Here's the final chapter of this lovely story of mine. Enjoy!
"We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we cannot foresee."
~Marian Wright Edelman (1939-TBA)
Darkness Calls: Chapter 12
Seth sat in the Observation Room, barely moving, his comatose form slumped against the pristine marble basin that distinguished the otherwise stark and unassuming emptiness around him. The man was haggard and drawn; dark circles radiated from under his eyes, and his body possessed the pinched look of someone who had lost weight quickly. Temple and Morana stood a few feet from the Entity of Chaos, and the beefy man glared at his counter as she flicked beads along the length of her abacus, the golden instrument glistening in the light that filled the sterile room.
Both of the women had hurt him more than he'd been hurt in centuries.
"You can't control him," Seth wheezed. His voice had deteriorated along with his body and his power.
"Slade?" Temple clarified, throwing her timeless enemy a dismissive glance. "Nobody can control Slade Wilson."
Morana scowled. The petite Asian was starting to resemble Seth – her skin was losing its healthy sheen. In order to strike back at Seth, in order to punish him for his deception and manipulation, Morana had handed a mortal her Mark.
The Mark of Death.
Each of the twelve Entities had the ability to create a Mark, an artifact of ancient and unimaginable power. The very essence of the Entities flowed through the talismans like blood. That was why mortals could use a Mark to hurt the Entity who created it; the Entity and the Mark were one. Slade had collected two of the ageless relics. The man's first acquisition had been the Mark of Death; the second, the Mark of Chaos.
"What does that mean for me?" Morana insisted, running her slim fingers through the brutally short hair atop her scalp. "He's been using the Mark, I can feel him draining the power from me."
Temple hummed thoughtfully, her quill between her teeth as she contemplated a line of particularly difficult math. The woman was thoroughly enjoying her position of power and Morana knew it.
"Temple, you need me! Death is part of the natural Order. Slade is using my Mark. If nobody can control him…"
"You have a parasite, Morana, nothing serious. Every time Slade taps into your power to activate your Mark, he drains his own energy. It costs him. You might feel a little dizzy, but Slade won't hurt you. Too much."
Seth laughed weakly. The man gestured at himself. He was slumped against the Basin, his clothes hanging loosely from his frame in homage to his jowls, which were doing the exact same thing from his face.
"Does this look like it doesn't hurt, Morana? You betrayed me, and now this is going to happen to you."
"I betrayed you?" Morana scoffed, her voice rising in indignation. "You lied to me! You cheated me!"
Seth opened his mouth, but Morana cut him off with a wave of her hand. Brilliant black light engulfed her fingers, simultaneously springing to life around Seth's jaw and forcing the offending maw to snap shut with a painful thump. The dull ring of bone crashing against bone echoed through the Observation Room as Seth's teeth collided.
"You took Robin from me! I've been after that wretched boy for years. And just when I had him in my grasp, when I could taste the final moments of his life and smell the perfume of his last breath, you had the demoness save him! You aren't honestly stupid enough to think I wouldn't be angry, are you?"
Temple chuckled. She'd been at war with Seth for millennia. The manic Entity had always been able to keep up with Temple's clever plans. He countered every one of her brilliant, thought out plans – contingencies in place for all eventualities – without seeming to try or care. What took Temple years to plan and decades, even centuries to implement, Seth responded to instantaneously, slipping through the tinniest of loopholes until all of Temple's work amounted to nothing.
Not this time.
Seth would regain his power in time; it was no more possible to kill an Entity than it was to change the fundamental and underlying laws of dimensional physics. As long as there was life, there would be Entities. But Seth was weak, and he'd stay that way for a long time.
"Slade will use your Mark, Morana. He'll use Seth's too. And knowing Slade, he's already got the gears in his head working on collecting even more of our Marks. But he won't hurt you. Death is a powerful force, more powerful than most, and it isn't possible for a mere mortal to fully command life and death without exhausting themselves. See for yourself."
