Shout Outs: Guest chapter 22 (CJ) – While that's true, to be fair, most dudes don't choose the "best" girl, they choose the hottest one. It's a failing of human nature. The glands want what the glands want, and the brain can go pound sand.
Guest Chapter 23 (CJ) – It's the way of things. You have to laugh, or you'll cry.
Kodra – I'm glad you liked it. On the subject of Rita's take on men and how their minds work, well, she's trying to explain something that she doesn't really understand herself. She's trying to articulate what she's observed through her own experiences. But her perspective is going to be one of a woman who only consorts with high value men. She's been both gorgeous and rich for about eighty years. Most of the men in her life have been alphas.
Jerel – I know. I do that, but it's easier to complain than to construct those brain-damaged links.
Necro-wulf – Thanks. The story still moves ahead. I've never read Ishmael.
JohnXGambit – Yeah. Especially with enhanced senses. Ewewewewew!
EasyThrowAway – He's mostly following his nose.
BartWLewis – Thanks!
UmeTakato – Noel to you to. Update to follow shortly.
TheForceIsStrongWithThisOne – You're right. It's not 100 pounds. It's more like 70 – 80. Most people have the same picture in their heads from the show, but he gained four inches in height and significant mass during his hiatus in "A Year In A Quiet Tower." He's currently about 5'8 or 5'10. He's not "tall." Just "taller than Raven." As to his physique, he's not massive. I didn't want to stray too far from expectations. But instead of "wiry," think "martial artist." The picture in my head is that of Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon." So the number I had in my head for him, about 230 pounds, is way too much. Raven weighs about 93 pounds at her adult weight. Garfield would be between 165 – 180 at this point, so it should read "80 pounds on her." I'll have to get back to the therapy. I've been neglecting it.
Krostovikraven1 – The curse is coming up. As to breaking the seal? It was just plaster.
Shadico – Re Rae's recovery. Yeah. Did a bit of hand-waving there. Fortunately, healing has a long history of relapses and such. Yeah, he can do creepy. Which is kind of the point. Most of the time we see the clown/nice guy. But all those animal forms he takes? Half of them are hunters. Recall that I had him hunting in Siberia, as well as when he was on hiatus. This is just the first time we've gotten to watch.
G The Nephilim – Always glad to hear from you.
Chibijac – Welcome. I look forward to seeing your reviews.
Feriwan – I've been a little sloppy with my timekeeping and I'm sorry about that. The primary basis for the story is the TV show, with odds and ends filled in from the old comics from the 60's & 70's when the show left stuff out. Almost everything that happened in the show is Canon but there will be some conflicts here and there where the canon got in the way of my narrative. What can I say? The story starts with the incidents in "Titans, GO!" and moves in parallel with the series until Chapter 10, which occurs after "Tokyo Trouble." Recall that Slade comes back from the dead in "The End," because Trigon finds him useful, and disappears at the end of the episode, with Robin noting "If he shows back up, we'll be ready." Then, he DOES return at the end of "Things Change" to mock Beast Boy as Beast Boy pursues the girl who may or may not be Terra. So there's no real problem with both Slade being back but Terra being gone as far as the series Canon goes. As to my scientific prowess, well, if I don't remember it from school, I throw it into Google and use whatever is at the first link.
RandamWriter – Good to hear from you again.
Guest (Chapter 2) – But that's the interesting part! (Chapter 3) That she is.
Jerel – (Chapter 55) Busted, both times. (Chapter 61) I thought about bringing that up, but I decided for dramatic purposes to hold that in reserve. I'm planning on an appalling gush of drama worthy of a harlequin romance novel later on, and didn't want to overuse that one. And it's not that she doesn't want to be a mom; it's that she's afraid of a) spawning monsters and b) being a crappy mom. (Chapter 13) Did I really say 36-27-26? That's a typo. I was actually going with Marilyn MonRoe's measurements, published by her dressmaker after her death. Like any other woman, Marilyn's measurements varied through her life as she gained and lost weight, but on avers, she was about 36 – 24 – 36, which was what I was apply to Starfire. In retrospect, I don't think that they are bombshell enough. Starfire is typically considered an utter knockout, and she's taller than Marilyn, so she would need a bigger bust and hips to make the same hourglass impression. But I'm not going back and editing all of that. We're going to ignore my typo and stick with 36 – 24 – 36. (Chapter 27) She was my inspiration. (Chapter 51) – That would be telling. (Chapter 54) – Merely an inspiration. Yeoman Rand was too old for Changeling, even back in the day.
Author's Notes: It comes slowly, but it still comes. We wind up the African adventure here and head back to Jump City to move toward the final chapters. I skipped a couple of points in the previous chapter – the presence of the active Collar interferes with all electrical fields within a broad area. This was why they couldn't just yell for help, and I forgot to mention it. Sorry. As thing begin to come to a close, don't forget – I have some deleted scenes, found footage, and outtakes for you after the curtain falls. Coming up next? It's what you've all been expecting – I think there won't be many surprises. Or maybe there will, at least for one or two Titans, if not for you guys.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
I do – Lamont Cranston
Raven grabbed Changeling by the shoulder before he could swing out and said, "Okay – what's up?"
