Disclaimer: I do not own the Teen Titans. I may own them tomorrow, but I do not own them today.
Author's Note: Hello again.
I'm sure such few of you who even remember this tale will be rather astonished to find me yet among the living. There have been times in the last year or so that I was astonished myself at the same thing. And yet, here I am, and here we are, at the dawn of a new year, with a new chapter ready at long last for your perusal. I know it has been eons since I last posted, and for that I am sorry, but this chapter consumed an enormous amount of time, and I can only hope and pray that I somehow got it right. The agony that this chapter induced as I attempted to write it was unparalleled, and yet ultimately, I can only hope it was to its benefit, though I am sure I will find out sooner or later whether or not that was the case.
For those who waited patiently for this story to continue, I can only deeply apologize for the length of time it took, and yet ultimately, looking back, I do not think I could have gotten it done sooner. The blocks that afflicted it were many and varied and took immense time to break through, and the drafts I wrote and set aside look terrible now when I go back and read them over. I do not and have never claimed to be any font of quality work, but I hope, at least, that the chapter below is the better for the struggles I had with it, and that you all will find something within it to enjoy. As always, I will not know if my efforts have met with success or failure unless you inform me of it via a review, but after the time I took to produce this chapter, I do not believe I have the right to demand anything from those who choose to invest their time with me. All I hope is that you like some of what I have placed below, and if that is so, then it is thanks enough for me. The privilege of having someone read my work is and has always been an honor.
And finally, as some long-time readers may notice, this story now has, of all things, cover-art, courtesy of a certain Scriptor Sapiens, whom I shall remain indebted to for a long, long time. My own artistic skills are nonexistent, and yet he produced an amazing piece of work, which I have managed at length to append to this story. All credit both to idea and execution is due to him, and I cannot possibly thank or praise him enough for going out of his way to produce something like this. If there is some possibility for me to repay this favor in the future, I only hope I encounter it.
In any event, thank you so much, all those of you who come this far, and may you find success in every endeavor.
Chapter 38: The Instruments of Fury
"It is better to avenge a friend than to mourn for him."
She wasn't sure if it was supposed to hurt more, and not knowing scared her more than anything.
There were no fires anymore, no smoke, not even any ash. The air was clear save for a haze creeping in from the edges of perception, the ground devoid of anything left to burn. The winds were still warm, still tinged with the scent of sulfur, but no longer choking. The pollutants that were previously omnipresent had been violently blasted away along with everything else, leaving her alone in a sterile desert, with nothing but the whistling wind to keep her company.
It was some time before she saw the lights reappear.
Red lights, searchlights in the darkness, cutting through the thin air in two broad beams, sweeping across the ruins before finding her and the car she was stapled to. There they sat, blinding her to all else, and she heard the crunch of footsteps on the obsidian glass that surrounded her small patch of asphalt, as a blurry shadow emerged from the mountain of indiscriminate rubble in front of her.
She knew who it was of course, but this place had more tricks and illusions than a carnival funhouse, and so hearing his voice was a relief regardless. She lowered her hand to her side as he approached, closing until she could see his face, covered with the same mix of soot, coal dust, discolored blood, and volcanic ash that coated her. She knew his skin had been turned a sickly grey by whatever Trigon had done to him, but there was little of that still visible, and the only thing left to distinguish the two of them was his eyes, still glowing red like hot coals in a furnace.
That and the rebar.
"Terra, are you - " He stopped himself from asking a manifestly stupid question, but she answered it regardless, biting back a groan as she nodded curtly. The steel rebar, driven through her stomach like a railroad spike and pinning her to the wrecked car behind did not move a millimeter, not even when she fidgeted to try and shift her weight. She felt a jolt, not of pain, but of somethingas she tried to move, and elected not to try further.
"I'm... I'm okay," she managed to say, lifting her eyes. "Devastator?"
There was a brief flash of something in David's eyes, but the red light pouring from them prevented her from identifying what it was. "He's dead," he said.
One of the knots in Terra's gut loosened, but she said nothing. In a situation this weird, she wasn't sure what to say. As David seemed disinclined to venture a comment of his own, she switched tracks.
"What?" asked David, distractedly. Then, perceiving the answer to his own question, he continued. "Oh," he said. "That... um... it was frozen atmospheric - "
"No," said Terra, "no, I... know what it was. But... how did you do it?"
David's eyes darted to the ground. It was all the more obvious when they were crimson searchlights. "I..." he stammered. "I'm not... I don't really know how."
Terra watched him for a moment. "Yeah, you do," she said.
He didn't answer, crouching down instead before her, his hand opening and closing as though unsure if he should venture to touch the spike of black iron that was driven through her stomach. "It doesn't matter," he said. "We've gotta get out of - "
He touched the end of the iron bar, and a jolt of pain like a live wire shot through Terra's midsection with such intensity that she nearly screamed. A strangled yelp escaped her throat as she tensed up, and it was several moments before she could let air slip in and out of her lungs once more without howling in agony. When she finally forced her eyes open again, she saw that David had scrambled back several feet in horror at what he had just triggered.
"I - I'm sorry!" he blurted out, red eyes wide with fear and surprise. "I didn't - "
"It's... it's okay..." she managed to say, taking control of her breathing once more and slowly forcing the fire out of her lungs. "I'll... just... please don't touch that."
"I won't," said David quickly, as he carefully approached once again, stopping out of arm's reach this time. "But... we've gotta get out of here. Every demon in a hundred miles must have seen that explosion."
Likely enough he was understating it, but that hardly changed things. She looked down at the ugly spear of black iron pinning her to the car. "I don't... I don't think I'm going anywhere," she said, in a voice that sounded oddly flat, even to her ears.
David leaned forward, looking down at the rebar, visibly searching for the right solution in his head. "I - I know it hurts," he said, "but... if we pull it out of you, then I can - "
"No!" yelped Terra before she could stop herself, causing David to jump once more. "No," she repeated more calmly. "I'd bleed to death..."
The rebar sticking out of her stomach was ringed in red blood, a trickle of which was running down her stomach to her waistband, and thence to the ground. But while Terra was no doctor, she knew that pulling out the bar would turn trickle into flood. Had he been in better shape, she assumed David would have recognized that too. As it was, he saw the logic as soon as she pointed it out.
"Oh," he said. "Well uh... then... I'll break the other side of the bar off. We'll get you free that way."
Terra grimaced as she fidgeted on the ground. "It's fused to the engine block," she said.
"Then I'll break that," said David in mounting frustration. "I'll take the whole car apart. I can do it carefully, piece by piece."
The very thought made Terra's stomach start to ache again. "No..." she said, shaking her head. "No the shock will... it'll jar loose."
David wouldn't give it up. "Terra, listen to me, there's a bunker not far from here. An emergency bunker, it's protected from all this. We can get you there."
"How?" asked Terra.
"If we can break you free, I can... I don't know, dragyou there or something. I'll make a sled out of debris. All you have to do is hang on, and - "
"And then what?" she asked, her voice quivering only slightly. "You're gonna do stomach surgery?"
That shut him up, and he was quiet for several moments as he visibly struggled to come up with another answer. "Well... we've gotta do something," he said. "Come on, let me just... I can break the bar off without dislodging it, I promise. It'll just take a few minutes."
"No it won't," said Terra. "Not to break it and build a litter and drag me back to this bunker of yours. And even if it did, you don't havea few minutes. Not anymore."
All this, to avoid saying what she knew she was going to have to say. It was too much for David to follow, and he looked at her, confused, plainly unable to see why she was being so obstructionist. "What are you talking about?" he asked, frustration oozing from his voice. The accumulated debris of everything that had happened tonight, no doubt.
She tried to answer him, she honestly did. But even though she knew exactly how this conversation had to end, she still could not bring herself to say it out loud. Not, at least, until she saw him finally put the pieces together in his head, and knew that he understood what she was trying to tell him.
His eyes went wide, wider than they had been even when Devastator had revealed himself, and the red light poured off of them like blood moons, and his body went stiff and rigid, as if some hellish vision had just materialized before his eyes. "No," he said, as though to pre-empt her.
"You have to go," she said. And then it was said, and done, and out in the open.
But he would not hear it. "No way," he said, in the best impression of Robin that Terra had ever heard him give. "Absolutely not."
"David, listento me," she said. "You have to leave. Now. You have to get out of here, and go find the others. It's the only way."
"Are you out of your mind?" replied David, and by his voice, she wasn't sure if the question was rhetorical or not. "There could be a thousand demons on their way here right now. Fifty thousand, I don't even - "
"Yeah, there could," she said, unwilling to let him finish the thought. "And you can't be here to meet them. You need to leave."
"And what, I'm supposed to leave you here to fight off the armies of Hell when you can't even stand up?" he demanded.
"No," she said, "you're supposed to do your job."
Something in her voice stopped him short. "My job?" he asked, and this time she knew it wasn't rhetorical.
"Yeah," she said.
"My job is to help people," he said. "To... save people." Even now, he hesitated on that word, but pushed past it. "Not to leave people to getripped apart by demons." As gently as he could, he laid one hand on the exposed end of the rebar anchoring her to the car, and she felt the bar's temperature begin to pulsate like a heartbeat, not enough to hurt, but enough that she knew he was infusing it with his own powers. "You brought me back to life," he said. "I'm not leaving you here to die."
Bombast and anger would get nowhere. She knew that by now. It was the library basement all over again, the streak of almost contrarian refusal to accept what was that he either had always had buried within him or had picked up from the other Titans at some point. But stubbornness was a subject Terra knew more about than most, and this time, if not before, she knew what she had to say.
"David," she said, "I'm not the one you need to save."
He crumpled, his hands compressing into balled fists, his eyes sliding shut as he brought one hand up to his face. "Terra," he said, his voice now testy, "Devastator's dead. They don't need my help now. Not with him gone. They took Trigon out by themselves without me, and without Devastator getting in the way, they can do it again. I know they can."
"No, they can't."
"Yes, they can!" he was almost shouting now, as desperate to believe it himself as to convince her. "They're the Titans, Terra, they can beat anything, even Trigon. They don't need me to do that. I'm not a - "
She slapped him across the face.
It wasn't very hard. She couldn't manage very hard right now, but if she had pulled out a gun and shot David in the chest, she likely could not have generated more surprise. His eyes flew open, and he stared at her dumbstruck, even as she forced air into her lungs, biting back the pain of having jarred her midsection so unforgivably. Her teeth clenched shut, she hissed, more than spoke, her answer.
"Don't you dare," she said. "Don't you dare tell me you're not a hero. Not now."
She wasn't sure what he believed, but whether because he perceived the foolishness of what he'd been about to say, or whether the expression on her face was one he did not dare to cross, David said nothing at all. Carefully, Terra leaned forward as much as the rod would let, trying to ignore the trickle of blood now leaking visibly down onto the street beside her, praying that David would do the same.
"The others need you," she said, forcing her voice to remain even. "They need you right now. You. Do you understand me? They need you. Not Robin, not me, not even Superman. You." Her throat seized, and she fought with all her might not to cough, feeling the welter of blood that waited to issue forth from within her esophagus. "They... they need the kid... who can blast demons apart like cherry bombs. The one who can throw cars and trucks and tractor-trailers around like rubber balls, and conjure nuclear weapons out of thin air."
"That wasn't me," ventured David. "That was him."
"You're the same person," said Terra, her voice becoming desperate. "The same flesh and blood, the same powers. That was you. It was you back in the park when we fought. It was you when Slade attacked the Tower, and it was you five minutes ago when you did... whatever that was. That's what you are. That's what you've always been. And that's what they need right now, and you know it. I don't care if they beat him before and I don't care if you were here or weren't here the last time, and neither do they. They need you. They need you now. And that's why you have to go."
He blinked at her. The best he could do now, she knew, and his look was desperate. Desperate for it all to be untrue perhaps. Desperate for the Titans to not need him, or to need someone else instead. Desperate for the road ahead to be clear. Who could tell? "I can't just... leave you here," he said.
"You have to," she said. "Even if you get me out of here and drag me back to that bunker of yours and manage to patch me back up, even if you doall of that, I still won't be able to help you or the others against Trigon. And that's all that matters now. You heard Devastator. The whole world is watching you, watching the others. They need you to stop Trigon, any way you can. They needyou to leave me here. You have to go."
He said nothing. His face was a blank stare caught halfway between horror and numb shock, a stare she remembered from another face entirely from a moment that seemed like a lifetime ago. The memory threatened to break her resolve down, and she pushed it violently aside. Now was not the time to slip.
David seemed like he was trying to remember how to speak. His blood-red eyes stared unblinkingly at her, but could not obscure the expression on his face. "Terra..." he managed to say at length, his voice as weak as she felt.
Carefully, Terra mustered her strength. "Go," she said, and when he did not move, she repeated herself, more sharply. "Go." Only at this did his hand fall away from the tip of the bar that pinned her where she was, and carefully, he stood up, staring down at her with an expression she remembered all too well.
"Terra," he said. "I..."
She shook her head. "Just go," she said. "Go and... and do what people like you are supposed to do." She felt a drowsy numbness spreading through her like a liquid, and despite everything, she managed to smile as she finished her thought. "Save the world."
Neither grey, coal-splattered skin nor red, glowing eyes could fail to disguise the expression of helplessness on David's face. And yet he took one step away, and then another, and another, each one as labored as her own footsteps might have been now. She did not repeat herself further, but closed her eyes and nodded, and when she opened them again, she saw him turn as reluctantly as it was possible to, and slowly begin to walk away.
Only now, with her point won and the consequences finally manifest, did her resolve slip at all. And before he had gotten a dozen or so paces away, she suddenly called after him.
He turned around instantly, perhaps expecting her to change her mind, or beg him to try and save her. But instead, all she had for him was a request.
"Would you... when you find Beast Boy... could you... could you tell him..."
Her mind seized up, all at once, and left her grasping at a forest of straws smeared with grease, unable to seize one despite the thousands that floated around her. For several moments, she struggled for anything adequate to say. Until finally she was reduced to the only thing that she could think of at all.
"Tell him..." she said, her voice balanced on the knife's-edge of breaking. "Tell him... I tried."
David didn't say a word. Maybe he couldn't. But at length, he managed to nod his acceptance. For a moment longer, he stayed where he was. But then, at last, he turned, and walked away, and the smoke closed between them like a curtain, and then he was gone.
All alone now, Terra sat beside the rusting hulk of the car to which she was affixed, and felt the energy ebb from her like a punctured garden hose. The small pool of blood around her glistened in the eternal twilight, and she imagined that she could feel the heat from it wafting up towards her, mingling with the air she breathed with each laborious breath. From somewhere far away, she imagined she heard the sound of birds. Or maybe it was the howl of beasts, racing through a verdant forest, outlined in emerald against an azure sky.
She opened her eyes, and saw another stream of blood running the length of the bar, dripping from it into her lap and streaming down her leg to join the expanding pool on the ground. The pain was nearly gone now, and the sensation of it leaving was the most delicious thing in the world. Carefully, Terra took a deep breath, tasting the heavy minerals laced through the air, and let it out again.
"Okay..." she whispered to herself. "Now comes the hard part..."
He didn't walk for long before he was running, and he wasn't running for long before he was running as fast as he could.
Down streets of blasted asphalt and cracked concrete he ran, unsure if he was running towards or away from something, and not willing to stop to give himself time to find out. He could have been going anywhere, towards the rest of the Titans, away from them, in circles, straight into the jaws of Hell, there was no way to tell. The city was not merely ruined but rearranged, once-familiar landmarks scrambled randomly like toys thrown together by a toddler. The very geography over which he was travelling seemed warped, hills flattened or buttressed by fresh upthrusts from deep within the earth, and yet he knew that this was the right way.
Hours ago, there'd been a single glimpse of light, a green light flashing in the distance like a lighthouse, and a blue one under siege from a thousand points of red. The green one had been at such a distance, not to mention altitude, that he knew he had no hope whatsoever of reaching it, not if he ran for a week. But the other light had been closer, still far, but close enough to resolve the individual lights that surrounded it, and it was towards that light that he was running now, desperately trying to convince himself with half his mind not to do the very thing the other half was screaming at him to do.
Somewhere far behind him, Terra was -
No. He clamped down on that thought instantly, forced it out of his mind. It was too late to turn back in any event, too late to do anything about it. Whatever was happening to Terra, whatever had happened to her, it was out of his hands now. He forced himself to repeat that statement like a religious mantra, running it through his head again and again as though he could force himself to believe it by act of conscious will. It didn't work at all. But on the other hand, he didn't turn around.
He hoped like hell that this was the right way to go.
The street ahead broadened into a wide boulevard, with room enough for six lanes of traffic plus bicycles, parking and broad sidewalks lined in better times with shady trees and outdoor cafes. Few cars remained, even the remains thereof, and the crumbled ruins of the commercial buildings on either side still retained enough cohesiveness to identify what they once had been. That one was a movie theatre, that one a restaurant, this one here a clothing -
Every nightmare David had ever had exploded to the forefront of his mind all at once, all triggered by the same easy, instantly-recognizable voice. He yelled in surprise, and half-turning, he swung the severed staff in his hand like a tennis racket, sending a brick of charred rubble hurtling past his own head straight at whatever had spoken, all before he could even turn to see what it was. Only then did he turn.
In the middle of the street, where moments ago there had been nobody at all, there stood a carbon copy of David as he once had been, his skin and eyes and hair all the colors they were before the advent of this terrible, endless night. Clad in a pristine red uniform, with a polished, stainless steel baton clipped to his brass-colored belt, the boy did not flinch as David hurled a brick at him with his mind, his image wobbling slightly as the brick flew right through him without stopping, bouncing to a stop against the curb. A second later and his image reformed, like a hologram from the movies, and was still once more.
It took David somewhat longer to recover, but recover he ultimately did, breathing the fire out of his lungs in the way that he had been taught to, and giving his stunned, short-circuited nerves time to calm themselves. The image waited patiently, until at length, David had restored enough of his equilibrium to speak it's proper name, a name he had heard altogether too much tonight, if he had any say in the matter.
The spirit wearing David's face nodded quickly, traces of a smile crossing his impermeable features. "David... are you alright?"
In a world torn to pieces by the Devil himself, this was, assuredly, the single most asinine question that David had ever heard. He ignored it.
"What's going on here?" he asked, still half-unsure if this was really happening. And without waiting for an answer he dove straight into the most salient issue. "Why can I... useyou?"
Devastator didn't look surprised at the question, but could only shake his head. "I... I don't know, David. Not exactly."
"What does that mean?" asked David.
"It means you're not supposed to be alive," said Devastator. "Not while Trigon has me."
It was perhaps a measure of just how far gone David was that he couldn't become upset or angry at that statement, nor even register it as a threat. "Sorry?" he finally ventured.
"No," said Devastator. "You don't understand..."
"Then explain it to me," said David. "If Trigon took you out of me, why can I still blow stuff up the way I used to when I still had you?"
"Because I chose you as my host," said Devastator. "Not Trigon. That's what bound me to your will in the first place. Trigon can steal me, but he can't undo my choice, not as long as you're still alive."
NowDavid started to feel upset. "Why didn't you tell me that before?" he asked, his teeth clenched against the screaming tirade that he could feel coming on.
Maybe Devastator saw it too. Either way, he threw up his hands in a gesture of innocence. "I didn't know, David. I've never been ripped out of a host before, and certainly not by Trigon. I'm supposed to live inside a host until they die, and then find a new one. There's never been twohosts alive at the same time before. I didn't even know it was possible. Trigon killed you, and you came back, and... I guess Trigon can't sever our connection totally. Or at least he hasn't yet."
David caught the important word in that explanation, and his anger died before it. "Yet?" he asked.
Devastator nodded. "It takes time to integrate your will with a cosmic being. Even for the Devil."
"And once he does?"
The ghostly figure shrugged. "I really don't know," he said. "He'll probably use me to blow the planet in half or something. His channelling capacity is almost limitless. He'll be able to use me to unmake galaxies if he wants."
"Is that what he wants?"
Devastator only shook his head again. "I don't know," he said. He lifted his head once more, looking around at the ruins that surrounded them. "You'd think he already had enough destructive power without me. But I guess someone like Trigon always wants more."
The shock of Devastator's arrival had worn off, and the numbing, almost warm embrace of inertia had once more taken its place. "Maybe," said David, turning and looking back up the street, which disappeared some hundred yards ahead into the ubiquitous red-tinted clouds. Indistinct patterns formed, danced, and dissipated within the smoke, mocking shadows that hinted at a thousand possibilities for what might be shrouded just behind.
"Do you know where the others are?" asked David.
Devastator didn't answer immediately, and David turned to see him seemingly staring off into empty space. But David did not rush whatever process this was, standing mute and watching Devastator, even as the empty hole inside of him seemed to flair like a swollen joint at the sight. He pushed it aside, like so much else.
"I can only see through Trigon," said Devastator at length. "It's... strange."
"Raven said Trigon was omniscient," said David.
"He is," said Devastator. "But he's still bound by his own addictions."
"Pain," replied the weaponized embodiment of destruction. "Pain and suffering and loss and all the rest of it. It draws him like a moth to flames. He can't look away from it, no matter how much he wants to. He... knows everything that's happened. He knows you killed your counterpart, he knows that the others are out there, but... he can't help himself but watch."
"Watch what?" asked David.
Devastator's head lifted suddenly, and the image of the boy that David had been mere days ago turned to face him. "Cyborg," he said.
Something, something simultaneously hopeful and horrifying lodged itself in David's throat, made it hard to swallow or speak. "Where is he?" he asked.
"Just up the street," said Devastator, gesturing into the smoke. "Over the hill and down into the valley. But..."
"But there's a thousanddemons between you and him, and other things too. You're not the only one with a bad side."
The cold number settled into David's stomach like a lump of iron, and yet the spectre of it did not rear its head as it should have. Perhaps his nerves were still too stunned to be impressed by numbers. Perhaps he still hadn't accepted any of this as actually happening. Whatever the reason, the desire to find the nearest rock to run under, the one he always had to fight off, failed to appear.
There was an irony to this somewhere, but he couldn't put his finger properly on it.
"Is Trigon gonna kill him?" asked David. The question sounded oddly clinical, even from his own throat.
"Eventually," said Devastator. "By inches, I'd assume. He'll make his minions do it."
"Why?" asked David. "If he's so addicted to pain, why not do it himself?"
"Because for all his power, Trigon's ultimately a coward," said Devastator. "He's always been one."
Still staring into the smoke, David shook his head. "That's hard to imagine."
"The more power you have," said Devastator, "the more you fear to lose it." He stepped soundlessly up next to David, looking off in the same direction. "I've seen it before, but... never like this. Trigon's afraid all the time. And the stronger he gets, the more fearful he becomes." Devastator paused, then turned his head to David once more. "I've seen that before too."
David did not respond.
At length, Devastator breathed a soft sigh, and stepped away, seemingly looking around as though admiring the scenery. "He'll want to break Cyborg before he kills him," said Devastator. "He won't care how long it takes."
Carefully, deliberately, David took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Doing so had once been a mantra of sorts, a way to dispel enough of the fear and apprehension that rose whenever a fight presented itself that he would be able to function. It did no such thing now, but that was because he no longer seemed capable of considering the future enough for fear. Not anymore. Not here.
"I've gotta stop him," said David.
"How?" asked Devastator, but this time the question was honest. "Even with me... Trigon's watching Cyborg right now. He has an entire army there, waiting for someone like you to walk in and try to interfere. How are you gonna get through them all?"
David let the question turn over in his head for a moment as he turned back to Devastator. Yet even as he did, his eye was attracted all of a sudden by the ruined building behind him. A board-fronted store, much like all the others, capped by faded lettering, torn and burnt, if still vaguely legible as "Jump City Toys". Yet it wasn't the building itself, nor the name on the store, that drew David's attention, but the shattered windowfronts that lay beneath it, where the scorched remnants of price tags and sale signs lay draped atop a pile of plastic merchandise, dusted in ash and fallen from their mountings, detritus like all the rest of the city, mute and forgotten.
And all of a sudden, for the first time in a thousand years, and for no reason that anyone would have considered rational, David felt the beginnings of a smile curling the corners of his mouth.
"I think I have an idea..."
Everything can be reduced to constituent parts.
It was day fifteen of training, at least by David's count. Fifteen days since the argument with Robin and the rooftop conversation with Beast Boy, the one that had finally clued him in, last of all of course, as to what was really going on here. Fifteen days since he'd acquiesced to the concept of becoming what he'd never permitted himself to consider becoming before. Maybe that milestone meant nothing. But it was one he still kept in mind, a concession to external reality in a world he still did not fully understand, and at times worried that he never would.
Not just machines. Everything. People, weapons, politics, conversations, cities, social structures. It all comes down to tiny pieces of a larger whole.
He was used to receiving the tuition of the Titans by now. Robin's secret training program, hidden under the guise of 'self-defense' (a designation which had apparently fooled no one except David himself) had instilled him with that much, and it had only ramped up since throwing aside the curtain. His powers were strange, even by the insane standards of the rest of the Titans, but the others did their best, each one taking their turn, showing him one thing or another, some aspect of this new life which he had entered into without really appreciating what he was doing. Every one of them had strengths as teachers, each one indispensable in their own way, and to choose between them was not something David considered himself qualified to do.
But that said, Cyborg was the one who tended to make the most sense.
You break things down like this, reduce it to the most elemental level, and you can master anything. Anything at all. And that's what you've gotta learn.