Temple rubbed her hands together over the Basin, allowing the tan sand of her orderly influence to tumble down into the molten rainbow swirling within the marble. The image shifted and focused as soon as Temple's power contacted it. The planet Earth swam into focus, zooming in until the two women were looking down at the black and ebony mask of Slade Wilson.
Or as he had started calling himself since his recent "death," Deathstroke.
Deathstroke pushed his way through the front doors of the morgue in the blinding light of midday. The sterile interior glistened in the sunlight; overstuffed chairs sat in the corner, apparently forgotten, flanked by large vases of dying sunflowers. The flowers knew the truth about this place: everything that entered was either dead or dying. Family and friends' final vestiges of hope shattered against the cold linoleum in the basement when they were forced to accept the inevitability of death.
The man at the receptionist's desk looked up when Deathstroke entered, but the man's eyes looked straight through him. The armored sociopath's body glowed with dark bronze light; Seth's influence over chaos proved itself more useful than Deathstroke could ever have imagined. He clutched the Mark of Chaos in his hand and smirked, walking into the stairwell while the receptionist returned to his paperback. The human sense of sight depended on all sorts of light refractions, filtering, and electronic impulses sent from the optic nerve up to the brain. It was a simple matter to scramble the process, creating the illusion of invisibility.
The crisp bite of refrigerated air infiltrated Deathstroke's lungs as he entered the morgue. There was an elderly woman hovering over the building's most recent acquisitions – Reverend Eugene Krause and his bodyguard, Kayode Dallas. The woman looked up, her bespectacled eyes blinking rapidly at the empty air. The hazel orbs were grossly magnified behind the thick box frames, giving her the appearance of a geriatric insect.
"Hello? Is anyone there?"
Deathstroke flicked his hand up at the woman, and the black aura of the Mark of Death mingled with the bronze sheen over his frame. The woman didn't react in the least, her eyes suddenly vacant. The doctor tumbled to the floor, her legs buckling slowly. Gravity toppled the woman, and she landed with a crash. The black light faded, and the assassin stumbled. The Mark of Death demanded more energy from him than the Mark of Chaos, and every additional use left the man feeling drained and nauseous. He moved forward weakly, his steel-toed boots crunching against the doctor's glasses.
Krause had seen better days. The small man's torso was riddled with bullet holes, and his face had been ritualistically slashed postmortem. The man's nose had been removed, one of his ears was missing, harvested for a trophy, and his eyes had been gouged out in homage of the great men of ancient myth. Krause began every one of his public speeches by welcoming his audience and congratulating their daring to see as he saw.
Somebody hadn't liked the view.
"Out, vile jelly," Deathstroke murmured. The armored villain carefully examined Kayode Dallas. The bodyguard's assassination had been brutal and quick, lacking in artistry but clearly the work of professionals. The large man had been Mozambiqued, his torso shot twice, rapidly, entry wounds above his lung and heart. A final bullet had punctured the African's head for good measure. The armored sociopath had already been to the hospital to visit Bryn Douglas. The news that night would announce that she'd suffered from a post-op aneurism that claimed her life.
Deathstroke closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The Mark of Death warmed in his pocket, and the assassin could smell the faint odor of burning fabric as the talisman tried to escape its confines. He didn't know if this would work. The man stretched out his hand and laid it on Krause's mutilated brow. The black magic consumed his frame, and the wounds covering Krause's body began to close and heal.
The distinctive Y-shaped incision of an autopsy closed up. Krause's nose poked into the air and elongated until there was no evidence it had been removed. Deathstroke erased all traces of the man's death except the missing ear. It would serve as a reminder for Krause and lend the tiny man credibility when he announced his miraculous rebirth. The villain felt his eyes growing heavy and stepped back, fighting the urge to be sick. He was unsuccessful, and Slade had to lift his mask from his face to avoid painting the inside of the barrier with the contents of his stomach.
