Chapter 36: Judgment Day, cont'd
'Ultima Ratio Regum.'
The silver handle of the cane was hooked under Terra's cheek as she lay flat on her stomach on the ground. It felt warm to the touch, but not hot, the flames that softly emanated from it refusing to burn her skin. From where she lay, she could see the words engraved on the handle in flowery cursive font, wrapped around it like ivy.
"I have to say, Terra," came the voice from above. "This isn't quite what I expected."
Deep beneath the asphalt, she felt the earth waiting, quivering in anticipation of her commands, and with a thought, she thrust it upwards, letting a geyser of loose dirt erupt from the ground, carrying chunks of bedrock the size of motorcycles. The vaulting hail of stone and earth threw her up into the air, but she reformed the dirt into a slide of sorts, breaking her fall and depositing her back on her feet. But no sooner had it done so, than half a dozen rocks exploded in and around the slide, and blew her back onto the ground, as the remaining dirt flew high up into the air, raining down like a soft hail.
Coughing, wafting the dust out of her face with a wave of her hand, Terra clawed her way back to her feet and turned towards where she knew her opponent had to be. He was standing at ease, amidst the falling bits of debris, one hand resting on the handle of his fiery cane, the vague hints of a smile appearing below his mirrored, expressionless sunglasses. Rocks and clods of earth fell all around him, yet any that threatened to land on or near him popped out of existence in a puff of dust some dozen yards overhead, as if he were surrounded by some invisible field of protection. The falling debris continued to pop and burst even as he slowly began to approach.
Searching for an advantage, Terra fell back at the same pace. Yet rather than attack directly, Devastator simply smiled and hefted the cane, turning the carved handle over in his gloved fingers, running them over the words she had seen before.
"It's Latin," he said, without being prompted. "It means 'The Last Argument of Kings'. Louis the Fourteenth used to have it engraved on all of the cannons in his army, as a reminder."
"A reminder of what?" asked Terra, still retreating slowly down the broken street.
"A reminder of the final recourse to which Kings can appeal, should they not get what they want. The ultimate trump card to every other form of compulsion, legal, moral, or spiritual. In the end, if all other arguments fail, kings can resort to naked, violent force, to compel their wishes."
"So what, you're some kind of king?" asked Terra, trying to sound more confident than she was.
Devastator only laughed. "No," he said with a flourish of the cane. "I'm not a king." He stepped towards her and lifted the cane like a wizard's wand, aiming down it towards the yellow-shrouded teenager. "I'm a cannon."
The entire street exploded.
Like a tidal wave of raw violence, a section of the street from sidewalk to sidewalk simply detonated, hurling burnt-out cars into the air like matchsticks and sending the remains of streetlights and telephone poles careening away like disintegrating sculptures of sand. Instantly, all view of Devastator was lost behind a wall of black smoke and fine debris, which hung in the air for moments before some invisible force directed it towards Terra. Section after section exploded, hurling buried wires and pipes into the air, a wave front of raw devastation and force that scoured the very asphalt off the ground moments before the bedrock it covered joined the explosions.
Terra did the only thing she could. Crouching down, she called to the earth around her, and pulled it inwards, packing it around herself as tightly as her geokinesis would permit, forming a sphere around her of packed earth and rock denser than granite, stronger than face-hardened steel. The blast washed over her like a tidal wave, clawing at the shield of stone, cracking it like a walnut, but she managed, barely, to hold it together for the second or two it took to subside.
As soon as the thunder and shocks dissipated, she hurled out her arms and the shield exploded into a thousand pieces, flung in every direction like bullets. Some were, of necessity, hurled back at the agent of these explosions, but she neither assumed they would score, nor expected them to. Without even pausing to gauge the damage, she reached down and pulled a three ton rock out of the ground the size of a moving van. Normally she would have let it float for a moment, taken a half-second to refocus her will, but she knew now from experience what a disaster that instant's hesitation could be. In one, fell swoop, she threw the rock at Devastator, tearing it into three pieces as it flew and letting them corkscrew towards him, in the hopes that he would not have time to destroy or deflect all three.
But he did. He did without even breaking stride, raising his cane and blowing all three rocks to pieces the size of marbles that bounced and scattered down the ruins of the street. Without missing a pace, he turned his cane to his side and blew a manhole cover into the air, sending it flipping end over end like an outsized coin, moments before sweeping his hand forward, causing a series of perfectly metered explosions to hurl the cover straight at Terra like a spinning saw blade. Acting on pure instinct, Terra dove to the ground, ducking beneath the flying cover, but it did her no good. The entire thing exploded like a bomb some ten feet away from her, sending her flying down the street and into the side of a parked car hard enough to stave it in.
