blake, The Tyger
"You'll love it here, I know it!" The green boy shouted to the worn girl. She stared up at the massive tower, and in her heart felt a slight warmth. Even if this place was only a shelter, the friends she would gain remained with her. Tera walked in, and the other Titans followed. Raven, of course, remained the last, the end. Then, it came. A flash. Flame. Darkness. Could it be him? No. It was gone. The terror of origins left her. She cast a last furtive glance to the sun, as if to make sure it still shined and the earth rested beneath her feet. Not yet, she told herself. Not today.
Oh, innocence. If she only knew what had just awakened, and how it would shift the course of destiny in so many ways, a part of Raven would have screamed, a part would have laughed. For with the coming of Tera came a shift in the balance. The blonde girl herself was an elemental anomaly, shifting the power of earth out of proportion. And so, in her tread was the waking of fire.
He woke. Long had he slept. Years ago he had crawled away to his deserted cave beneath what was then a lone island. He locked himself away so that the age of mortals might pass, and, he could avoid the further stupidity of mankind. He had no particular hatred of the race of men, it was just that every once in a great while he found that humanity just got too stupid for even him to bear and that he preferred sleeping off the current generation. But none the less, he woke. Something had caused an imbalance. A creature of fire, awakened by a proxy of earth. "Ughh, what year is it?" He said to nothing in particular. He couldn't see. It was pitch black in his shelter. He tried lighting a flame in his talons. It went out. Being a creature of fire had its perks, like unimaginable power, but it had the downside of requiring the other elements to work. For starts, water of course could not get fire wet, air was needed to light the flame, and earth needed to provide fuel as either minerals or wood. He groped around the walls. Years ago he had clawed a tunnel out of the earth, a tunnel that led to the surface. He found some rocks blocking the former route. He cursed, in Abyssal. For those of you who have no idea what Abyssal sounds like, imagine this. The being that created all languages stubbed his toe on the door of the universe, kicked it, and then in further agony repeated all the words he had previously stated for the rest of the universe. In short, it sounded like every word was a curse upon anything and everything that had ever existed. He looked at his claws. They grew twice their length and glowed flaming orange. "All right then! If the tunnel's blocked up, we'll make a new one! Come on, you piece of scrap! Start working! I don't care how long it takes, I want to feel air again!" Tittering and clawing were heard coming from the back of the cave. He shouted a defiant cry at the rock, and the assault began.
Raven stood on the shore. Time had passed. Tera had come and gone. Challenges overcome and such. She remembered her first year with the Titans. When it was done, she felt so proud, so afraid, so amazed. Now, she lived for these serene moments in a sea of hectic events. It was her birthday. And it had been the best yet. Everyone else had left for one reason or another. There had been no omens, no premonitions, no warnings or apocalyptic revelations. And best of all, it was beginning to rain. She stared at the sea, felt the wind in her hair, and sighed. All. Was. Perfect. She walked back to the tower. The calm was well, it was whole. Then, HE came. She heard it before she saw it. A crack in the earth. She turned around in fear, and nearly screamed. A hand emerged from the ground. But this hand was freakish, wrong, in a word, demonic. It was rough and large as it clawed at the ground. Where fingers should have ended, this hand's digits extended further, lacking fingernails and becoming blood red. Another hand of similar form pulled itself out of the ground, but what followed, was a horror.
The hands were attached to long arms, hidden in the sleeves of a robe the color of the being's fingers. As it crawled out, the rest of the form stood up and revealed its glory. The sleeves were part of a greater robe, which covered the body of the being. The robe itself bore six black rib-like insignia towards the chest, and collar covered a thick neck. But the head of the thing was what was shocking. The head's shape itself was stout and tough. Pointed ears grew from the sides, each one bearing an earring that glowed faintly with magical energy. The mouth was open from the creature gasping at the new world it had resurrected itself into. Raven could see that the monster bore pointed, uneven, jagged teeth for canines. Every now and then, a glance at a thick red tongue that tasted the air like a snake occurred. The aberration had no lips, only two bulges of muscle around its mouth that served the same purpose. There was no nose either, just two slits in the face like a snake. Something grew from its head. Orange curving spikes, for lack of a better word, protruded from the scalp. There were 36, exactly, with large ones in the middle while smaller ones bordered them. Whether they were hair or horns was not evident, and Raven did not care. But it was its eyes that shocked her. The creature's eyes glowed like orange fire in a black orb, with only an ebony line to distinguish an iris. It spoke. It was an all at once rough, jovial, angry, and baritone voice. "Aww, great. Rain. I finally see the light of day and it's raining. Peachy. Oh, and look, ocean. Just what I needed; more water. And what is this city?! When I last saw this place it was barely a town with a well! And the well was a work in progress." He appeared to be yelling at himself, as nothing pursued him out of the gaping hole in the ground. Just then, he noticed the huge T-shaped tower behind him. "The people of this age have grown lazier. If they were going to build a cross to try and bind me to this rock, they could have at least finished it."