The green anthropoid ape flickered, taking Garfield's human form.
"I can smell traces of diesel exhaust in the air. We're gaining. They're only a little way ahead of us. Let go! We have to keep pace with Clayton if we're going to be able to stop him!"
And off they went again. They had only gone a couple of miles when they came upon Clayton, crouched on a massive limb in the lower terrace, looking out across a small natural clearing. The road entered the clearing on one side, passed across the center of the clearing, and then re-entered the jungle. The clearing was small, about twenty yards across. The sun shone directly overhead. About one-third of the way across the clearing sat the small truck. Paulvitch labored frantically at the left front wheel. He'd obviously been changing a tire. A second figure sat motionless in the deep shadows inside the cab. Clayton continued to stare. The green mangani dropped from the middle terrace to squat beside the ape man. It flickered and the Changeling kneeled beside Clayton.
Raven levitated up behind the two men and hovered silently. Minutes passed with no movement in the trees. Finally Raven inhaled silently through her nose. Opening her mouth just slightly, she breathed out the words.
"What are we waiting for?"
Changeling's left ear twitched and he glanced over at Clayton, who gave him a shallow nod. Changeling moved farther back into the trees and looked at Raven.
"Something weird is going on. They're sure to know we're following, but we should be days behind them. By any reasonable measure, a flat tire is just an inconvenience. But look at him."
Raven's eyes followed Garfield's finger. The blond, bearded man was trying to mount the spare tire onto the wheel bolts by himself. He was sweating profusely, but that was common in western Africa. But his eyes were wide, almost bulging. As he worked he kept glancing up at the figure in the cab. He froze for a moment, eyes widening even further as he stared into the cab, then he redoubled his efforts to mount the tire. Clayton moved to enter the clearing when Raven cleared her throat and spoke quietly but forcefully.
"Wait," she hissed. "I've got information you're going to need."
Clayton turned, frowning. "Now?" he muttered.
"Well you wouldn't stop and talk during your 'hunt'. When was I supposed to tell you?"
Clayton paused and glanced back into the clearing. "Very well," he said. "There's time. We'll talk now."
Raven drew herself up as she marshaled her thoughts.
"First, the writing on the wall inside the crypt was a note for me."
"You?" said Changeling, startled.
"Well, not me personally," she quickly amended, "but for whatever scholar opened the crypt. You only gave me twenty minutes to read and translate something I should have spent about a week on, so I'm not sure of everything. The scholar who was the last man out before it was sealed didn't have much confidence that it would stay hidden forever, and he was right. They were unable to completely hide what they had created."
"They were messing with things far beyond their capability to control. You've heard that tired old cliché, 'things man was not meant to know?' Well this comes as close as anything I've ever seen. The goal of this project was to produce a new set of crown jewels for Atlantis."
"All this over some shiny baubles?" asked Clayton.
"No," Raven replied, "They wanted them to be much, much more than mere jewelry. They were trying to make objects of Power."
Clayton made disapproving face. "Magic artifacts, then," he said.
"Worse," said Raven. "They attempted to bind some . . . things. Beings, actually, into some of the artifacts to grant them power. By binding them into the artifacts, they hope to control them. And failed. Then they discovered that they could not destroy what they had created, and so attempted to lock them away forever. Clearly, they failed at that, too."
Clayton blinked, and then shook his head. "What is it that I need to know?"
Raven began again.
"There were dozens of artifacts in that room that the custodian was concerned about, but only one of which he was actually afraid: the Collar of Estate."
"Collar," grunted Clayton. "Anything else?"
Paulvitch had managed to get the tire mounted and was desperately trying to tighten the lug nuts.
"If we're going to stop them now, we're running out of time."
Raven took a breath and tried to organize her thoughts.
"The Beings on the other side of the artifacts," she said, "have been dormant. Sort of in a coma, but like anything that alive, they have to eat. They've been inactive, and slowly getting hungrier all the time they've been 'asleep.'"
"I'm guessing," Changeling said, "that they don't eat tofu tacos."
"Life energy. They drain the life force off of living beings. That's what happened to the men in the storage facility. All of the energy was drained from them. Until there was nothing left but dust."
"Then why," asked Changeling, "Didn't it eat the other guy?"
"At this point," she replied, "I'm just guessing, but I'd say that when Rokoff first put on the collar, most of his personality survived the experience. Paulvitch had been his friend, or at least his lackey. He probably spared him out of residual fondness, habit, or because he thought he might be useful. He's certainly working hard for him now."
The trio looked across the clearing. Paulvitch had gotten the tire on the lugs and was preparing to spin the lug nuts back on.
Changeling braced Clayton. "We have to try to arrest them."
"Rokoff won't surrender. Not if he's anything like his great-grandfather. His arrogance knows no bounds. And Paulvitch won't quit as long as Rokoff is driving him."
"We still have to give them a chance."
Clayton closed his eyes and tilted his head back toward the sky. He inhaled, filling his lungs with the rich, moisture laden air, filled with the scents of the jungle.
"Jane would say your way is clear," he finished.
Clayton opened his eyes as he felt the paper-thin veneer of civilization once again cloak his conscience.
