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[Disclaimer: You know the drill. I realize no pelf in putting this story out there to be read, and in return DC doesn't sue me and take my soul and the souls of half my relatives. Because they own the Titans. Them. Not me. Hard as that is to stomach.]

Chapter Nine – Hope


Brenn's World, Galactic Sector Three, The Rim Colonies

Cloaked in darkness, safe from the violently rushing wind, Raven sat at ease between Set's wings, strapped to his broad back with tendrils of soul-self. The Eye of Eru floated a few centimeters from her nose, supported on a tripod of shimmering black mist as she stared into its green depths. She spent a lot of time doing that these days.

We are nearly there.

Thank you.

The Eye went back into her reticule. She could feel it when the great creature wheeled to starboard and descended, feel the sudden lurch and the violent change in gravity's pull when they touched down. She released her barrier, drawing the soul-self back into her.

Set had already determined that this world was environmentally compatible with Raven's physiology, so she wouldn't need the breathing apparatus currently sitting in the folding valise. In some of the places they'd been, she had to keep her soul-self shield active the entire time to keep corrosives in the atmosphere from attacking her skin. The empath had learned a lot of new tricks from the dragon in the last several months, but his ability to instantly adapt to any environment was an innate part of his being, and not something he could teach.

Floating up and away from his back allowed the dragon to assume his humanoid form. This gave her a good vantage point for examining their surroundings; looking around, she decided at first blush that this was a pleasant world. A carpet of multihued plant life stretched off in three directions, and the air was filled with a heavy, loamy and definitely agreeable scent. She joined him on the ground and they both stared up at the imposing structure before them.

Backed up against the sparkling cliff face, it was organic, or what passed for organic on this world. A tree-thing of brilliant, emerald green, the massive 'trunk' soared some twelve or fifteen meters upward before it bulged out in a great oblate spheroid at least forty meters across and thirty tall. Openings of various shapes and sizes dotted the exterior, as did at least two hundred long 'branches' that jutted out, perpendicular to the surface. The branches were quite regular, each splitting into three and those splitting into three, and were covered with small, hexagonal 'leaves' that appeared to be made of colored glass, or perhaps citrine. They glittered and sparked as they jostled in the light breeze.

Raven offered, "It's pretty, in a weird sort of way."

"Agreed." He held up a long arm and shouted a halloo.

A few seconds later the ground around them erupted as several thin root-like things wrapped up around their legs. Raven's eyes narrowed, but Set cautioned her to keep still. The rootlets didn't tighten, indeed they barely caressed as they quickly snaked upward, creating a living lattice around the two. As soon as it was complete, the pattern glowed briefly and the visitors vanished.

The light was much dimmer inside the great sphere, and suffused with green. The surface under their feet was soft and spongy, but resilient, somewhat like a very thick wrestling mat. Neither humanoid wore shoes, so they got the full benefit of this 'interactive' floor. Raven gave a small sigh of pleasure and worked her toes up and down.

A low, sibilant voice echoed in their minds. "Welcome, travelers, to my world. What questions do you have for Iltahar?"

Raven spread her arms. "Wise One, I beg the boon of knowledge."

"Knowledge is the greatest gift, and the greatest good. Do you understand its value?"

"I believe I do, Wise One."

"What is this knowledge that you seek?"

Quickly, Raven outlined her need, her goal, and her plan for attaining it. "And so you see, Wise One, this task is beyond the limits of our power. We must find the one who can help us, or find an item that can help us, in removing my companion from the Eye while at the same time containing the demon."

Iltahar made no reply for several minutes. They waited patiently. Finally, the echoing voice said, "I believe I have heard of someone who may possess the power to help you."

Raven's heart leaped. Her fingers trembled; perhaps this time would be different. A few abortive attempts to say something finally ended with, "Do you really? Can we find him? Can we speak to him?"

"Finding him will not be difficult. Speaking with him … could pose a problem. But that is not the primary difficulty."

She stopped, becalmed. "Then … what is the primary difficulty?"

"He will not wish to help you."

She could only stand there, blinking, dreading to hear the same thing she had heard at least three dozen times already. "But … why?"

"Because he holds you in enmity."

It's happening again. Damn it all straight to hell, it's happening again. She struggled to keep the tears from her eyes.

Set spoke up, "Who is this individual, Oh Wise One? Where can we find him?"

"If you return to your home-world, you will be able to contact the leader of the Justice League. His name is Kal El, but most sentients on your planet refer to him as Superman."

"Yes. We know of Superman."