Krause's eyes snapped open, and he sucked in a desperate breath. Almost immediately, he choked on the cold air as it surged into his unprotected windpipe. Deathstroke watched the man cough up the air, his eyes watering from the harsh chill. Once he'd regained his senses, Krause looked around him.
"Kayode, it's good to see you. I don't know what happened. The last thing I remember…" the small man tapered off. His savior was thankful for the break. Deathstroke's German was rusty, and he only had the ability to trick Krause's eyes into seeing and hearing his bodyguard before him. Looking like Kayode didn't give the assassin the dead man's language skills. "Oh, my! We were shot."
The Luxembourgian turned his attention back to the room he was in. He took in the refrigerated units built into the walls, the heady scent of antiseptics, the sterile environment. Finally his beady brown eyes passed over the doctor's corpse and the autopsied body of the real Kayode Dallas. The fear set in, and Deathstroke relished the expression as it invaded Krause's features.
"Who are you?"
"Who do you think I am?" he asked. "Your assassination was untimely. There's still a job for you to do, a message needs to be sent." Krause's hands were moving over his body, feeling for the bullet wounds he was positive should have been there.
"What message is that?"
"All the rules have changed. Those who insist on clinging to the old traditions will die with them."
The armored genius turned and strode out of the room. To Krause, it would seem like he evaporated into thin air. The sociopath grinned through the throbbing of his headache. He'd never dreamt of having this type of power. Even the abilities Trigon the Terrible had given him were nothing compared to the amazing things he could do now. There wasn't a single living creature that could stop him.
Beast Boy awoke with a terrible crick in his neck. The changeling moaned and tried to straighten out and alleviate the pressure. The boy didn't get far, discovering after only a few centimeters that the body curled up next to his was restricting his movement. He looked down at Raven and debated what to do.
They'd stayed up for a while talking after Raven admitted she couldn't give Cyborg the definitive answers he wanted from her. The empath had done everything in her power, but there was nothing suggesting that Cyborg wasn't just a sophisticated simulation. Of course, there was nothing suggesting he didn't have a soul either. Just like before his death, the digital Titan was caught in limbo, unable to say who and what he was.
Raven and Beast Boy had talked, they'd kissed, they'd snuggled, and the demoness had a dark hickey on her shoulder blade, contrasting sharply with her skin. There was still a baggy T-shirt draped over the only security camera in the room, privacy from Cyborg's prying eyes.
Raven was curled up against Beast Boy, her head resting on his chest, her legs lost somewhere in the unoccupied half of the bed. Beast Boy envied the extra space and tried to move to the side, but it was impossible to get anywhere without waking Raven. The changeling frowned. This was completely unfair.
Without anything else to do, Beast Boy allowed his eyes to roam over Raven's room. The decor was dark, the curtains were drawn shut, and creepy little statuettes sat arrayed on top of the bedside table, the dresser, and the bookcases. An area that had long been off-limits to Beast Boy, the elf had never imagined there would be a time where he was welcome in the room.
The room still gave him the creeps.
There was a glass orb full of violet smoke sitting on a velvet cushion. The smoke swirled within its confinement violently one second, the next it rolled in gentle eddies. Beast Boy thought he saw something else in the orb, concealed by the colored smoke, but he was almost positive that his nerves were making him see things. There was no way there were eyes in that glass ball.
Beast Boy craned his neck, wincing as the stretch aggravated his sore muscles, and looked at the bedside table. There were two books sitting on the polished wood, both partially read and sporting black bookmarks. The first looked like a college theology textbook. The second looked like it was written over three thousand years ago. It definitely wasn't a language Beast Boy could understand.
Then his eyes landed on the mirror.
Raven's meditation mirror was resting within arm's reach. The sleek hand-mirror sported a circular frame, four curved horns, and large garnets at the top and bottom of the reflective glass. The gems glistened up at the changeling, inviting him to reach for the mystic object. The last time he'd seen the mirror had been over four years ago, a few months after the Teen Titans had established themselves in Jump City. The unassuming mirror was a direct portal into Raven's mind, a completely self-contained dimension where the demoness' emotions had free reign.