"Very well," he said. "Throwing away the advantage of surprise is the act of a fool. But for Jane . . ."
Clayton walked boldly out into the clearing, distaining any pointless effort at subterfuge.
"Rokoff!" he shouted. "Like a civilized man, I offer you terms of surrender. I am the law in the district, but I will take you and Paulvitch into custody and turn you over to the dubious justice in the capital."
The shadowy figure in the cab did not move, but Raven had been keeping a close eye on Paulvitch, who had just been lowering the truck back down onto all four tires. At the first sound of Clayton's voice he turned around, looked at the ape-man as he strode into the sunlight, and Paulvitch's shoulders slumped in relief. The panicked look in his eyes faded away and he began to raise his hands in surrender.
"Sapristi!" The voice called out from the cab of the truck. The voice was deep and soft, with the grinding, hissing sibilance of great oily stones moving over one another.
The passenger door opened and the occupant stepped out into the shadow of the vehicle. Slowly he emerged, the darkness sliding up his form and away like quicksilver down the drain. Rokoff, Clayton saw, wearing a golden collar. Not like a dog collar or choker tight about his neck, it rather rested on his cervical vertebrae, and the points of his collarbone. Each plate of the collar was detailed with platinum and inset with un-faceted precious stones. But the plates were draped over almost fleshless bones. Rokoff's skin hung slack and flaccid over his skeleton, the flesh beneath consumed by whatever it was that was trying to get out. Clayton's eyes left the collar, only to recoil from Rokoff's face. His eyes were black pits. Not empty sockets, but holes. Windows to someplace . . . else. They continually wept small trails of darkness down the slack skin of Rokoff's face. Rokoff smiled.
"Paulvitch," he said, "your lack of loyalty comes as no surprise. But you didn't used to be a coward."
The man paced around to the front of the vehicle. He towered over the cringing man and then backhanded him across the face. Paulvitch's head snapped back as the force of the blow lifted him off of the ground and sent him tumbling across the clearing past Clayton, to roll to a stop at the tree line, practically at Raven's feet. Clayton bared his teeth in a snarl and bounded over the rough grass toward his enemy. Raven and Changeling looked down at the man. His eyes were rolled back in his head and one side of his face was beginning to swell, but other than that he seemed undamaged, despite the force of the blow. Raven held her hands out over the man's head and a light blue glow, dim in the equatorial sun, gleamed between her and the fallen man. He groaned.
"Are you all right," she asked the fallen man.
Paulvitch groaned again. "I ache all over, but I don't think anything's broken."
Then his eyes flew open. "We've got to get out of here," he cried.
"You're not going anywhere," Changeling began.
"You don't understand," Paulvitch said as he attempted to rise. "That's not Rokoff. It's something else."
"Wait," said Raven, pressing him back. "Think back. Any information you can give me might help."
There was a horrific crunching sound as Clayton flew through the air to smash into the branches of the upper terrace, and then fall toward the ground. Changeling glanced up to see his friend grab hold of one of the branches in the middle terrace with a shaky hand, arresting his fall.
"Whoops," said Changeling, "looks like somebody needs to tag in. Stay with him, find out what he knows."
Changeling flickered into cheetah and sprang onto the grass of the clearing and raced toward Rokoff.
Raven looked at Paulvitch again, forcing eye contact. The man's eyes were wide, his expression wild.
"You don't understand," he said again, "he ate them!"
"I understand more than you can possibly imagine. I'm not letting you move from this spot until you tell me exactly what happened in the crypt."
Paulvitch licked his lips, his eyes darting from side to side.
"We broke the seal without any problem. It was just plaster set with some semi-precious stones. He was very particular that we make a cast beforehand so that we could put it back the way it was when we were done, to buy time."
His face relaxed for the first time since Raven had seen him. A small smile touched his lips.
"The room was packed with treasure. We had two guys with us from the Kinkaid. And we emptied the treasure chamber by the numbers. It was really strange. Rokoff didn't seem to care about anything. He barely looked at anything as we packed it up. Then we got to the back, to that altar. It had been behind a lot of big boxes and pottery. There was another seal on it, and inside the seal was that necklace. Rokoff just smashed the seal and grabbed up that collar. We had everything else loaded, and that kid showed up with one of your diggers. He'd seen us and gone for help."
"He must have wanted to confirm the boy wasn't imagining things before rousing the camp," she mused.
A burst of deep, malevolent laughter filled the air. Raven looked up. A green orangutan was pulling himself out of a tangle of vines nearby while Clayton, bleeding from several wounds clasped a hand to the opposite shoulder, his arm dangling uselessly.
Paulvitch gulped, swallowing noisily. "The man started shouting from the door of the crypt, telling us to come with him immediately. He should have snuck out and gone for help, but he didn't."
The man blinked, shaking his head, part in disbelief, part to try to escape the memories.
"Rokoff just laughed, and then put the collar on. He started ranting. He said stuff I didn't understand. I thought he'd gone mad. 'A'lot yo'ool, avok, tvesh. A'vakranash! A'vakranash! or something."
Raven blanched. Her eyes went wide and the blood ran from her face. She grabbed him by the shoulders.