Then, he saw her. He laid both his fiery eyes on her, and bellowed, "Tell me, pathetic one, what year is this?" Raven struck. She shot a ball of shadow energy at him. All he did was step aside, and then slowly walk forward. She could hear clatter on the stone, no doubt from cloven hooves. She mustered as much courage as she could, and screamed, "Be gone, foul premonition!" A part of her was proud that she had even been able to find a voice, although the rest of her was saying, quite bluntly, 'run idiot'. He stopped, and stared at her with a puzzled look. "Premonition? What in the Abyss are you talking about? I don't know who you are, and personally I don't care. All I know is that you are a human, although I presume a unique one since only somebody of quality would ever be able to master shadow-dancing at such a young age, or be able to get away with wearing those scanty rags as an outfit.", he snarled with a bit of distaste. Rags?! She might not have been into that entire 'girl' thing like Starfire was, but still, some fashion sense had gone into her wardrobe, even if it was the same monotonous tunic and cloak day after day. She cast another orb of shadow at the demon. And once again he stepped aside. "Enough of that then." he said. He began to mutter in a dark language, and a shimmering orb enveloped her. She felt all magic begin to halt in her. She tried producing more shadow in her hand, but it fizzled away. Now the only option was to meet the demon in melee combat, or run. Running seemed the better option, as she was barely over five feet tall, and he was barely under eight. She made for the door. "Oh no you don't!" he shouted. Flames erupted from the ground, blocking the doorway. They were hot, miserably hot, and yet, a part of her felt comfortable. She preferred not to dwell on that part, or why she knew the flames like a child remembers a lullaby from its parent. No, not today, especially not this day.
"Now, it is time for the introductions! State your name." Raven had almost forgotten about the demon closing in on her, so entranced by the flames was she. "State it!" He yelled. She looked defiantly at him in the eyes, knowing this might very well be her last stand, her last words, the moment that would define her, and said "I am Raven, and this is my-"
"Alright, shut up, just, shut up. I've killed enough creatures over the years to know this monologue. Your gonna tell me this is your home, and you're going to stop me, and you're going to make a triumphant last stand. People who make these speeches generally have had rather weak lives or else they wouldn't have to put all their being into these pathetic requiems. That tells me everything I need to know. You haven't led a full life. You haven't felt all there is to feel and do everything you wanted to. You're going to make this your end. Look, all I really needed to know was your name, so I would at least know who the first person my claws will taste is. But I suppose you want to know who I am? I am for now and always, the indomitable Kreskarius Voneitz Donex Morrell Sho Matriaz Rex the Tyger! But since you mortals seem to die at the drop of a hat, you can shorten it to Kresk! I am the Fire Demon Lord of a Thousand and One Faces and Tricks, and Jester to the grand court of the Abyss and all it's demon lords, princes, Demiurge, and gods! Know my name and tremble!"
"Why am I killing you, you may ask? Because, I hate humans, I hate the weak, and you appear to be both! Make peace with whatever god it is you worship human! Prepare to feel the claws of Kresk!" He screamed a bone chilling war cry and charged at Raven. His claws were now the size of steak knives, orange, and grew jagged spikes around the base. They were poised for killing. This was the end it appeared. She was a little relieved; this might avert an apocalypse, or speed it up. Either way, she realized, she would be dead and it didn't matter. He drew closer, still running like an avalanche down a mountain. She closed her eyes; she did not want to give Kresk the satisfaction of seeing fear in them. And even now she heard the fiend coming, closer and closer. Then the demon stopped. His claws were nearly on her face. She had closed her eyes, but she heard the distinct sound of sniffing. She opened her eyes. Kresk's slotted nostrils were opening and closing, and he lowered his claws.