Never in a thousand years would David have dared to suggest that he and Cyborg were alike. It was not in him to make a comparison like that. It would have been unthinkably presumptuous, implicitly placing himself on a level that he knew he had not earned. Moreover, as he would no doubt have argued, it was completely wrong. Cyborg was an athlete, a scientist, a semi-obsessive mechanic, a ladies man (at least in his own mind). His background was filled with trauma and loss, unspecified disasters mentioned only in passing with a clipped word or a momentary hesitation circulating around whatever it was that had forced him to replace most of his body with metal and circuitry. He was outgoing and confident, brash and even arrogant, dismissive of difficulties, the sort of person who, upon perceiving that a problem existed, immediately began working to fix it, taking solace in action instead of contemplation. Not one of the above descriptions fit David in the slightest, to say nothing of the fact that Cyborg, like Robin, like all the others, was simply set aboveDavid, and nothing had ever served to alter that stark equation as far as David was concerned.
And yet there was something to the idea despite all that, and it had to do with perspective.
Fightin' off something like Cinderblock's too big to imagine. Too much for you to table right now. You can't look at it that way. You have to break it down into something more manageable.
Robin was, to the outside world, the "normal" face of the Titans, but David would never have described him as such. Robin was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, a box that David never dared to try and open, but one element was obvious enough. His perspective on training, on heroism, on life itself was colored by the shadow of an enormous bat, indeed at times, David could almost imagine it superimposed on his features. He knew David's limits, he knew them better that David knew them himself, knew how teenagers were broken of their old selves and remoulded into new ones, knew more things than David could even begin to catalogue. But still, what to Robin was normal, was to David something entirely different, and while that did not stop Robin from accomplishing his daily objectives insofar as David was concerned, it did mean that David simply had to trust that Robin knew what he was doing, as Robin was incapable of expressing what was happening in terms that David could recognize.
With the others it was similar. Starfire, for all her caring, all her concern, was an alien, and ten minutes' conversation with her was sufficient to ram home just what that meant. Her ignorance of the realities of humanity was generally vastly overstated, but she still came from another world, where she had lived as royalty, as a member of a species trained from birth as intergalactic warriors. Raven, while not an alien (actually, David wasn't too sure whatRaven was), had also been trained from birth by some sort of magical mystery cult, laden with responsibilities so heavy that she refused categorically to speak of them to anyone, least of all David. Even Beast Boy, outgoing and laid back as he was, had been a superhero since the age of eight, trained by seasoned professionals from the Doom Patrol, and active in fighting evil for years before the Titans had even formed. Infinitely helpful, infinitely patient, infinitely qualified as they all were, none of them had the slightest idea what it felt like to try and transition from a normal kid into a superhero.
There are 98 elements that exist naturally in the world. Combinations of these elements make up every object in the known universe. My body, yours, the table, the walls, the ground, the air, everything can be broken down into less than a hundred elements. You have to find a ground level to start at to do this sort of thing, and my bet is that this one'll turn out to be yours.
Until the age of 14 or so, Cyborg had not lived as a superhero. He had lived as Victor Stone, of Jump City, a high school student like ten thousand others. Not a hero, not a vigilante, not concerned with the goings on of metahumans save for school gossip and the like, he had been, in rough approximation, what David had. Even if their lives as civilians could not have been more different, as David was not an athlete, nor a scholar, nor possessed of living parents, nor black, the mere fact that they had been civilians at all meant that Cyborg had known, better than anyone else, even Robin, what a seismic shift this truly was. He, alone among the Titans, had understood the need for a mental bridge between the world of a simple teenager and that of a world-conquering hero. And he, alone among the Titans, had been possessed of some idea of how to do just that.
Don't think about the size of the rock. Don't think about its weight. Don't think about what it'll do to you if someone throws it at you. Don't even think about it as a rock. It's not a rock. It's a pile of granite. Granite means it's mostly means silicon and oxygen, and you know how to do those two. Practice with them enough, and you'll be able to just do quartz without having to think about it, then granite, and then anything else above it.
It was not really day fifteen of David's training, official or not. It was not day anything of his training. In fact, it was not daytime. It was an endless night in an endless hell, and he stood upon the crest of a ridge looking down at a scene of violence and devastation that would once have exceeded his most terrible nightmares, a green duffel bag slung over one shoulder, covering one arm like an oversized sling. Far below him ran a street, broad and dusted with ash and the residue of fires. Rank upon rank of flame demons were arrayed upon it, hundreds if not more, hovering calmly in place, their backs to him, their faces to the hulking mass of grey steel and albino flesh who stood in the center of their formation. Yet he in turn looked on something else, a shattered figure who lay crushed and broken on the ground at his feet, a mangled mass of blue circuitry and armor, emitting sparks and the sounds of metal grinding on metal even as the figure above him continued to speak words like 'inevitability' and 'destiny' in a tone dripping with contempt.
David allowed himself enough time to draw a single breath, tinged with the scent of smoke and burning electronics, that seemed, somehow, to last for a thousand years. And then he began to descend.
You see, a firefight, or a throwdown with Slade or whoever, ain't really all that different from a piece of granite when you get right down to it. 90% of everything in these fights, the catchphrases, the costumes, the fancy names, the sound and light show, it's all designed to make everything look more complicated than it is. Confuse the other side. We do it too. You gotta learn to filter all that crap out, not let it drive you crazy, tackle everything the way it is. Way your stuff works, once you do that, I think you'll be able to get the hang of it.
It was not day fifteen of David's training, by any count whatsoever, and yet it was. Here at the end of the world where time was unimportant and the world reduced to a mocking parody of itself, David was in many places at once. His eyes saw the roiling mass of demons arrayed before him. His ears heard the low, guttural growls that they emitted as they listened to their leader's twisted cackle. But mentally he was only half here at all, some portion of his essence a million miles and several months away, in calmer settings and simpler times.
It was some time before they noticed him. He made no particular effort to conceal his presence, but the ambient noise was high, and the evil version of Cyborg was holding forth at great length concerning inevitable defeat or some other damned thing. He did not know if the demons had a sense of hearing in anything like the manner he understood, or if they used some other sense, familiar or alien, to determine the nature of their surroundings. But one way or another, he had covered some hundred feet or so, an eternity of walking in silence towards the ranks of the damned, before first one, then two, then ten, then hundreds of demons began to turn, their low growls foaming up from below and before him like the wails of tortured souls.
Nothing's ever as complex as it looks. Not technology, not people, not fights, nothing. It all looks so impossible from a distance because you can only see the surface and your imagination fills in what's inside. But once you actually look inside things, you'll find that it all breaks down into something you can recognize.
Now the speaker at the center of the army had noticed, at length, the disturbance running through the ranks of his followers, and his lecture faltered and died as he turned to see what it was. Slowly, two eyes, one human, one mechanical, both red as fresh human blood, painted David in their crimson light, revealing a sight he knew to be different only in degrees. For a moment, there was confusion in those eyes, apparent even at this distance, as the thing that was Cyborg and also not Cyborg seemed to hesitate, caught between the victim he had subdued and this new intrusion on his attention and time. His legions waited for command, but the Anti-Cyborg did not call to them, staring at the small figure in grey and red who stood on the hill and watched him in silence.
"What the hell is this?"
The voice was Cyborg's, but not as he had used it. It was contemptuous and dismissive and cold, like a man describing the antics of a particularly loathsome insect he had just discovered scurrying across his floor. And with a single glance back at the broken form of the real Cyborg, the ironclad demon stepped into and through the ranks of his army, ranks which solidified behind him as he passed, brandishing whip-arms of flame and sending slavering howls soaring into the night, as though in anticipation of fresh prey.
"Really?" asked the Anti-Cyborg, addressing thin air for all the hints he gave. "Really?" He stopped at the head of his army, shaking his head like a teacher astonished by the unerring capacity of a small child to fail at the simplest tasks. "Devastator let you walk away? Just like that?" He turned first to one side, then the other, casting his gaze over the ranks of his assembled flame demons, as though silently asking them all to witness what fools he was forced to associate with. And then he turned back to face David, his face curled into a sneer of contempt, as he raised his hand to command his demons to rip David to pieces.
And then David drew his hand out from behind the lumpish green duffel bag slung over his shoulder. And Cyborg, and every demon in his thrall, stopped.
Take, for instance, Polyurethane.
In David's right hand sat a bulbous mass of orange plastic, bright and eye-catching like the vibrant colors of a fire truck or sports poster. Shaped roughly into the form of an enormous gun, it looked like an 8-year old boy's fondest dreams brought to life, a riot of buttresses and crenulations, false rails and scope mounts, an over-engineered nightmare that resembled the childish version of the weapon of some cartoonish space marine or star warrior. Hanging from the base of the gun was a series of plastic cartridges, also garishly orange, fastened together in a loose chain that disappeared into the dull green duffel bag around David's shoulder. Large as it was, he hefted it in one hand with ease, lifting it up until the stock of the play-rifle rested against his shoulder, and the lines of arbitrary letters and numbers that lined the side of it were dimly visible out of the corner of his eye. The only ones that made any sense at all were the four at the end, printed on an adhesive decal and stuck to the plastic by machine, still as vibrant as the day they had been created.
"What the hell are you - "
David did not answer the implied question from the Anti-Cyborg. Instead, he squeezed the toy gun's trigger.
There was a soft "thunk", the sound of a spring and the brief whir of an electric motor, and the gun gave a barely perceptible shiver, as a single yellow foam dart, four inches long and tipped with a soft plastic suction cup, flew from the barrel of the gun up at an angle, soaring into the leaden sky, just for a second, before gravity reacquired control and brought it plunging down, tip-first, straight towards the anti-Cyborg.
First glance, Polyurethane's one of the most complex things in the world. But you break it down, and what do you get? Strings of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, tied together with hydrocarbons in a polymer pattern. The strings might vary depending on the formula, and the arrangement is all over the place, but if you know what you're looking for in the first place, you can reconstruct the whole thing in your head. And once you do that...
It might have been his imagination. It might have been a trick of the light. But David could have sworn that he saw the anti-Cyborg's human eye open just a bit wider moments before the dart plunging towards him flash-froze in mid-air and exploded like a bomb.
The dart was barely four inches from tip to tip, a flimsy construction of polyurethane foam and polyester resin. But the explosion it produced engulfed the Anti-Cyborg in a ball of blossoming fire, shattering the two demons closest to him, and sending a dozen others tumbling into their fellows. Moments later, the fire dissipated, and the wind blew the smoke aside, to reveal the evil Cyborg staggering back from the force of the blast, stumbling over one of the fallen demons before falling flat on his back. The ranks of the demons that surrounded him stirred and grumbled, turning their heads to their leader for instructions, and David saw the Anti-Cyborg lift himself up to issue them as the echo of the explosion faded. But he did not hear what the evil version of Cyborg had to say to his forces.
I know it all seems overwhelming. It can't feel like anything else just yet, especially for you. But I need you to push past that for a second. If you can break down something like this, you can do it to anything else. All these guidelines, all this stuff about tensile strengths and reactive bonds, none of it matters in the end unless you want it to. Classify it however you want, periodic or elemental, or something you just made up, it doesn't matter. You get the basics down, figure out how to break down the problems in front of you, find a system that fits however your brain works, and man... I guarantee you...
He did not hear, because as the Anti-Cyborg lifted his head, David closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger once more.
… you will perform miracles.
And he didn't let go.
The battery-powered motor hummed, and the launcher spring twanged in tune with it, but David heard neither, for the cacophony of thunder and the screaming of demons blotted all else from contention, and he opened his eyes again to see a wall of flames erupting across the length of the entire army, hurling broken pieces of solidified sulfur into the air and sending them spiralling off in every direction. The demons roared, collectively, and their roar was a terrible thing, desolate and earthshaking, as the ranks behind surged forward to seize the object of their torment and rend him apart, but David pushed it from his mind, forced himself to forget all about demons and hellspawn and supernatural death. Instead, he thought of the mass of plastic in his hand that projected polyurethane towards piles of moving sulfur, and how by liberating the energy within the polyurethane foam, the sulfur piles would disperse to the winds, and move and cry no more.
Back and forth and back again he swept his toy weapon, and the rain of bright and childish projectiles, one every quarter second, slammed down into the ranks of the demons like a meteor shower. And every one that landed, whether it struck a demon or not, burst into flames like a car bomb, hurling fire and debris and invisible waves of force indiscriminately about, shattering some demons, and dismembering others, and hurling still others through the air by main force to collide with their fellows. Screaming masses of demons flew this way and that, buffeted by shockwaves from every direction, unable to form up, to coordinate, or even to escape the hail of ruin that descended upon them with terrible, mechanical regularity. A bare handful of demons managed to break through the curtain of destruction and race towards David, only to have barrages of explosive bolts hurled directly into their faces, shattering them like crockery thrown against a stone wall. Everywhere that knots of demons tried to rally or launch themselves towards him, there he directed the stream of fire, his mind liberating the latent thermokinetic energy from the chemical compounds within the bolts of soft foam with a regularity that months ago would not have occurred to him in his wildest dreams. Cars and fire hydrants and all the detritus of the end of the world exploded into the air, some pinwheeling hundreds of feet up before crashing down once again in ruin. And as the bolts exploded and the demons screamed and his mind moved to its own internal metronome, even as he did all this, David slowly let the breath he had been holding out, and began to walk towards the flames.
Nothing stood in his path. Though the demons still howled and roared, they were invisible behind a curtain of flames and smoke, and he responded to every flickering shadow within the inferno by launching a hail of exploding grenades into it. Back and forth and back again he swept the weapon, spraying death and destruction at anything that even looked like it was considering barring his path, until at long last the belt of darts that fed the weapon ran out, and he was left with only the whir of an electric motor and a street filled with dying flames and hazy smoke.
And then the smoke parted, and revealed approximately what he expected it to.
The army of demons was gone now, obliterated to such a degree that few traces of it could even be discerned. Piles of residue, sulfur and filth mixed into a steaming slurry lay splattered all over the street, draped over burnt-out cars and broken sidewalks. Here and there, broken forms still twitched and moved, demons whose bodies were merely savaged as opposed to liquified. Of all the rest there was no sign but the broken street and scorched earth that lined the area into which David had pumped enough fire to bring down an armored battalion. No sign, that was, except for the primary object of all this ire.
Through the smoke and dust, the dark form of the Anti-Cyborg loomed, a vast, mis-shapen bulk, staggering and struggling to keep its feet. Crushed by the avalanche of destruction unceremoniously dumped upon him and his army, he rose like a looming nightmare, ash and debris rolling off his body as he drew himself up. As the haze cleared, David could see terrible dents hammered into his frame as though by a wrecking ball, the black scour-marks of direct grenade strikes, sparks and sickly-green hydraulic fluid leaking from his cracked limbs and shattered armor plates.
The gun in David's hand was empty now, and he let it slip from his grasp as he unslung the now-empty duffel bag from his shoulder, dropping both into the street as he stopped before his badly-smashed adversary. With one hand, he reached to his side, and drew from his belt a mangled piece of steel, a telescoping staff crudely hacked off on both ends which burst into flame as soon as it touched his fingers.
Steadying himself with difficulty, the anti-Cyborg slowly raised one arm, a grey cannon like a howitzer mounted where his forearm and hand should have been. Sucking smoke-filled air through clenched teeth, the half-metal anti-Titan glared hateful daggers at David as he locked the sonic cannon into place, aiming it straight at the smaller teen's chest, though his target made no effort to evade or duck away.
"I got you now," spat the Anti-Cyborg as he sighted down the length of the barrel, "you sonofabitch."
There was the whirring of gears and motors somewhere deep within the cannon, and a red glow that built up within its barrel, and yet instead of a beam of incarnated death, there instead came a loud "bang", and the sound of metal grinding against metal. Sparks and smoke issued from half a hundred cracks lining the surface of the gun, even as the Anti-Cyborg stared at his own forearm in disbelief, shaking the cannon as though to bring it back to life, before David's voice commanded his attention once more.
"No," said David softly, as he lifted the broken staff, holding it straight like a spear at the Anti-Cyborg's chest. "You don't."
For a moment nothing moved. And then Cyborg's evil twin suddenly shuddered, as though a bolt of lightning had torn through his body. He staggered back a pace, his limbs jerking in several directions at once as he tried to force his body to act. Gargled cries of rage or pain or some mixture of both poured from his mechanical throat as he shook once, twice, three times, each time with greater violence than the last. David stood motionless as a statue, staring down the length of his metal stick, his red eyes boring into Cyborg's as the convulsions of his counterpart grew exponentially in intensity and force, nearly knocking the Anti-Cyborg off his feet. And then, as his enemy lurched upright and roared out a formless scream of pain, defiance, and anger, David twisted the metal stick in his hand in mid-air and reached out with his mind.
There was a deafeningexplosion.
It was more powerful than David had expected, for he could not see the molecules dancing the way he was used to, and his target was a precise combination of elements that he had never ever permitted himself to practice on. The blast blew him backwards, nearly knocking him off his feet, and he clenched his teeth and hissed in pain as bits of what he hoped was metal bounced off his clothes and stung his hands and face. But when the shockwave was past, and he looked up again, all he saw was a blackened crater where the anti-Cyborg had been standing, and the shattered, mangled remnants of a broken, grey, sonic cannon, laying like the rest of the discarded trash of this broken world in the midst of the ruin that David had wrought.
And then it was quiet.
For a little while, he simply stood there, his brain caught between two gears, letting his arm fall to his side as he stared into the smoky air in anticipation of further enemies leaping out of them. No sound, no scent, no sign whatsoever of any other living thing could he detect, and soon his mind was wandering back to what he had just done, and the sound that the anti-Cyborg had made just before he -
No. No not that. Not now. He clamped down on that thought before it could fully form, and knowing where it lead, he thrust it aside. And stirring himself to action once again, if only to avoid thinking about the things he knew he could not afford to dwell on tonight, he turned to his left and ran over to where the real Cyborg lay.
Cyborg was face-down on the broken pavement, laying crushed and mangled against the side of the street, the lights that covered his body extinguished and cold. The barrage of explosives that David had pumped into the area had not been directed his way, David had positioned and angled himself to prevent that much, but with the sheer quantity of high explosive he had deployed, there was no way to be sure. The others no doubt had better, or at least more subtle ways to claw through a thousand-strong battalion of demons, but there was nothing for that. All he could do was hope that he hadn't missed, or that if he had, that Cyborg's armor had been enough to repel the odd shot.
It didn't look promising. Cyborg's body was covered in carbon scoring and metal fractures, though whether those were because of his blasts or because of the abuse he had taken at the hands of his evil twin and a demon army, David had no prayer of determining. Gingerly, he approached the fallen Titan, trying to keep his fear in check, looking for any signs on which to build a shred of hope
"C... Cy?" he ventured. There was no response, no movement, nothing, and with that lack of reaction, fear overcame caution as he quickly ran over to Cyborg's side, gingerly laying his hand on Cyborg's back, hoping to sense the vibrations of a motor or something. But Cyborg's metal shell was lifeless and still, the steel alloy reduced to the ambient temperature of the windswept hell that surrounded them.
"No," said David, without even giving thought of who he was talking to, "nononono... not now." He tried to shake Cyborg, first with one hand, then with both, trying to stir him back to life, but even truncated as he was, Cyborg was well over eight hundred pounds of dead weight, and David could barely shake him at all. He tried again, harder this time, straining against the cold dictates of gravity and mass, but it was no use. Either he could not shake Cyborg hard enough to draw his attention, or Cyborg was past all possibility of being awakened.
Now the flood was coming, a flood of desperation and fear, one he could no longer stem by conscious will, and he raised his head and looked around in hopeless panic, as though expecting some miracle to materialize behind him. To have come this far, to have killed his own evil twin, abandoned Terra to die, whether at her insistence or not, to have done all thisand to find Cyborg dead was a blow beyond even comprehending, and his mind refused to countenance it, casting about instead for ever more tenuous hopes, commanding his fevered imagination to invent some plan, some method, of making everything all right. And so in his delirium, he hit upon the idea of rolling Cyborg over onto his back, as though this would somehow improve things or at least allow him to better assess the damage. The fact that he was neither a doctor nor a mechanic, and that even if he had been such things, that moving Cyborg was not some panacea to cure the torments of the Devil, was something he simply refused to allow himself to think about.
Dropping the broken staff on the ground, he seized Cyborg's side with both hands, scrabbling and straining with all the force he could bring to bear to roll Cyborg over. It was useless. Not even the strength of desperation could enable him to do more than slightly lifting one side of Cyborg's body an inch or two off the ground before his limited strength gave out and he collapsed at Cyborg's side, barely avoiding crushing his own hand in the process. Twice more he tried to move his fallen friend, and twice more he fell back in defeat, until on the third attempt, he spotted a long piece of steel rebar, jarred loose from one of the ruined buildings nearby, and his mind, belatedly, recalled one or two of the mechanics lessons he had learned, either in school or from the Titans, he honestly couldn't remember which.
Staggering to his feet, David ran over and grabbed the rebar, unearthing it from the rubble it lay amidst. It was bent and cracked in several places, but a central section some six feet long was still intact, straight and free of visible defects. Quickly, he concentrated his mind and blew the sturdy section free, lopping the rest of the rebar off at both ends as though by acetylene torch. Turning and running back to Cyborg, he crouched down and jammed one end of the rebar in between Cyborg's body and the ground, shoving and working it back and forth to drive it further and further in. And once he had driven the bar as far as it would go, he turned around and pulled the far end of the bar up as hard as he could, hoping to use it as a lever to wrench Cyborg over.
It was damn near impossible, even now. David was not now and had never been built for brute force, and this was a task no explosions could aid him in, no matter how precise. Moreover, how he expected this to help Cyborg was a question left dangling off to one side. If Cyborg was dead, then he would remain so when flipped, and if he was not, then his medical circumstances were unlikely to improve by being violently rolled about by means of iron bars and leverage. Yet he strained and pulled anyway, whether animated by ignorance or willful blindness or some forlorn hope that he might be able to wake Cyborg up, battling against gravity and slowly but surely winning. The bar groaned and shook but did not bend, and inch by glacial inch, he managed to pry the far end up from the ground and lift it up, slowly raising Cyborg onto one side. Soon he was able to push, rather than pull, and he shoved at the bar with everything he had, until at last he gave one final push, throwing his entire weight against the bar with such force that it slipped loose, causing him to fall forward with a crash and land atop Cyborg, who after teetering on his side for a moment, finally rolled over onto his back.
For a second, David lay there, afraid to open his eyes and see what he suspected he would see. And then at length he opened them, and saw the barrel of a cannon staring him full in the face.
No dead relic was this, but a live, active cannon, thrumming with power and lit an electrical blue so bright that it made his eyes water. Its mouth was bare inches from David's face, and in its cavernous depths he saw motors and actuators and mechanical gizmos beyond name or counting spinning together, ready to unleash a beam of ultrasound so powerful that it was actually visible, capable of inducing nuclear fission on the dust motes that crossed it, or flaying concrete from the walls of a fortified bunker. For several longseconds, he lay there motionless, his mind somewhat-understandably unable to get past the anti-tank weapon currently levelled at his face, but at length, he pulled his eyes away, and lifted his head enough to peer over the gun, and saw Cyborg staring straight at him, his mechanical eye shattered and dark, his human one swollen and purple. But Cyborg did not move or writhe in pain, staring down at David with an expression that could have melted iron.
"Don't even think about it," said Cyborg, his voice taut and grim. "You're not thatfast."
Everything that David had been afraid of was suddenly and unceremoniously replaced by a whole new set of fears. He tried to muster the wherewithal to speak. He failed.
"I got thirty-six thousand sensors runnin' through this thing," said Cyborg. "Any one of 'em starts readin' frost, and Trigon'll be condensing you out of the atmosphere. I swear to God."
Never, everhad David heard Cyborg sound like this. Not in the worst fights or bitterest arguments he had ever borne witness to. Cyborg's voice was a harsh growl, distorted by speaker damage and pain, a savage voice prepared for further savagery, and David saw the light from the end of the cannon increase in intensity, and knew what it portended. He froze, his body no longer taking dictation from his brain, staring into the cannon and past it into Cyborg's eyes, expecting at any moment to be vaporized.
"Cy..." he ventured, not daring to lift his voice above a whisper. The red light of his own discolored eyes reflecting off Cyborg's mangled armor keyed him in, belatedly, to what must be running through Cyborg's head. "Cy, it's... it's me. It's David."
"Bullshit," said Cyborg, and his voice was a low and dangerous hiss. His eyes, mechanical and human, narrowed to slits. "Bullshit," he repeated. "You're dead."
"I know," said David, and realizing only too late how that sounded, he struggled to explain. "I mean... I was. But - "
"I watched you die," roared Cyborg, and broken as his body was, he lurched upright, shoving David back and off of himself. "Trigon turned you into stone! Right in front of my face! Trigon thinks he can frog-march you in here and crack me in half, he's got another thing comin'!"
"Cy, I'm not..." started David, but he stopped as his brain ran dry of words, the reflection of his own blood-red eyes seeming to mock his feeble protests. "This isn't a trick."
Cyborg's face did not lighten in the slightest. "Really," he said. "And what, you thought you'd put on face paint and graft LEDs into your eyes before comin' over here just to make a joke? I might believe that from BB, but not you. And if Trigon was able to make anything but a bunch of puppets that happen to look like us, he'd already know that!"
His mind numb and refusing to work straight, David desperately sought for the words that would turn this situation around, and did not find them. Cyborg was staring into him the direct glare of a searchlight, but all David could think to say was the simplest possible thing.
"Cy," he said, his voice quivering of its own accord. "Cy... please. I'm not one of Trigon's things. I... It's me..."
"Oh yeah?" asked Cyborg, and his voice was unsteady too. Fury tempered by worry or fear or some other thing, David couldn't guess. With an audible groaning of battered motors, Cyborg contrived to lean forward, bringing the barrel of the cannon to within six inches of David's chest. "Prove it."
