"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
The speakers overhead clicked on.
"Remember now…" said the voice, coming gritty and robotic over the com. "…this is art. What we're making here is art. I think it's important that you remember that."
From beyond the fuzzy, hot world of his burlap sack, the boy could hear footsteps approaching.
He blinked, tried to breath, tried to move…but he couldn't. Nothing was working; his limbs were all too heavy…to wet.
Everything was wet.
Everything was broken.
All was dark now.
Nothing seemed to work…
He'd been broken.
He was dying…
But distantly…couldn't stop wondering.
…what's my name…what's my name…
"It's art and we're painting a masterpiece."
The chains around his wrists rattled as he turned onto his side, the air in his throat pinched and wheezing.
One would have thought he'd be dead by now.
He sure wouldn't have minded it.
The things he'd seen.
The things he'd heard.
Oh…the things he'd been forced to do…
The footfalls drew nearer.
"My part is almost completed now. My contribution to this magnum opus is just about finished. I've chosen the canvas, I've picked out the picture, I've found the most beautiful of colors…now it's all up to you to go pick up the brush and paint it…"
…they used to call a name…what had it been…what had it been…
The footfalls stopped. There was a jingle of keys, a click of a lock, and then the grating screech of his cell's big, rusty doors grinding open.
The speakers clicked off.
A lone voice spoke.
"It's always been about you. Always. You are the essential. The inspirationYou are the only one who can finish it."
The boy lolled his head towards the figure quietly profiled against the square passage of light, fuzzy and distorted through his burlap sack like a shadow silhouetted against the bottom of a pool by a brilliant overhead sun. He blinked, winced…but didn't turn away.
He only watched.
…and slowly, slowly smiled.
…my name is…my name is…
The figure only nodded and slowly stepped into the room.
"Today's the day, Killer."
"The Old Theatre's straight ahead, Cyborg. I'm…I'm gonna try to set her down."
"On the other side of those buildings, BB, we don't want to blow it. Not now."
"Are you sure he's in there?"
"I'm betting my life on it."
"No, you're bettingRobin's life. That day, The Day, is today, Cyborg. Slade said we had until today to find him. If you're wrong on this-"
"We are not wrong, Raven. Cyborg is not wrong. Robin is in there and we will rescue him. We will."
"Setting her down now."
"Easy, now, easy."
"Slade wouldn't make this so simple. It was too easy to trace him here."
"You call two months of searching easy, Rae? You call sixty-some-odd days of this, easy? Damn it, Beast Boy, I said behind those buildings!"
"I'm trying, I'm trying!"
"So what then? He just decides to one day throw in the towel and 'accidentally' drop a huge clue on our doorstep big enough for us to follow the crumb trail all the way back to his hideaway? This isn't him, Cyborg. We know him better than that. He's led us here on purpose."
"Well I'm sorry but I don't see a lot of options here, Raven. As far as I'm concerned, whether this is a trap or not doesn't mean a damn thing. We are going in regardless, whether you like it or not."
"Whether or not, Cyborg, we have admit the possibility that Robin is already dead."
"You shall not talk that way, Friend Raven. Robin is alive. Robin is here and he is alive!"
"I'm sorry. It's an ugly option, but that doesn't mean we should disregard it."
"On my planet, when a fellow Tameranian is captured by the enemy in times of war we never dismiss them as a lost cause no matter how sinister the foe orhow doubtful the odds. We never give up until we hold them in our arms again and decide for ourselves if they are living or they are dead."
"Star's right. We'll decide for ourselves whether Robin's alive or not when we see him. In the meantime, we're gonna spring every damn trap Slade stands up between us. We'll find him eventually, Raven. You gotta trust Robin on this one more than me."
"Yeah, show a little faith in our leader, will yah?"
"I hope you're all right. I really do."
"Hard to believe it's almost over, isn't it? I would have loved to of kept this going on forever, but a work of art is only art if you finish it. Am I right, Killer?"
The boy was on his back, being pulled along the floor by an iron-tight handful of burlap sack and jet black hair. He could hear the man's footfalls, his step even and sure and his grip never weakening. The boy made no noise, his glazed, half-lidded eyes counting the light of the windows through his burlap sack as they passed by.
He'd gone this way before…
"We're going to hit sixty, Killer We're going to hit sixty and beyond."
They turned a corner, then another. With every step, the boy could feel the world changing. The hard, marble floor turned into a burning red carpet, the hard concrete walls into echoing wooden hallways, the windows replaced with naked bulbs and the smell of cold, wet stone replaced with dust, space…and something else.