He stared grimly at her. "No. Not you. Not today." He lowered the flames behind her, and stepped inside. He examined the antechamber, and then saw what he was looking for. A blank wall, perfectly empty, perfectly large. He whistled, and Raven heard scuttling coming from the pit from which Kresk emerged. A golden bird-like claw emerged, then another. Both were attached to long avian legs, but they both met at an arch that bore a donkey's ears and owl's eyes to the side. Two bat-like wings as long as the legs were attached to the arch's back, and they to had talons on them. The arch scuttled inside. It spread its wings above it's head and stood adjacent to the wall. Like a piece in a puzzle, it attached itself to the wall, and a swirling vortex emerged inside the arch. Kresk walked forward, but stopped when he came to Raven. Quickly, he cut the palm of her hand, just enough to form a scar and make her hand bleed. She stared angrily at him, and he stared maliciously back, then said, "One day, you will come seeking strength. One day, you will come seeking power. One day, you will come seeking answers. And when that day comes, I will be waiting." He laughed in the oh-so stereotypical laugh of demented madmen and walked through the arch. The portal disappeared, and the wall surrounding the arch seemed to melt and cover it up.
Raven went upstairs. She washed her hand, and hoped no one would notice the scar. The others would be back soon. She was going to bed early. She took off her cloak and lay down. Perhaps this was all a dream. Yes, of course, a dream. When she woke up next, the scar would be gone with the demon, and she could forget this. She slept, in dreams of fire and claw. She woke in a sweat. She went to get some water. No one else was awake yet. It had all been a dream. Then, the burning began. She looked at her hand, and nearly cried. The scar was there, leering like the Fire Demon downstairs. And his voice rang in her head. "One day, you will come seeking answers. And when that day comes, I will be waiting."
"Come out and dance with me. Dance with me in the light of the golden moon. And together we shall become acquainted with the night.
Failure. Raven sat in her room and tried to meditate, but her recent loss made it difficult to focus. How could she be so weak? Not even half way through the fight and she blacked out. All because her powers weren't sufficient. The rest of the team told her that these things happened, not to worry, it happens to everybody. But Raven wasn't everybody. She was supposed to be strong, and she had failed. One last time she tried to meditate. Almost, almost. But the memory came back. She felt the calm slip loose. A statuette flew across the room and hit the wall. She couldn't take much more. If only she could have better control, if only she was more able, if only she was stronger. She startled herself. She tried not to say she could be stronger, tried to forget what the fire demon had said to her.
Sometimes she saw him. It was evident she was the only one who saw him. He would be standing out on the shore, smoking a cigar and breathing out a thick black smoke that seemed to form faces and hands. She would try to meditate one last time. Patience. Calm. Serenity. Than the memory of the fight came again. This time a whole bookshelf nearly collapsed. Enough was enough. She picked up a book off the shelf and tried to flip through it and keep her mind busy. She failed miserably. Could strength really be that bad? Would it be such a problem to go talk to Kresk? A little help couldn't hurt. It was settled. She couldn't live knowing she was this weak. She would just go ask for a little help. Just a little. After all, how bad could it be? Of course the irony was that the book she had picked off the shelf, was Faustus. Common sense would dictate against this meeting with the hated creature, but Raven, especially when she was distressed, was anything but common.
Raven stood in the antechamber of the tower. Somewhere, the arch was around here. Now it was a matter of finding it. At first she tried to merely examine the wall. When that failed she tried the simpler trick of feeling the wall. Once again, to no avail. Finally, she sat down in one of the chairs. Why was she even down here? Was it really worth- the walls began to melt where the arch was, and slowly the entrance made itself evident. There was a door instead of a portal this time. She walked up to it. She began to knock, but withdrew her hand. Then she finally found the courage to tap lightly, three times. No sooner had the third rap been completed than the door opened. There stood Kresk, the Fire Demon in all his deformed splendor. He smiled a crooked and toothy grin. "I knew you'd come. They all come. None can resist the power that I offer." Raven looked at him sternly, "I'm just here for a little practice. You can help me or I can leave. I didn't have to come here you know." Kresk feigned the remark as a personal blow, "Oh of course not. But by all means leave. Personally I could care less whether you die or not, but it would be a waste of such potential. I do have one rule though; I insist you leave those old notions of right and wrong at the door." Raven stepped into the hall which the door led to, and Kresk couldn't help but add, "Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly." The door shut itself. The hallway itself was plain. But at the end off the hallway stood a single, huge podium. On top of the podium was a book. And seated behind the podium was a chimera out of dream. What looked like a cross between a pig and a gorilla sat, or stooped, behind the desk. Its apelike body was crowned with a porcine head, and it bore cloven hooves over feet. To add the to the anatomical insanity, a rat like tail and bird wings were thrown into the mix. Kresk shouted something in an odd, violent sounding language (Abyssal) to the monster. The creature replied. It stare down at Raven. Kresk passed through the next door, and the demon said to Raven, in perfect English, "You don't what your in for." Bearing the cryptic warning, she followed Kresk to the next room. And what a room it was.