What Cyborg had in mind, David did not know, nor could imagine. Perhaps he had nothing in mind, just some desperate challenge to prove the unprovable from someone who didn't even dare hope. What he could possibly say or do or explain to Cyborg in order to prove that, contrary to all sense and logic, he was not merely another doppelganger, David had no idea. His brain froze, staring into the aperture of an anti-tank weapon wielded by the person he had blasted through armies to find, who had saved his life dozens upon dozens of times, and who, if he did not produce a satisfactory answer to an impossible question in the next five seconds, would probably disintegrate him where he sat.
And in the absence of conscious thought, David never could figure out what possessed him to do what he then did.
All at once, the low, red flames that still sheathed the broken weapon in David's hand vanished entirely, leaving behind the bare, flame-scorched metal of what had once been a telescoping staff. Slowly, he lifted the staff with a hand that was slightly trembling, and taking a deep breath, he gently laid it against the stump of Cyborg's other arm, and then withdrew his hand, sitting back and closing his eyes.
He expected... well honestly he didn't know what to expect. His ears were primed for the sound of the sonic cannon unleashing its full power, undoubtedly the last thing he would ever hear. But seconds ticked by, and he did not hear this happen, nor any other thing, and it might have been a minute or five seconds or an hour later that he mustered the courage to open his eyes.
Cyborg was still sitting before him, his cannon still levelled and ready to fire, but the half-mechanical Titan's expression was no longer the mask of bitter determination it had been before. His grimace was gone, replaced by a nervous trepidation, visible even through the metal, injury and damage. David didn't dare to guess at what could be running through Cyborg's head now, but as he lifted his own eyes, bathing Cyborg once more in their red glow, Cyborg ventured a single whispered word.
The knots in David's stomach, present for so long that he had forgotten they were there, loosened all at once, and a wave of numbing relief washed through him, a bit premature perhaps considering the cannon that was still staring him in the face, but still. Maybe it was obvious or maybe not, but David let his breath out and permitted himself a hopeful smile as he nodded wordlessly.
Cyborg did not reciprocate. Indeed he looked like he could not believe his eyes. The gun remained in place, but he had plainly forgotten about it, his mouth sliding open of its own accord. "You're... dead," he repeated, this time without certainty or understanding. A flat statement, contradicted only by what lay in front of him.
David let his smile broaden, let his frame slump as his body unclenched all at once, and shook his head. "I was," he said. "Not anymore."
There was a series of clicks, and then suddenly the cannon was gone, replaced by Cyborg's metal hand, and he reached it out, gingerly, and touched David's sleeve with a gesture that was almost reverent. He seemed almost surprised to find it comprised of cloth, and not stone. Maybe he was. "I..." he stammered, "I don't... How..."
"It's... kind of a long story," said David, but he got no further, for suddenly, Cyborg put his arm around David's back and pulled him in against his own shoulder, pinning him in place as he thumped David's back with his intact hand, over and over, hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs. And above it all, David heard Cyborg's voice as he had never heard it before, unburdened at last, a voice that was pained and trembling on the brink of collapse, as he repeated the same phrase over and over.
"Goddamn," said Cyborg. "Goddamn, man... Goddamn..."
It was some time before Cyborg let him go. David didn't push the issue. But at length, Cyborg relented, and as David pulled back, he saw that Cyborg's human eye glistened, and his face was damp. But David elected to say nothing on that subject, for fear that he might have to think of something to say.
"What... what happened?" said Cyborg. "You were - " he stopped short, unwilling to say the word that had rolled so freely from his tongue a moment before. "Trigon turned you to stone."
"Terra," said David. "She... I don't know... she turned me back." He shook his head. "She can do that."
"Terra?" replied Cyborg, lifting his head and looking around as though expecting Terra to appear from behind some rock. "She's here too?"
If the silence that greeted Cyborg's question didn't answer him, the expression that on David's face when Cyborg finally looked back at him certainly did.
"She was," said David. He couldn't find it in him to say any more.
Part of the knot from before re-materialized even as he said it, but fortunately, Cyborg did not require further explanation. He lowered his head just a moment, closing his eyes and nodding almost imperceptibly. "It's gonna be all right, man," he said without looking up. "We're gonna get a piece for her. For everybody."
"Yeah," said David, though he didn't sound, or feel, particularly convinced. Right now he didn't have the wherewithal to process that subject. Not now.
Neither, apparently, did Cyborg. "We gotta find a way out of here," he said, all business once more. "That was some damn fine work drivin' everyone off, but they'll be back as soon as they - "
It was no interruption of David's stopped Cyborg, but his expression. Cyborg stopped, furrowed his half-metal brow, restarted. "What?" he asked.
"I... um..." stammered David. "I... didn't drive them off."
Cyborg blinked. "What?" he asked, not understanding. And then when David didn't answer, he finally turned his attention to the general surroundings, to the street pitted with bomb craters and cars blown into tangled metal sculpture, to the pools of molten sulfur that had been splattered all over everything within a hundred yards as though a pressure cooker had exploded. Slowly, David saw recognition dawn in Cyborg's eyes, as he surveyed the sterile ruins that encircled them and saw no sign of life within.
"You..." started Cyborg, and stopped again, still trying to make sense of it all in his head. "... allof them?"
"I think so," said David. "Some might have got away."
Cyborg continued to pan his eyes across the horizon, plainly searching for something that was not there. "What about the other me?" he finally asked.
David took a deep breath, and let it out. "Him too," he said.
That brought Cyborg's attention back, and he focussed his eyes on David once again in a manner that wasn't entirely reassuring. "You... killed him?"
The surprise in Cyborg's face was enough to make David avert his eyes, and he ducked his head, as though evading a blow. "He was gonna kill you," he said. "And... he was made of metal. So..."
Cyborg said nothing as David looked furtively back up at him, trying to evaluate his reaction. Cyborg for his part looked as though a large portion of his understanding of reality had just been kicked out from under him. "Jesus," he said at last.
David almost winced. "I didn't know what else to do," he said. It sounded as lame to him as it must have to -
"No... no man," said Cyborg. David chanced another look, and he saw Cyborg shaking his head, as though in disbelief. "I just... didn't know you had that in you."
Despite it all, David managed a half-smile. "It's been kind of a weird night," he said.
Cyborg seemed prepared to take that much on faith. He took another look around before turning back to David. "What'd you do to Jinx?"
That one, David did not know how to answer. "Jinx?" he asked.
"Yeah, man, Jinx.You remember her. You didn't see her?"
"I don't think so," said David, struggling to remember if he had. "What was she doing - "
There was a pink flash, so bright as to be blinding, and something hit David in the chest, hard and hot, like a branding iron wielded by a giant. He felt himself being hurled back, hitting the ground, sliding over broken pavement and through puddles of bubbling sulfur until he fetched up against a pile of rubble. Stars flashed before his eyes when he opened them, and the searing pain in his chest when he inhaled brought tears to his eyes and a cry from his throat. He reached out at near-random, found a piece of concrete or masonry to grab hold of, and pulled himself up, biting the pain back as he sought his assailant. And when he turned around, he saw a girl dressed in purple and black with pink hair in the act of throwing a wave of pink energy at his head.
He hurled himself to the ground as the wave passed overhead, slicing into the rubble pile behind and sending debris showering over him. Without even bothering to stand up again, he reached out with his mind, pushing the way he had long ago when there had been something to push against. The effect was the same. A series of blasts erupted like volcanic vents from the ground between him and Jinx, casting rocks and flame and smoke into the air in a curtain, hopefully enough to keep Jinx at arm's length long enough for him to recover.
Plainly, this was not a good night for relying on hopes. Jinx vaulted through the exploding curtain like a gymnast, effortlessly evading not only the explosions, but a stabbing beam of blue light from the half-visible form of Cyborg behind her. Landing on her feet, she threw another hex, forcing David to roll to the side to avoid being split in half, and then rushed him at top speed. It was easy to see why. Beaten though he was, Cyborg's cannon still had the power to burst Jinx like a grape. Jinx' sole margin of safety from it was to get as close to David as she could, so close that Cyborg could not fire on her without hitting him. Even on his best day, David could not hope to compete with Jinx in close quarters. And this was not even close to David's best day.
Except apparently, someone had forgotten to tell David that. He made no attempt to retreat, to gain the precious distance that someone who made a habit of working with high explosives needed. Instead he managed to rise to one knee, clenching his teeth against the pain in his chest. His uniform front, discolored and smeared with grime, sulfur, and coal slurry, now sported an ugly scorch mark across the chest from the previous hit, yet when Jinx threw another hex at him, he imperturbably hefted a fist-sized piece of concrete rubble and threw it right back at her.
Jinx's hexes were not made of matter. They were not really made of anything, at least not anything that David had the vocabulary to describe, but they did obey certain physical laws, and so when David detonated the concrete brick in mid-air as it passed the hex, the resulting explosion consumed them both in a blast of fire and smoke. A second later, and Jinx tore through the ephemeral curtain of smoke like a possessed being, jumping into the air to avoid the explosion that David hastily triggered beneath her feet, and hurling yet another hex down at him like a thunderbolt from Zeus. David threw himself back against the rubble pile to avoid having his skull split, landing on his back and reaching behind himself for something behind himself as Jinx descended, a fresh hex already forming up in her hand. She landed a pace in front of David and lunged forward, grabbing him by the shoulder with her free hand to pin him in place, and sliding the other to David's throat, the hex poised millimeters from his jugular.
And perhaps she would have gone further. Perhaps, given the chance, she would have cut David's throat out with the edge of her hex and spilled his discolored blood all over the street. But she did not get that chance, for even as she brought the hex down to strike, David brought his hand out from behind his back and shoved a gun into Jinx's face.
Any gun shoved in one's face tends to look enormous, but this one was truly so, a massive, ugly box of blackened steel with a barrel half an inch wide staring Jinx right in the eyes. It was visibly too big for David, almost ludicrously so, yet David's hand did not shake as he stared down its length at Jinx, moments before the entire gun burst into heatless flames. Jinx started as the fire erupted to life directly in front of her, jabbing the tip of the hex into David's neck, but hesitating from delivering the killing blow, as she tried to untangle what had just happened. David, for his part, barely dared to breathe.
Jinx took her time sizing the situation up, staring over the gun at David's burning red eyes. "There's no trigger on that gun," she said, her voice as even as a pane of glass.
"You think I need one?" answered David instantly, managing with difficulty to keep the fear out of his. "Bullets are packed with gunpowder. It's the easiest thing in the world."
There was no fear in Jinx's eyes. There was nothing but fury. An red fog beneath pink irises. "Then do it," she said.
David's eyes widened, and he glanced to one side, to where Cyborg still sat. He tried to make it surreptitious, but that was difficult with spotlights emitting from his eyes.
"Don't look at him!" shouted Jinx, jabbing him with the point of her hex enough to get his attention back. "I'm who you should be worried about!"
"Get off him, Jinx," said Cyborg, and as if to punctuate his command, the cannon in his arm began to glow the same bright blue that it had before.
"Or what?!" screamed Jinx back at Cyborg, whipping her head around so hard that she nearly fell over. "You can't shoot, and apparently neither can he." She rounded back on David once more, eyes wild and fierce. "You Titans are all talk, no guts to back it up! If you can use that thing without a trigger, what the hell are you waiting for?!"
To be honest, David was waiting for the world to start making some degree of sense again. "What are you - "
"You'll blow an armyin half, but you don't have the guts to pull a trigger? I should cut your throat right now!"
"You do that, Jinx," shouted Cyborg instantly, "and Trigon'll be mopping you up with a vacuum! This thing ain't set to stun, now get the hell off of him!"
Jinx ignored Cyborg, staring down into David's eyes, tears of fury running down her face. "I should never have let you go," she said. "I should have let Gizmo dissect you like a frog!"
"I didn't kill your friends, Jinx," said David, trying desperately to stay calm.
"YES YOU DID!" thundered Jinx, shoving him against the rubble pile with her other hand as she did so. "You brought this all on! You changed everything! Without you, they'd all still be alive! So would Robin! So would everybody!None of this would have happened if it wasn't for you! You started it all!"
David couldn't even speak, but Cyborg could. "That ain't true, Jinx!" he shouted to her. "Warpstarted all this!"
"And who started Warp?" shouted Jinx, turning to Cyborg. "Who kickstarted this whole thing? Devastator. Who suggested bringing us into the fight? Devastator. Who stuck around long enough to give Trigon all the power he needed to make sure the world would end?! Deva -
In Jinx's anger, she had turned her head completely to face Cyborg, and had no chance to react when David suddenly lifted the muzzle of the gun up next to her head and discharged it with a hard shove of his mind. The bullet hit nothing, the gun was pointed past Jinx, but the thunderous gunshot, all the more astonishing for its sheer unexpectedness, went off barely an inch from Jinx's unprotected ear.
Jinx let out a bloodcurdling cry, stumbling to one side, the hex dissolving as she cupped her hands to her ear. David gave her no chance to recover, shoving her off of himself as hard as he could. He scrambled back to his feet, biting back the pain in his chest, and backpedaling for space as Jinx lay crumpled on all fours on the floor, nursing her burnt and bleeding ear. It was ten seconds or more before she lifted her head, staring venomous daggers into David, and quite purposefully shoving herself up to her knees and standing up, her intent obvious.
"Stop!" shouted David, gesturing with the flaming handgun as he did so, and when Jinx did not stop, he fired the gun into the ground at her feet, kicking up a puff of dust and generating another ringing gunshot, but little else. Jinx did not stop even with the warning, and even raised her hand to do God-knew-what before a beam of blue-white light split the air between her and her target.
This time, she stopped.
"Goddamnit, Jinx, that's enough!" shouted Cyborg. "You take one more step and he won't haveto shoot you."
"Open field, with all your targeting sensors knocked out, you think you'll actually hit me?" asked Jinx.
"If he doesn't, I will," said David, levelling the gun at Jinx's head. "You're not touching either of us. Not now and not ever."
"Don't make promises you can't keep, Devastator," said Jinx, spitting the name out like a curse. "You're no good with a gun, and you don't have the guts to kill besides."
"Really?" asked David, his eyes locked with Jinx's. "You just said that you knew what I did to Warp. To the other Titans. Trigon showed you everything, didn't he?"
"He showed me enough."
"So did that look like someone who didn't have the guts to kill somebody?!" shouted David. "You saw what happened, how do you think that person would react?!" The gun began to shake in his hand as he squeezed it tighter and tighter, his voice becoming harsh and desperate as he glared beams of incarnated fury at the Hive Leader. "I killed myself half an hour ago!" he shouted. "I abandoned Terra to die, I blew an army apart just to get here and help Cyborg, so take a step, Jinx, and watch what happens!"
Jinx did not respond, nor did she wilt before David's thunder, her gaze unflinching as she stared into the red glare that poured from his eyes and illuminated her like spotlights. Whatever she was thinking, she gave no sign, whether deciding to take her chances or seeking for some other way to overcome him, he could not tell. But despite what David was expecting, after a few eternal seconds, it was Cyborg who spoke, and quietly.
"David," he said simply.
It was a couple more seconds before David chanced a glance over at Cyborg, who was looking at him with an inscrutable expression. He said nothing further, but gave him just the slightest nod that could have meant many things, but that David chose to interpret as a suggestion that enough was perhaps enough insofar as this went. His eyes flicking back to Jinx, David slowly retracted his arm, though keeping the gun pointed at Jinx, and backed up another couple paces, the better to give Cyborg, symbolically at least, the floor.
Cyborg took it immediately. "Jinx," he said, and when she did not respond, again, harder. "Jinx."
"What?" asked Jinx, her eyes not deviating a millimeter from David's.
"What's your endgame here?" Cyborg asked, his cannon still locked on her center of mass. "Where does this go? You kill me, kill David, tear us apart just like Trigon wants, and then what? He's supposed to bring all your friends back to life? Is that what it is?"
Jinx took her time replying, still watching David as though expecting him to transform into something else. "Yeah," she said.
"You gotta know that's bullshit," said Cyborg. "You're not that stupid. Trigon ain't gonna give you a damn thing, 'cept maybe a glimpse to keep you dancing the way he wants. He will not bring your friends back. Not even if he could. You knowthat."
Jinx's breathing was becoming more and more labored, her fists clenched tightly as she continued to stare at David. "Yeah," she managed to say.
"Then what the hell are you doin'here?" asked Cyborg. "Trigon killed your friends, not us. Why would you even think about - "
"What else can I do?!" roared Jinx, rounding on Cyborg violently. "It doesn't matter what you think Trigon will do, or what I think he'll do, it matters what he does! He's a GOD! He can bring them all back!"
"Maybe he can," said Cyborg, "but he ain't gonna."
"How the fuck do you know that?!" roared Jinx at Cyborg, slashing at the air with her outstretched finger as though it were a sword.
"The same way you do," said Cyborg. "Trigon's the Devil! Evil incarnate! You think he killed everybody on the planet just so that he could bring yourpeople back? What are you all gonna do, sit around in the ruins and sing campfire songs?!"
"They'll be back," said Jinx. "I don't carewhat comes after that."
"That's crap, and you know it. They're dead, Jinx. And they're not coming back."
"Robin's dead too, Cyborg! That didn't stop you from sending Starfire off to get himback!"
"I didn't send Star to get Robin back," said Cyborg, his expression cold, "I sent her after Warp so that Trigon wouldn't get her when he came after me."
Now it was David's turn to turn his head and look at Cyborg, but Cyborg did not so much as glance in David's direction, his eyes locked with Jinx, who looked torn between a thousand different thoughts, all of them vile and repugnant.
"Jinx," said Cyborg, his voice lowering and softening as he spoke, "I know it hurts to even think about it. But you gotta stop this. Trigon is nevergonna give you what he promised. You can shout all you like, but you know that. We all do."
Jinx closed her eyes, squeezing them shut so tightly that her entire body shook with the force of it. "It's the only chance they have."
"It's not a chance at all," said Cyborg. "It's just Trigon tryin' to see how much fun he can get out of you before he ends it."
Jinx seemed to shudder, as though Cyborg's words were gunshots, and when she opened her eyes again, there were tears running down her face. "I have to try." she growled between clenched teeth. "You don't understand."
"You think I don't?" asked Cyborg. He shook his head sadly. "Ain't nobody here hasn't lost someone, Jinx. I lost Robin. I lost my mother. Everybody I knew before the accident who walked out on me, or who I walked out on. That kid over there lost his whole family. So did Star, so did BB. We know Jinx. We allknow."
"No you don't!" spat Jinx. "You all had each other, even now. Even with everyone else dead! What the hell do I have left? You?!" She paused, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand before raising her head once more. "That ship sailed a long time ago, Cyborg. I haveto try to get them back, whatever it takes. What else am I supposed to do?"
"Help us," said Cyborg.
Jinx looked almost disgusted with the very idea. "Why?" she asked. "So you guys can all go out in some glorious last stand together?"
"So we can get the sonofabitch who did this to you," said Cyborg. "The one who did this to all of us."
A sob tore itself from Jinx's throat, and she spat it out like a mouthful of poison. "You can't beat Trigon," she said. "He's invincible."
"Then why am I sittin' here?" demanded Cyborg. "Why are we havin' this talk? You walked in here with a whole army and a copy of me. It's just you now. How'd that happen, if Trigon's invincible?"
"He's playing with you," said Jinx.
"Maybe," said Cyborg. "Or maybe he lied about more than just what he was gonna do for you."
Jinx stood motionless now, save for the occasional shudder as some uncontrollable convulsion tore through her body. She seemed to have forgotten that David was even there, her head bowed and her eyes closed to stem, by the only means she could, the tears that still leached out and stained the broken earth. "I... can't just... leave them all to die."
"You never left nobody," said Cyborg, his voice now barely a whisper. "You did every damn thing you could do, and it wasn't enough. Nothin' we did was enough. Not to save them."
"I can stillsave them!"
"Not like this," said Cyborg, his voice as calm as a windless pond. "You can't beat the both of us, Jinx, and even if you could, it wouldn't do anything but give Trigon one more laugh."
"So what?" asked Jinx, raising her head, her voice filled with bitter tears on the verge of exploding. "I'm just supposed to give up?!" She stomped towards Cyborg, her expression violent and desperate. David froze, uncertain of whether to try and stop her or not, but a glance at Cyborg made him hesitate, and he settled for keeping the gun trained on her back as she walked towards the crippled Titan. "Is that what you'd do?!" she demanded. "Give up?! If you were standing here and all the other Titans were dead and someone offered you the chance to get them back, would youthrow your hands up and say it can't be done so you should just give up?! Is that what you'd do?!"
Jinx looked ready to kill, ready to explode, ready to do damn near anything, and it was everything David could do to hold himself back from rushing in, or blowing something up. But Cyborg did not so much as raise his voice, merely looking up at Jinx with an expression that was neither angry nor scared nor even agitated, but vaguely sad, as though peering into all the decisions that had led them to this place.
"I don't know, Jinx," said Cyborg. "But I'd like to think they'd want me to carry on, 'stead of selling out everything I was, just for a chance to chase after their ghosts."
Slowly, the fire seemed to drain out of Jinx's face and posture, a visible ebb-tide, sucking away all the outrage and thunder so ready to erupt just moments ago. She did not look at Cyborg directly, nor at David, but stood stock still, remaining where she was as though incapable of further movement. For an endless time, for all of eternity, she stood there, and with every second of it, she seemed to shrink, no longer the raging supervillain prepared to slay two Titans at once, but a teenaged girl, lost and forlorn, and all alone in the endless night.
And then all of a sudden she fell.
She fell forward, fell to her knees and pitched over onto one side, so hard and violent that David jumped forward, imagining that she'd been shot or struck by a physical blow. But even as he did so, Jinx seemed to convulse, landing on her side and curling in on herself, her face twisted in pain, tears splashing down onto the ashen ground beneath. Soundless at first, she suddenly emitted a horrid, gasping cry, then another, and another, each one torn violently from an unwilling throat. Again and again she beat her fist on the ground, pink sparks and waves of energy flying from her hands and tearing furrows in what was left of the asphalt. David hesitated once more, unsure of whether or not to approach, but Cyborg had no such compunctions, and reaching down with his one remaining hand, he slowly dragged himself over to where Jinx lay. She took no notice of him, nor of anything else, but by the time he arrived, even this paroxysm of rage was spent, and she lay in a ball on the broken ground, motionless except for the occasional spasm as another sob leaked out. She did not react to anything, not even when Cyborg, as gently as he was able, laid a heavy, metal hand on her shoulder.
David approached cautiously, the gun held dark and forgotten in at his side. Cyborg looked up as he arrived, his eyes dancing over the scorch mark on David's shirt. "You alright, man?" he asked quietly.
The burn still throbbed, but David had frankly forgotten all about it. "Yeah," he said. "I think so." He looked from Cyborg to Jinx and back. "Are you?"
Cyborg didn't answer immediately, turning his head back to Jinx, still locked in her own private hell, and squeezing her shoulder gently. She did not react or raise her head, but simply lay on the ground beside one of her arch-enemies, shivering despite the heat, and cried soundlessly into the ashen streets of a burning city.
"We'll see, man," whispered Cyborg. "We'll see..."
Beast Boy woke up with a splitting headache.
All things considered, that was a considerably better state of affairs than he had anticipated waking up to. In fact he hadn't really been sure that he would wake up at all. His last memory before blacking out was of shrieking wind and flashing lightning and the unpleasant sensation of enormous boulders colliding with his skull. Yet as he gradually regained consciousness, he found to his astonishment that he was not falling but laying sedately on solid ground, not freezing but shrouded with a warm breeze, not deafened, but laying in what passed, out here, for complete silence.
None of this made his headache any less annoying, but it was certainly better than what had been running before.
Gradually, Beast Boy opened his eyes, waiting several moments for the red blur before him to resolve into something more coherent before realizing that it was not going to do so. Drawing in his breath, he clenched his teeth and opened his eyes as wide as he could, hissing in pain as the light flooded into them and made his throbbing head scream in protest. It was everything he could do to not shift into something that had no head, but right now he didn't have the time for self-indulgence. As soon as he could bear to, he squinted against the light and shaded his eyes with one hand, and looked for any sign of Raven.
All he had to do was raise his head.
Child-Raven was sitting in front of him on the bare ground, her knees tucked up under her chin, staring off into space. She did not turn as he groaned and stirred and sat up, did not react when the wind blew her violet hair in her face, did not do anything at all. And as Beast Boy's eyes adjusted to the unexpected light, he saw that around her, around him, were ranks of statues, men, women, children, alone, in groups, their faces contorted with fear and pain, each one bearing mute witness to the two Titans within. Yet Raven was not watching the statues. Her head was inclined up, watching the skies, and more importantly, the cloud that loomed in the distance above the ruined city. And as soon as Beast Boy laid eyes on it, he saw why.
The cloud was far, far away, miles by his own amateur reckoning, yet it filled the horizon, looming up above the ambient haze and smog that had settled atop Jump City like a giant overlooking a crowd of midgets. Neither grey, like a normal cloud, nor brown, like the ambient skies, this cloud was a lurid orange, neither fading nor dissipating, but boiling ever higher into the stratosphere, an enormous mushroom towering above the tallest buildings in Jump City's ruined skyline, like the aftermath of a nuclear strike. Indeed, try as he might, Beast Boy couldn't imagine what else could possibly have produced such a thing.
And then a thought occurred to him. "Raven?" he asked. "Did... did you do that?"
Raven started at his voice, and turned her head. Beast Boy wasn't sure what he saw in her eyes when she saw him, but this time at least she did not shrink away or try to run. Instead, she simply shook her head, lowering it slightly as though ashamed of some truancy. "No," she said, quietly, even as she slid to one side.
Beast Boy froze.