"Don't even think about it," Raven said sleepily. Beast Boy sputtered.
"Good. The last thing I want to do right now is deal with Happy. She's always been your number one fangirl. We just slept together, and I don't need the squealing."
Beast Boy chuckled. Happy was perhaps his favorite of Raven's embodied emotions. The pink-clad girl was the first person in his life to call him BB, and he'd instantly been smitten with the girl's childish laughter and infectious good mood. Nothing compared to the real Raven, with all her different facets intact, but Beast Boy liked Happy.
"She'd go crazy just because we slept in the same bed?"
"You have no idea," Raven groaned. The empath nestled into Beast Boy's chest, and he sighed. He really needed to adjust his position. Sensing his discomfort, Raven reluctantly pulled away.
"What are those about?" Beast Boy asked, jerking his thumb toward the books on the bedside table. The sorceress shook her head. The truth was that she needed answers. The Entities existence undermined so much of what Raven thought she knew about the world. That made her uncomfortable. She also wanted to be prepared for next time: no matter what Temple said, Raven wasn't convinced they'd seen the last of Seth.
Beast Boy didn't press the issue, but the empath could see his lower canines pressing against his upper lip. He wasn't happy. He probably had the same reservations about trusting Temple that Raven had, but the boy didn't like confronting the possibility that Trigon and Seth were the beginning of a theme. He didn't want to think about another apocalyptic battle.
The tower's alarms started blaring. Raven and Beast Boy shot from bed out of instinct before remembering that the Teen Titans weren't receiving any emergency calls. The governor had been deadly serious about letting normal people deal with the majority of the reconstruction. The teens dressed and headed for the living room. When the door swung open, Cyborg gaped at Raven and Beast Boy exasperatedly.
"I called you guys four minutes ago!"
"Why?" Raven asked. "We were told to take some time off." Cyborg shook his head. His face was replaced by a news recording. Raven arched a brow at the scene. Beast Boy's surprise wasn't as controlled.
"What is it with all these dead people coming back to life?"
The screen showed Krause assembled before a large mass of his congregation. The man was missing an ear, but otherwise he appeared to be in perfect health. He was speaking from atop a stack of orange crates. However Krause had cheated death, he hadn't shared the secret with his bodyguard.
"Brother and sisters, I stand here before you the victim of a successful homicide, a cold-blooded murder meant to silence my message. But my message is truth, and the truth cannot so easily be silenced!" Raven found herself agreeing with Beast Boy. Krause's miraculous recovery was getting him international news coverage. The diminutive man spoke only German and a smattering of English, but every word was being translated and broadcast around the globe because of the circumstances surrounding his assassination and rebirth.
Krause was turning into a big threat faster than Raven thought possible. She had reread Slade's articles on the Entities, and the sorceress was positive this cult worship boosted their powers. If Seth or any of the other Entities were going to attack the dimension again, they'd rely on the cults for a power boost.
"God is dead. He is as dead as I was. But the Entities, the Entities are real. We have all suffered at the hands of what they can do, but I stand before you today because one of their number values the truth just as much as I do. I was brought back from the dead to share my message with you all." Raven growled low in her throat. Beast Boy shot her a questioning glance and she nodded.
"Why would Temple bring Krause back from the dead?" Cyborg asked. "Come to think of it, how would the Entity of Order bring someone to life?"
That made Raven stop. She had no idea how it was possible. It was obvious that Krause was alive. Maybe he hadn't really died. The empath sighed.
"I know you want me to look through your programming more, Cyborg, but I need to go to Luxembourg. This is too strange for us not to look into it. Beast Boy and I will head out there and see what we can find. Robin and Starfire will call in for updates, but I won't mention you. If that's what you want…"
"It is." The reply was steely and confident. Raven envied her friend. She wished any part of her life was clear-cut. Krause's assassination sent her mind reeling. He might have staged the murder in order to get the type of media attention he currently had access to. That was smart, but part of Raven didn't believe Krause had lied. And if Temple hadn't brought the man back to life, there was something else going on – something Raven didn't understand.