Red, plush carpeting covered the floor, except around the edges where it was replaced by marble. A shallow, rectangular pit in the center of the room had a single long bench on the inside edges, and steps leading into the pit. Pillars upheld the roof that supported a skeletal chandelier. The pillar were carved to resemble snakes, but the tops bore women with snarling expressions and six arms, each one holding an exotic implement of destruction. The walls were all lined with tapestries and paintings depicting various scenes of horror and destruction. Two doors led to separate hallways, but the main focus was the third, center door, across from the pit. Above it there was a final tapestry depicting a hand like Kresk's with his eye in it. He walked through yet another door, and called, "Keep up! How do you expect me to teach you anything if you stand there staring like an idiot!? Move along. I might live forever, but I still value my time." She ran after him into the next door. This room was dull, save for a large basin. The bowl was filled with a mustard colored ooze. On another wall behind it was a small shelf. Kresk spoke to the ooze, "Janys! Janys! Wake up! I need you to cancel my five o'clock today. I'm going to be busy." The ooze shifted. A lump grew and developed two green orbs to serve as eyes. It spoke, in a moist, old, tired voice. "Cancel them yourself. I work on my beauty sleep for four decades and I'm still living snot. I need more time." Kresk, annoyed, said, "Just cancel them Janys. I don't pay you to sleep all day." The ooze realized that Raven was staring at it. It looked at her, and said, "What are you looking at, weirdo?" The ooze melted back down into its bowl, and Raven followed Kresk into the final chamber.
The final chamber was small, but grand. The carpets were still red plush, and the room was still rectangular. At one end of the room, opposite the door, a grand desk sat, it's surface covered by papers, inks, pictures, and an appointment book. Behind it a bookshelf sat, bearing old tomes and grimoires to describe subjects dark and foul. The right wall bore a large portrait of a group of demons, ranging in shape and size from a lowly maggot-like creature with a human's face to a towering monstrosity made of flame and darkness. All along the walls weapons and armor of antiquity were displayed, from axes to swords to shields. Kresk sat down behind the desk and scribbled in the appointment book. Raven went over to a particularly grotesque shield on the wall and almost touched when Kresk, without looking up, barked "Don't...touch...anything. Especially that shield. It contains the hungry soul of a famine spirit, and if its mouth gets a hold of you I won't pull you out. Now, you have come to me seeking power." Raven drew away from the shield and replied miftly, "Look, all I want is something to help me. I don't plan on coming here regularly." Kresk chuckled, "Oh, they all say that. Than they get a taste of real power and become hungry for more. Like a drug. And like a drug this will probably consume and destroy you. But unlike such deplorable and voluntary weaknesses, it is completely free and you might, if you survive, come out for the better."
"Let me state some basic facts that you must always remember while in my house. You are a scion of justice, of good, of order and righteousness. I stand against everything you hold dear. I am a demon, a tanar'ri. My race has existed for millions of years as the avatars of pure evil and raw chaos. We are the unclean shadows that define the light. But contrary to what fairy tales tell you, we win most of the time. And contrary to what anyone tells you, we hold the most power, in its basest and darkest form. Unlike our eternal foes the baatezu, also known as devils, we live a life unrestrained while they slave and scheme away in the Nine Hells of Baator. Unlike the daemons, or yugoloths, who dwell in Gehenna, we live by no one's orders except those who prove they are powerful enough to giver orders, and we do not sell our dignity like it is a price. We are, in short, the nightmare and the flame, the monster and the killer. We dwell upon the Infinite Abyss, a place as cruel and horrible as we are. And it contains secrets that would drive a puny mortal like you insane. We are ruled by the demon hierarchy; demon lords, demon princes, and Demiurge, beings so powerful gods tremble at their names."
"I am the Grand Jester of the Abyss. Whenever the demonic nobility feels the need to laugh, or to cry, or to sing, I provide them with entertainment. In other words, whenever they want to feel 'human'. I earn favors from them, and in turn they gain favors from me. And now you have come, a lone mortal seeking the power of darkness. I don't care for what you need it. But I'm going to teach you, teach you things to make your head spin, teach you things that no amount of training any mortal can provide, teach you things that would make you tremble if you knew their full power." Raven seemed a bit shocked, and her better conscience got through, " I don't think this is right for me. I'm leaving."