With every step, he was drifting further and further back into his dreams…
He'd gone this way before…
Another turn, another corner, a final switch, and finally…the finishing set of doors were thrown open into a dead, stale blackness.
The man breathed a' long sigh.
"Here we are…the canvas for our painting."
The grip on his scalp gave a wrenching heave and the boy was sent sprawling down a flight of fuzzy, carpeted stairs. He toppled head over heels, rubber limbs numbly flopping over and over until his body collapsed against a hard wooden floor with a wet echoing-
The world spun around him inside the itchy, eye-shut blackness of his hood. He wheezed, tasted blood, his shattered bones splintering anew.
A spot-light clicked on above him.
Unseen speakers crackled to life along unseen walls.
From somewhere in the room, a needle lowered onto a spinning record and the sweet, vibrating thrum of a grainy, sizzling violin came whispering down from above him.
The boy made no sound. Made no move. From behind him, he could hear the man close the doors and slowly descend the stairs.
"Ahhhhh, can you feel it, Killer? The grand finale? The big finish? The final strokes? The eager masses all just waiting to see you? It's electrifying. Gets right under your skin. You can feel it, can't you?"
The boy heard the click of his boots walk by, his shadow passing over the blinding light.
He made no sound.
Made no move…
The man's gaze had been elsewhere. He didn't see the boy's hand drifting towards the crotch of his pants, towards the inside of his left pant-leg, towards a small patch of cloth folded over and disguised through hours of relentless blind toil.
From beyond, the man cracked his knuckles and removed a small device from his pocket. His thumb maneuvered over a button and pressed it. From far above them, something clicked on and the squeak of pulleys and machinery could be heard over the scratchy whine of the music.
Another shadow passed over the spot-light.
Something was being lowered.
"Raven? Starfire? Are you in position?"
"Yes. We've have gained entrance to the back of the building. Haven't run into anything yet."
"Good. Stay quiet and stay low. Beast Boy and I have moved in through the front. Try not to make a commotion unless you absolutely have to. Remember, this is Robin we're saving here. We have to keep ourselves under control on this one."
"I will. Raven out."
"Uhm, hey Cy?"
"What is it?"
"You know I'm usually all hands for things being a piece of cake and all…but does this whole thing seem a bit too easy?"
"Well, for starters, there's nothing here. No Slade-bots, no booby-traps, no nothing. I mean, considering who we're up against, shouldn't we have, oh I don't know, run into something by now? Last time we were led on a wild goose chase we got plugged by a nanobot cannon and used as a bartering chip."
"It's different this time, BB. This isn't the same game as before. Slade's up to something new."
"What do you think it is? I mean, what could Slade be doing to Robin for two whole months?"
"I don't know."
"Do you think he's…okay?"
"It's Robin, Beast Boy. I know he's okay. You do too. All of us know. Got that?"
"Y-Yeah. I guess."
"Good, now keep moving."
"-sigh-, what is it?"
"Do you hear…music?"
The music grew louder, one violin building atop a second which had lovingly joined into the melody.
From above him, the boy could see the object getting closer, swinging overhead like the slow circling of a buzzard…
He grew more desperate.
He rocked his body back and forth, forcing broken fingers into the covert fold of cloth, his gaze rigid and fixed on the blurred outline of the figure standing center stage.
Making no sound.
Making no moves.
And still grinning…
The two violins on the speakers slowly drifted into a full quartet.
The quartet, into a symphony.
It continued building.
The object clicked to a halt.
The whirring stopped.
The man's gaze was still upwards.
The boy's hand scrounged around for a moment, found purchase, froze.
"My time is finished now, Killer. Our time…is finished."
The man slowly turned and walked towards the boy.
The boy's grip tightened, knuckles white.
"All I need now is for you to cooperate. Cooperate until your audience gets here and sees what we've accomplished. Can you do that?"
The boy said nothing.
Strong hands took hold of him one last time.
Hoisting him off the ground like a father holding up his son for the very first time.
He asked again. "Can you do that, Killer?'
Lights and music swirled within the boy's burlap hood, but he could still see the man's face. The glint of his armor, the gleam of his single eye.
Clear as day.
Slowly, numbly, he nodded.
"Good." The man whispered. He took hold of the lowered object, repositioned the boy underneath it.
The symphony turned into a full orchestra.
The boy's hand slowly withdrew from his secret pocket.
A momentary wink of metal.
The man slowly lowered something rough and thick around the boy's neck.
Pulled it taught.
The music swelled.
The man took the control once more, placed his hand on another button.