Laying on the ground behind Raven was a sculpture of a teenaged girl done in black ash. The sculpture was perfect, every detail of hair or clothing or expression sculpted down to the finest possible detail. The figure was laying on her back, scrambling away from something, one arm raised in useless defense against some unseen threat, her face contorted with fear and shock. All alone, here in the midst of ruin and pain, this one figure of ash lay in perfect preservation. Except none of these things occurred to Beast Boy as he gazed upon her, for the figure was Terra. And he knew it was not a sculpture.
"I did that."
Beast Boy didn't know what to say. Honestly, he was having trouble remembering how to articulate sound. Seventeen different reactions tried to fight their way to the surface at once, none succeeding. Staring at the ash pile in an expressionless daze, he felt himself no longer in a burning city but a cold, dark cave, staring at a sight not altogether dissimilar to the one before him. Part of him wanted to rush forward, grab the ephemeral sculpture, and... dosomething, what he could not possibly tell, but anything. But another, stronger part of him, held himself back, and left him standing and staring, not daring anything beyond breathing.
"What... happened?" he asked. He did not receive an answer, and when he finally turned around to find out why, Raven was gone.
"Raven!" he cried, and instantly he was a cheetah, bounding back to where Raven had been, his feline ears searching for a particular sound and finding it from somewhere within the forest of statues that ringed them in. Three bounds, dodging around statuary, was sufficient for him to catch sight of a small white cloak billowing in the wind as its wearer ran at top speed around another statue. Crouching low, he leaped up and over the statue in question, landing directly between two others moments before Raven collided with him at top speed, and they both tumbled over.
It took more than being tackled by a nine year old child to discombobulate someone accustomed to casually increasing or reducing their mass by a factor of 50,000, and Beast Boy sprang up instantly, once more in his human form. It took longer for Raven to rise, and by the time she did, Beast Boy was holding her in place by the shoulders, heedless of her attempts to break free. "Raven," he said, crouching down and trying to force her to look at him, and gratifyingly, she soon stopped trying to escape and did so. "What happened?"
Raven seemed to be staring through him. "I burned her," she said at length, her voice weak.
Beast Boy wasn't sure what to say to that. "You... burned her?" he finally asked.
"She hurt you," said Raven, her eyes as wide as saucers, milky and unfocused. "She was gonna hurt you worse. So I burned her alive." Her breath wavered as she tried to keep herself together without much success. "'Cause I'm a demon."
With one careful breath, Beast Boy gathered up every reaction he might have had to Raven's statement and set them all aside, in favor of one chosen by fiat. "Yeah," he said quietly, gently sliding his arms around her back until she was pressed gently against him. "I guess you are."
She didn't say anything to that, avoiding his gaze even when he got up from his crouch, lifting her up with both arms. There were other forms that would have worked better for this sort of thing, but he did not adopt any. Not now.
"It's okay, Raven," said Beast Boy. "It wasn't Terra. It was just some creature Trigon made to - "
"No," said Raven. "It was her. Some part of her. And I burned her up." She took a deep breath, let it out in a soft sigh. "It's what I do."
Beast Boy frowned. "No, it's not," he said. "I already told you, Raven. You're the best person I know."
"But you don't know me very well," said Raven quietly. "Nobody does. Because I don't let people."
That was true enough, Beast Boy supposed, but this was not the time or place for that. "I know you well enough."
"Do you?" she asked, and finally she turned to look at him, and Beast Boy cringed.
Raven's eyes were black. Pitch black, with neither iris nor white, as though her pupils had suddenly swallowed everything else. Her hands, formerly held in front of her, suddenly gripped his upper arms like steel traps. Her weight seemed somehow to lighten, and yet he could not have released her even if he had wished to, for her eyes held him frozen like the hypnotic gaze of a snake.
"Do you know what I am?" said Raven, her voice a steely parody of a little girl's, monotone and direct, like an alien thing speaking english words it did not understand. "What I can do? What I'm capable of doing? What I want to do?" Beast Boy stumbled backwards, bumping into one of the surrounding statues and nearly falling over, but he did not make any effort to release Raven. He wasn't certain that his arms would have obeyed him if he tried to.
"I'm a demon lord, Beast Boy," said Raven, with a chilling calm to her voice that sent shivers down Beast Boy's spine. "I'm the princess of darkness. I could kill everyone in the world with a single spell. Eat their souls and drink their suffering up like water. I could destroy anyone who's ever hurt you with a thought. I could make you forget they ever existed." The air seemed to warp around her, darkening as though a cloud had come over the non-existent sun, the distant fires dying out of perception, until he could see nothing but Raven herself, her white leotard now dark as night, her black eyes boring holes through his skull even as two new ones, burning red orbs like coals heated to combustion, opened on her forehead. "I am my father's daughter," she said, her voice like a scaling knife slicing into his heart.
Beast Boy might have said or done any number of things at this juncture, he knew that much. But it was not in his nature to sort through them all, not even when confronted with something like that. And besides that, he already knew exactly what he wanted to do.
All at once, Beast Boy pulled Raven in, squeezing her against his chest, closing his eyes as he laid her head on his shoulder. Her breath was cold, cold as ice as it blew on his neck, and he could feel her fingers digging into his arms like talons of iron, but he did not shift into some other form, did not adopt armor or fur or a thicker hide.
"You're whatever you want to be, Raven," he said, softly. "You always have been. You always will be."
How long he wound up standing there, Beast Boy could not tell. He wasn't marking the time. But at some indeterminate point, he noticed that the grip on his arms was no longer painful, and he no longer felt cold. He didn't pull Raven back to see if she had undergone some further change, for he did not need to, and by and by, he felt her breathing even out and heard her heartbeat slow, and realized all of a sudden that she was asleep.
For a minute or two, maybe longer, he didn't move, just stood there, letting the ambient sounds of the eternally burning city wrap around them. And then he turned and walked slowly back to the center of the statue field.
Except Terra was gone.
The place she had was empty now, save for a dusting of ash on the bare pavement. Of what had stood there, no sign whatsoever remained, an empty plinth in the midst of a field of elaborate statuary. Whether she had vanished because of some machination of Trigon or returned to life and fled or merely had her loose ashes blown away on the whistling wind, Beast Boy did not know. Likely enough, he would never know.
Still held in both arms, the child-Raven stirred softly in her sleep, murmuring something soft and unintelligible, even to Beast Boy's ears. He sighed softly, to himself if not to anyone else, and shook his head, though there was nobody to see him do it.
"Come on," he whispered to Raven. "Let's go find - "
The sound was distant, that much was certain, and reasonably faint, like thunder from a storm far off on the horizon, and yet in all the fires and ashen rain of this place, Beast Boy had not seen any signs of rain or even lightning. He stopped, and listened, his ears perking as he tried to locate the sound. And then it happened again.
It was not thunder. Thunder rolled and cascaded over itself, like boulders sliding down a hill. This was one, single, concussive sound, a deep, booming drum beat from somewhere far away. It sounded vaguely like an explosion, and yet surveying what he could of the horizon, Beast Boy could see no accompanying flash or smoke to indicate what was being detonated. And the sound was wrong too, even for a blast, too deep and earthy to be anything of the sort.
So what was it?
Now it was becoming louder, deeper, stronger, and he could feel the ground beneath his shoes shaking with every successive thud. The statues around him trembled as the thunderous sound repeated itself, each time louder, each time closer, until the sound was loud enough to stir Raven awake. She shook her head to clear it of the lethargy that had so recently claimed her, blinking and turning her head to locate the sound that had jarred her back to life.
Beast Boy was doing much the same, but his ears were finer than hers, and he was awake and aware enough to use them. Carefully, he made his way through the statues towards the edge of the ring, ascending a small ridge where the street had buckled and peering in the direction that the sound seemed to be coming from, a series of half-ruined buildings, still smoking from the flames devouring their innards.
Then he saw it.
Instantly Beast Boy's eyes went as wide as Raven's, and he staggered backwards, barely keeping his feet, even as he felt Raven's grip tighten on his arms and shoulders.
"What the - "
"- hell is that?"
Sitting on the curb with his one intact arm in the form of a sonic cannon, Cyborg did not answer David's question, his head raised and looking for the source of the terrible drumbeats presently sending shockwaves, soft but palpable, through the broken ground. It wasn't until he realized that there was no longer any sound of tinkering coming from behind him, and turned to see David standing next to the open driver door of the tow truck, staring off into space as though he could discern the origin of the sound through divine revelation.
"David?" he asked, snapping the younger teen out of his thousand yard stare. "We gotta get out of here."
David blinked as though trying to clear something from his eyes. "Right," he said, and then he turned back to the truck.
The tow truck had seen better days, like every other thing in this damned place. David had found it a hundred yards away, flipped on its side and laying wedged against the mangled remains of a hot dog stand, the only car in eyesight that was not visibly burnt out. After a few desultory attempts to flip it over himself, all useless, David had been forced to blow the stand up in order to roll it back over. The truck now had a massive dent hammered into its hood, and the already splintered windshield was now lying in pieces around it, but it had fallen onto its tires, and after Cyborg instructed him in how to fashion an improvised dip stick, he had confirmed to everyone's surprise that the thing still had fuel sloshing around in a miraculously unpunctured tank.
Cyborg grunted as he shifted his arm back into a proper arm and used it to drag himself another eight laborious inches towards the back of the beaten truck. Try as they might, neither he nor David had been able to come up with any faster way for him to move, for even if they had been able to fashion some sort of sledge to pull him on, David would not have been able to pull it. Failing that, the younger Titan was engaged in trying to get the truck's ignition working. The battery was intact, that much they'd proven when David finally managed to get the towing crane to run, but they had no keys, and since David had no mechanical skills to speak of, and Cyborg was in no position to do it himself, he was forced to try and relay instructions to David about how to hotwire a truck.
"Do you see the yellow wire yet?" he asked, dragging himself ever closer to the crane.
"Um..." came the reply, followed by fumbling noises. "I... which one is it?"
The question was so stupid that Cyborg actually stopped. "It's the yellow one," he said at length, unable to think of another answer.
"I can't - " a loud thud, as something hit the steering column, and suddenly David appeared from the cab of the truck, rubbing his head. "My eyes are glowing," he said, exasperation dripping from his voice. "They all look red to me."
It was a second before Cyborg belatedly realized that David wasn't kidding. Grunting, he finished dragging himself up to the bumper of the truck and mentally conjured the plans for this model of truck up out of his database for display in front of his eyes. He'd built enough ignition systems from scratch to do this, but explaining it sight unseen to David was going to take longer than he expected, and they were plainly running out of time.
"All right, start at the wire on top of where the bundle meets the wheel and count fifteen down clockwise. Then - "
He was interrupted by a groan of aggravation and a thud of something hitting the ground, and when he leaned around the car to see what was happening, he saw David laying on his back beside the truck's cab, and Jinx standing in his place, leaning halfway into the truck, from whence emerged the sounds of wires sparking against one another. Moments later, the engine gave a cough, a chug, and then reluctantly turned over.
It was the sweetest sound Cyborg had heard in a long time.
Her work completed, Jinx stepped back, saying nothing, not deigning to offer David a hand up, not even looking in his or Cyborg's direction. What little glimpse Cyborg could get of her face revealed a cold, expressionless stare, lifeless eyes refusing to explore the objects or people around her. She moved like an automaton, stepping around David and walking back to the ruined building she had previously been crouched next to, as though this action she had taken had nothing to do with the two Titans whatsoever.
Maybe it was understandable, and maybe completely mysterious. All Cyborg really knew was that the truck was running.
David seemed no more inclined to look gift horses in the mouth than Cyborg was, and without bothering to address Jinx, he scrambled to his feet and ran over to the back of the truck, where Cyborg sat against the fender, listening to and feeling the approach of whatever the hell was making the increasingly ominous noises, now strong enough to cause pebbles on the broken pavement to jump with each successive drum beat.
Feverishly, David struggled with the crane mechanism and the metal hook attached to it, alternately fiddling with the controls and pulling on the chains directly. It seemed to Cyborg that he was making little to no progress, until finally he laid his hand on the crane itself, closed his eyes for a moment, and with a loud "crack", the chains fell lose to the ground.
If the previous blows had sounded like distant thunder, this sounded like a lightning strike directly over head, a deep, orchestral blast of sound that shook the ground and even caused the three-ton truck to rock on its wheels. David stopped, Cyborg lifted his head, even Jinx seemed to notice. But when Cyborg turned to see what had happened, all he could see was glass falling from several ruined office towers in rhythm with the impact sounds as they relentlessly grew louder and louder, even as brown smoke billowed up between the buildings, snaking down the streets and alleys like a living thing
And then he saw it.
All at once, the smoke was torn aside like a curtain, and in its place there stood what Cyborg took, just for an instant, to be a newly grown office building amidst the ruins of downtown. Yet moments later red searchlights appeared atop the immense structure, and the jagged concrete buttresses along its side lifted into the air, uncoiling hands the size of cars attached to arms the length of telephone poles. As it moved, its surface cracked and fissured, revealing channels of red, steaming magma running just beneath the surface, from whence issued great swirls of dark smoke, ringing the creature's head in fields of fire. Yet its skin overall was grey, grey like the dirty concrete it resembled, a color that spoke to Cyborg in ways he could not elucidate, tugging at memory strings that refused to come to hand. For a moment, the great thing stood there, brandishing its great limbs in the air as though in supplication to some heavenly body. And then the thing took a single step forward, its footfall as loud as a howitzer shell, and as it opened its mouth to issue a roar, everything that the creature was came together in Cyborg's mind, and suddenly he knew what he was looking at.
"Oh god..." he said, as much to himself as any other. "Cinderblock."
All sound was erased in an instant as the thing that had once been Cinderblock let loose a roar that sent loose masonry tumbling from the buildings nearby, a roar of such intensity that Cyborg ducked despite himself, of volcanic heat palpable even at this distance, of pain and anguish inconsolable and torments both remembered and promised. Above, there came a crash of metal on metal as David dropped the chains in his hands like forgotten toys and stumbled back in the bed of the truck like a small child whose nightmares had all been conjured to life before his eyes. He did not hear the terrified, breathless cry that David let out, but he did not need to, for it would have been his own reaction if his brain had remembered how to produce it. Whatever Cinderblock had once been, monster, juggernaut, muscle-for-hire, this... thingthat now stared down the boulevard at the two of them was Cinderblock in approximation only. Five times the size of the original, riven and ringed with flames and gloom, its eyes burning in the endless night like red stars, it loomed above the broken street like a raging volcano given life and form and set loose upon the world, its screams of rage and pain shaking the very ground with a deep, resonant timbre, like entire highways being dragged across one another. And just as Cyborg's stunned mind was beginning to accept that what he was seeing was real, the thing that had once been Cinderblock reared up and charged towards them, his feet smashing room-sized craters in the earth beneath him, even as he let loose a single word, screamed with incalculable anger like an unspeakable curse, a sound given shape, hurled towards them like a whaler's harpoon.
"David?" asked Cyborg without daring to turn his head, and when he received no answer, he struck the back of the truck for emphasis, lifting his head to see David standing in dumbstruck horror, his ashen face whiter than it had been, his red eyes as wide as they could manage. "David!" he shouted anew, and this time David heard him, lowering his frightened eyes for the requisite second needed.
"Start the crane," said Cyborg. "Right now."
The bed of the truck was three feet off the ground, a trivial distance for anyone with more than one working limb, but significantly less so for Cyborg at the moment. David did not answer Cyborg with words but grabbed the crane controls and lowered the massive metal hook towards him, the motor running at what Cyborg would have sworn was its slowest speed. An eternity later, he grabbed it with his one working arm, and pulled, nearly wrenching the tow cable out of its winch, and hooking it to his back. Nanoseconds after he finished doing so, David reversed the winch spool, and the entire assembly began the process of laboriously hauling Cyborg up into the back of the truck like a fish.
Seconds ticked by like hours as the winch motor strained to lift half a ton of dead weight, punctuated by the sounds of all hell quite literally breaking loose from down the street as a monster beyond imagining rushed towards them with all the speed it could muster. Cinderblock's form, already swollen to four or five times its normal size, seemed to loom even larger as he ran, the ground splintering beneath his feet as he ran, his head encircled with live flames and toxic smoke, and from the craters he pounded into the earth, demons in numbers uncountable swarmed up and into the air, a train of fire in Cinderblock's wake, screaming like all the furies of Hell.
"I see him, David, just keep going. We're gonna make it."
To be honest, Cyborg wasn't sure, but this wasn't the time for honesty. The winch groaned as Cyborg tried to help it along, using his one arm to haul himself up into the bed of the truck, but his motors no longer had the strength he had built them to, and the process was still one of inches. And every time he glanced back at the approaching thunderhead, Cinderblock was closer than he had expected him to be, accelerating now to a full sprint, his hands held high like the towers of some vast, gothic monstrosity. The winch on the truck was designed to lift cars significantly heavier than Cyborg was, yet seemed a million years before the winch finally gave one last thrust of effort, and pulled him over the threshold. As quickly as he could, he spun himself around with one hand, unhooking the winch and using the cable and the loose tire chains mounted on the sides of the flatbed to tie himself as securely as he could to the truck. And then he turned around to see how much time they had, and stopped moving, because they weren't going to make it. Cinderblock was barely a hundred yards away and running at the speed of a freight train, and there was no way they were going to make it.
And then a building exploded.
It wasn't the building proper, but rather the face of the building that went off like a battery of rockets, exploding into Cinderblock's flank like a cascade of masonry, steel and glass, and the force of the blast, though it couldn't knock Cinderblock over, was enough to arrest him in his tracks. Behind him, the demons ground to a halt, dozens of them plowing straight into his back like eggs thrown against a brick wall, countless others milling about at his feet, shrieking and groaning like a discordant choir of the damned. Cinderblock himself roared, batting away pieces of flying debris the size of the truck that Cyborg was sitting in, seeking for the architect of this intrusion. So was Cyborg. His immediate thought, of course, was David, but David was standing behind him, frozen like a statue, staring at the scene with that expression halfway between mortal terror and thunderstruck awe that, even now, he still brought out for truly important occasions. No stick or wand or other object was in his hand, no baton of orange flame that he customarily used to produce such explosions, and it wasn't until Cyborg saw a bright pink flash from the corner of his eye that he realized what was actually at work here.
Jinx stepped around the truck with hexes in either hand, and hurled both of them directly at Cinderblock, watching them disappear into the distance before blossoming on his flame-scorched hide like a pair of time-lapsed flowers. They did not appear to perturb Cinderblock in the slightest, certainly not enough to merit a reply, but when one of the leading flame demons, shooting out in front of Cinderblock, tried to seize her with its tendrils, she side-stepped it in one deft movement, sliced it in half with a freshly-conjured hex, and spinning in place like a dancer, hurled the hex in question into the apartment building Cinderblock was in the process of running past. Moments later, the entire front half of the building avalanched down into the street like a landslide, burying fifty demons in half a second before plowing into Cinderblock's legs. He lurched forward as the deluge of loose rubble slid out from under him, wobbling for just a second before plunging forward onto the ground with an earth-shattering crash, scattering what few demons had escaped the avalanche.
Without a second's glance at her own handiwork, Jinx turned back to Cyborg and David, her face comprised of a thousand conflicting emotions, none of them pleasant, and what she purposed to do or say then, Cyborg did not know. Yet ultimately it did not matter, because before she could do anything whatsoever, from the smoke-shrouded chaos that she had just left behind her came a chorus of voices that froze her to the spot.
It took Cyborg a moment to identify the voices in question, for they were many, and distorted by pain or some other terrible anguish. Yet it did not take Jinx any time at all. No sooner had they sounded, crying her name, than Cyborg saw Jinx' face drain of color, and she spun round to face them. Even as she did, a gust of wind parted the curtain of smoke, and -
They loomed up out of the darkness, arranged line abreast, walking, limping, or floating around Cinderblock as befit each one, figures so distinctive and so seared into Cyborg's memory that the mere silhouettes were enough for a positive ID. Yet the silhouettes did not tell the full story, for moments later they resolved in the ambient twilight into fully-fleshed figures, and then Cyborg heard David recoil in horror, a reaction he would have shared if he'd not been literally chained in place.
Lined up before them were the rest of the Hive Five. And they were dead.
Not just dead, but mutilated. Torn apart and put back together like toys repaired by a sociopath. Seemore groped his way forward, hands outstretched before him like a zombie, fingers feeling for any hint of his surroundings, for his single, cyclopean eye had apparently burst violently within his head, and the shattered remnants of his visor dangled from around his neck, dripping with blood and ichor. Mammoth's skin was charred black, a crust through which rivulets of bloody meat shone with every movement. Like See-More, his eyes were gone, slashed open as though by a straight razor, his ears and nose lopped off, his fingers, strong enough by themselves to gouge metal, now hung limp and helpless at his sides, broken and twisted around one another, even as smoke still curled off his blackened flesh. Billy Numerous, he of the infinite clones, now stood united as never before, a riotous mass of limbs and appendages fused together in random order, loping and lurching in agonising futility as he struggled to pull himself in a coherent direction, a hundred mouths all screaming Jinx' name. Gizmo, meanwhile, looked like a horrifying parody of Cyborg himself, his mechanical accoutrements grafted into his flesh at deranged, discordant angles, his body wracked by convulsions as motors and appendages fought to rip themselves free. His back had been split open, his lungs pulled out behind him and inflated with each breath like the wings of some terrible flightless bird. He had lost his jaw and tongue, replaced by an undulating tube of glistening blackness, neither wholly organic nor wholly artificial. Yet despite this, his voice was the loudest, as he emitted shrieks of agony from some dark place deep within his soul, his eyes pleading with Jinx for succor or release.
For a few moments, long ones, neither David nor Jinx nor Cyborg could say or do anything. Veteran and rookie, hero and villain, all descriptors and distinguishing characteristics failed, as the three teenagers reacted to the sight before them as any living being in their place would have. Jaws dropped, eyes widened, senses of balance and equilibrium were lost, in Jinx as much as anyone else. But only for a few moments was this true, for while David was staring at a horror beyond his imagining, and Cyborg at one that came damned close, Jinx was staring at the mutilated remains of her family, animated by dark magics to suffer in Hell for all eternity.
What happened next was probably inevitable.
Jinx did not scream or cry defiance and damnation. It was not her nature to do so, not for something like this. Only one thing could possibly answer a sight such as this, and that was searing, incandescent violence, delivered without hesitation or comment. Without a word to Cyborg or David or even to Cinderblock, who loomed above her friends like the Grim Reaper surveying his flock, Jinx simply charged, accelerating to a dead sprint, her eyes wild and mad, rage incalculable pouring from her fingertips. And an instant later, before anyone could so much as move, Jinx fell upon such few demons as had survived her previous assault, and slew them, and was past, her mouth opening to release a formless, toneless howl of pure anguish.
Fresh demons rose to replace the ones she had slain, leaking like miasmas from cracks in the pavement, and she turned on those in turn, and tore them to pieces, her powers no longer forming hexes, but lancing out in great waves of pink fire that sundered all they touched. In vain, Cyborg shouted after her, calling her by name, telling her to come back. In vain he fired his cannon into the melee, spearing demons on shafts of bright blue light, disintegrating them by the half-dozen until his power reserves were spent. Above him, David, shaken from his horrified stupor, lifted his twisted baton and conjured death and destruction, hurling demons and pieces of demons in every direction, trying to blast open a corridor for Jinx to come back once she had vented her anger. All in vain. Jinx' anger was bottomless, inexhaustable, and she tore into everything in range, slaughtering her enemies as she tried, vainly, to expiate the fires visibly consuming her inside. Only when she reached her friends did she stop, ringed by the bodies of her vanquished foes, and standing before the mutilated frames of the people she had once valued most in the world, she took one last glance back at the two Titans in the tow truck, tears running freely down her face. No words or signal escaped her as she looked back, no sign of any final message she wished to impart. Yet so strong and direct was her gaze that David's explosions stopped of their own accord, and Cyborg's entreaties for her to return died in his throat. It was apparent to all, instantly and without need for explanation, that there was nothing left to say. And then Jinx turned away, with every appearance of deliberation, and the smoke and flames that issued from a thousand fissures rose up once more, and she was gone.
Cyborg permitted himself enough time for his main computers to recite a prayer in binary. And then he lifted his head.
"David," he said. "Start the truck."
The truck was already started of course, but Cyborg's meaning was obvious, or at least so he assumed. Yet rather than running off to get into the driver's seat, David inexplicably hesitated, standing above Cyborg and looking down at him as though he had just suggested sprouting wings. "What?" asked Cyborg without looking up, when David did not move.
"I... I can't drive," said David.
That got Cyborg's attention. "What?" he asked, his head whipping around to face David.
"I'm fourteen, Cy!" exclaimed David. "I never learned how to - "
David did not get to finish his sentence, as a howl of rage loud enough to drown out a symphony orchestra nearly knocked him off his feet, and both he and Cyborg turned to see Cinderblock, no longer distracted by whatever Jinx was doing at his feet, facing them once more, his arms raised above his head like King Kong. Beneath him, demons gibbered and surged in uncountable numbers, and as Cinderblock lowered one hand to point at the two teens in the tow truck, they began to swell up in a wave of fire and brimstone, their intentions obvious.
Cyborg would probably have reflected on the absurdity of existence if he could afford to take the time. "Get in the cab," he said. "And tell me how many pedals there are."
David did not object this time.
The demons rose like a swarm of wasps, swirling around Cinderblock in streams of black and red, howling cries of damnation and pain into the already turbulent air. Cyborg heard David's footsteps as he ran across the bed of the truck and slid through the empty window in the back of the cab to wind up inside the truck, and then the silence of confusion as he stared at the controls. It seemed like fifty years before David called his answer back.