"Such a waste."
Her head spinning, her ears ringing with the collision, Terra managed somehow to grab onto the side of the car she had been thrown against, and haul herself to her feet. She fought for breath, letting the shattered glass from the car's window roll off of her, blinking the blood out of her eyes, before half-turning back to Devastator, who stood two dozen paces away, shaking his head.
"I saw your campaign against the Titans," he said. "Warp showed me Slade's footage. It was textbook perfect. Every element, planning, logistics, research, tactics, everything was perfect. You made my efforts against them look like a child's temper tantrum, and you did it all when you were what, fifteen?" He scoffed. "Slade can pretend all he likes, but I know that wasn't his plan. I knew Slade. I know what the overcomplicated disasters he calls plans look like. That plan was yours, wasn't it?"
"That's right," said Terra, spitting blood onto the ground, trying to think of options.
Devastator shook his head. "When I think of what you could have been..." he said. "You could have been a master. A grandmaster. Bigger than Slade, bigger than me. But you pissed it all away. In my time, in your own, you threw it aside, either out of fear, which at least I can understand, or now, out of this quixotic pursuit of..." he threw his hands up violently, "of I don't even know what! Forgiveness? Redemption? What exactly are you looking for here? Why would you even consider standing and fighting someone you don't stand a chance of beating?"
"You talk too much," spat Terra, trying to force her balance to recover.
"And you think too little," retorted Devastator instantly. "I prefer my vice."
"And how much thinking were you doing when you decided to work for Trigon?" demanded Terra.
"A shade more than you did when you decided to work against him!" blasted back Devastator. "What was your master plan, exactly? Thaw out David and hope for the best? Or did you even take the time between about-face turns to conceive of one? If you had only killed David back when you had the chance, back when Cinderblock near beat him to death. If you hadn't hesitated instead of finishing the damn job that time in the park, then none of this would have happened, and you know it! It's a bit late now to turn around and claim that you didn't want him to win all along, when you weren't willing to do what was necessary to see it stopped back when it might have mattered!"
Terra tried to reply, but the words dissolved on her tongue like sugar cubes. Devastator spat, actually spat on the ground next to him in something that looked like disgust, and began to approach.
"You haven't got the first idea what you're doing here," he said contemptuously, swishing his cane through the smoky air as though trying to strip leaves off an invisible hedge. "Just some half-assed sense of expiation and guilt. You don't care about David. You don't care about the Titans. And while you might care that Trigon has conquered the world, you certainly didn't lift a finger to stop it. So don't sit there and pretend to me that this is some noble stand against the darkness. Because, young lady, this, right here, is nothing but euthanasia."
With an angry cry, Terra spun around, hurling her fist at Devastator and commanding the rocks around her subconsciously to follow her command. A stone the size of a car engine shot at Devastator's head at her command with speed so blinding that she was unable to see it herself. So fast, so spur-of-the-moment was the shot, that even Devastator could not deflect it in time. His instincts alone saved him from being struck dead on the spot, as he lunged to one side, and the rock flew by, merely grazing the side of his face, leaving a small scratch behind on his left cheek.
Surprised by her own initiative, Terra did not have the wherewithal to follow up, and Devastator stood back up straight, for once silenced. He brought his free hand to his face, running his fingers along the scratch she had given him, feeling the blood and bringing it around to his eyes. It was several seconds before he looked back up at Terra, his expression completely changed. Of all things, he seemed almost amused.
"Well," he said, "touched a nerve, did I?"
Terra let out a shout, and brought her hand around once more, commanding another rock to do as the first had, but this time, Devastator was ready for it, and swung his cane and he blotted the stone out of the air with almost contemptuous ease, before lifting the cane to the heavens. Terra had not a moment to react before the ground beneath her feet exploded like a volcano, hurling her and the car next to her into the air. The car wound up smashing into the roof of a nearby building, collapsing through it into the interior. Terra fetched up on the pavement some thirty feet behind where she had started, laying prone and motionless like a boned fish.
Slowly, Devastator began to walk towards her.