"Wait . . . wait . . . you said 'A'vakranash'?"
Paulvitch didn't hear her.
"And then his eyes . . . fell away inside his head. They started seeping that black tar. His voice changed. And then he ran across the room and . . . ate them."
Raven shook him, hard. "You're sure it was 'A'vakranash?' Not "Avash?"
He blinked, looking up. "I didn't understand any of it, but yes, 'A'vakranash.' Why?"
She dropped him, standing up.
"Because I've made a horrible mistake. I've brought them to their deaths. And I may have killed us all."
But Paulvitch wasn't listening. While Raven was distracted he slowly slid away from her into the brush, and vanished.
"I may have killed us all," she repeated. "Again."
Just then a green stegosaurus crashed into the trees above and behind Raven and slid to the ground. Changeling shifted back into his human form as Raven watched Clayton, on the other side of the clearing slam his own shoulder into a tree trunk, relocating it. The tall man snarled, crouched, and stalked back into the clearing.
"Did you find out anything use . . ." Changeling's voice trailed away at the expression on Raven's face.
"The hieroglyphics. I got them wrong. I was in too much of a hurry, and too ignorant. The thing on the 'other side' of the Collar of Estate; It's not a being. Or even a demon."
"Then what?" he asked.
"I'm pretty sure it's a god."
Changeling blinked. "A . . . god? Like, a little roman household god, right?"
"More like something in Trigon's class. Or bigger."
The earth shook as Clayton was slammed into the ground.
"That skinny, flabby thing? We smashed thousands of those back in Central America."
"No," Raven replied. "It's far bigger and more powerful than that. That's just all the power Rokoff's body can hold. When it ate those four men, it satisfied its immediate hunger. Right now it's enjoying being free, and it's playing with you guys. Like a cat with mice. Soon it's going to get bored, eat you, and add your power to its own."
He looked in to her eyes, emeralds to amethysts. A moment passed. Then two.
"You're sure," he asked.
"I'm positive," she replied. "We can't stop it. Not alone."
He didn't hesitate. From his belt he drew is Titan communicator.
"You're faster than I am. Take this and go. Get out of range of the interference and call the cavalry."
She frowned. "You want me to . . . leave you? Are you out of you mind?"
"It's the only way. Clayton can't hold it by himself. And if that thing gets past us, it will snack its way to the coast, getting stronger all the way. Together, Clayton and I might be able to hold it long enough for you to bring help. Look at it this way. There's no way Clayton will run, and how strong do you think it will get after it's through eating his essence?"
She paused. "Come with me," she urged.
"Raven, I can't keep up with you. Not over the kind of distance you are going to travel. And besides, Clayton can't hold it alone. If there's a chance of stopping it, I have to try. There's no time to argue! Now go! Before it's too late."
He slapped the comm into her hand. As their hands touched, their eyes met and held for a beat, then two. There was a small crack in the air as Raven vanished. She had levitated off at her top speed. She's cleared the upper terrace in an instant, leveled off a couple of dozen feet above the verdant canopy and stretched out. She hadn't been wearing her cloak in the jungle, and with no hood to pin it down her fine hair stretched out behind her, whipping in the wind. Far back in Raven's consciousness, her mind began to burn, not like a fire, but like an over-stressed muscle. She could levitate, and move small to medium objects, but Raven was not right. Her spiritual injuries were not healed yet.
"The faster I get to the edge of this dead zone, the faster I can get back," she thought.
There's a reason Starfire, Superman, and the other flying heroes stretch their arms out ahead of themselves when they fly in a hurry. It's more aerodynamic. Raven put her hands in front of her, clipped her thumbs together, bowed her head, and moved faster. Minutes ticked by. Far behind her, bodies smashed into each other in a nameless jungle clearing. And darkness grew stronger.
Nevermore: Raven's mindscape.
Each of Raven's avatars bore signs of her recent injury. Intellect and wisdom each had an eye swollen shut. Timid's left arm wore a sling. Valor's bandages were still red with virtual blood. None of the others looked any better.
"Are . . . are we sure this is the right decision?" asked Timid, the first to speak.
The twins, Intellect and Wisdom exchanged a glance. "We," said Intellect, "aren't seeing very clearly right now. We're not sure."
"This is a mistake," said Philia. "When those we love are in danger, we should be close to them, not moving away. I would have thought that would be obvious."
"He had a good point," argued Intellect. "We know even better than him: that thing is bigger that Trigon. The tree of us weren't going to stop it. We have to have help. We have to alert the Titans. The Justice League. Even the Doom Patrol . . ."
"No," Eros interrupted, "remember what he said? How big will it be after it's eaten Clayton's essence? How much bigger, then, will it be after it has eaten Clayton and . . . him?"
Wisdom spoke, "but he made a good point about . . . how important it was to get help. No one outside of the three of us really knows what's happened. If we don't get word out, the whole world could be doomed."
Raven sighed in exasperation with herself, focused, and a shell of dark energy surrounded her, making her far more aerodynamic than merely putting her hands in front of her. She accelerated again. Her head throbbed and a trickle of blood began to seep from her nose and her right ear. Another five minutes passed.