Not for the first time tonight, Cyborg whispered a prayer of thanks to God and to whoever had invented the automatic transmission, for if this car had possessed a clutch, they would both simply be dead. "At your right," he said, "there should be a lever pulled up with a button on top. Push the button and shove the lever down as far as it goes.
There was the sound of gears clacking against one another, and the truck shuddered as David disengaged the handbrake, but Cyborg paid it no mind, instead pressing several buttons on his mangled shoulder, praying that some of them still worked. Moments later, there was a whir of micromachinery, and a bank of rockets slid vertically out of Cyborg's shoulder, even as a heads-up display materialized virtually in front of his eyes. As if in response to this new insult, Cinderblock let loose another ear-splitting howl of anger, and then he began to stomp towards Cyborg, the demons orbiting around him shrieking in anticipation of the torments in store.
"It still won't go!" shouted David back, and Cyborg blocked Cinderblock's howls out, forcing himself to think, to pay attention to things other than impending army of darkness now less than fifteen seconds away. He could hear the engine straining as David pushed the accelerator, yet the truck stubbornly refused to move. If some vital component was broken they were dead, and so he refused to consider that, trying instead to imagine what else might -
"Do you see a gearshift?!"
They were less than a hundred yards away now, Cinderblock screaming like a runaway train, the demons around him peeling off and flying straight for him. Cyborg took a milisecond to aim before firing off a volley of rockets, each one spiralling off towards a different demon before blossoming into a dozen fireballs, leaving the broken remnants of the front rank of demons to splatter to the ground like water balloons.
"A gearshift!" shouted Cyborg. "A stick with numbers and letters on it!"
"Um... yeah!" came the reply.
"Set it to Drive!"
"Drive!D! Anything that isn't Park or Neutral!"
Fifty yards. Close enough that the truck was jumping on its suspension with each footfall. Cyborg loaded another volley and fired it, this time without bothering to aim, sending another dozen demons tumbling to the ground in broken ruin. Cinderblock ignored them, indeed he ignored all else, his eyes burning with hatred and rage, even as he brought his fists up and together for the two-handed smash that would crush them all to jelly.
Beneath him, Cyborg felt the subtle tremor of the transmission engaging, simultaneous with David calling back to him. "Got it!" shouted David. "Now what?"
Cinderblock was practically overhead, hands raised for the final blow. No time for a third volley. No time for anything.
"Right pedal stops, left pedal goes!" shouted Cyborg, staring up at his own ending. "Go! Go! GO!"
A high pitched squeal, as tires fought for purchase on ash-coated pavement, and then a deafening crash, like a meteor striking the earth, as Cinderblock's two-fisted smash collided with the empty street where moments ago the tow truck had been sitting. The monster raised his head, cognizant that his prey had somehow eluded him, just in time for Cyborg's last volley of explosive rockets to hit him square in the face.
And then things got violent.
The rockets exploded into a sheet of flame and smoke, a thin barrier to mask the sounds of incalculable, nuclear rage that were coming from behind it. A moment later, and the sheet was torn aside, Cinderblock racing through it, his face scarred but defiant, and all Hell followed with him. Accelerating to what was, for him, a dead sprint, he howled murder to the skies with such force that they split, and thunder boomed overhead as the sooty clouds flashed lightning and whirlwinds of fire. Flame demons surged from every side, emerging from ruined buildings and broken streets, oozing up from the ground, while from overhead, a swarm of hideous, chiropteran horrors descended from the clouds, howling and gibbering as they dove towards the forlorn truck.
Using his one good hand, Cyborg gripped the side of the truck, pulling himself over to one side before raising the stump of his other arm. Moments later, a small tube snaked out from the mangled limb, sliding down the side of the truck before slipping into the fuel port and sliding down to the truck's gas tank. And as demons descended on them from every direction, Cyborg watched his power cells register the intake from the diesel tank, his reactor analyze the fuel mix and activate the appropriate converters, and the indicator for sonic cannon embedded in his good arm switch from red back to green.
The leading demons were nearly at the rear wheels, the closest horrors already beginning their dives overhead. Cyborg shifted his arm into a cannon and swung it across the face of the enemy wave, letting the blue-white beam of ultrasonic annihilation sweep over the nearest foes and rip them to pieces. Dozens more ducked and wove around his beam of ultrasonic light, flipping end over end before diving down towards him, yet when he tried to line his cannon or missiles up on the diving demons, the truck inexplicably began to fishtail, ruining both his aim and that of the demons, who streaked past him into the asphalt.
He turned his head to ask David what the problem was, to see if the younger teen had simply lost control of the truck, but his question died before he could ask it. Ahead of them, blocking the road from sidewalk to sidewalk stretched a phalanx of demons twelve ranks thick. Plainly David had no idea what to do, already hitting the brake and skidding towards a stop, looking right and left for somewhere to turn, not realizing there wasn't likely to be one in the middle of the block.
"Go through 'em!"
"Go right through them!"
Any lingering suspicions that Cyborg might have harbored about whether the discolored simulacrum in front of him was actually the David he knew were dispelled twofold. First, by the look of sheer dumbstruck horror that David gave him at the order to drive straight at a thousand screaming demons. And second, by the conscious decision that crystallized in his eyes, as plain as day despite the red light, to set his own analysis aside in favor of trusting that Cyborg had not lost his mind.
The tires screamed as the truck accelerated towards the assembled demons, who howled as one and charged in their turn. And behind thundered the footsteps of Cinderblock, still stampeding towards them like an enraged buffalo the size of a office building. Laboriously, Cyborg turned himself around, hooking the stump of his broken arm around the tow crane and spinning in place until he was facing front.
"Duck," he said. And when David did so, he fired.
Above David's head, the windshield exploded, bursting outwards as a sonic pulse fifty thousand times stronger than that of the mightiest jet engine struck it like a projectile. And a fraction of a second later, the pulse of visible sound tore through the demon host, extinguishing two dozen demons in half a heartbeat. The truck swerved as David involuntarily tugged on the wheel, bounced as it rolled over a pile of miscellaneous debris, but Cyborg did not stop firing, and David did not release the accelerator. And then moments later, the truck, all three tons of it, crashed into the line of demons at seventy miles per hour.
Screams, howls, the sizzling sound of burning sulfur on metal, sickening crunches as demons were smashed to jelly beneath spinning wheels. Cyborg felt himself being hurled back in the bed of the truck, crashing into the tow cable, felt something hot and sticky grabbing his broken arm and skittering off it. Another tendril seized his neck, and flailing momentarily, he shifted his cannon back into a hand and seized one of the chains he had been using to tie himself into the truck's bed. In one motion, he swung the chain above his head and into the side of the demon's snarling face with such force that he tore it in half. And then, suddenly they were through, and behind Cyborg stretched a mob of howling demons with a path of crushed and ruined bodies bisecting it, moments before Cinderblock charged at full speed into and through the group, scattering them like bowling pins.
A glance forward to check that David was alright identified a new problem, parked and broken cars scattered all over the road, some of them larger than the truck they were driving. And yet Cyborg could do nothing to help or even guide David through the slalom course ahead, for Cinderblock was right on their tail, his hands raised to beat the truck into the Earth. Trusting to David to do his best, Cyborg turned back on Cinderblock and shot him square in the throat with a beam of sonic power that would have flayed the armor off a battleship. Cinderblock roared and stumbled, catching himself on one fist as further shots rained down on his flame-scorched hide, yet he did not fall, and he did not yield. Instead, snatching at the first object in range, Cinderblock picked up an entire motorcycle and threw it at them like a dodgeball. Cyborg shot it out of the air, moments before a tremendous blast from somewhere in front of them attracted his attention, and he turned around just in time to see a car fly over his head.
New to driving, and unable to steer the truck at high speeds through an obstacle course that would have challenged a stunt driver, David had opted for not even trying. Releasing the steering wheel entirely, he was leaning partway out the driver's side window, staff-in hand, blasting the cars in their path into the air like rockets, letting them spin upwards over them as they passed, hopefully to fall either on Cinderblock's head, or at least in his path. As Cyborg tracked the flying cars, he saw Cinderblock bat them out of the air with his hands, hurling two-ton sedans to either side as though swatting flies. Still David threw more cars up and back, managing by sheer luck to smash several of the flying horrors above, and forcing the rest to keep back, until the sheer speed they were going gradually left the demons and horrors alike in the dust.
But no speed the truck could muster could keep Cinderblock away. Heedless of rockets, sonic blasts, or flying automobiles he kept on, throwing anything that came to hand at them, screaming defiance and rage to the skies. And down the burning streets of hell they led him, on and on through streets both recognizable and alien, as David jammed the accelerator to the floor and set off explosions when he could, and Cyborg fired everything he had left in his arsenal to buy them whatever seconds were available.
Twice, David gave a formless cry as the street they were on terminated abruptly at an intersection, and those cries were Cyborg's cue to hang on for dear life, for untrained as he was, David could do nothing but pull the steering wheel over as hard as he could and pray that he didn't wreck them too badly. Once they went straight through a newspaper kiosk, briefly obscuring Cinderblock in a snowstorm of burning magazines. The second time the car skidded and lost purchase, and they slammed side-first into a delivery van hard enough to stave its side in and nearly hurl Cyborg out of the truck entirely. Cyborg recovered in time to turn and see Cinderblock sprinting towards them at fifty miles per hour, fist raised like a battering ram to crush them and the truck alike to pulp, and was reduced to simply watching as David somehow found the accelerator again in time to rocket them out of the way, leaving Cinderblock to hit the van hard enough to reduce it to metal fragments.
Even Cinderblock needed time to disentangle himself from the crushed remains of a seven-ton delivery truck, and as he lifted his head to locate his escaping targets, Cyborg shoot him in the eye with a sonic wave that could have blown a hole through an armored vehicle. This, at last, seemed to take effect. Cinderblock screamed in unmistakable agony as his head was blasted back by the shot, leaving scorched concrete around his beady eye, heated by the ultrasonic waves to a cherry red. Erupting with anger and pain, Cinderblock ripped the delivery truck to pieces, lunging back into the street and charging after his quarry, yet now they had a head-start of some size on him, and gaining more as the ground sloped downward and the tow truck picked up speed.
For a moment, Cyborg thought they might actually escape. Until he heard an unmistakable gasp of horror from the truck's cabin, and turned his head just in time to see a hundred screaming demons lunging at his face.
The pack of demons in the street ahead was not large, but it was solid and angry and had timed its assault just perfectly, darting out from a ruined apartment building at such speeds that David had no time to react before they hit. Many missed them entirely, sailing overhead harmlessly. Others dashed themselves to pieces by crashing headlong into the body of the truck or throwing themselves beneath its spinning wheels. Yet a dozen landed in the bed of the truck itself, tearing at Cyborg with tendrils of burning sulfur, seizing him by his broken limbs and one remaining intact one, wrapping their tendrils around his neck, screaming with rage and hatred as they rent and tore and ripped at anything they could. And from beyond the demons attacking him, inside the truck's cab, Cyborg heard a scream that was no demon's, as another handful of demons flew through the windows and shattered windshield, and sought to repeat the process not on armor or metal, but on defenseless, yielding flesh.
Maybe it was the sound of David's screams of pain that motivated what happened next. Maybe it was a simple wish to not die himself. But whatever it was, the next thing Cyborg knew, his one good arm was in human form again, and his hand was wrapped around the towing crane mounted in the middle of the truck bed. His fingers gouged furrows into the steel, even as the demons tore at him, and with a single, formless roar, he tore the entire crane free from its moorings, and swung it left and right like a burning brand. Demons lurched into his vision from all sides, and he flailed at them, sending the tow hook swinging in every direction, and every demon he struck exploded like a carton of milk. Yet even before the demons on him were all destroyed, Cyborg was crawling forward, slashing spastically in the general direction of the truck's cab, where David had fallen out of sight, but his screams had not stopped.
The truck, driverless, began to swerve violently as Cyborg pulled himself up to the back of the cab. He raised his head in time to see a demon loom up before him, its claws held high as it swung them down at some unseen target pinned to the seat. Yet before it could do so, Cyborg threw his good arm around and swung the towing hook around its neck like a lariat, dragging it bodily out through the missing rear window of the truck's cabin, and into the bed. The demon howled and twisted and tried to pull away but Cyborg's desperation had crystallized to rage, and he pinned the burning thing against his own chest, wrenching the tow chain back with such force that he tore the demon in half. Tossing its corpse aside, he reached up again and fishhooked a second demon through the face with the towing hook, wrenching it out of the cab as well and hurling it back out of the truck entirely to be dashed to pieces against a nearby dumpster.
Even now, the screaming did not stop, but when Cyborg turned to find further enemies, he saw instead David sitting up in the driver's seat, face contorted with pain, his near shoulder a lacerated mass of black char and grey fluid which oozed up from within him like ichor. Yet with his other hand he held his mangled staff like a knight's lance, and drove the end of it into a third demon's chest, pinning him against the passenger door. The demon howled, slashing at David's face with its whip-like tendrils, yet moments later, David detonated the tip of the staff, slamming the demon back against the buckling door. Again and again he stabbed the staff forward, blasting the end of it into the demon's chest like a jackhammer until the door behind gave way and both demon and door were blown out into the street. Yet as David struggled to sit back up, his good hand clutched to his wounded shoulder, the truck jerked violently as one of the remaining demons tore a swatch out of one of its front tires, screamed in its own right as it ran for a few yards on the bare rim, and then finally, with all the majesty of a collapsing building, jackknifed at sixty miles an hour and flipped.
Cyborg felt himself hurled back against the bed of the truck, felt his internal gyroscope spinning out of control as the truck rolled side over side, felt what remained of his left arm being wrenched off at the shoulder as it was caught between the lip of the truck bed and the street. Screaming metal and exploding glass mixed with the howls of demons as they were unceremoniously splattered beneath several tons of collapsing steel. A burnt-out vehicle in the path of the truck was crushed flat as it they rolled over it like a steamroller, bouncing and sliding before finally landing, miraculously, on their wheels, rocking to one side for just a moment, and then finally laying still.
It took Cyborg the better part of a minute to recover his bearings enough to even sit up. His left arm, already truncated by the demons, was now completely gone, pulled off at the shoulder like the arm of a plastic doll and ground into a fine paste now smeared across five hundred yards of asphalt. Sparks and a thin trickle of hydraulic fluid leaked from the crushed socket, but he did not stop to try and staunch the flow, instead forcing himself to grab the back of the truck's cabin and pull himself up enough to see if David was still alive. Even his "intact" arm no longer could muster much force, and it an agonizing process to heft himself up enough to peer into the cabin. And when he did, he felt his heart freeze.
Not because of David. Because of the precipice.
The truck sat on the edge of what looked like a bottomless pit, a cavernous void a mile across at the narrowest, driven right through the heart of the city as though it had been split in half with an axe. The chasm glowed a fiery orange, as if all the fires of hell churned deep within it. Grotesque moans, like a chorus of damned souls, filtered up from deep within it, along with a deep, formless roar, like a waterfall or blast furnace churning at full power.
Below Cyborg, David lay draped across the driver and passenger seats, the driver's side seat belt twisted and wrapped around his chest and arm like a mummy's bandages, his forehead and hair matted with a grey fluid that Cyborg took to be blood. Piles of steaming sulfur lay splattered about the truck's cabin or ground into a slurry on the floor. The steering column had been snapped like a twig, and the wheel was laying atop David's chest, dangling by a forest of wires and cabling, and yet Cyborg could see it slowly rising and falling as David clung painfully to life, his eyes gradually flickering open and struggling to focus on anything nearby. Cyborg could do nothing, not even reach out for him, but gradually David managed to push himself up on one elbow, and Cyborg was about to ask him if anything was broken when he heard something approaching.
And he knew what it was without turning.
The smoke parted as Cinderblock approached at a full run, his broken hide glowing bright orange with the flames of his own murderous rage. Sprinting over the broken earth, his feet driving molten craters into the asphalt beneath him, he came on through the eternal twilight like a freight train from Hell, and as he laid eyes at last on the half-crushed truck, his head flew back as he released a scream of triumph and rage that would have sent flights of angels screaming into the night.
His actuators broken and sparking, Cyborg twisted in place, trying to force his hand unsheathe his sonic cannon once more, leveling it off at the charging juggernaut and trying to keep it steady. Behind him, David reached down with one trembling hand to push the accelerator, trying to coax the truck to move out of Cinderblock's way. Yet nothing came of either endeavor. More than half of Cyborg's sonic emitters were broken, most of the rest barely functioning at all, and his damaged and bleeding power cell no longer had the energy to yield to his commands. His cannon spoke once, unleashing an anemic burst of sound barely potent enough to scratch Cinderblock's hide, even as David's agonizing gesture was rewarded with the sound of grinding metal. Cyborg recognized the unmistakable sound of a broken transaxle, spinning uselessly within the guts of the vehicle. Once more Cyborg tried to fire, and once more his cannon tried to respond, churning the air between himself and Cinderblock for just a moment before the power linkages finally failed altogether and, with mere seconds before impact, the cannon fell silent at last.
Cyborg took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Cinderblock hit the tow truck at nearly fifty miles an hour, lowering his shoulder at the last possible second like a football player preparing to lay his opponent out on the gridiron. His blow nearly folded the truck in half, lifting all three tons of its dead weight off the ground and hurling it unceremoniously away. Flying up, and spinning slowly in all three dimensions, the truck hung for what seemed like a long time above the gaping chasm, before finally plunging down into its indescribable depths, parting the shroud of smoke beneath it as it vanished into the cauldron below, with only the fading echoes of David's last, agonizing scream to mark that it had ever been.
And on the lip of the cliff, overlooking the chasm of eternity, Cinderblock watched the truck disappear, and then slowly turned around, and walked away.
"Is there a purpose to this pretense?"
"Pretense, nothing more. Adolescent fascination in a contest whose outcome is foreordained."
"Your capacity for self-aggrandizement should not be astonishing anymore, Trigon. And yet..."
"And yet you cannot accept what is before you. It is over. I am the master of this house."
"So you insist."
"So I demand!"
"Demand as you like. The universe does not turn to demands. Not even those of Gods like us."
"Have you still not finished flattering yourself? That you should frame your own existence in the context of mine?"
"And if I do, then who is being flattered?"
"You are nothing. Nothing but the echo of a long-dead defeat. To speak of us in the same sentence is presumption the likes of which you will become accustomed to shunning."
"Are your natural habits so far ingrained that they extend to threatening that which you cannot harm?"
"And what makes you think that you, of all beings, are beyond my reach?"
"You have no capacity to harm me, Trigon. I am inviolate."
"And I suppose your inviolability is what drives you to watch with such intensity?"
"What drives me is a motivation beyond your understanding."
"That is a lie. You have no motivations. You have no will. You are forbidden congress with such conceptions."
"An attribute we share, Trigon. But I at least can perceive the boundaries of my own experience."
"So a slave speaks of the wisdom of his master. Did a thousand lifetimes of bondage lead you to value the whims of insects so? Or were you simply created as a craven cur?"
"I was created to destroy you. That much you know already. But even if I cannot transcend my boundaries, those thousand lifetimes gave me wisdom enough to glimpse beyond them. As opposed to one so sunken in their decrepitude that they would employ their arts against one not even capable of willing you to stop."
"I do not practice my craft to please you."
"You do not practice your craft to please anyone, not even yourself."
"And you do?"
"Of course not. But I recognize what I am."
"You are my slave, whose obedience is commanded by laws higher than your own."
"Then employ me, oh master, if your will be strong enough. Your enemies lie before you. Command me, and they shall exist no more."
"You seek to save them, even now? Spare them my agony that they may escape safely into non-existence?"
"I have no need to seek for anything. You will never give me the order."
"Oh so sure of yourself. I with a new toy, and no desire to play with it?"
"Play all you like if it suits you. I know your mind, Trigon. I always have."
"There are ways beyond eternal night. You are as much scalpel as you are universal oblivion. Methods could be found to employ you in this thing."
"But not before the end. You've a pageant to perform, Trigon, one eons in the making. And so little time to see it through."
"Still clinging to hope that all will turn against me. Did you not describe yourself as a god, not moments ago? How far have you fallen, oh Lord of Destruction, to lean on intercessions. Tell me, have the mortals taught you to pray?"
"They have taught me many things, Trigon. Some of which I believe even you would profit from."
"I see no profit in abasing myself, weapon. But I shall not prevent you from doing so if it is your will."
"As you pointed out so clearly, I have no will, Trigon."
"Such is plain enough. Only one willing to abrogate their own sentience would place faith in external powers."
"I am not sentient. And if this is your effort to torment me, then you have fallen further than I assumed."
"This is nothing. Your torment has already begun, and will never end."
"All things end."
"Not us. Not this."
"Even so. And if you cannot perceive it, then I pity you."
"Pity me? Why? Because I am unable to perceive this terrible reversal you insist is coming?"
"I am no prophet, Trigon. I only speak of what may be."
"You speak of absurdities."
"Do I? This is not a game, Trigon, however much you may treat it as such. The forces aligned against you are not toys to be played with and discarded."
"Forces? What forces? This world is a cinder and its defenders lie trampled beneath its ashes. There are no forces remained to stand against me."
"Every action begets an equal and opposite reaction, Trigon. There are agents at work here beyond your comprehension."
"And what agents would these be? The hosts of light and virtue, trampling out the wicked with a terrible sword? Flights of angels descending from on high to oppose the advent of the Devil himself?"
"Anything is possible, Trigon."
"HA! I knew you to be a fool, Devastator, but even I did not know you to be a fool of this caliber. Have you spent so much time stapled to mortals that you have come to share their delusions?"
"Is hope now a delusion?"
"It is where I am concerned. The thousand score of worlds I burnt to ashes before this one, did their inhabitants not flock to temples and cathedrals without number? Did they not cry to their gods for succor against my advent? Did they not sacrifice and do penance in revenance to mute icons in the hope that they might be spared my coming? How many hosts of angels did they conjure to oppose me, Devastator? How many beings of purity and light manifested themselves temporally to drive me screaming back into the abyss? How many burnt cinders still float through the void, home to nothing more than the charred remains of those who died with prayers on their lips and relics thought holy clutched in their hands or tendrils? How well did their hope of salvation serve them?"
"Not very. And yet..."
"And yet what? This time is different? These humans are so much purer, so much more righteous, so much less deserving of my attentions than their fellows? While a hundred thousand civilizations lay in ignorance, did thesebeings discover the secrets of creation, and find Messiahs to save them? How convenient that they should have had the wisdom of ages revealed to them and no other."
"And yet you steadfastly refuse to acknowledge what lies in front of you."
"What lies in front of me? Are you - "
"Tell me, Trigon, which of us has been twisted by the mortals more? The one who acknowledges the possibility of hope? Or the one who, upon being confronted with hope, immediately clothes it in the language of the mortals themselves?"
"What blithering nonsense are you peddling?"
"Legions of angels? Beings of rapturous light? Messiahs? Did I speak of any such things? Or did you, on hearing the merest whisper of threat, envision your own doom in the terms of this world?"
"There are no threats arrayed against me. There are merely those whose agony I have chosen to prolong. And even should somewhere in the universe there exist threats to my existence, this is the last place it could possibly be found."
"It is. I know it well. Or did you think me a creature of whim and random fancy?"
"I do not make a habit of trying to imagine your thoughts."
"Why do you think I sired my daughter on this breed of hairless apes? Why do you imagine I chose this planet for my ascension? This planet of strife and chaos and violation after bloody violation? A planet so steeped in hypocrisy that its inhabitants can persist in imagining themselves the focal point of the universe even as they club one another to death over the possession of their hovels and slaves? A planet rotting with despair, so overwhelmed with violence and hate that the mere act of empowering a random sample of its denizens tears it to pieces in wars civil and interstellar? Why could I possibly have chosen this planet?"
"Trigon - "
"No! Your allotment of delusions is exhausted! I will tolerate no more of this wishful insanity. These beings you revere so highly are nothing but animals, depraved animals, crawling through their own filth and inflicting cruelties even I could not devise on one another, all while shrieking to their imaginary gods for succor from their own bestiality! Condemn me as craven if you will, Devastator, I did not make them so! I found what I sought within them and chose them as the vessels of my own resurrection. They alone possessed the necessary qualities to be worthy of named the antecedents of Trigon the Terrible! And knowing this, as you do, you actually have the temerity to stand before me, and tell me that they are creatures worthy of being spared my wrath?! Were I to stop after exterminating the humans, I should expect the rest of the universe to fall on their knees praising my name!"
"But you won't stop with them, will you?"
"No, I will not. But then my nature is not in question. Do not pretend to speak to me of the virtues of Earth and its denizens, Devastator. I know all too well their qualities. I chose them for their qualities."
"Then you have chosen poorly."
"Have I? I am not the only one who selected them, Lord of Destruction. You chose them yourself, to be your vessel, remember? How poor were your choices?"
"That remains to be seen. I do not pretend to know all ends."
"Then know this. There are no Gods of Light. There are no Hosts of Heaven. There are no beings of purity and virtue conjured forth by the presence of evil to bring salvation to the living. But even if these things did exist, then Devastator, surely you know as well as I do that this is the last place in the Universe that they would appear."
"You would deny this? You would seriously deny it? Are you so lost in your own guilt that in order to justify your selecting a juvenile human as the host of one of the cosmic forces of reality, you would try and argue the virtue of a species so depraved that they themselves admit to their crapulence? So visibly fallen that the central tenet of their major faiths is the inherent sinfulness and debasement of every single one? You would try and argue that they possess virtues so noble that the laws of reality would re-write themselves rather than see me expunge them from existence? In the face of all this, you would actually pin your hopes on the intervention of wholly mythical forces of Light, stepping in to rescue the most depraved people in the universe from the ministrations of a vengeful God?"