"You two head out. I'll get in touch through your communicators if I learn anything useful."
Raven nodded grimly and headed from the room. Beast Boy caught up with her and took her hand. The demoness glanced down at their fingers. At least things with Beast Boy were simpler. Their relationship didn't make sense in the strictest sense of the word, but Raven was beginning to care less and less about that. She needed Beast Boy and he needed her. That was a start.
The Council of Lords was a formidable diplomatic force, and Robin was quickly losing patience with everyone sitting on the Council. The Boy Wonder was in a large audience chamber, listening to the various members of the Council debate the future of Tamaran. The planet's government had been thrown into chaos by the untimely death of the Grand Ruler, a large and magnanimous man by the name of Galfore. Without Galfore's wise counsel and iron resolve, some of the more ambitious members of the Tamaranian elite were making a bid for power.
Starfire banged her fist on the table, denting the immaculate metal and sending a jarring echo through the cavernous room. The Council's circular table was a highly polished beacon in the middle of a large auditorium. It was the X'hal-given right of every Tamaranian to attend the Council's meetings, but Robin was one of the few people peppering the uncomfortable stone bleachers.
"Enough, Idowu!" Starfire took a moment to compose herself and drew a deep breath through her nose. It was a calming exercise she learned from Raven. "Your concern is noted, Councilor, but this assembly has a great many items to attend to and this theory is pure insanity!"
Robin had been listening with half an ear for several hours now. Starfire was one of the few people on the Council who spoke in English, the others preferring to use their native Tamaranian, and it made paying attention to the proceedings difficult. It was a political slight against his presence: Tamaranians could learn languages instantaneously through lip contact with a native speaker, and while some subtleties like contractions and idioms did not transfer immediately, there was not a single member of the Council who didn't possess at least conversational English skills.
The message was simple: outsiders were not welcome.
The man Starfire interrupted opened his mouth to speak, but a sharp glance from the alien princess made him hesitate. A slim man with an almost elastic appearance, Idowu had untamed brown hair that he kept out of his face with what looked like a dried animal skin. His features were sharp and his nose had a slight hook to it that reminded Robin of an opossum. Once Idowu overcame his hesitation, hearty Tamaranian syllables poured from his lips.
"You will speak in English when speaking of matters that concern my friend and his home planet," Starfire seethed. Idowu cleared his throat, threw Robin a contemptuous glance, and started again.
"Princess, the origin of the dimensional anomaly cannot be overlooked. I understand that you stand torn between two worlds and have a great deal of affinity with Earth and its native inhabitants, but perhaps this clouds your objectivity. Can we so easily dismiss the possibility that Earth unleashed D'oflax as a weapon against us?"
"Wait a minute!" Robin hollered, springing to his feet. Before the acrobat could say or do anything else, he was surrounded by guards, each carrying a vicious hybrid between a scythe and a pike. They leveled the deadly weapons at his torso as electricity began to crackle along the length of the metal.
"Robin, I have explained this to you. Only members of the Council may speak at these assemblies. As for your theory, Idowu, there are a number of things of which you should be made aware. There is no Earth government. The planet is divided into several different forms of leadership, some not even built with the same framework or values. The planet is at war with itself, and only a handful of people on Earth are aware of intelligent life on other planets, let alone Tamaran specifically." Idowu snorted, an inelegant sound of incredulity.
"My little brother speaks out of turn, highness."
"Babirye!" Idowu shouted.
"You would raise your voice to your sister?" Babirye hissed. Whereas her younger brother was full of rage and energy, the sculpted woman who now spoke carried herself with confidence and grace. She had the same dark brown hair as her brother; it hung in a curtain down her back and framed her face, drawing attention to the sharp contours of her golden physiognomy. Starfire removed her fist from the table. The metal made a small squealing sound as she pulled her hand free.