"I've got to admit," said Valor, "I don't like running from a fight. And there's something about all this that seems . . . familiar. Not directly, but still."
"Yes," said Sloth as she wandered in, late. Holding an ice pack to a swollen nose she said, "We've been down this road before. Even I can see it."
"He's done it again," growled Rage, deeply.
Raven's eye flew open, then split into four eyes the color of old blood. She flipped end-over-end and dug the edges of her feet into the very fabric of reality by the force of her will and the power of her fury. A green and yellow aurora of power sprayed like ice from a skater's blades and she made a bootlegger reverse and started back the way she came. And then Raven did something she almost never did.
Her lips parted, revealing two rows of fangs below four blood-red eyes. A low, clashing grind of two contralto voices rumbled inside the regenerated cockpit of dark energy as Raven flew back toward the clearing.
"puqloD bitch! 'oH qa' ghaH! DuqIppu'chugh jIHvaD Qob lom lan ghaH! chay'pen ghaH HoH neH! chay'pen ghaH pep lommeyvo'! chaH vIjaH ghaH kiss ghaytan wa'leS pagh tu'lu' 'ej vaj chay'pen snot lon moq jatlhqa'!"
Raven was swearing in the language of demons. It wasn't something she liked to do, but none of the mortal languages Raven knew had the concepts to embody her feelings at the moment, and 'demonic' had certain specific and narrowly defined concepts of fury, damnation, and torture that it was particularly suited to her mood.
A few minutes later as she flew back to the fight she grew slightly calmer. She was down to one set of fangs and only two eyes the color of old blood.
"Garfield made a fool of me. I would have spotted it if I wasn't still trying to recover from having my mind broken. It's probably why I also miss-translated 'demon' for 'god.' Oh that man! He realized we couldn't win, and found a way to keep me out of the fight. If he gets killed trying to keep me safe, I'm going to kill him!"
She was approaching the clearing. She slowed down and dropped the shell of dark energy to see better. The fight had not gone well since she had been tricked out of it. Clayton lay in the center of the clearing, unconscious or dead. Changeling's mastodon limped on three legs as he circled the still figure of Rokoff who stood near Clayton. Rokoff wasn't laughing anymore, but Raven couldn't hear what he was saying over the sound of the air rushing past her. She went into a power dive, blood now streaming from both nostrils.
"Azarath! Metrion! Zynthos!"
As Raven hurtled toward the ground, still bleeding off velocity she cast out a single, large bolt of the dark energy that had always driven her life. The flare caught Rokoff in the middle of his back and picked him up off of the ground, flinging him across the clearing. He flew through the air, his arms flailing like a marionette whose strings had been cut. He performed a perfect face-plant, cutting a deep, wide trench in the clearing and off into the brush, vanishing with a disturbing crunching sound as he hit the wide bole of a tree. Desperately, Raven skew-flipped, getting her feet underneath her and she collided with the clearly floor. Her knees flexed and her joints complained as she came to a halt, her arms windmillling.
Changeling's voice sounded from across the clearing as the mastodon melted away, leaving the young man standing on his feet a little shakily, cradling his right forearm in his left.
"What are you doing here?"
"My. Job." She said, severely. "You've got a lot of nerve running me off like that."
He glanced around guiltily.
"Well, I, you . . ."
"Fighting bad guys is my job," Raven hissed. "I've been doing it since before we met. Where do you get off pushing me out of the way?"
Even as she snarled at him, hands reached out and gently probed his injured limb. A soft blue glow radiated from her hands as she absorbed his pain an injury.
"It wasn't like that," he started.
She all but snarled at him. He put his hand up to cup the side of her head. She started to flinch angrily away but he stopped her.
"Raven, you're not on your game. Look."
He held out a hand smeared with bright red blood.
"You're bleeding out your ears and nose, and you've barely been in the fight. I just . . . didn't want you hurting yourself. Umm . . . but, do you think you can heal Clayton?"
He gestured at the fallen man a few steps away.
"Fighting when I'm hurt is my choice. Now quit trying to change the subject."
"Raven," he said urgently, "the fight's not over! How incompetent do you think I am? Clayton and I put him down twice at least that hard while you were gone."
He pointed. Over at the edge of the tree line there was an ominous rustling. Raven turned as Rokoff, or whatever he was becoming rose from the brush. He didn't stand up; he simply pivoted up on his heels from a reclining to a standing position. Headless, his right arm reached around to his left side and popped the left arm back into the socket with an audible crunch. Then, both hands reached up behind the torso and placed the dangling head back onto his shoulders. The ravaged face was grinning.
"See if you can get Clayton back in the game. I think he's only concussed. I'll see if I can buy you some time."
Changeling flickered into a cheetah and charged at the apparition. From ten feet away, mid-charge, he morphed into a giant, prehistoric rhino. Four and a half tons of herbivore, moving at cheetah speeds of 78 miles an hour slammed into Rokoff and blasted him back into the brush. Raven quickly moved to Clayton's side.