"That is good. He will be able to instruct you in how to reach your quarry. Superman has dealt with him before."

The two visitors shared an unpleasantly dour and knowing glance. Set asked, "What is his name?"

"He is called Darkseid."

Raven's deep sigh reverberated from every wall of the great space. "Darkseid. Dear god."

"Yes," answered Iltahar, "he does refer to himself in that way. His race has styled itself The New Gods. But they are not true gods, being mortal, and liable to die. Also, while powerful, his abilities are not exactly god-like. But his hubris, his ambition, and his evil know very few bounds. He has warred with your home-world twice now. He will not be amenable to aid you in achieving your goal."

Set and Raven looked at each other in despair. She, at length, asked, "Is there no one else who can be of help?"

"Doubtless there are many. I simply do not know of them."

Her breath ragged and shaky, Raven bowed her head.

"However, that does not mean you cannot find them."

"… I beg your pardon?"

"I do not know of such a one, personally, but my colleague, m'Yor-Tor'naw, may. He resides on an ice-world some twelve parsecs from here." The coordinates of the world in question were imprinted on their brains. They didn't even flinch, being used to that sort of thing by now.

Her voice small and resigned, Raven said, "Thank you, Wise One."

"You will need to rest. You traveled a great distance to get here."

Set readily agreed. "I am quite fatigued. Rest would be welcome."

An opening appeared off to their left. Iltahar said, "You will find rooms down there. Food will be supplied shortly. Please do not feel obligated to leave any time soon. I enjoy entertaining visitors, especially ones with minds as interesting as yours."

Set held an arm out. "After you, my dear."

"Thank you." Despite her bleak expression, she gave his arm an affectionate squeeze as she walked by. He followed her, just to the rear of her left elbow, ever watchful, ever protective.

Set had been the first to suggest this method of seeking knowledge, knowing both that Raven was not really capable of interplanetary travel, and that the answers she desired very likely did not reside on Earth. She and Jinx had been responsible for saving his hide (and incidentally, their little corner of the multiverse) and that sort of debt was not one that any self-respecting dragon could ignore. He had pledged to her his aid until she freed Jinx from her prison, or died in the attempt. He didn't tell her this, but privately he planned to continue her quest in the unlikely event that she did die. He felt Jinx deserved the courtesy.

They came upon what was evidently supposed to be their quarters and entered. A variety of unusual vegetable-like things were laid out on a flat protuberance that jutted from a wall to serve as a table. Tall, flat bumps on the floor beside the 'table' could be used as chairs.

Raven observed, "It would seem that our host doesn't ordinarily use much furniture."

"Considering that we are, I believe, actually inside our host, that doesn't surprise me."

Mulling that for a moment, Raven nodded in comprehension. "I didn't notice any flying creatures when we were outside. Maybe there aren't any animal forms on this planet."

"As it was with ('*-*,!)'s planet." His rendition of the brief, staccato, whistling call that the silicon-based creature had used as a name was quite accurate. "But then there wasn't really 'life' there at all, as we DNA-based types would define it. Just highly-organized rocks."

Raven gave a small grunt of assent and dug the Eye back out, letting it roll slowly around in her palm. Set noted her solemn gaze and walked over, seating himself in midair beside her. In their recent close association, he had developed a great deal of respect for the young empath. His life spanned nearly a thousand times as long as hers, but rarely – very rarely – had he ever met someone who possessed as much strength of character. He'd told her, about a month into their mission, that she would have made a good dragon. One could hardly imagine higher praise from one of his race.

Reaching over, he laid a careful finger on top of the Eye, stilling its restless motion. "I wonder if you would explain something to me."

"I'll try."

"Humans," he declared, "have a tremendous capacity for this thing you refer to as 'love'. By this I mean romantic love; the sort of love that you feel for Jinx."

She was grateful for the distraction, even though they'd been over this ground many times. The dragon found the topic a continual captivation. "You'll get no argument from me. But I think a lot of people don't realize their capacity."

"Agreed. That is one facet of my question. Primarily, do you think, is it because they don't try or because they don't meet the right person?"

"Whoosh." This was a new direction. "Why don't you give me a tough question?"

"I apologize. If you don't wish to …"

"No, no … it doesn't make me uncomfortable." Leaning back in her seat, she held the Eye between two fingers, studying it while she expanded upon her answer. "It's just that I really don't know. I'd like to think that most people don't have to meet one specific person to be happy; that there might be several equally good candidates available, or even that a couple could carve out a decent life for themselves purely through effort, if they were both committed to it. I've seen that a few times, and heard of a lot more. But then there are a lot of people who are convinced that Mister or Miss Right is out there somewhere, and they won't be satisfied until that person is found." She shrugged. "Humans are variables. We don't all react the same way to stimuli. Not even close. Hell, some of us don't react the same way twice to the same stimulus. So a general answer to your question isn't really feasible."