"It has been a long day," Starfire said at length. "We will adjourn for the evening. When we reconvene, I will hear no more about fighting a war against Earth. If it were not for the efforts of humans on that planet, D'oflax would still be free in our dimension. We do have security concerns, but our greatest external threat is not Earth. It is The Citadel. It is the Gordonians. It is Garland Prime. But most importantly it is my elder sister. If you wish to fight a war, Idowu, concern yourself with Blackfire."
"She wouldn't dare try anything now, highness," Babirye said. "It is only a matter of time before your own intelligence officers track her down and return her to prison."
"We can only hope, Councilor, but my sister is inconveniently resourceful."
Robin couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw Babirye smile. Starfire only nodded later that night when he told her. They were in Starfire's old room, the balcony doors thrown wide open in an attempt to tempt a breeze into the room. The sky was a deep violet, lit only by the stars and the orange moons circling the planet. Starfire had her shirt off, and Robin was in the middle of reapplying the alien girl's bandages. Her wounds had started to bleed again sometime during the day.
"Babirye and Idowu's family has always been influential on the Council. Galfore once told me he suspected they worked with Blackfire during her last takeover. Babirye had a twin sister, but she was killed during Seth's reign. Galfore always suspected her of being the brains behind their ambitions."
"And with her dead, maybe Babirye and Idowu won't be too much of a problem anymore." Starfire twisted to face Robin, her eyes flashing dangerously.
"That is a terribly offensive and callous thing to think, Robin. To say it is worse." The Boy Wonder nodded, reaching for the bandages hanging haphazardly from Starfire's chest. She jumped away from him, the gauze unraveling further until the bandages were shed to the floor. Robin had been dealing with Starfire's bandages for days and had seen her almost completely nude when Seth had control of her mind, but he averted his gaze out of instinct.
"I am serious, Robin! Look at me. Cyborg died during Seth's reign. Raven and Slade almost killed me. How would you feel if someone decided to treat those events as positive things – convenient for them?"
Robin cleared his throat and said nothing. There was nothing to say. Starfire knelt down and retrieved the gauze from the floor. Robin watched the Tamaranian princess gather up the medical supplies, his eyes sweeping over her bare torso without him being fully conscious of what he was doing.
Starfire was a beautiful girl. Her skin pigment gave her a rich golden tan regardless of the time of year, and the three scars did nothing to subtract from her beauty. She looked up and caught his eyes. Despite his mask, Robin blushed. Starfire tossed the gauze at him, and Robin caught them after a quick fumble.
"I want to thank you for assisting me with these bandages," Starfire said. "I know that my injuries and their locations make you uncomfortable. I just cannot afford to appear weak in front of a Tamaranian right now; otherwise I would ask someone else. I have no idea whom I can trust and knowing the extent of my injuries could make certain members of the Council difficult to deal with."
"I'm not uncomfortable," Robin insisted, swallowing hard to keep his throat from drying out. "I'm happy to help, Starfire. You know that."
"Only half of that is true," Starfire hummed. "You are my best friend, Robin, and I know you are happy to help me, but you are uncomfortable. We have known each other for over four years: I can tell when you are not comfortable."
Robin continued to wrap Starfire's injuries. If he covered them faster, maybe this conversation would end sooner. Starfire didn't press the issue, and Robin was thankful for that. Living and working so closely with Starfire for so many years had done nothing to assuage the chemistry he felt between himself and the Tamaranian beauty. In fact, time and proximity made it worse, and Robin didn't know how to balance his feelings with his duties as a Titan. The Boy Wonder made a mental note to ask Beast Boy how he navigated his feelings toward Raven. Both the changeling and the demoness seemed to have some chemistry, but nothing had ever happened between the two. They hadn't allowed their hormones to change their working relationship.
"Robin?" The sound of Starfire's voice pulled the young acrobat back to reality. "Do you not find me attractive?" He'd never blushed so much in his life. Robin sputtered for a moment, struggling for composure. It didn't help.