"I've only got moments," Raven thought, as she wiped the blood from her lips and centered herself. Her hands probed Clayton's body. She breathed a sigh of relief when she decided he had no broken bones. She glances quickly at the brush in time to see a green hummingbird emerge and turn into an emerald wolf, which went back on its haunches and howled a challenge.
"I'd better hurry and give him backup," she thought, "or he's going to get his ass kicked."
She stretched out her hand in front of her and cradled Clayton's head. Her healing energy poured forth as she absorbed Clayton's pain and injury, packing it away in a distant part of her psyche to be processed later with mediation. Clayton awoke with a jerk and sat upright swiftly, his head swiveling to stare at Raven uncomprehendingly.
"Ready for 'round two?'" she asked?
Clayton's eyes focused on her and he shook his head to clear it.
"I've killed it twice already," he said. "But I take some killing to stay dead myself."
He rose and faced the brush as the creature walked back out into the light. Only loose, floppy skin seemed to remain over the bones. The face was slack, except for the mouth, where it was pulled back in a rictus grin. The eyes, black pits, seemed to be larger. It walked in an odd, mixed gait, sometimes placing its feet with great precision, other times shuffling like an old man, worried about his balance. A breeze blew steadily toward it, the warm, humid jungle air rushing forward as if to fill a void.
Changeling flickered, and took his T-Rex form. Playtime was over. Clayton stood and shook his arms and shoulders where they had begun to stiffen up while he was unconscious. Raven cautiously took a place between them. The creature looked at Clayton, then broke into a shambling run. The T-Rex howled a challenge and stalked forward. Raven drew in her will.
"Azarath, Metrion, Zinthos!" she chanted, and a fat bolt of dark energy leapt from her hands and rushed at Rokoff. Her head began to throb, and she could feel her pulse in her ears.
The creature raised its hand and Raven's dark energy parted. Split in two it went to either side of the skeletal creature and noisily smashed into the jungle.
The creature paused.
"Trigon?" it said, intrigued. "No," it continued. "Not Trigon. Very similar, but different."
A black, greasy tongue protruded from its mouth, licking its lips in a disturbing parody of wine tasting.
"Trigonsdottir," it said. "Hello neighbor."
"I'm no neighbor of yours," she said.
"Please excuse me; if you're not going to eat those, I'm quite peckish. In fact, I was here first."
With that he turned away and began to stride toward Clayton, who drew his knife and set his feet. Changeling roared again and charged.
Changeling hit the creature first. He leaned over and closed his jaws around Rokoff, and both creatures jerked to a sudden stop. Changeling lifted Rokoff into the air and began to shake his head back and forth in an effort to savage Rokoff. The T-Rex stopped suddenly, a surprised expression on its face. Slowly, ponderously, the jaws began to open. There, lying atop the savage, jagged teeth was Rokoff, his face still grinning, pushing the giant jaws apart, un-pierced by the sharp fangs. Changeling spat, and Rokoff hit the ground, bounced once, and then hopped to his feet. The T-Rex stomped, trying to crush him, but Rokoff caught the giant reptilian foot in his hand and lifted the Changeling from the ground. He turned and slammed the T-Rex into the turf once and once only, then turned back toward Clayton.
The T-Rex did not move.
"Truly?" it said. "My home is not far from Perdition. Are you sure?"
Raven ignored the byplay and looked at Changeling's unmoving form.
She rose from the ground, hair flaring back behind her in defiance of the cold wind.
"Azarath, Metrion, Zynthos," she intoned, holding her hands out to her sides, palms raised. The throbbing at the back of her head got worse.
There were two sharp cracks as a pair of trees were encased in dark energy and ripped from the hearth. As Raven's eyes narrowed they began to spin like buzz saws. Raven had come to try to save Rokoff from Clayton. Rokoff didn't need saving. He needed stopping. Raven crossed her arms in front of her torso, bringing the buzzing disks together to intersect on Rokoff. There was an explosion of wood, dust, and smoke as the flailing tree trunks disintegrated in a cloud of destruction.
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye. The T-Rex was gone, and Garfield climbed out of the divot the giant dinosaur had left in the ground.
"Wow," he said, "he tossed me down like I was nothing."
The dust cleared. Rokoff just stood there, grinning. He'd shrugged off two of Raven's hardest shots without breaking a sweat, and thrown Changeling's largest land form around like a plush toy. That was when Clayton dropped from the trees behind him, locked one arm around his neck in a stranglehold and plunged his eight-inch-long hunting knife into his ribs five times.
Rokoff's eyes grew wide and his mouth opened with a groan of pain that bubbled with blood. His legs went limp and for an instant he dangled from Clayton's powerful grip. Clayton let him fall to his knees, never letting up on the stranglehold. Then, incredibly, Rokoff brought one foot forward and placed it flat on the ground and began to stand. Clayton bore down, but Rokoff stood as though the weight of the giant man was nothing. Slowly, and with great deliberation, Rokoff reached back and peeled Clayton off of his back, casually breaking the stranglehold and then tossing him over next to the two Titans. Rokoff had bled briefly, but already the crimson flow had slowed to a trickle. Raven's mind raced. The dark energy had worked once. Garfield's kinetic charge had worked once. Clayton's edged weapon had worked once. Briefly.