"Tell me," he asked lightly as he approached, "do you know happened to you in Warp's little alternate future?" Terra, laying flat on her back, could barely convince her lungs to work, much less talk. She lifted her head gingerly, watching as Devastator approached, slowly but inexorably. She said nothing, she couldn't say anything, but he seemed to take her silence for an answer in and of itself.
"I have no idea," said Devastator with a smile. "Nobody does."
Coughing, tasting blood on her tongue and lips, Terra struggled to get back up once again, but her limbs refused to obey her, and she could only watch as Devastator closed in.
"I was hired once, to try and find you. A research firm wanted your DNA, no doubt for some deranged plan to take over the world" He shrugged. "Their reasons didn't interest me. I searched for the better part of two years. Followed every lead I could find. There wasn't so much a trail as... dots to be connected. Incidents and appearances, verified or speculative, all over the world. Landslides, earthquakes, the occasional pitched battle with someone. You know the sort well enough, I imagine."
Weakly, Terra raised her hand, conjuring a rock up from the ground and lobbing it at Devastator, but it had neither force nor accuracy, and Devastator deflected it not with an explosion, but with his cane itself, knocking it lightly aside like a tennis player as he continued forward.
"I never found a living trace," he said, smiling. "The trail was too cold, and nothing had been seen in years. After two years of searching, I finally had to admit defeat. Some of the researchers speculated that you had somehow found a way to finally control your abilities, and settled down somewhere quiet, but... I think we both know that's highly unlikely, isn't it?"
He was right in front of her now, standing above her and looking down, his cane held in both hands, red flames licking at his fingers as he inspected her the way a teacher might have done a particularly disappointing student.
"My theory," said Devastator, turning the cane over in his hands, "is much simpler. I believe that at some point... you simply died. An accident, an unremarked battle, perhaps a disease, who knows?" His hand slid up to the cane's handle. "Whatever the cause, you clearly... just died. Alone. Friendless. And forgotten."
He twisted the handle and pulled, drawing the sword out from within the cane. In one swift stroke, he swept the thin tip of the blade down and planted it on Terra's throat, directly under her chin, forcing her to lift her head, to look him in the eye. He stared down at her, at the fear in her eyes, and smirked.
"I guess some things don't change," said Devastator.
Without conscious command, Terra closed her eyes, and waited for the sharp prick that would augur the end.
But it never came. The light pressure of the swordpoint remained as constant as ever, and after a second, she re-opened her eyes. Devastator still stood above her, the sword held as evenly as a surgeon's scalpel. His blind eyes, peeking over his sunglasses, were as blank as billiard balls, yet she could see them moving, darting from side to side as though in quest of something. Slowly, he lifted his head, turning it slowly as he furrowed his brow, the fingers of his free hand working slowly as he seemed to search for something. And then all of a sudden, as quick as lightning, Devastator pulled his sword back, and swung it around as fast as possible to his left, the razor-sharp ribbon of steel making a sharp 'whooshing' sound as it cut through the air.
An instant later, there was an explosion in mid-air.
The explosion seemed to emerge out of nothingness. Terra's eyes could catch nothing beyond an instant's glimpse of something moving so fast as to be a blur before the fireball blossomed out of nowhere. It was a paltry explosion by the standards of what had come before, but before it had even ended Terra saw something drop out of the air near its epicenter. A small cord, made of spooled steel fibre, which terminated abruptly, whatever it had been attached to having just been peremptorily detonated. The cord landed limply on the ground, and Terra's eyes automatically followed it, running along the shattered street, up the broken curb, and finally to -
"What the - "
At the edge of the street stood a small figure dressed all in grey. Skin, clothing, hair, even the belt around his waist was some shade of ashen grey, save only for his eyes, which glowered like smouldering coals. He stood at the side of the street, in front of a gutted and ruined building, one arm raised towards Devastator. In his hand was held not a proper weapon but a grappling gun, over-sized and attached via spool to the end of the cord.
For several long seconds, neither the grey figure, nor the man in the street moved a muscle, staring at one another with eyes either milk-white or cherry-red, that revealed nothing of the thoughts of their bearers. Yet in expression they could not be different. Devastator stood in open surprise, mouth slightly agape, the sword in his hand held limply at his side, as though he were looking at something that his brain was unable to properly process. He seemed to have forgotten that Terra was there at all. His counterpart on the other hand might as well have been a statue, staring unblinkingly at Devastator with the gun extended rigidly, though with the grappling hook destroyed, and the cord laying on the ground, there was nothing further he could do with it.