"No! It isn't that. Star, it isn't that I find you unattractive. The reason dressing your wounds makes me uncomfortable is because I find you too attractive."
"I do not understand."
"I was not aware there was such a thing as too attractive."
Robin sighed. He had no clue how to express what was in his head. He loved Starfire. He cared about her. But they were teammates. He shouldn't love her. He should be able to work with her and keep a clear and level head.
"I care too much about you," he finally blurted out. Starfire blinked. "It's hard for me to stay objective when it comes to you."
"None of us are objective about our friends," Starfire said. She spoke slowly, processing what Robin said and trying to determine what it meant. "All four of you trusted Slade to guide you to me during Seth's reign. That was not objective. Neither was it objective when you followed Slade into Hell in search of Raven. You should have let Raven and Slade kill me when I was attacking you, but instead you stopped them. That was not objective. We love each other, Robin. None of us is objective."
"But we should be," Robin muttered.
"Why is that?" Starfire snapped. "We should be objective because that is what Batman taught you? No emotions, just business? You left Batman, Robin. You rejected him in order to be someone else. Someone better."
"I know!" Robin exploded. "I know, it's just..."
"It is hard to let go of everything you've been taught," Starfire supplied gently. "I understand, Robin."
The Boy Wonder finished tending to Starfire's wounds and excused himself. He needed advice from the only guy he knew who was in a similar position. Flipping open his communicator, Robin called Beast Boy. The changeling would be able to give him some answers. Hearing the green boy talk about how he navigated his feelings for Raven would give Robin some clarity.
Komand'r was out of breath. The exiled Tamaranian princess collapsed against a large boulder, her shoulders heaving and her heart pumping battery acid through her veins. She'd been running ever since her sister's intelligence officers had tracked her to the only habitable planet in the Omarri system.
The raven-haired woman rested against the rough green stone, glancing around the horizon for any hint that she was still being followed. When nothing caught her eyes, Blackfire stretched behind herself, groping desperately for the dart that had imbedded itself in her back. It was in the only spot she couldn't reach. The pain from the dart was nothing, but the compound it was pumping into her system interfered with the chemical balance in her brain, blocking her ability to fly or shoot her starbolts.
Growling low in her throat, Blackfire began to move again, keeping low to the ground and using the plentiful blue vegetation on the planet for cover. The planet was incredibly alien, even to Blackfire who made it a point to be well-traveled. Green rocks, blue plants, and a churning crimson sky that reminded the Tamaranian far too much of the madness that had swirled above her when D'oflax had been in control of the dimension. It had been a painful and demeaning experience to lose her mind, but Blackfire did owe D'oflax some thanks: without the flood of chaos that engulfed everyone, she would never have gotten out of prison.
A twig snapped behind her, and Blackfire wheeled around, her amethyst eyes wide with pure animal terror. She didn't see anything and began to hyperventilate, backing up slowly. The dart in her back was removed with a sudden tug, and the Tamaranian yelped as the barbs yanked out chunks of her flesh. A gloved hand reached out and covered her mouth, muting the sound.
Blackfire's mind was churning rapidly, looking around for something to use as a weapon. At the same time, the exiled princess knew that she was not being held by one of Starfire's intelligence officers: she wasn't unconscious or dead yet.
"I'm going to let you go, Komand'r. Please keep in mind that running is not in your best interest." The voice was deep and masculine, speaking with accented English. It sounded like an Earth based variety. The man removed his hand, and Blackfire turned, slowly, to face him.
She was greeted by a man in a full-body suit of battle armor. Steel-toed boots covered his feet, dark metal plating covered his torso, arms, and legs, and his face was concealed by a mask of bronze and ebony, neatly dividing his features. He only had one eye, and the cold gray thing seemed to see through her clothes, past her skin, and into the very fabric of her soul and psyche.
"Koriand'r send you?"
"Starfire did not send me," he answered, referring to the Grand Ruler of Tamaran by her adopted Earth name. "Your baby sister would be very unhappy if she knew we were talking."