"Think, Raven, think," she urged herself, "you're supposed to be the smart one."
"Raven," said the Changeling thoughtfully, "did that graffiti say anything about how the ancients beat this thing?"
"They defeated it?" asked Clayton, not taking his eyes off of the creature.
"Well, sure," replied Changeling. "If no one put the Collar on, they wouldn't have knownu there was a problem. So they must have seen this happen. And the world didn't become dinner to a soul-sucking void thingie, so they must have beaten it."
"Well," said Raven, as she began to gather in her will, "they basically buried it in bodies. The initial presentation was in the square. When the priest touched the collar and suddenly put it on, which he wasn't supposed to do, they all charged. They threw troops at it from all directions. Somebody managed to snatch the collar off without touching it, somehow in all the confusion. We're going to have to hit it all at once. A single attack allows it to use its control of Rokoff's body, backed by mystic power, to throw off all of our effects."
She began to glow with eldritch power.
"Raven, wait," said Clayton. "If what you say is so, then three directions will not be enough."
Clayton looked at Changeling, who nodded in agreement, and Clayton licked his lips. Even as Rokoff began to stride forward again, Clayton's mouth opened and he screamed. Like before, it was a strange, ululating call. Powerful, loud, and long, it echoed across the jungle.
"Now," Clayton ground out between clenched lips, "we fight for time."
Clayton dashed forward, his knife held low. He hooked left. Changeling glanced at Raven once, flashed her his trademark grin, and turned into a percheron stallion. Hooking right, he mirrored Clayton's near superhuman charge. Raven, head throbbing, blood flowing freely from both nostrils and her right ear, reached for her power and began to rise into the air, black raven's wings sprouting from her back as she began to charge straight up the middle.
"Azarath," she said, extending her left arm in front of her and pulling her right arm behind her ear.
"Metrion," she continued as she planted her feet firmly on nothing.
"Zinthos!," she flung her right arm forward past her ear and launched a bolt of dark energy that hit Rokoff in the face just as the green percheron reared up and struck at Rokoff's left side with his fore hooves and Clayton slammed into his right, smiting him in the jaw with his left fist and stabbing his chest with his right.
The battle that was then enjoined looked like the hideous blood sport of bear-baiting from the middle ages. As soon as the creature turned to pursue one of the heroes, the other two would fall on its flanks, forcing it to turn and fight or be torn apart from behind. Then they would break off and the third would attack from the flank again. Rokoff was clearly able to heal his injuries as fast as they could make them, and life-energy stolen from them in brief clinches both bore him up and ground them down. Soon they would be unable to continue. Changeling and Clayton bled from numerous minor wounds, and Raven's "psychic battery" was at low ebb.
"Does anybody have a plan for what happens next?" Raven asked.
"Well," Garfield began, but he was interrupted by Clayton.
"There!" he shouted, pointing.
The branches at the tree line rustled against the chill wind that always blew toward Rokoff, then exploded as a giant, adult male mangani burst from the middle terrace at full speed. He struck the ground once, twice, then slammed into Rokoff's side, wrapping his muscular arms around the skeletal figures body and sinking his huge, yellow fangs into his neck. Then another, and another, and another mangani burst from the trees. Five, ten, a dozen, and more, the mangani were all fresh to the fight and filled with murderous rage. They bit, clawed, and gouged at Rokoff wherever his flesh was exposed. Buried under the hairy bodies, the eerie, greasy, oily voice could be heard screaming for some time.
When the shouting voice faded away, Clayton barked, "Kreegah! Bundalo!"
The mangani suddenly stopped, looked at him sullenly, and began to shamble back toward the trees. The thing on the ground was barely alive. But it was healing. Clayton's hand reached for the collar.
"No!" said Raven sharply. "I've got just enough left to handle this. Please don't disturb me. Dig a hole, a deep one."
With infinite care and no small amount of pain, Raven's dark energy lifted the collar from Rokoff's neck and Clayton and Garfield buried it under a mound of dirt.
"We'll want to transfer it to the vault under Titan Tower as soon as we can, but right now I think that's the best we can do."
It was a very relieved Jane that greeted the party that arrived back at the dig days later. Wounded and exhausted, they'd taken the truck Paulvitch and Rokoff had stolen and slowly driven it back to the ruins. Rokoff surprised everyone by surviving the journey. Both men had refused to let Raven heal them, for, wounded and battered, she was clearly not in a fit state to do so.
Clayton shook his head as he watched Jane pack Rokoff onto a stretcher and load him aboard a medevac helicopter.
"That's going to come back to haunt us, you know," said Clayton.
"I know," Jane replied. "But it's what civilized men do."
"Civilized men," Clayton shrugged, "are, as the Americans say, 'nuts.'"
Raven and Changeling had been all for continuing the dig, but Jane had had all of the excitement she could tolerate for one season, and had very briskly and sharply had the dig shut down, sealed and packed up. Clayton and Jane would journey inland, along the path Rokoff had attempted to escape to return to their African estate. Raven and Changeling would travel back to the coast to meet Kincaid to sail back to New York, and from there to Jump City.
"I guess this is goodbye," said Raven to Jane.