"I was afraid not."

Raven gave him the ghost of a tentative smile. They'd had any number of such conversations, ranging through hundreds of topics, but usually about some facet of the human condition or psychology or sociology. Set found humans endlessly fascinating, since they were so much less predictable than his own species. He'd been interacting with the hairless apes since before they started using metal, and they never ceased to offer some new angle to delight him.

By way of a sort of payment for her information, he had been helping her hone her magical abilities. She'd been a dangerous opponent before; now she was swift death on either hand. (Set's magic tended to run heavily to offense.) They also spent at least an hour each day in meditation together. This, as much as anything else, had brought them closer. Set had begun this quest out of a sense of obligation. Now he kept at it more because of the respect and affection he felt for the demi-demon. Her sense of integrity rivaled his, a trait he found irresistibly admirable.

"But," continued the girl, "the other point is just as valid. Some people just don't try. They get distracted by career or circumstances, and don't try to find love. It's a shame, really, but then that was me for a long time. I never felt that I could be in a loving relationship – you know, that kind – because of the connection between my emotions and my powers. Jinx proved me wrong." Her gaze drifted back to the eye.

"I see. Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

He just watched her stare at the Eye for a while. Then he shook himself and investigated the offered food. Although primarily a predator, Set could eat pretty much anything and make use of it. The vegetable-things were pungent, spicy and refreshing, and he offered one to the empath. They ate in silence for a while, the Eye sitting on the 'table' between them.

"Iltahar seems a nice enough fellow."

Set looked over at his companion, licking his lips before replying. "Yes, he does. Our previous informant had said as much."

"He hinted that he'd like for us to stay here a while and visit."

"True. What of it? Do you want to?"

She gave her head a small shake. "If it's all the same to you, once you feel like you're sufficiently rested, I'd like to go see that colleague he mentioned."

Quickly he nodded. "I concur. The sooner we track down someone who can help us, the sooner you and Jinx will be reunited."

"And the sooner you can return to your people. I know it must be dreadfully dull and dragging for you to have to follow me around on this wild …"

"No, Raven. Not at all. This is shaping up to be quite an adventure, and I am enjoying myself as much as circumstances allow. I am honored, also, to be given the chance to aid Jinx, who sacrificed her freedom to save us." He smiled. "But beyond that, my friend, I would miss your company rather desperately."

A light blush tinged her cheeks. "Thanks."

He willed the sticky juice off his fingers and stood. "I am going to spend some time surveying this world before my rest period. Would you care to come?"

"Not just now. I think I'll meditate for a bit and then turn in."

"Very well." He leaned over and lightly kissed her forehead. "I will not wake you when I return." His form faded to a wispy outline and winked out.

Raven sighed and stretched her legs out before folding them into the lotus position and returning her attention to the Eye of Eru. Concentrating on the green depths to the exclusion of all else, she had no trouble making out Jinx's signature in the tiny prison, colored as it was by the taint of the demon she had trapped. Wrapping her fingers tightly around the gem, she held it close against her breast. "I will get you back, Jinx. No matter how long it takes, or who I have to go through to do it. I'll get you back."


Here Ends

Enemy of My Enemy

(Book One of The Hard Choices Cycle)

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Author's Notes:

And there they are. Separated. Apart. One of them in really dire straits. And nothing resolved.

Believe me, I don't like it any more than you do. But that's what my Muse gave me to work with, and I had to run with it.

This is something of a departure from everything else I've ever written. I have several stories posted on The Raccoon's Bookshelf that are not included on FFnet due to the nature of the material, and in every case the plot worked out to a satisfactory conclusion. At least, I was satisfied, and I think most of the characters were.

But not this time. And it bugged me. Okay, so … I am totally addicted to happy endings. Inasmuch as this story did not have a happy ending, I grumped about that until my Muse showed up and splatted me across the face with 'the rest of the story', as Paul Harvey would have said. It's an odd tale, even by my standards, and I cannot guarantee when it will get underway. I have a lot of other work that I've been putting off to write EoME that absolutely HAS to get done before anything else happens.

So stay tuned for the next installment – The Hard Choices Cycle, Book Two: Specialization Is For Insects.

I'll post a little sneak-peek of the first chapter when I get it done. In the meantime … Happy Reading!