"All set now." He said slowly. "It's time."
He turned to the boy, eased himself down onto one knee.
Held his chin up.
"Now tell me…what is your name?"
The man's head jerked back.
The controller suddenly clattered to the floor.
From above them, the record skipped.
An eternity passed when neither of them moved.
Then, slowly…the man raised a hand to his neck, his gaze drifting downwards.
His fingers found the boy's fist, he grasped it, gently traced down the white, trembling knuckles until they connected with the juncture of his shoulder and neck.
He felt a pulsing warmth, a hot sticking wetness, and a sharp, short shard of something hard and very, very cold.
His fingers pinched the blade.
He could recognize the feel of it.
This scrap had been taken from the gurgling sea of service pipes that ran across the boy's ceiling.
The boy had somehow managed to bring one down. Somehow had managed to work a piece of it into a blade. Somehow had managed to hide it from him for all this time.
He calmly removed his hand, turning his head to inspect it with an unflinching eye.
…somehow had managed to stick him with it.
His eye flicked back to the boy.
The sticking, hot warmth rapidly began creeping down his chest.
From deep in his shoulder, he could feel first flickers of pain as his brain slowly registered what was happening.
"K…Killer…" He whispered.
The boy didn't respond. He just stood, body trembling, chest fluttering like a bed-sheet caught in a cold winter breeze.
He couldn't move.
Couldn't look away.
From the darkness, the needle readjusted itself and the symphony sounded once more.
The man took a staggering step forward, his single eye narrowing like a crooked grin as his strength bubbled out from his neck. He took another step, then another, each step pulling his body further and further towards the floor like a marionette whose strings were being cut one by one.
On the third, his wobbling legs finally buckled and the man lurched forward, catching himself on the boy's shoulder and coughing up a lungful of hot, crimson spittle.
Still, the boy didn't move.
The man grunted, wheezed, tried to drag his feet under himself once again only to have them peel back out on the now slippery stage.
He looped an arm around the boy's neck, pulled him close, so close the boy could feel the man's breath, could feel beating of his heart beneath the black sheets of blood that now rolled down his bare chest.
The man's worked his head up onto the boy's shoulder, his back rising and falling with each raggedy breath.
"…you've…" He hissed.
As much as he didn't want to, the boy squeezed his eyes shut and listened.
Numbly, the boy let his grip fall from the blade embedded in the man's neck, his big dumb eyes fixed and unmoving. From underneath his hood, his nose began to sting with that unmistakable sensation, his eyes beginning to shimmer with hazy, reflecting stars.
With a momentous heave, the man pulled his weight up farther still on the boy's shoulder, pressing his lips right against the boy's ear through the burlap sack and whispered in final, drifting voice the most painful message yet.
"…I…am…so proud…of you…"
Then the man's grip on the boy's shoulders weakened and his head limply flopped against his chest as if those words had severed the last remaining string holding him from the stage. The boy's stomach lurched with a stifled sob as the wet, cold body slowly slithered towards the floor, the arm around his neck unraveling and the cold metal helmet leaving a long scarlet smear down the his torso like a marking in some primeval ceremonial rite of passage.
The boy's throat pinched, two shiny trails of mucous beginning to shimmer from his nostrils. His teeth were bared, his breaths ragged with choked, blubbering sobs.
He couldn't hold it in much longer.
The need to weep was beginning to hurt.
The man slumped to his knees, rocked back onto his heels, the top four inches of the blade still pointing straight and true from the stem of his neck as a final murmur of blood bubbled out the base. His body swayed, listed, then fell like a great dead tree, clattering to the stage with a heavy, confirming –Whump- just as the symphony over the speakers finally climaxed into a thunderous finale.
A full orchestra of instruments all bursting out in perfect harmony.
And at long last, the boy finally collapsed to his knees, covered his face in his hands and let loose a single wailing howl.
He sobbed until he wretched.
Until his throat was raw and his stomach rigid with sobs.
He was still sobbing when the others found him.
Body streaked with blood and gore, head cradled in crimson hands, a thick rope noose dangling from his neck.
Even as the music ended and the speakers exploded with roaring applause, as the ceiling opened up and a curtain of balloons, streamers, and confetti came showering down on him, as a great white canvas unrolled itself from the rafters and merrily displayed its message in gigantic, blocky letters.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN
PLEASED TO PRESENT TO YOU NOW FOR THE
FIRST TIME ANYWHERE
I GIVE YOU . . .
A MASTERPIECE OF MASTERPIECES
…and the abyss gazes also into you…