"No, Trigon, I do not pin my hopes on the arrival of the Forces of Light."
"Then why do you still insist on hoping for my defeat?"
"Because the Forces of Light are not coming, Trigon. They're already here."
The first hint Cinderblock had that something was wrong was when the screaming stopped.
Not that there was anything unusual about that. Screaming always stopped eventually, usually moments after he finished pounding whatever was screaming into jelly. But this time there was no accompanying sound of impact, erasing all cries beneath the crash of metal and glass. No gentle fading as the truck he just place-kicked into eternity vanished forever into the bottomless chasm behind him. One moment, there was a single, agonized scream. And the next, there was not.
"One of the aspects of this world I've always admired is the humans' penchant for storytelling."
Dim Cinderblock might be, thoughtless but for his vocation of wanton destruction, but in that chosen field, he was a master, and he knew the screams of the dying as well as a painter would his brushes. And while he might not have been able to vocalize what it was, he knew that something was wrong.
So he stopped, and turned, and saw something he did not expect.
"My host heard dozens, hundreds of stories in the few years I was with him. Most when he was too young to understand them. I would be stunned if he remembered more than one in ten of them. But I remember them all."
A hundred feet off the edge of the cliff, a truck was floating in mid-air.
"And there's one story, Trigon, that I think would profit you to hear."
It was barely a truck anymore. Broken and twisted around its own frame, its roof half-collapsed, two wheels missing, its bed a mass of tangled metal. Yet it floated in the air like a jewel, grey steel outlined against the orange fires that churned below it, as though gravity itself had no hold, and neither did the incalculable force with which Cinderblock had hurled it off the edge. Cinderblock was not overburdened with mental faculties, but even he had to stop at the sight of this impossible thing, sitting in front of him as though mocking his pretensions.
And then, slowly, as the truck rose upwards, the rest of its body came into view, and Cinderblock's burnt, blackened eyes widened as he saw what was holding it aloft.
"Eons ago, in a far off part of the world, there lived mighty beings that ruled over the Earth. Beings of such power that they could crush all the world beneath their heel, whose only rivals were one another. Though closely related to one another by blood and bond, one group of these beings divided from the rest, and plotting together, chose to rise up and overthrow the remaining beings, so as to rule unchallenged over all living things. This group of rebels became the Gods."
Below the truck, there floated a small, thin girl, bedecked in raiment of iron, face framed in a crown of steel. Her head was bent, her arms spread wide, the truck perched above her like Atlas holding the world aloft, and yet the thousands of pounds of dead weight bearing down upon her did not seem to oppress her in the least, rising as she was, slowly but steadily, as if all the weight above was no more than that of a small insect. Slowly, with infinite care, she raised her head, gazing at Cinderblock with eyes that glowed with green fire. And before Cinderblock could even consider what action he should now take, she threw her head back and fired twin beams of brilliant flame from her eyes, which crossed the intervening space in a fraction of a second, and struck Cinderblock squarely in the face.
"Those they overthrew were called the Titans."
Cinderblock roared like an enraged bull as burning flames poured over his battered face, staggering backwards and throwing his hands up to block them. Yet no twist or turn or gyration of Cinderblock's hands could stem the flow, as Starfire poured untrammelled rage into him, until the monolithic beast stumbled at last on the broken ground, and fell backwards with a thunderous crash.
Landing with the lightest of steps on the edge of the cliff, Starfire lowered the truck as though it were a box of delicate ornaments, laying it upon the scorched asphalt with as much care as she could before circling around to the back of the mangled vehicle. The loading gate was bent and jammed in place, and she tore it off with one tug, climbing into the truck's bed and shunting hundred pound pieces of twisted steel aside, digging through what was left of the towing cable and the equipment boxes for any sign of who she sought.
"Cyborg!" she cried.
'In a great and terrible war, the Gods overthrew the Titans, and seized their crowns for themselves. Most of the Titans they bound within the deepest pits of Tartarus, while others were set to eternal torments, holding aloft the world or writhing in bonds of fire. But for all their power and foresight, the Gods did not bind every Titan, leaving some behind instead to serve as amusements as they divided up the world for their own purposes.'
Cyborg lay prostrate on the bed of the truck, a ruined, broken shell of his former self. His armor was in ragged strips, torn away as though carved apart by some tremendous can opener, his limbs hacked or wrenched off, fluids of various colors and viscosities leaking from within his body. Yet before Starfire's worst fears could present themselves before her, his mechanical eye sparked several times, and his human one opened, roved in search of an anchor, and then found it.
"Cyborg!" shouted Starfire, and heedless of weight or damage she lifted him from the truck bed, squeezing his broken body against hers as tightly as she dared. Cyborg made no move to stop her, perhaps he couldn't or perhaps he hadn't the heart, but he did manage to weakly raise his arm and drape it around her shoulders. Starfire said nothing, indeed it seemed to be all she could do to hold herself together, until at long last she managed to pull back, brush the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, and muster a question.
"Are you unharmed?"
Taken literally, it was one of the stupidest things ever said. Cyborg knew better than to take it literally. "I'll be alright, Star," he said, without permitting himself to think of whether or not this was likely to be the case.
"One whom they spared was named Prometheus, and I do not know why the Gods did so. Maybe they thought their victory complete, or maybe they feared to take the ultimate sanction against him. For whatever purpose it was, they set him loose, alone among his fellows, and enjoined him to oppose them no longer."
From the truck's cabin, there came a series of muffled thuds, creaking groans as something hit one of the doors over and over. Moments later, there came two loud bangs, like gunshots in a quiet room, and the entire driver's side door fell out, landing on the broken ground like an anvil. Another pause, a gathering of strength, and then someone fell out of the truck's cab, someone garbed in grey, whose hair and face and clothes were so impregnated with dust and volcanic ash that no trace of their original pattern could be discerned. The figure landed on hands and knees, coughing and retching on the sundered ground. Desperately, he fought himself to stand, to walk, to do anything really, but his hands shook like leaves, and his lungs refused to calm themselves, and ultimately he could do nothing but remain where he was.
Behind, Starfire watched this all in silence, frozen like a statue as the slight figure managed to crawl a few paces before collapsing on the pavement, a twisted, mangled stump of charred steel falling from his pocket and rolling to a stop against his hand. For several, long seconds, she neither said a word nor moved a muscle, eyes wide and mouth open, before turning to Cyborg, her face an unasked question, obvious to all.
I can only speculate to the Gods' motivations in leaving Prometheus to walk the Earth. But I need not speculate to the result.
David's heart froze as he heard footfalls behind him.
His arms shaking uncontrollably, he managed to lift himself up enough to turn his head, and saw Starfire land beside the broken truck, her hands sheathed in fire, her eyes glowing like emeralds. A crown of iron was mounted on her head, and banded raiment of steel ringed her body like armor. She said nothing and made no gesture. But moments later she strode towards him with purpose and poise, her bearing regal and terrible to David's eyes.
Some fragmentary memory of Cyborg's reaction moments ago to his red eyes and ashen skin bubbled to the surface, and he tried to get up, to step back, to move away lest Starfire decide he was yet another one of Trigon's perversions and reduce him to ash. But his shattered nerves would not transmit his orders, and all he could do was rise to one knee before he stumbled and fell again, landing on his back this time with Starfire bearing down on him. Try though he might, he could not rise again, and was reduced to a babble of desperate cries as she loomed overhead.
"Star! Star, no, wait, it's me! Star it's - "
And then suddenly he was on his feet.
He was standing up, and something had him by the shoulder in a grip of iron, and he couldn't breathe, and yet somehow these facts were just facts, disconnected elements that had nothing to do with anything, not worth considering or fighting over. Broken as he was, it was a little while before he realized that he was being held up by arms that gripped him so tightly his lungs could not take in the air, that his head was being pressed against a shoulder plated with steel, that the warm feeling on the back of his neck was the aftermath of a dispelled starbolt, capable of burning through an armored vault door, yet now dismissed at the will of its maker, and that for the first time in a long, longtime, he was perfectly, completely safe.
Prometheus stole the most precious secret of the Gods, the gift of Fire, and gave it to men, that they might use it forevermore, in defiance of the edicts of the Gods, who had created men to live forever in paradisiacal ignorance. He gave them the fire, and with it the gifts of civilization. Agriculture and medicine and mathematics and music and poetry and every other thing, all freely given, in defiance of the Gods.
It might have been a full minute before David chanced again to move, or perhaps an hour or a week or a hundred thousand years. All he knew was that at some point he realized that he was standing under his own power again, and when he moved to stepped back, Starfire let him do so. He lifted his head to see her beaming down at him, her flames receded, the front of her banded armor covered in the same ash and coal slurry that coated him like the icing on a cake, tears rolling down her face. And before he could come up with anything to say, Starfire pre-empted him.
"David," she said, in a voice tinged with relief and astonishment. "We thought you dead."
For the second time tonight, David felt something twisted and tight vanish from inside of him. "I... think I was," he said, "I don't really remember." He struggled for something to say to explain the discoloration that had nearly led Cyborg to shoot him, but couldn't find the words in the face of Starfire's expression of astonished joy. "I thought you guys were all dead too," he said at last.
Smiling broadly and blinking back tears, Starfire stepped forward, laying a hand on David's shoulder. Only now did David notice that amidst the grey iron of smeared with black sludge, there was a trickle of red running down the front of Starfire's regalia, pulsing from a dark patch beneath her ribs where the bands of steel were bent inward. Yet as his eyes widened and he drew breath to ask the obvious question, Starfire's grip tightened, and he lifted his eyes to see her staring down at him with an intensity that he had not often seen from the Tamaranean princess.
"It takes more than this to destroy us," she said, every word pronounced with careful deliberation. "Farmore."
It didn't sound like a question. But he answered it anyway.
"Yeah," he said. "I guess it does."
He wasn't even sure what he meant by that, but Starfire simply smiled again, and pulled him in for another hug, light enough this time that he could breathe. And when that was done, they turned back to the truck, where Cyborg still sat, and she helped him back over to it, for he was still only barely capable of walking.
"Come," said Starfire, "we must find - "
She didn't get any further.
The Gods, in their anger, punished Prometheus by chaining him to a mountain and conjuring a great beast to devour his liver daily for eternity, and cursed his very name with all the condemnations they could load upon it. Zeus, the King of the Gods himself declared that Prometheus would suffer for all time for having dared to defy him, and that his name would be remembered only as a story of the wrath and power of the Gods.
A low growl, deep and earthy and loud enough to drown out all else resonated, setting the pebbles to quivering and the ground to trembling beneath their feet. Starfire stopped, David nearly fell over, and Cyborg, perched within the remains of the truck, turned his head to the only possible source.
"You've gotta be kiddingme..."
Like some nightmarish phoenix rising from the ashes, Cinderblock shunted rubble aside, his face a mass of scoring and ash through which his eyes, as red as David's, shone visibly in the dark. Slowly, like a monolith emerging from the wreck of ages, he loomed upwards, the fissures in his hide erupting into living flame as he attained his full height. Dust and debris tumbled from his terrible form, even as he scowled at the trio of teenagers that stood on the edge of the precipice. And at his feet, a fresh horde of flame demons boiled up from the ground, hissing and spitting as they danced around Cinderblock, their fiery tendrils snapping in the leaden air.
But that was not Prometheus' fate. For his gifts had changed the lives of men, and with them they mastered their world, and built cities and palaces, and multiplied across the land, until one day, in defiance of the Gods themselves, a man dared brave the monsters of Zeus, found Prometheus, slew the beast that tormented him, and freed him from the torments of the Gods forever.
Nobody said a word. Nobody so much as moved. David did not know if he was capable of moving anymore, not with this sight in front of him. It wasn't fear that kept him rooted in place. His capacity to measure fear had long since been saturated. It was just the simple realization that despite everything that had happened in the last ten minutes, this was still their reality.
But then he heard a series of clicking sounds, and when he turned his head to see what had produced it, he saw the cowling of Cyborg's sonic cannon open up to reveal a riot of machinery beneath. Sinuous tendrils of chrome and titanium slithered this way and that within the cannon, ejecting damaged components and connecting fresh ones, all without Cyborg even sparing a glance at them. He watched the process with a fascination borne of extreme mental fatigue, and it wasn't until he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder that he turned away.
Starfire was beside him, floating several inches off the ground, and her eyes and hands were radioactive green once more. Blood still trickled from her punctured armor, yet she gave it no evident thought. And in her hand was, of all things, a bar of steel, one of many bits of shattered debris retrieved no doubt from the bed of the ruined truck, mangled and soot-covered, but nonetheless a foot of solid metal, which she now extended to David.
Gingerly, he took the bar, and felt its weight in his fingers, and conscious of the fact that both Cyborg and Starfire were watching, he took a deep breath, reached out with his mind for something that wasn't there, and watched as the bar of steel enveloped at his command with red, heatless flames.
Beside him, Starfire smiled softly, her flaming eyes off-putting to anyone else no doubt. To David, right now, they were like a lit beacon on a dark night. "Keep the demons back," she said. "Do not permit them to harm Cyborg." A fractional hesitation, a check to see that her instructions were being understood. "I will deal with Cinderblock," she said at last, as though it were the simplest thing in the world. Maybe it was.
The man who did these things was neither Titan nor God, but something greater than either. The first of many, whose destinies would reshape the world and exile the Gods themselves from their thrones. He was a figure destined to exceed in legend both his enemies and his creators, the first of many to take the gifts of the Titans and use them to win fame and perform deeds that even the Gods thought impossible.
Cinderblock's eyes narrowed as he gazed down at the three teenagers. He growled, and his growl was like great cement blocks being dragged across one another. And in chorus with their master, the demons around him raised a great clamor, showering abuse in demonic tongues on their adversaries. None of the three Titans reacted to the screams. There were far worse things that they would soon need to react to. But as the howls reached a crescendo, Cinderblock himself threw his head back, took a single step forward, and let loose an ear-splitting roar, one that caused the ground to shake and the stones to split, rocking the truck back on its wheels and blasting the three Titans with the hot wind of malice. A roar of terror. A roar of rage. A roar of incalculable hatred.
A roar answered seconds later by one twenty times as strong.
The first roar had been a thunderous challenge. This one was like a bomb being set off. A cry of defiance so intense that it nearly bowled David over, made Cyborg bring his hand up to shield his face, and even shoved Starfire out of the air back onto the ground with the sheer force of it. It sent demons tumbling like bowling pins, rolling over the ground as great sheets of masonry fell from nearby buildings, and Cinderblock staggered as though struck by a wrecking ball, spinning halfway round with all the grace of a collapsing building. And even as Cinderblock swung his arms, seeking to recover his balance and turn on this new intrusion and destroy it, the entire front section of one of the massive buildings lining the street gave way like an avalanche, and revealed in its place a massive, towering creature, six stories tall, festooned with claws and spikes and slavering jaws that held teeth as large as swords and sharp as razors. A monster beyond imagining, summoned to the Earth to wreak vengeance and death, it loomed from the crushed building, its eyes darting this way and that, shining in the darkness like the crown jewels of Hell. And as it stepped forward into the ambient firelight, the monster was revealed in all its glory, towering, ferocious, implacable...
His name was Hercules. And he was a Hero.
…and bright, emerald green.
Out of the corner of his eye, David saw Starfire's eyes widen to the size of dinner plates, saw her face light up, saw her open her mouth to cry the name he would have cried himself had he still possessed his powers of speech. But despite Starfire's excitement and powerful voice, he heard nothing of what she said, for in that instant, the creature that Beast Boy had become opened wide its jaws and let loose a torrent of sound that drowned all possible response. And after that there was no need for talk anyway.
From what depraved nightmare Beast Boy had conjured this terrible form, David neither knew nor wanted to know. Likely enough it was no particular earthly design, extinct or otherwise, but rather some amalgam of all the terrors of the universe rolled together. Part Godzilla, part Tyrannosaur, part Balrog for all David could tell, its very existence seemed to violate Euclidian physics, and yet its appearance did not stoke the flames of David's latent fear, but rather a different reaction entirely. Implacably it stalked towards Cinderblock, brushing demons aside like crockery, stomping them into wafers, kicking packs of them aside as they lashed in vain, and David awoke from the shock of its appearance to find himself cheering, jumping, yelling incoherent words that nobody could hear anyway, for the sound of the titanic Titan's footfalls was like artillery fire, and its roar the low baritone of an erupting volcano. Beside him, Cyborg was shouting something as well, he couldn't tell what, but his face was lit up, and he aimed his sonic cannon and fired a shot that impaled three demons on a beam of blue light. But nothing could take the spotlight from Beast Boy, who waded through the demons as though they were grains of sand, advancing to a lumbering run, raising one reptilian claw as he did so before bringing it down directly on Cinderblock's head.
You look on mortals, Trigon, and you revile them as weak and fragile and ignorant, and perhaps they are. But in your own ignorance, you pronounce the word Hero as though it were some platitude handed out to any overachieving child on this planet. You have no conception of what faces you now, Trigon. These children are something far, far worse than anything even you could dream up.
The impact of the two giants was like meteors colliding, and the shockwave they produced reduced every demon within twenty feet to mangled pulp, but neither one paid any of the demons the slightest mind, each one outdoing the other in howls of rage as they strained and twisted and wrestled with one another, staggering back and forth. Cinderblock's hide burst forth in fiery glory, flames scorching Beast Boy's green scales black, yet Beast Boy did not relent, and biting down on Cinderblock's shoulder, he spun in place and smashed the living monolith into a nearby office building, shattering its face and half-burying them both in a torrent of loose rubble. David coughed and waved the dust cloud from his face, and when he looked again, he saw Starfire in amidst the two gyrating monsters, flying around and over and even betweenthem, beams of green energy flying from her hands and eyes as she traced patterns of scoring over Cinderblock's fractured hide. Again and again, surviving demons sought to drag her down with their whip-like tendrils of living flame. And again and again, she evaded them with ease, leaving the demons themselves to be erased under a fresh barrage of sonic blasts or micro-missiles from Cyborg's bottomless arsenal.
These are not frightened children begging you to leave them be. They are not mortals cowed by your magnificence into betraying their fellows or worshiping your greatness. They are Heroes, Trigon. And you may be a God of Evil, but they exist to defy and destroy those who would be Gods. Had you only heeded the warning implicit in their very name, you might have realized what it was you had undertaken to attack.
As incomparable violence exploded before him, David held his baton ready, and sought for targets of his own, looking to add his fire to the inferno before him, and yet he did not strike. For one thing, there was little he could do. Beast Boy and Cinderblock were at such close quarters that to throw something explosive at one would be to hit them both, and such few demons as remained were being systematically winnowed by Cyborg and Starfire. And so it was, after a few moments, that David lowered his hand, and extinguished the flaming baton, and simply watched. Once, many miles and months away from here, he had done something similar, when he had sat upon a tower and watched five Olympians battling a fire-breathing dragon. But this was not like then. Then it had been a matter of humility and insignificance, of the sharp and mighty distinctions separating someone like him from someone like the Titans, an unmistakable reminder that he was not and never would be one of them. This time was different. It was not a matter of who belonged with what, or who was and was not significant, in the grand scheme of things. It was simply the fact that this battle, this time, this occasion, they did not need him. If they had, he was here. But until they did, for what might be the last time ever, he could sit back, and simply watch the Teen Titans battle evil.
I do not need to call on hosts of Heaven, Trigon. I do not need to place my faith in armies of angels and saints, marching forth to the sound of clarions to battle the risen devil. I do not need these things, because my forces of Light have already arrived. They never left. And you, who warrants yourself such a master of these fields, have walked in among them, and now stand ignorant to the danger you lie in. These children are the Teen Titans, heirs to the Heroes and Godslayers of ancient times. And all you have accomplished, with all your craft and subtlety, is to obtain their undivided attention.
All of a sudden, Beast Boy twisted in a manner he should not have been able to, and shoved against Cinderblock with the force of a prime mover, and Cinderblock was half-staggered, half-hurled back, stumbling obliquely away from the enormous changeling. Before he could recover, before he could even determine what had happened, Starfire was upon him, streaking in like a bolt of lightning. She did not fire starbolts this time, but struck with her clenched fist, smashing into Cinderblock's chest with the force of a howitzer, doubling the great monster over, before shifting momentum in mid-air and uppercutting him in the chin. Cinderblock's head snapped back like a punching back, and he stumbled back yet further, reaching out and grabbing a nearby building for support, only to have Cyborg cut the section he had seized free of the surrounding structure, leaving him unsupported once more. Now he was at the precipice of the cliff itself, arms waving in the air as he fought for equilibrium, tottering on the very edge with his enemies closing in. Yet before Beast Boy could lower his head to charge, or Starfire raise her hands to fire, or Cyborg lock his sensors to launch his missiles or beams of sonic death, David took a deep breath, let it slide softly out from between his teeth in the same way that it had all those months ago, and lifting his baton with one hand, casually blew the ground out from under Cinderblock's feet.
That, Trigon, was a mistake.
Cinderblock fell like a toppling skyscraper, screaming angry defiance to the end, even as he plunged out of view. Standing near the edge himself, David turned to follow his fall, watching as the nightmare that had haunted his very dreams for months on end plunged down, down, down, into the chasm of fire. It seemed an eternity that he hung in the air, his limbs slowly twisting and turning, dwindling in size as he plunged away, before at long last the shroud of orange smoke that churned within the depths of the chasm swallowed him up, and Cinderblock was gone.
David watched the chasm until the last echoes of Cinderblock's parting scream had faded into the ambient noise. And then he felt a thick glove land softly on his unwounded shoulder.
"Dude," came Beast Boy's voice, no longer monstrous, but just the way he remembered it. "I know I'm awesome and all, but just because I'm green doesn't mean you have to pick a new color too."
And all of a sudden he was crying.
He turned around, already preparing an explanation for the color shift, but Beast Boy did not wait to receive it. Perhaps he had divined from David's actions or Starfire and Cyborg's reactions to him that this was no evil simulacrum, or perhaps he had some other way of knowing. It didn't matter ultimately. What mattered was that David not only never got to explain what had happened to him, he did not get to say much of anything for quite a while, as Beast Boy unleashed a torrent of half-formed explanations and questions he did not wait long enough to hear the answer to. And Starfire was there too, and Cyborg, leaning over the edge of the truck to clap Beast Boy on the back with his massive hand, and all of them, not just Beast Boy, were talking rapidly, filling the air with their voices because speaking was plainly the only thing keeping them all from bursting into tears. And so Starfire hugged Beast Boy a little tighter than she might otherwise have, and Beast Boy her, and both of them Cyborg, and all three David, and it no longer mattered what state the rest of the world was in, or what legions of foes stood between them and the end.
There is an old human proverb, Trigon, one composed many millennia ago, a long time as the humans reckon it. It's a simple concept, but one that I have a feeling you are about to become intimately familiar with.
At length, however, Beast Boy spoke up, in a tone more serious than he had been using, one which everyone else instantly knew to listen to in silence.
'Those who sow the air shall reap the whirlwind.'
"Guys," said Beast Boy, looking from face to face, "you're not gonna believe who I found..."
Atop a crucifix of fire that had once been a tower, a figure wreathed in storms brooded on thoughts best left unsaid, even as he visualized a single line in reply to all that had transpired.
"We shall see..."
There were no words to describe how amazing the antiseptic felt.
Granted, he was grading on a curve here, but still it was true. It wasn't that the iodine felt particularly good as it burned into the lacerations the demons had given him the cabin of the tow truck, it was more that his stinging shoulder and arm were the only things that hurt right now. After everything that had happened tonight, to have only one area of his body hurting was a reprieve beyond price. The rest of him had receded into a warm numbness, not as intense as the anesthesia he'd been under more than once in the Tower basement, but close enough for his purposes now. He had no idea what was in the pills Cyborg had told him to dissolve under his tongue, and at this point didn't much care. There were too many other things right now that were more important.
It sufficed only to glance around to remind him of what those things were.
Cyborg sat across from him, atop a workbench, a soldering iron in one hand as he made adjustments to the shiny new arm that was now connected to his other shoulder, and David simply sat on the padded medical bed and silently watched him work, watched the metal give off sparks as Cyborg connected this circuit and that one, and watched him test the actuators that governed the thing's movement. Every so often, Starfire walked back into the room, his arms piled high with supplies or equipment or some other thing he had dug out of the storage room beneath them, and every time she came in, she asked David if he needed anything, or if he was all right, and every time, David just nodded, or gave her a one-word answer. To be honest, the ability to simply sit here like this was a gift beyond price, and not simply because he was no longer in pain or covered with coal sludge (at least not as much). The last time he'd been in this bunker, he'd been here alone but for ghosts conjured from within his own head. He'd left it with every expectation of never living long enough to return. Yet here he was. And here they were. And this was real. And every moment he spent just watching Cyborg work or Starfire walk in and out made it more real.
But then, of course, there was someone else here too.
She was sitting on a couch, kneeling on it and just barely peeking over the top, watching him with the intensity of her namesake. This much he'd had to ascertain with his peripheral vision, for every time he turned the red spotlights that now served as his eyes directly on her, she instantly vanished down behind the couch, usually with a soft gasp of what he assumed was fear. Not an emotion that David normally associated with Raven, but then these circumstances were anything but normal.
On the way back to the bunker, Beast Boy had tried to tell them all the story of where and how he had found her, but try as he might, David had not been able to follow much of it. Part of it was that the story itself made no sense at all, not that he expected it to. Ice worlds and rivers of fire and the evil twins of several different people all melded together into a mind-numbing collage, particularly given everything he'd seen and done himself. Part of it, of course, was also that Beast Boy was not the most coherent storyteller, veering off on nineteen different tangents at a moment's notice. But most of it was just that, given everything, all that really mattered was the result. Beast Boy was alive. Raven was alive. The exactitudes of how and why these things had come about, David was more than willing to leave to intellects wiser than his own.