"Going so soon? All right, if failure is how want to spend your life, by all means go." He innocently looked up at the ceiling, just appearing to watch a fly and not notice how deep he had struck. She turned around on her heel and walked towards him. She looked up to him in the eye, and said, "What? You don't think I can learn?"
"Oh, I know for a fact you can't learn. You're weak. But I supposed should just let you go so you can prove to nature that you aren't destined for greatness and are only fit to die in some manner and fuel the natural process."
"All right then, fine, I will try. And I'll prove that I can learn.", she practically yelled, letting her true temper glow for a moment. He smiled a crooked grin, "That's just what I wanted to hear. We'll start with melee combat. Follow me to the Slaughter Grounds."
"What in the Abyss was that supposed to be?!" Kresk was at breaking point. He had led Raven to one of the side rooms she had seen earlier. It was built like a small arena, with a fighting are in the middle and benches to the side. They had been practicing combat for a while now, and Kresk was starting to lose patience. "Why in the god's name are you holding back?! I know that's not all you can do! Come on! Hit me with your best shot!" Raven glared at him, "I have to keep control of my emotions. If they get out of control-" "If they get out of control," Kresk mockingly imitated, "then what? Some of the tacky junk lying around this place gets broken? Come on! I have enough money to replace anything here five times over. Now, hit me, if you can!" Kresk lunged with his claws. Raven dodged and threw a ball of shadow energy at him. It hit, but it might as well have been a ball of tissue for all the good it did. He shot a fireball. It nearly hit her in the head, but she blocked with a shield. Raven let a barrage of shadow balls go, and they seemed to slow him down enough for her to pop in a question.
"When does the actual learning begin?"
"You fool! This is the learning! I could teach you new abilities, but for you to move on you must first master your current powers." He lunged another claw at her as she was about to release more shadow energy. He gripped her hand in his iron vice. It seemed so small compared to his, and he knew he could break it like an egg if he wanted to. He gritted his teeth, and stared at her, "Why do you hold back? There is a flame of rage in you that could consume the world if you used it. Make it your fuel! Hit me!" She broke loose of him. She had had enough for one day. Enough really was enough, especially from a lowly creature like him, "I'm leaving. I don't have to take this, much less from you. I knew coming here was a bad idea."
"So that's it? Your giving up? Huh. I wouldn't have taken you to be a lying freak at first, yet here I am." She stopped on her way to the door.
"Oh, you heard that. What ever happened to 'I will learn, you'll see.'? Well a liar I can stand, but the freak-"
"What did you call me?", she growled through gritted teeth. "You heard me. You're a freak, an abnormality, and a miscreant. Nothing loves you, you're bound to die alone. Let's just be honest; it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if you never left wherever you came from. And you'll never learn anything. How do you expect me to teach-" Kresk felt the shadow behind him. She was rushing, running, not flying, at him, covered in black flames. There was murder in her eyes, and fury in her breath. He rushed forward to meet her in combat. He started to raise his claws, but he barely had a chance. Raven hit him on the jaw with an impossible strength, and felt the sweet sensation of bone crunching. Kresk stood there, dazed, for a moment. This time she hit him on the side of the head. His eye stopped working for a moment, and she could feel her shadow claws rip out part of his ear. Another blow to the other side of the head blinded him completely. She hit him with a flurry of blows, until at last, she gave a final punch in the stomach. He collapsed to the ground, his arms barely having the strength to support himself.
Raven stood there, panting. She suddenly realized what she had done, and slowly but surely backed away. Kresk started to laugh. " That' a girl. You learned something after all. That's what I was looking for." With his one good eye, he stared at her, "You've got some serious anger issues kid. You're gonna fit in great around here."
"NO! I'm not staying! I don't... I don't want to be this!" she yelled. "That's too bad. You are what you are. Come on. We're all having a party down here in the pit. Come on and join us." He extended a hand, but in doing so weakened his support and fell flat on his face. "Could, you maybe turn me over before you leave? Hello? Hello?" Raven had already left, and Kresk felt the emptiness of the room. "Ah great."
Raven ran to her room. She sat there in front of the door and held her head in her hands. She was scared. Not for all the bad things she felt, but for all the good. How good it felt to fell the crunch of bone, to feel warm blood trickle down her hand, to let everything go and become a whirlwind of fury, taking pointless, violent revenge. But the most terrifying thing of all was the voice in her head. A voice that she hated to hear, that she dreaded hearing. It whispered, in a harsh, dreadful voice full of glee, "That's my girl. Make me proud." Raven went over to her bed and picked up Faustus again. Forgetting was pointless now. It was time to move on and accept the reality. She had embraced the demon for a moment; and it felt right.