"Who are you then? If you're not with Intelligence, what's your game?" Blackfire smelled a trap. There was something off about this man. She'd bartered with a group of pirates only a few days ago to use their long-range scanners, and there hadn't been any power signatures around the planet. She hadn't noticed any flaming reentry paths cutting through the sky, so it shouldn't have been possible for him to be talking to her at all. Yet here he was. It didn't make sense.
"My name is Deathstroke. I'm a friend."
"With a name like Deathstroke, you can understand my skepticism," Blackfire snorted.
"I can," Deathstroke replied, never missing a beat. "You haven't gotten as far as you have in life by being easily duped. Of course, your plans recently have ended poorly. Were you thinking you could run from Starfire's intelligence officers forever?"
Blackfire scowled. She didn't have a better plan – survival was the only thing she had time to think about right now – but Deathstroke's condescension was really bothering her. She'd killed people for less than what he was currently doing.
"And you're going to help me come up with something better?"
"Not too long ago, back on Earth, I was in the exact same situation you are in right now. I had nothing, I was surrounded by people who wanted to see me dead, and I had to crawl on my knees, begging them for help. Survival was the immediate goal, but I was already working on a plan. As you can see, it worked out fairly well for me."
Blackfire cocked her head, feigning interest. She flexed her fingers and concentrated, trying to work up enough fury to ignite a starbolt. The radiation flickered along her fingers, but she was still too drugged to tap into her emotions successfully. Deathstroke looked over his shoulder, hearing something in the distance.
"Listen to me carefully," he demanded, suddenly talking faster, his voice dropping to a whisper. "In four days, a ship will land in the southern pole and harvest some of the larger trees to break down into bio-fuel. They will do this because their captain went insane yesterday and vented the majority of their fuel into space. His crew killed him, but the damage was already done."
Blackfire blinked, trying to keep up with this information. She didn't understand how Deathstroke could possibly know what he claimed, but the man spoke with such certainty that she didn't dare question him.
"The second-in-command is a large creature named Kamacht. He is stupid and demands no loyalty or respect from the crew. Get down to the pole, meet up with the pirates, win over the crew, and seize the ship. Move only under cover of darkness."
Blackfire bristled at being given orders. She was the eldest princess of Tamaran and the rightful Grand Ruler of a proud warrior race. Nobody gave her orders. Deathstroke chuckled, as if reading her mind, and that only infuriated Blackfire further. Her hands began to glow purple with the radiation of her starbolts.
"Why should I trust anything you say? Besides, even if you're right, I can't wait until dark: my sister's officers are right behind me."
"You should trust what I have to say because I need you. We can help each other. You want revenge on your sister; I want you to assume your role as Grand Ruler of Tamaran. Listen to what I'm saying. Win over the pirates, build an army, and take what's rightfully yours. There are three intelligence officers within a click of our position. I'll take care of them. You hide until dark."
Before Blackfire could ask more of Deathstroke, the man vanished into thin air. She blinked at the empty space, too shocked to process what she'd seen. After a moment, Blackfire headed deeper into the vegetation, looking for a place to lie low until the sun set. The exiled Tamaranian knew there was more going on here than she'd been told. Nobody ever helped anybody without a reason, and Deathstroke's motivation was a complete mystery. That made him difficult to predict, work with, or control.
Despite her reservations, Blackfire didn't doubt that Deathstroke had a vested interest in this pirate army. She smiled as her own plan began to crystallize. She'd run across multiple pirate vessels from all over the galaxy as she ran from Tamaranian Intelligence. Many had lost valued crewmembers and focus because of D'oflax's influence. They were looking for a leader to give them purpose.
"Get ready, baby sister," she cooed, nestling into a large cerulean shrub that soaked her up like a sponge. "I'm coming for you."
I want to thank all my readers so, so much for sticking with me during this story! It has been a pleasure to share this tale with you. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart. Good luck and happy writing!