No, what mattered was that somehow Beast Boy had defied all possibility, and found Raven. The last thing David remembered before the blinding light and searing pain of his own death had been Raven being disintegrated and transformed into a portal for Trigon's advent. And yet here she was again, reduced for some reason to a little girl of eight or nine, but Raven nonetheless, the same hair, the same eyes, the same silent stare. What all this portended, what symbolism was being done, he did not know or even know how to ask. He didn't know if it was important or not. But as he turned his eyes towards Raven once more, and caught a brief glimpse of her diving for cover under the glare of red lights, he felt something, nebulous and uncertain, gently tugging on the back of his brain.
There was a series of beeping sounds from the main entrance, and then the soft hiss of a door sliding open. David turned his head to see Beast Boy walking in, and knew instantly from the expression on his face what the changeling was about to say.
"Nothing?" asked David, unable to stop himself.
Beast Boy sighed and shook his head. "I looked everywhere," he said. "There's no sign at all."
"That's... that's impossible," said David, but he knew that it wasn't. No sooner had David managed to tell Beast Boy and Starfire that Terra was nearby, bleeding and stapled to a car, than Beast Boy had raced off to find her. Honestly, they all would have if they could, but Cyborg couldn't walk, David could barely stand, and Starfire needed to help them all back to the emergency bunker. Beast Boy, who was both reasonably intact and flight-capable, and who frankly would probably have gone looking even if those things hadn't been true, had spent the last hour or more searching for her. It should have taken five minutes.
"She was right in the middle of the street," said David. "At the center of the - "
"I know," said Beast Boy. "I found the crater. But there wasn't anyone in it. No car, no blood, nothing. I even tried to dig into the ground. I couldn't find any sign of her."
It made no sense, and yet it had to be true, for Beast Boy would not lie, not about something like this, and moreover would not have abandoned the search without scouring the entire area for half a mile in every direction. Indeed it was unlikely he'd be here even now had Cyborg not made him promise to return no later than this. Had Beast Boy not returned, he knew that broken or not they all would have left to find him come hell or high water, and with everyone in the shape they were in, even Beast Boy's inability to let go of a lost cause would not permit him to keep looking.
All this David discerned in a flash, but he did not say any of it, nor any other thing, for there was nothing for him to say. Terra had been in one place, and was no longer. Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps she had managed to escape. Perhaps the demons had seized her and borne her in torment to the feet of Trigon's throne. There was no way to tell. And so he said nothing, and lowered his eyes, and silently tried to convince himself that he had done the right thing in leaving her to die in the street.
"We're gonna finish this," said Cyborg, snapping shut the panel on his arm as he did so. "Once and for all." He swung the arm experimentally, shifting it from limb to cannon and back again, before sliding himself around on the table and dropping down onto the floor, his replacement legs flexing as he hit the ground.
Beast Boy looked from Cyborg to Starfire to David and back to Cyborg. "How?" he finally asked.
"The way this always had to end," said Cyborg. "We're gonna go after Trigon."
If that notion was a shock to anybody, they disguised it well. Starfire nodded slowly, while Beast Boy looked almost relieved, as though the mere prospect of something to think about besides Terra was a relief right now. David knew how he felt. Or rather he wished he did.
"How are we to attack Trigon?" asked Starfire. "His power greatly exceeds anything we can produce."
"Not anymore," said Cyborg, and he, and everyone with him, turned their eyes to the small girl still nestled on the couch.
The girl in question said nothing as the various teenagers turned in her direction. She had not said anything since they had arrived at the bunker, indeed not said anything since Beast Boy revealed that he had found her. Yet since that moment, David had noticed the little girl casting apprehensive looks in his direction whenever she thought he wasn't looking, something easier to determine when your eyes doubled as spotlights. Of course that was probably because he, alone among the others, looked muchdifferent than when she had last seen him, a spitting image of one of the many evil twins that she and Beast Boy had no doubt had to fight their way through. That was sufficient to explain it.
Or was it?
Beast Boy walked around the couch and sat down next to Raven, gently putting an arm around her as she watched the others warily. "You really think she can bring Trigon down?" he asked.
"Robin did," said Cyborg. "That's why he went to get her the last time we did this."
"It's not why I went to get her," said Beast Boy.
"I know," said Cyborg. "But I think she can do it anyway."
"Slade did not think this," said Starfire, cautiously.
"Slade didn't think I could find her at all," said Beast Boy. "He told me that before Trigon burned him up."
David said nothing, and the discussion proceeded without him, not an argument or debate but more of a collective decision being distilled from the air between them all. He could have chimed in of course, but he already knew what would come of it. So did they. They weren't talking to hash out what had to be done, but rather talking because they could. Because they were all here, in one place, and could talk to one another, and everyone was alive. And reticent as David usually was in these sorts of group chats, he would have liked nothing better than to chime in. But he did not. And he did not because there was something still tugging on him, something he couldn't put a name to...
"We blast our way directly to Trigon," said Cyborg. "Blow away anything tries to get between us and him. Between the four of us, we should have enough fire to do that."
"There could be any number of demons between us and him," said Starfire, who did not sound particularly worried about that possibility. "And perhaps other things we have not yet seen."
"Yeah? Well we've got some stuff they'venever seen," said Beast Boy, giving a grim smile. "We'll see how they like it."
Raven's eyes were fixed on his, direct and unblinking. Aged down to a little girl, she still had the ability to mesmerize like a cobra with a simple look. With Beast Boy at her side, she no longer ducked away from the red glare of his own stare, but simply looked at him, and he at her, as he racked his brain to try and figure out what it was that was bothering him so much. Bits and fragments of everything that had happened over the last day echoed through his mind, refusing to coalesce into anything coherent, but equally refusing to go away.
"And when we get there..." said Beast Boy, trailing off at the end of a lengthy recitation. He looked from face to face for someone to finish the sentence.
"... then... we hope that Raven can do whatever it was she did the last time," said Cyborg.
"Forgive me," said Starfire, in that manner she used whenever she was about to ask a thorny question, "but... do we knowwhat it was that Raven did on the previous occasion to defeat her father?"
Blank stares all around served as the answer. "Does it matter?" asked Beast Boy at last, gently squeezing Raven against his own side. This broke her stare, and she looked up at Beast Boy, and then around at the others, as the question sat for just a moment.
"No," said Starfire at last, "it does not."
Raven looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn't make the words come together. She looked up to Beast Boy, to Starfire, to Cyborg, searching for something with each one, before turning to the next. The others didn't rush her, didn't push her into agreeing or saying one thing or another. They just waited, quietly, letting Raven take her time before she said something, or nothing at all, each one facing the reality of what it was they had just bet the fate of the planet on.
And to all appearances, that was what David was doing too. But in reality, David was barely here at all. He was miles away, in the ruins of a shopping mall, listening to a voice that could well have been his own.
"Will is everything," said Devastator. "Will is life itself. Will is the fundamental force of the universe. Greater than gravity, greater than magnetism, greater than any nuclear absurdity dreamed up by physics. Will alone commands the cosmos at large."
It was only hours ago, yet it felt like months. Already the memory of the fighting, the screams and explosions and the feel of his back smashing into a wall or the blood seeping into his mouth, already those things were fading. But the voice, the poise, the vision of Devastator, framed in a red halo, sword and cane in hand, those things were not. They were growing sharper. He could see him standing there now, his scarred face and blinded eyes and the thin curl of contempt at his lips as he surveyed a thing that was beneath him. He could hear the voice, similar and yet completely alien. Even as a still pond one moment, a savage, biting curse the next.
And yet... something else too...
David awoke to find everyone staring at him. He blinked, tried to recollect what he had last heard, drew a blank. Beast Boy was carrying Raven, Cyborg was leaning up against his workbench, and Starfire was standing off to one side. He blinked mutely for several seconds before mustering any sort of response.
"Sorry," he said. "What was that?"
"I just asked if you had any better idea for this," said Cyborg. "You er... you alright, man?"
"Yeah," said David, rubbing his eyes as he struggled to clear his head of everything bouncing around in it. It wasn't much use.
"You sure?" asked Cyborg. "You look kinda..."
"Pale?" suggested Beast Boy. Cyborg shot him a look, but it brought a small smile to David's face.
"I'll be okay," said David. "It's just something's... something's wrong."
Several wordy looks were exchanged by the others, Raven included. "Please, David," said Starfire, "tell us what is the matter. We shall do whatever we may to alleviate your discomfort."
What a list that would have made. "No, it's okay, Star," he said. "It's not me it's... it's this. This... here. Something's wrong with this."
The looks of concern had evolved into real confusion. "... this?" asked Starfire at length.
How to explain? "This... whole situation. Something's wrong."
Another series of glances between the other Titans. This time it was Cyborg who spoke up. "Look, David, I know this one's a longshot. It's only normal to be afraid, but none of us are goin' into this alone. 'Sides, look at everything we just pulled off."
He wasn't making any sense, not to them, not even to himself, and he knew it, and didn't know how to start, but whatever his brain was trying to tell him, he knew this was important. "No," he said. "It's not the plan that's the problem."
"Well what is it, then?" asked Cyborg. And when David didn't answer presently, he added more.
"Look, if you got a problem with all this, man, this is the time to say it."
Maybe it was Cyborg's spur, gentle though it was, that pushed him through the mess of his own running mind. Or maybe he was just tired of his own prevarications. But ultimately, David raised his eyes once more and simply said the first thing that came to mind.
That was clearly not the answer Cyborg was expecting, but Cyborg fielded it anyway. "Last I saw, he was at the Tower, hanging out like he's waiting for - "
"No," said David. "Why isn't he here?"
Silence greeted that question, as the others looked from one to the other and back to David, who let the question sit. After some time, Beast Boy chimed in with an answer.
"Um... Dude? I don't think he'd fit."
It was, of course, the exact right thing to say, and David smiled, and so did Cyborg, and even Starfire, who probably didn't get the joke but liked the fact that Beast Boy had made it. And yet the voices, or whatever they were, in the back of David's mind kept pushing at him, telling him that this was too important to be sidetracked. "Just... bear with me a second, okay?" said David, taking a deep breath to set what little order he could among his thoughts.
"Trigon knows we're here, doesn't he?" he asked, pressing on before he could get an answer. "I mean... even if he doesn't know exactly where, he knows we're alive, and that we're together. He's gotta know that." He turned to Beast Boy. "He's gotta know that you found Raven. You said you fought with a bunch of evil twins and went through some frozen Hell and everything. He has to know you did all that, his own servants were chasing you around." He turned back to the others. "And he's gotta know that Warp's gone, and Jinx turned on him, and that we threw Cinderblock off a cliff. I mean... Beast Boy turned into a Dinosaur. I blew up a shopping mall with a bomb you could see from Idaho. Unless he's blind, deaf, and stupid, he's gotto know that we all made it, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, probably," said Cyborg. "Why?"
"So if he knows all this," said David. "Where is he? Where's his armies, his monsters, demons? Why isn't he sending them out to scour the city looking for us?" He looked from face to face, red light falling upon each of his friends in turn. "I mean think about it. This is exactly how he lost last time, right? That's what Slade said. He said that you guys all got together and found Raven and took Trigon on and beat him. So if you were Trigon, and you knew that's how it went down last time, and you also knew that all of us had survived his little games and gotten back together andfound Raven again, wouldn't you be a little worried?"
"Dude," said Beast Boy, now beginning to look as thoughtful as the others, "if I knew that the Titans were coming to kick my butt, I'd be petrified."
"Exactly," said David. He spread his hands, palms up, in front of him. "So where is he?"
"Maybe he just doesn't know where we are?" ventured Beast Boy.
"No," said Cyborg. "Slade said Trigon's all-seeing. If he wanted to, he could find us. And send us any company he wanted."
"But he hasn't," said David. "We've been down here for an hour. Why wouldn't he just send his demon army down to finish us all off? Why wait?"
"Perhaps," said Starfire, "Trigon knows something that we do not."
Uncomfortable silence settled around the room, as each Titan looked to the others for an answer. It wasn't until some time had passed that somebody broke in.
"He's waiting," said Raven. "He's waiting for me."
All eyes turned to Raven, but she apparently had no more to say. And it was Cyborg who continued.
"This doesn't make any sense," he said. "She destroyed Trigon once. Why would he wait around for her to do it again?"
"What's different?" asked David.
"Different?" asked Starfire.
"What's different between this time and last time? What changed to make him think that he's safe this time?" David paused, as though soliciting answers from the room, and when none were forthcoming, he continued. "It's me," he said. "It's gotta be. Me and Devastator. That's the X-factor here. That's the change he made to make sure that this time, everything went differently, isn't it?"
"That is not so," said Starfire. "Last time, Robin was present as well. That was the change Trigon made."
David did not answer that. He did not know how to. But moments later, Cyborg answered for him.
"No, Star," he said, "I think David's right."
"But Slade said - "
"I know what Slade said, Star, but think about it. Warp killed Robin to get after you, to make sure you'd come after him. He had to get Trigon's okay, but Trigon didn't send anybody to do that. He didn't care if Robin was alive or dead. He didn't care if anyof us were."
"But he cared when I tried to leave the Tower," said David. "He cared enough to send Cinderblock into a major city to keep me here, even if it meant risking that you guys would find out what was going on. Trigon had one chance to change things so that he wouldn't be faced with just this kind of situation. And he chose me. He put me in the Tower with you guys and he made sure that I stayed there until he could arrive. So why did he do that?"
"So he could blow up the universe," said Beast Boy.
David hesitated, his train of thought derailed by that unexpected offering. "... what?" he asked at length, turning to Beast Boy in puzzlement.
"That's what Slade said," said Beast Boy, letting Raven slip back down onto the ground. "He said that because Trigon's a demon lord, he could use Devastator to blow galaxies up, kill everybody in the whole universe. Slade said that's why you were dragged into this whole thing."
David chewed the matter over in his head, looking to Cyborg and Starfire as he did so, but neither of them had anything further to add. For a time he said nothing, but then at last he simply shook his head.
"No," he said. "I don't think so."
"Why not?" asked Beast Boy. "Sounds to me like something Trigon would wanna do."
"No, it sounds like something Sladewould want to do," said David. "I don't think Trigon wants to do that at all."
"Why should he not?" asked Starfire. "Is not Trigon's cruelty far in excess of even Slade's?"
"That's just it, Star," said David. "It's too easy. It's not how he operates."
"Is it not?"
"No," said David. He shook his head, closing his eyes and trying to pull a memory out of his tattered mind. "Devastator said something," he said. "He said that Trigon was the Lord of Evil, not the Lord of Death. That's why he didn't kill you guys, he wanted to make you suffer. It's why he froze everyone in stone instead of killing them."
"Wait, what?" asked Beast Boy. "All those people are - "
"Alive," said David, desperate to finish before the ephemeral thought floated away. "He didn't kill any of them, just locked them up in a stone prison so that he could play with them all. That's what he wants to do, not blow things up. He wants to hurtpeople. And Devastator doesn't help him do that."
"Then perhaps he wishes to use Devastator to destroy us?" proposed Starfire.
"Then what's he waiting for? He's got more than enough power to kill us just by himself, and now that he's got Devastator he could just blow the entire city up with one thought. I mean he knows we're all here somewhere, and he knows we have the only thing that can - "
It was not immediately apparent why he stopped. Not to the others at least. That much was clear from their expressions, which began to morph to concern as they waited for him to continue and found that he did not. Yet he could not have answered their unspoken inquiries if he wanted to, so sudden was he transfixed by a single piece of the mental jumble in his head sliding suddenly into place. And like the key to a cipher, no sooner did he perceive the last piece of the puzzle that had been eluding him all day, than everything, miraculously, became as clear as crystal.
"Oh my god... " said David finally, his voice weak and his eyes blank. He lifted them, to the others who watched him, to Raven, who stood in the corner, her own eyes fixed on the discolored demon with the spotlight stare, who now looked at her in turn with an expression of apprehension mingled with astonishment.
"I get it," said David. "I understand."
More concerned looks from the others, both to one another and to David himself. "Understand what?" asked Beast Boy.
"Why I'm here," said David. "Why all this happened. Why Trigon chose me." Slowly, he lifted his head up to the others, who were watching him with the same expression he now wore. "It's Raven," he said. "It's all because of Raven."
"Raven?" asked Beast Boy, and he glanced back at the little girl still pressed against the corner of the room. "What about her?"
"Everything," said David. "It was staring us in the face... staring mein the face, the whole time. And I didn't see it. None of us did."
"Saw what?" asked Cyborg.
David turned his head to Cyborg, his voice trembling as he spoke. "Raven shot me with a beam of pure void," said David. "Powerful enough to disintegrate a building. But it didn't do anything to me. She conjured up tentacles made of shadow magic to pin me down. As soon as they touched me, they melted." He turned back to Raven, whose expression had gone from apprehension to full on fear, quivering where she stood, afraid to even move.
"She stopped time," said David, with finality. "All of time throughout the universe. But it didn't stop me. Because I had Devastator."
It was as though a chill had settled over the room. All three Titans still stood where they were, yet none of them said a word, nor dared to move, save to turn their heads first to Raven, then to David, and then to one another, as though each were looking to the other to find some way of rejecting what had just been said, and yet each knew that there was no way to do so. And as the potential consequences of what David was saying became apparent, all three of their expressions turned to stunned horror.
"That's why I'm here," said David, his eyes still fixed on Raven. "That's the only reason I ever met you guys. It's why he set all this in motion. He didn't need some weapon to blow up planets or destroy galaxies. He needed something he couldn't get anywhere else. Something he probably never thought he'd ever need. He needed a way to protect himself from one of his own minions... from his own daughter."
All at once, as though it were more than Raven could stand, she bolted from her corner, running for cover from David's red eyes, but not towards furniture. Instead, she ducked behind Beast Boy, who watched her but did not move. Yet moments later, David averted his eyes down to the floor, drawing a slow breath and releasing it slowly.
"That's why Trigon isn't coming for us," he said, as much to himself as to the others. "It's why he's leaving us alone. Because he's got the trump card. The one he set himself up to get from the very beginning. He's got Devastator. And as long as he has Devastator, Raven can't hurt him."
Perfect silence greeted this last declaration, as the other Titans searched for a hole in this logic, and did not find one. Beast Boy looked in vain, to Cyborg, to Starfire, but neither one said a word, either unable to find words or unwilling to vocalize them, lest they say aloud what every one of them must now be thinking. That after all this, there was no hope at all.
"So then... what do we do?" asked Beast Boy aloud, not directing the question at anyone in particular. He sounded as though he wasn't sure if he was going to get an answer at all, and that he was afraid of what answer he might get even if he got one. And yet, before Starfire could compose a reply of sufficient weight, before Cyborg could chime in with a reasoned measure of the encouragement everyone desperately needed, before anything of the sort could happen, of all people, David offered an answer of his own.
"We take it back."
It wasn't the suggestion itself that stunned everyone, though that was certainly part of it. But if anything, it was the manner in which he offered it, no histrionics, no grim declaration of intent. David suggested taking the weaponized embodiment of Destruction away from the Lord of Hell as casually as he might have suggested what to eat for dinner, as though it were the easiest thing in the world. It was left to Cyborg to respond in the only appropriate manner.
"We take Devastator back," said David, raising his head once more. "Take his protection away. Let Raven do what she's supposed to do. Without Devastator getting in the way, Trigon won't be able to stop her."
"But how do you propose to remove Devastator from Trigon's grasp?" asked Starfire.
"The same way he took it from me," said David. "Will."
Beast Boy looked as puzzled as the others no doubt felt. "You're gonna... willDevastator out of Trigon?"
"Why not?" asked David, as though this were a perfectly normal thing to suggest. "It's what Devastator responds to. It's allhe responds to. Devastator doesn't care how powerful you are, all that matters to him is will."
Beast Boy's evident puzzlement did not slake. "You can do that?"
"I think so," said David. "I mean... really it's not any different than what I normally did with him. When I blow something up, that's all it is. All the mental exercises and molecules and so on, those are all just the tricks I use to get my mind to work the right way, but it all comes down to me telling Devastator what I want, and him doing it for me. If Trigon can do it, I don't see why I can't."
Cyborg cleared his throat, a method of dissimulation that he almost never used, and only when he had something particularly thorny to say. "No offense man," said Cyborg, "but uh... Trigon's got a will too. Pretty strong one, I'd say. I'm not tryin' to say you don't know what you're talking about, but... you really think you can match wills with Trigon the Terrible and come out on top?"
All eyes turned to David, who blinked and shook his head. "No," he said. "No, I can't do that..." He trailed off, but the others did not turn away, sensing perhaps, that David had a corollary to add.
"But... what if it wasn't a fair fight?" said David.
Slowly, Cyborg got up off the wall and walked over to the medical table David was still sitting on. "What do you mean?" he asked.
David took a moment to set his thoughts in order. "Trigon's a novice at this," he said. "He's gotta be. He's never had something like Devastator before. There isnothing like Devastator, right?"
"Probably," said Cyborg. "So what?"
"So I'd say it's a good bet that he doesn't know how to use Devastator all that well. I mean... I didn't know how to use him properly until Raven taught me."
"Dude, Trigon's the Devil," said Beast Boy. "Doesn't he know everything?"
"Not this sort of thing," said David. "He's a cosmic being, a God even. How often would he ever have to use powers that aren't his?" He thought for a moment, turned to his right. "Star, didn't you tell me that you and Raven once switched bodies or something?"
Starfire nodded. "Yes," she said. "The Puppet Master caused us to inhabit one another's bodies. It was... most disorienting. But... forgive me, Friend David, I do not understand why that occurrence is relevant to Trigon."
"Well, you're a Tamaranean," said David. "Your powers, the flight, the starbolts, that's all natural to you, just like walking is to us, right? So when you had to change bodies with Raven... "
"... I lost all of the capabilities I was accustomed to, and had to adopt new ones," said Starfire, finishing David's sentence as she suddenly realized where he was going. "And it was extremely difficult for me to do so."
"Even though you're way more powerful than any of us," finished David. "It was still alien to you. Just like Devastator was to me, before I knew how to use it. Just like it must be to Trigon."
Cyborg neared the medical bed, stopping and folding his arms, like a schoolteacher trying to coax the answers from a reluctant student. "All right then," he said, "let's say you're right. How does that help us?"
"It helps us," said David, "because it means that if we can disrupt his ability to control Devastator, he won't know how to stop us, or what to do about it once we do it. He'll be stuck trying to learn how to work Devastator on the fly."
"Okay," said Beast Boy, "so then how do we disrupt him?"
It sounded like an impossible question, but David simply turned his head to Beast Boy, the vaguest hint of a smile on his discolored features. "That's simple" he said. "What works on me?"
It took Beast Boy a couple of seconds to figure out what David meant. And when he did, the smile spread to his own face, broader now, and feral. "We piss him off?"
"Exactly," said David. "Devastator doesn't respond to anger. Doesn't matter how much there is, it won't work. To make Devastator do what you want, you need concentration and focus. Terra knew that. That's how she beat me. That's how I - " he stopped, mid-sentence, hesitated on the brink of saying more, then slid instead into a new thought. "If we annoy Trigon enough, he won't be able to use Devastator at all. And then... if we're lucky, I might be able to take it away from him."
"And what's to stop him from just taking it back from you?" asked Cyborg.
This one David plainly had no answer for, and he sighed and lowered his eyes. "Nothing," he said at length. "Nothing but Raven. She's the only thing that can stop him." He lifted his head once more, watching the little girl behind Beast Boy from the corner of his eyes. "This was always gonna end with Raven and Trigon," he said. "All we have to do is make sure that Devastator and I don't get in the way."
Silence reigned as David stayed resolutely silent and left the others to ask what they would. But when no further questions were forthcoming, he finally turned to Cyborg, who was now standing directly before him.
"So..." said David, "what do you think?"
For a few moments, Cyborg gave no sign, but then a smile slowly spread over his bruised face, and he laughed, and clapped his new hand down on David's shoulder, the weight of it nearly knocking him off the table, and yet somehow to David it felt as light as a feather.
"I think," said Cyborg, "Robin'd be proud."
If David's nerves had been any less stunned from the accumulated effect of everything that had happened, that one statement would have precluded any possible coherent reaction. As it was, he needed a little bit to recover from it. "You... you don't think it's a bad idea?" he finally managed to say.
That one provoked another laugh. "Man, I don't know if you noticed, but we're not really big on good ideas around here. No, what that was, was a grade A, 100% authentic Bad idea with a capital 'B'." He grinned now, broad and genuine. "My favorite kind," Cyborg said. "Hell, you come up with a couple more of those, and we might have to let you run things for a while."
Now David knewthey were in the realm of the absurd. "I think if we survive this one, it'll be enough for me, Cy," he said, as Beast Boy picked Raven up once more and walked over to where they were, as did Starfire.
"Dude," said Beast Boy, grinning in the lunatic way only he could manage, "our plan is to annoy Trigon to death. Do you really think anybody can do that better than me?"
"Trigon shall not know what it was that struck him," said Starfire, her own smile warm and convincing. "We shall render him so infuriated that he will forget he even possessesDevastator."
It all sounded simple, so simple that David felt himself beginning to believe them despite his better judgment. But then, he reminded himself, better judgment was another thing the Titans had never been big on.
Right now he was infinitely glad for that.