"I like the French way better," Jane replied, smiling. "Au revoir."
Raven smiled. "'Until we meet again.' I like that too. Au revoir."
Impulsively, the two women embraced.
Clayton and Garfield watched and then looked at each other.
The Victorian English Gentleman coughed and looked away. The Self-Assured and Mostly Masculine American looked up at the sky, then off to one side, rocking on his feet all the while. After a moment, Clayton coughed, and spoke.
"I believe this is the American custom today." He raised a clenched fist up chest high.
"Righteous," said Changeling, as the two men exchanged a fist-bump.
Interlude: Westbound, aboard Kinkaid
Changeling and Raven had not had much time for private conversation in the journey to the coast. Like the inbound trip, they sat in the cab with Muviro during the day. In the evenings Raven spent most of her free time in a healing trance as she slowly regenerated the damage done to her mind and soul by the accident and fight in Opar. It wasn't until they had been at sea for a couple of days and were both rested and had regained their sea legs that Changeling brought up the subject.
"So, um," he began uncomfortably, "I know that you were still hurt when the fight with Rokoff started, but you seemed a lot more . . .muscular when we fought Praeconor a few weeks ago."
She raised an eyebrow. "Is that a criticism?"
He frowned. "No. It's a worry. Are you going to be, you know, okay?"
Raven leaned against the ship's rail and looked out at the horizon before speaking.
"I see. Well, first, the straight answer is, 'yes, I'm going to be okay.' The answer to your next question is, 'but no, I'm not okay right now, and there's nothing you can do to help me.' I just have to rest and meditate. But the answer to your implied question is a little more embarrassing."
It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. Raven didn't normally 'do' embarrassment.
"I've spent all of my life training to carefully contain my emotions. As you know, they deeply effect the level of and control I have over the dark energy."
"Right," he said. "I've known that for while . . . and?"
"What happened at our wedding is one facet of what can happen when my control drops, even for a moment."
"That's you throwing a fit? Remind me to be sure to put the toilet seat down as we start our married life together."
"Very funny Garfield. That was not a 'fit.' 'Fits' are when I throw you out of windows or to alternate dimensions. And I haven't done that in years. I'm a adult, and I don't throw fits anymore."
"So what was that, then?"
She sighed. "Well, you see, I . . . " her voice trailed off. She tried again, "When I thought you were destroyed forever and was caught completely by surprise my . . ." She floundered again, grinding to a halt.
"No offense, Garfield, but if you don't speak Azarathean, or at least have a degree in parapsychology, I'm not sure you have the vocabulary to understand the answer."
He popped a huge grin. "No problem; just grossly over-simplify. It's what Cyborg does when he has to explain technology."
She flashed a brief half-grin, then turned away, embarrassed again. "Ok. When I thought you were dead, I went what you would call 'batshit insane.' The rage and pain gave me access to far more of the Darkness that Stretches to Forever than my normally controlled emotions will let me channel. By definition, if I feel that much pain or rage, I'll be out of control, and probably more dangerous than any opponent we're fighting. Don't look to see the Giant Raven going all 'Hulk Smash' ever again. We were very lucky Nightwing was able to bring me back."
"Oh. I guess I . . . think I'm flattered. I knew you loved me, but . . ."
"Yeah," she said.
They stood together in silence for a while, watching the waves go by.
"I wasn't going to say anything," she began, "but since you brought the subject up, how come we didn't see the dragon that day?"
She turned to him and took his hand, placing it over her heart.
"I know you're very careful not to trespass on 'my' space, but the spiritual bridge between us is yours, too, and you're welcome to draw on the mystic world through me any time you need to."
He turned to her, not moving his hand, but placing the other one behind her neck in a kind of embrace.
"Thanks. But that's not it. Animals don't have much of a 'will' of their own. When I take their forms, the forms come with their instincts. I sort of 'ride' on top of them and I make all of the decisions. And when I change back, they're 'gone.' Dragons, turns out, have ideas of their own. This one didn't want to 'go' when the fight was over."
Raven's jaw dropped. Only a teeny bit, but it did drop.
"Wait, you never said anything."
"Dragons are absolutely certain that they are the final step in creation. They are perfect, and all things exist to serve them, either as property, entertainment, or food. And the power is intoxicating. The absolute certainty that you are the most powerful single creature in creature, second only to, possibly, another dragon . . . it's very seductive. If I'd held that form much longer, I don't know that I could have come back. I wouldn't have wanted to. So no, we won't be seeing the dragon again. He wanted to stay too much."
"Soooo . . . you overcame the will of a dragon with the power of your . . . mind?"
Changeling's face went flat. "Hey – I may not play in your league with mental gymnastics. But I will always be the alpha male inside my own head."
"Actually, I was impressed. You're right; dragons have powerful minds. That you were able to force one back into your chosen shape is . . . impressive."
He pulled on the back of her neck, pressing them together.
"How impressive?" he asked, tasting her lips.
"I'm supposed to be resting my mind. My body is in fine shape. I feel the need for . . . primal activity."
 Elasmotherium sibiricum - 6' 7" tall at the shoulder, 15 feet long and weighing in at 4.5 tons.