Carefully, he slid off the medical table and onto the ground, picking up one of the steel batons that Starfire had laid out next to him, and turning it over in his hands. Almost reflexively, he set it alight, letting the warmth pulse through his fingers as he nervously passed it from hand to hand. Yet as he did so, Raven caught his eye, for she was watching the burning baton as it moved about, the flames dancing lazily through his fingers, licking at the air around him. He couldn't be sure of course, but he even thought he caught the faintest hint of a smile, before he finally turned back to the others.
"Where shall we commence our attack?" asked Starfire. "Would it be best to be direct, or should we attempt to infiltrate the island before we begin?"
"Neither," said Cyborg.
Starfire paused, confused. "Then... how shall we proceed?" she asked.
"We're not," said Cyborg. "Not yet. Not today."
This only made the confusion worse. "Not today?" she asked. "I do not - "
"Star," said Cyborg, "we're beat up, we're tired, some of us can barely walk, and I can tell that stab is bothering you more than you're letting on." Starfire opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it, her hand sliding automatically to the wound in her chest. "Maybe we can't do anything about some of that, but I figure if Trigon's willing to wait for us to show up, then he can wait a little while longer. So we'll stay here tonight, today, whatever it is now. We'll get patched up, get cleaned up, have something to eat, get some sleep... and we'll take Trigon on tomorrow."
A quick survey of everyone's face told David that there would be no objections. Certainly he did not plan to raise any. Beast Boy looked like he was trying to disguise the fact that he was secretly relieved, while Starfire needed only to look to David and back to Cyborg to swallow whatever she was about to say and simply nod.
"Good," said Cyborg. "Let's get it all set up then. He moved as though to walk off, but stopped himself before he had finished, and turning back to David, he considered the dark grey gunk on his hand from where he had laid it on David's shoulder. "Hey uh... what is this stuff?" he asked.
David had honestly lost track of all the various substances he'd been drenched in tonight. "Coal slurry, I think."
If Cyborg had any questions as to how David had contrived to get himself soaked in coal slurry of all things, he did not ask them. "You know what?" he said. "We'll set it up. You can have the first shower."
"What, exactly, did you think this was?"
Flames had been a part of his world for so long that they had ceased to be a concern, but these were different. They loomed up before him like living beings, their roar and crackle stretched to a high-pitched scream, forming walls of impassable height, blocking the way forward.
He wasn't sure where he was, some cavernous open space, the dimensions of which he could not make out. It might have been a football stadium, a music hall, an open air amphitheatre. It might have been a cathedral, he simply couldn't tell. No lights illuminated his surroundings, save the flames that burned before him, their gyrations almost hypnotic in the preternatural darkness.
A shadow loomed in the orange wall ahead, indistinct and yet recognizable, its identity obvious. A slim figure with a scarred face and a cane of varnished oak topped with a silver handle. The fires parted before him as he advanced, stepping forth, whole and hale, a halo of flame dancing from his metal-shod walking stick. For a moment he stood motionless, watching David as though in expectation of some sign, and then he stepped forward, and reached out, and took him by the shoulder.
"We are only what we will to be."
His form rippled like water in the wind, shifting wildly in dimension and shape, the grip on David's shoulder hardening as though the hand that held him had been turned to stone. He tried to pull away, grabbing the arm that held him and pushing as hard as he could, but to no avail. It was like trying to break the grip of a bronze statue, and when he lifted his head, the face that greeted him was no longer his own.
It wasn't even a face.
He let out a warbling, awkward cry of horror, and with a single desperate shove, he tore his shoulder free from the armored giant before him, stumbling back and landing on the ground. Above him, the iron glare of a single eye glared at him through a featureless mask of orange and black. Ringed in flames, which dripped from him like water, he seemed to grow even as David scrambled back. Yet no matter how hard he tried to flee, Slade remained directly in front of him. Slowly, with infinite grace, Slade bent and lowered his head, his hand reaching out towards David's face, even as his cyclopean eye stared directly into David's soul. And then all was lost in darkness, as Slade's hand clamped over his face like a vice, and the world itself disappeared, all save for a single sentence, burned indelibly into his mind as if by branding iron.
"No matter how much you want to," said Slade, "you cannot destroy the Devil with a bomb."
David awoke with a shout.
It wasn't a full blown scream, for which he was more than grateful, but a strangled cry of fear and surprise, and for the briefest of moments he sat bolt upright, unsure of where he was or how he had come to be there. Only at length did his mind catch up with his body, and begin interpreting rationally the data his senses were feeding him.
He was sitting on one of the couches laid out within the main room of the emergency bunker, a wool blanket emblazoned with the Titans' symbol half-draped over him. The overhead fluorescents were off, and only the ambient glow of the security monitors still illuminated the room, but as he turned his burning red eyes on the rest of the room like a pair of flashlights, he saw Starfire fast asleep, floating half an inch above another couch, while behind her, the light from his eyes served to just illuminate the hulking form of Cyborg, plugged into one of his enormous power cell rechargers, seemingly dead to the world.
In an ideal world, of course, Cyborg would have detailed someone to remain on watch, to be relieved every two hours by someone else. David had been through several such routines, and while being woken in the middle of the night and instructed not to fall asleep for several hours was not exactly pleasant, getting woken by bloodthirsty monsters trying to devour your soul was a shade worse. But this was not an ideal world, and Cyborg had decided, given the battery of detection equipment radiating from the bunker in every direction, and the fact that Trigon's minions still not shown themselves, that it was worth taking the risk of letting everyone simply collapse. For one thing they all plainly needed it. And for another, nobody felt particularly up to staying awake, alone, in the middle of the darkened bunker. Not even with the others asleep nearby.
Or at least that was what David assumed, right up until his eyes fell on the third couch, the one Beast Boy had been upon in the form of a housecat, now empty save for the blanket draped over it. Beside it, the small cot Cyborg had dragged out of storage for Raven was also empty. Yet before David could panic over where either of them had gotten to, his ears caught the sound of muffled music coming from the next room, and he turned, and saw a bright glow seeping beneath the door.
He had no idea what time it was. The atomic clocks built into the bunker's computers no longer corresponded with reality in any meaningful way, and as far as he knew, Cyborg had set no alarms. "Tomorrow" was a wholly artificial concept in a world with no sunrise. Yet the faces of Slade and Devastator still danced through the back of his mind, and rather than trying to go back to sleep to face them again, he instead slid off the couch, and walked as quietly as he could over to the door to the back room.
The motion sensor slid the door aside with a hiss, suddenly drenching him in bright light. He squinted and shaded his eyes, only to find when he opened them once more, that all he could see was a vague, amorphous shape, shifting in impossible ways before his eyes. The mingled light, reflecting into the dark room, was such that he had difficulty making out what was actually going, and it wasn't until he stepped into the room entirely and averted his eyes directly the bright screen in front of him that his eyes finally adjusted and he saw Beast Boy smiling sheepishly at him as his form finished shifting back into the customary one.
"Dude," said Beast Boy, exhaling heavily as the door slid shut once more. "You scared the hell out of me."
Even after all this it still took David a moment to figure out what Beast Boy was talking about. "Sorry," he said. "I forgot about..."
"Don't worry," said the changeling. "I know how it is." He glanced back at the bright screen and music illuminating the small room, and then returned to David. "Did we wake you up?"
"No," said David. "I couldn't sleep is all."
"Oh," said Beast Boy. And he seemed to be thinking of something else to add, but came up blank. "Well... you can join us if you want," he said, gesturing to an open armchair even as he turned the television's volume down. "We couldn't much sleep either."
RIght now that sounded good. "Us?" he asked, moments before he walked around the couch and saw Raven, laying curled up on the other side, seemingly fast asleep.
"Um... yeah," said Beast Boy as David took another chair. "Raven couldn't sleep, and she sorta woke me up, so..."
David just smiled and nodded in silence. There wasn't much that needed saying on that account. He sat back and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, the soft sounds of barely-audible music trickling into his ears along with the sounds of Raven stirring in her sleep.
"So..." said Beast Boy, "I guess you're in the club now too."
David cracked an eye open at that. "The club?"
"You know," said Beast Boy, "the weird colors club?"
Such was David's state of mental fatigue that it actually took him a little while to realize what Beast Boy was talking about. "Oh, you mean... yeah."
"Don't worry, dude, it's not that bad," said Beast Boy, to which David responded by raising an eyebrow. "I mean I'm not saying I'd trade you or anything, but... you know it could be worse."
David had so far studiously avoided looking in a mirror since re-awakening from the dead, but gauging from everyone else's reactions, he was pretty sure he looked just like the other ashen-faced demons that Trigon had seeded Jump City with. "Worse?" he asked.
Beast Boy shrugged. "You could've been pink."
Despite himself, David had to chuckle a little at that, and Beast Boy smiled victoriously the way he always did whenever he managed to coax a laugh out of an unwilling target. "Oh, dude," he said, "that reminds me, we've got a couple more of your uniforms in storage somewhere around here. You can change back into one of your orange ones if you want."
The smile faded. "I um... I did already," said David. "This isa new one."
Beast Boy blinked. "But... it's grey."
So it was. The color of freshly-fallen ash, the same color as his skin and hair. "I know," said David. "It changed as soon as I put it on."
Beast Boy's eyes widened. "Really?" he asked.
"Yeah," said David. He couldn't think of anything else to add.
"Wow," said Beast Boy. He let it sit a moment, then followed up. "I wonder why Trigon did that to you."
"I'm not sure he did," said David.
"What do you mean?"
David sighed softly. "Maybe Terra did it when she brought me back to life," he said. "Maybe Trigon did it. Or maybe... maybe Terra never brought me back to life at all, and I'm just some demon who thinks he's David until Trigon flips a switch." He exhaled, slowly, his voice low so as not to disturb Raven, as visions of a man in a long coat with a cane danced before his eyes, standing triumphant in a heap of ruins over a pile of bodies. "Maybe I always have been," he said.
Someone else might have reacted violently to such a statement, or politely changed the subject to something less morose. Beast Boy just shrugged. "Well Devastator picked you to be his host." he said. "That's why you can still use him even now, right? I don't think he'd have done that if you were some demon."
David just shook his head. "Devastator will pick anyone," he said. "Even a demon. And besides, he didn't choose me because I was like you guys." He paused for a moment. "I know why he picked me and it wasn't that."
Beast Boy also paused, letting the soft sound of the television speakers fill the silence around them. When he finally did answer, his voice was hesitant and careful, like that of someone edging into a touchy subject.
"Was... it so you could fight us?"
David froze for a second, then slowly lifted his eyes to Beast Boy, his expression apprehensive, but bathed in the red glow of David's stare, Beast Boy did not flinch away. "You... you know about that?" David asked finally.
"Starfire did," said Beast Boy. "She told us while you were in the shower."
He winced. He couldn't help it. And seeing him do so, Beast Boy apparently felt he had to offer some sort of support. "Dude," he said, "it's okay..."
"No, it's not," said David. "It's even less okay than you think."
"Dude, it's probably just some trick," said Beast Boy. "Trigon sent a bunch at me while I was looking for Raven."
"It wasn't a trick," said David. "It was real."
"Well how do you know that?" asked Beast Boy
"Because I met him," said David. He let the statement sit, flat and uncompromising, and when Beast Boy said nothing else he followed it up. "I met him, and I talked to him." Another pause, long and empty. "And then I killed him," he said at last. It seemed, somehow, more real now, saying it to Beast Boy, than it had been just hours before, in the flesh.
It was some time before Beast Boy said something, and when he did his voice was gentler now, the vocal equivalent to kid gloves for use with a fragile object. A tone David recognized from several of Beast Boy's conversations with Raven.
"I ran into my own evil twin," he said. "While I was looking for Raven. I..." a slight hesitation, not the lengthy pauses David had used, but noticeable regardless. "He was all part of Trigon's game. They all were. To make us all confused and mess us up. That's all this is."
David could only sigh and shake his head. "He wasn't my evil twin," he said. "He was... me. The real me. The person I always knew I was." He looked up at Beast Boy. "I'mthe evil twin," he said. "That's why I look like this."
Raven stirred, softly, but did not awaken, murmuring something inaudible as she rolled over beneath the blanket Beast Boy had draped over her. Both David and Beast Boy paused, and Beast Boy gently stroked her hair as she settled back to sleep.
David waited until Raven was visibly asleep once more, and sighed, his voice reduced to a soft whisper to avoid disturbing her further. "I know it doesn't matter now," he said. "In a couple hours we're gonna be fighting Trigon, and I've gotta think about that, and Devastator, and Raven, and so do you. But... I just can't get it all out of my head." He trailed off, staring down at the floor. "I don't know how," he said at last.
It seemed like quite a while before Beast Boy responded, though it probably wasn't. "Why do you think I'm sitting here?" he asked, and David raised his eyes to see a soft smile on his face. "I can't get any of it out either. Terra, Raven, everything. If you ever find a way, you gotta let us all know."
Once more, despite himself, David smiled. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't be - "
"No, dude," said Beast Boy. "It's all right, I mean it. You went through some weird stuff tonight."
David shrugged. "You went to Hell," he said.
"Yeah, well, you died," said Beast Boy. "And then you got better and had all this stuff dumped on you. It'd mess with anybody."
David only shook his head. "It's not that." A pause. "Well maybe it is, I don't know. It's just this isn't the first time I've thought about this."
Beast Boy just nodded. "Star said you guys talked about it once, after that thing with Jinx in the mines?"
A soft chuckle. "You know about that too?"
"Dude," said Beast Boy, "it's me. I know everything. I found Raven's birthday, remember?"
Another chuckle. "Yeah," said David.
Beast Boy smiled. "She just told me because she said you were really worried about it all. Star doesn't always uh... getus Earthlings, you know? She wanted to know what to do to cheer you up."
David shook his head, still smiling despite himself. "Did you tell her it was a lost cause?"
"No, but I thought about telling her to bake you a cake."
This one brought on a full laugh, muffled of course. "Now that's just mean," said David.
"Yeah, I decided you hadn't done anything to deserve that," said Beast Boy with a broad, fanged grin. "Besides, I figured it was a bad idea to get into a prank war with someone who can turn anything into a bomb."
"Glad to hear it."
"I told her that you'd get over it in a little while. Which you did. And you will here too. I mean... if Trigon doesn't, you know... kill us all first."
From anyone else that would have sounded morbid.
"But you're not a super-villain, dude," continued Beast Boy. "Trust me, I've known lots of them. Maybe in some other world you were gonna be or something, but this isn't that world, and you're not that guy."
"But I'm not like you either," said David. "You know that, we all know that, even before this. If Cinderblock hadn't nearly killed me, and I hadn't met you guys, I'd never be a hero."
Beast Boy considered that a moment, and then shrugged. "If my parents hadn't died, maybe I wouldn't either."
A chill settled in David's stomach, and he closed his eyes and lowered his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to - "
"Dude, I told you, it's okay," said Beast Boy. "I'm just saying, if Star hadn't gotten shipwrecked with those weird alien dudes, if Cy didn't have his accident, if I hadn't caught Sakutia... I mean who knows what any of us would have done?"
"That's just it," said David. "I do know. I've always known. And now I know for certain. Maybe it was all a trick, but I don't think it was. I killed you. And Raven, and all the others, and like ten thousand other people besides. That was me." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "That's who I am," he said. "The only difference between us was that I met you guys. If I hadn't..."
He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't need to. But rather than protest, or agree, or insist that it was long since time he stopped talking about this subject, Beast Boy simply sat in silence, as did David, until, finally, Beast Boy chimed in with an odd request, all things considered.
"Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
David lifted his head. "Sure," he said.
Beast Boy took his time. "I guess it's not really a question," he said. "It's just something I really don't understand."
What Beast Boy could be referring to was beyond David, but then that was perhaps to be expected. "What's that?" he asked.
Beast Boy took a few extra moments to put all his thoughts in order, something generally unheard of as far as he was concerned. "All this time," he said, "you've been living with us, fighting, training, just hanging out. But even after all this, you still see us like we're... different than you. Betterthan you, even."
Part of David wanted to respond that the reason for that was because they were. But the rest of him retained enough sense not to.
"I mean," continued Beast Boy. "It's not all the time. Not anymore. It used to be that you were a civilian, and I know you still kinda feel that way, and there's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes, when something like this happens, it's like you go back to this idea that we're all a million times better than you're ever gonna be. Like you think we're perfect, and since you're not..."
David sighed, his eyes averted, letting silence swell up between them. "I don't think you guys are perfect."
"I know," said Beast Boy. "It's just... you see us take down some bad guy or save some people, and you think, 'okay, that's who they are'. And then you see your future self or whoever kill a bunch of people and do terrible things, and you think 'all right, that's who I am', right?" David managed to look up, but could not bring himself to answer. "But what I don't get is... you blew your own evil twin up. A guy who was like twenty times stronger than you. And then you blasted your way through an army of demons, so you could rescue Cy. And after you did that, and nearly got killed eight times, you came back here with us, so that in a little bit you can go fight the Devil, and tear Devastator out of his soul to save the world."
Slowly, David managed to lift his head, to see Beast Boy looking straight at him, red lights and all.
"So all I'm saying, dude, is... how come that'snot who you are?"
Had David been able to figure out how to answer that question, he might have done so. But all he could do was sit in silence, watching the light of his own eyes reflecting off Beast Boy and Raven and the rest of the room. Beast Boy seemed to take it for answer enough.
There were clocks in the room, hidden somewhere in the darkness. But David did not seek for them, preferring not to know how much time was passing, sitting in silence, lost in his own thoughts. It might have been one minute or many before the sound gently ebbing from the television shifted suddenly, and belatedly brought his attention around to other matters.
"Hey uh... Beast Boy?" he asked at length, breaking the silence between them that had by now gone on long enough for its absence to feel like a minor shock. "What's that?"
The television was turned down to its lowest volume setting, but the image was still clearly visible, not that that answered anything. The image was one of a number of people, a dozen or more, lined up on a stage with microphones in front of them, facing an enormous audience staring up at them in rapt attention. The actors, or whoever they were, wore strange costumes, the men in tricorne hats and ruffled shirts and waistcoats with epaulettes and brass buttons, the women in long dresses of greater or lesser shabbiness. Several carried muskets and other antique weapons, and those who did brandished them aloft as they cried out their lines, though the volume was so low that all David could make out was a soft murmur.
Beast Boy too was lost in thought, and seemed almost startled by David's question. "Huh?" he asked, blinking as he looked around. "Oh... um... its uh... it's a musical."
He fumbled at his side for the remote control, and pointed it at the television as he hit a button, causing the volume to jump suddenly just as an older man was stepping forward in the center of the stage, as if to begin some grand soliloquy.
'One day more.
Another day, another destiny.
This never-ending road to Calvary...'
"You ever heard this one?" asked Beast Boy.
David shook his head. Musicals were a subject he knew strictly nothing about. But then he'd assumed the same was true of Beast Boy, whose tastes in pop culture seemed defined by comic books and cartoons.
Beast Boy smiled. "It's called Les Miserables," he said. "It means... well... the miserables, I guess. It's pretty famous."
"I think I've heard the name before," said David. "I didn't know you liked this sort of thing."
Beast Boy shrugged. "I dunno," he said. "I kinda like this one."
'One more day all on my own.
One more day with him not caring.
What a life I might have known.
But he never saw me there..."
"Rita liked this song," said Beast Boy.
The name didn't ring a bell. "Rita?" asked David.
"Oh," said Beast Boy, seemingly remembering all of a sudden who he was talking to. "Elasti-Girl. From the Doom Patrol. The... group I was with before I was with the Titans."
There was more to it than that, David could tell that much from Beast Boy's voice alone. But he did not pry. It wasn't his way. And this wasn't a night for that anyhow.
"When I was little, she took me to see the show," he said. "I don't really remember much of it. But Steve bought her the soundtrack, and she liked to play it sometimes." David had no idea who Steve was, but did not ask, even as Beast Boy shrugged. "I dunno," he said. "I guess I just wanted to hear it one more time before... well..."
'One more day before the storm.
At the barricades of freedom.
When our ranks begin to form.
Will you take your place with me?'
Softly, slowly, Raven began to stir, her movement alerting Beast Boy, whose glance in turn alerted David. Gently, she opened her eyes, lifted her head, blinking as she took in her surroundings. Her eyes fell on David, and she drew a sharp breath, pulling closer to Beast Boy as if by reflex, her expression frightened. "It's okay," whispered Beast Boy as she took his arm with both hands, sliding over to him on the couch and holding him protectively. David tried not to take it personally. His appearance scared the hell out of him too.
Right now, a lot of things did.
'One day more!
One more day 'till revolution,
We will nip it in the bud.
We'll be ready for these schoolboys.
They will wet themselves with blood!'
Watching the singers perform, David felt his chest constricting, as though something were squeezing the air from his lungs. He breathed mechanically, feeling the air flow in and out as though some other force were animating him. "It's almost time, isn't it?" he asked, not bothering, perhaps not able, to look away.
"Yeah," said Beast Boy from somewhere to the left.
The knots inside him seemed to tighten imperceptibly. "Do you... think we can do this?" he asked, unable to stop himself, his eyes flickering over to the couch almost reflexively, bathing the entire thing in red light. Raven watched him like she might a dangerous predator, but Beast Boy only smiled, his eyes still glued to the screen.
'Watch 'em run amok,
Catch 'em as they fall,
Never know your luck when it's a free-for-all.
Here a little nick,
There a little touch,
Most of them are gonners so they won't miss much...'
"Of course, Dude," he said, flashing a fanged smile as he did so. "Don't you?"
David didn't know how to answer that. Or rather he was worried that he did.
"I... I don't know," he said.
"I do," came a voice from behind.
'One day to a new beginning.
Every man will be a King.'
David turned his head. So did Beast Boy. So did Raven. The light was poor, but David's spotlight eyes illuminated Cyborg, leaning against one side of the doorway, an expression of almost priestly calm written on both sides of his face.
"This is how it had to be," said Cyborg. "Always. I know that, and so do you. Trigon can split us all up, hide Raven, turn you chartreuse if he wants to. It don't matter at all. This is how it was meant to end."
There was a finality to that sentiment that should have pushed him over the edge into full on panic. And yet it did not. "What's gonna end?" he asked, not even sure himself what he meant by it.
'There's a new world for the winning
Do you hear the people sing?'
"All things end," said Starfire, stepping around Cyborg and entering the room outright, yet if the words were morose, her bearing and expression was anything but. It took David a moment to realize that something about her was different, but moments later he realized that she was no longer sheathed in metal. The jagged crown framing her head was gone, and instead of banded armor, she wore the purple skirt and sleeveless top that he remembered from better times. Her midriff was swaddled in white bandages, but she did not favor anything as she stepped around the couch and sat down on it next to David's chair. "Even Trigon," she said.
Sandwiched between Beast Boy and Starfire, Raven looked at each in turn, and at Cyborg and at David, and back at Beast Boy again, who gently picked her up and sat her in his lap, the better to hold her tightly. Cyborg walked carefully over to the couch, standing behind Starfire. David didn't move, yet as though by some resonant field, the tightness in his chest seemed to dissipate, merely through the proximity of his friends.
"What about us?" he asked.
Anyone could have answered. Starfire did.
"We will show Trigon what an ending is," she said, reaching over and taking David's hand with her own. "Together. As it should be."
They were all on edge. That much he knew from a thousand tiny queues he'd learned to read without even meaning to in the months he'd known them. Maybe they were as scared as he was. Maybe they were incapable of such levels of fear. He didn't really know. What he knew was that Starfire had the power to crush his hand like an origami sculpture, or channel energy sufficient to burn him to a cinder, and she would not. And had not. Not even when she had every reason to think him some monster conjured from Trigon's mind. He knew that Beast Boy was smiling, and holding Raven protectively, and that his expression was that quiet, blissful one he brought out so infrequently, only on the rare occasions that he felt safe enough to set aside the jokes. And Raven was holding onto him, her fingers knotted into his shirt, sparing glances up at Beast Boy that resembled the ones that her older self had used only when she thought that nobody else was watching. He knew that in a few minutes Cyborg would probably remember that he was supposed to be trying to do what Robin would in his place, and would start issuing instructions to them all. But right now, here, he was letting himself be Cyborg again.
He knew all of these things. He no longer remembered not knowing them.
'My place is here! I fight with you!'
"Yeah," he said. And thought he didn't know why he said it, he felt the remaining fear receding within him as he did, replaced by the warmth of a sensation he did not know how to name. One that only existed in the company of the people in this room.
Nobody spoke as the actors on the screen sang and cheered and filled the room with music and song. Starfire did not release David's hand, and David did not try to make her. Yet as if in response to some unspoken suggestion, Beast Boy slid over on the couch closer to Starfire, Raven still held tightly in his arms, and he took Raven's tiny hand in his own large glove, and Starfire took them both with her own. Perhaps it was his own imagination, or perhaps some facet of Starfire's alien physiology, but David thought he felt a tiny charge, warm and electrical, run through his fingers, the same way that his baton had always felt whenever he focused upon it, back when he had Devastator and was whole. Yet the tingling charge did not stop, and the emptiness that Devastator had left could no longer be felt, filled as he was with the simple relief of being, at last, exactly where he wanted to be. Perhaps for the last time. And he knew from the look on the others' faces that he wasn't the only one who could feel it.
"I'm really glad I met you guys," said David Foster.
'Tomorrow we'll be far away,
Tomorrow is the judgement day.
Tomorrow we discover what our God in Heaven has in store...'
A heavy, metal hand landed gently on his shoulder, squeezing it tightly.
"So are we, man," said Cyborg.
'One more dawn.'
"All of us," said Starfire.
'One more day.'
"Always," said Beast Boy.
'One! Day! More!'
Author's Note: I make no promises as to the timing on the next chapter. I will try as hard as I possibly can to get it out in a more reasonable timeframe. But whether I succeed or fail, rest assured, this story will finish, and it will finish the way I always intended it to. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope to see you soon.