It was Devastator who finally found the wherewithal to speak.
"What in God's name are you doing here?" he asked, and his voice was as surprised as his expression.
David did not speak immediately. Slowly, he lowered the grappling gun, letting it fall from his hand and clatter to the ground. When he finally replied, he did not answer the question.
"Leave her alone," he said.
Devastator's puzzlement, if anything, seemed to increase. "Why?" he asked, but without swagger. It might well have been Terra's imagination, but for the first time tonight, he looked like someone not in control of the situation, as though David's re-appearance had broken some unwritten code somewhere. "She tried to kill you," he said, "both of us. Why should I leave her alone?"
"Because I said so," said David, and Terra recognized the tone. It was the same one he had used on that night in the catacombs beneath the library, when he had refused to go with her to meet Slade. It wasn't bombastic, but it was the tone of someone whose mind was absolutely made up.
Devastator did not seem impressed. "You tried to kill her yourself once," he said.
"And now I'm telling you to leave her alone," said David without missing a beat or raising his voice a single decibel. "Or I'll kill you right where you're standing."
Slowly, an incredulous smile began to spread across Devastator's face. "Really?" he asked, not sounding in intimidated in the least. "And how, pray tell, will you do that?"
David didn't say a word. Instead, in one, single motion, he reached to his side and pulled a small object off of his belt, which snapped open in his hand into a razor-sharp blade shaped like a crescent. Without a moment's hesitation, without even changing expression, he reared back, stepped forward, and threw it as hard as he could at Devastator's head.
The result probably not the effect he was hoping for.
Devastator watched impassively as the birdarang bounced a couple of times before rolling to a halt some six feet away from him. He smiled again, this time in the manner of an adult amused by the antics of a child, and casually stepped forward, stooped, and picked up the titanium throwing knife, turning it over in his free hand before looking back up at David.
"You know," he said, as casually as if he were discussing the weather, "I'm told there's a trick to using these."
David reached for another birdarang.
There was a series of loud 'pops', and David was blown back off his feet onto the ground, as every one of the birdarangs around his waist burst into slivers of metal. The explosions were tiny, no flames, no flashes, barely enough to break the birdarangs apart, but it left David laying flat on his back, cradling his hand.
"What exactly did you think you were going to accomplish by coming back here?" asked Devastator, walking towards David carefully, his flaming sword held casually at his side. "Kill me? Save her?" he asked, sweeping the sword back towards Terra. "What's she to you?"
"She tried to help me," said David, getting back to his feet.
"She tried to murder you," replied the older man. "You and all your so-called friends."
"So did you," spat David back venomously.
Devastator stopped, his expression changing to one of smugness. "And?" he asked. "At least I never pretended otherwise."
"This isn't about her," said David. "It's about you." He paused, just for a split second, before correcting himself. "It's about us."
"Really?" asked Devastator. "And what about us do you wish to discuss, David?"
David did not hesitate. "You killed them."
"I've killed a lot of people," replied Devastator. "Who are you talking about."
"You know who I'm talking about!"
Devastator smiled. "Yes, I suppose I do. Why? Do you have a problem with that?"
"Yes," said David.
"So what do you purpose to do about it?"
David's red eyes were as level as he replied with a voice made of ice. "I'm gonna wipe you all over this street."
Devastator was not intimidated. He shook his head as if in amazement. "With what?" he asked. "A handful of trinkets you don't even know how to use? Match sticks and stones against Devastator? I must have hit you harder than I thought. What exactly do you - "
"Shut! Up!" shouted David, kicking aside a piece of rubble for emphasis. "Close your mouth and stop talking! I don't want to hear any more of your bullshit!"
"I'm not here to do what you want," scoffed Devastator. "I don't dance to your tune."
"No, you dance to Trigon's, or to whoever put you up to killing them in the first place."
"Put me up to it?" retorted Devastator, and now his voice was angry too. "Your 'friends' put me up to it, every day of their lives!"
"That's a lie! They wouldn't - "
"Don't tell me about things I know better than you, boy!" shouted Devastator. You have no idea what they would and wouldn't do!"
"I lived with them!" yelled David.
"For a year," retorted Devastator. "I've lived in their shadows for over twenty. Ducking for cover, hiding from every bird call, spending a quarter of my life waiting for some damn bone to knit back together because they thought it would be funny to listen to the sounds it made when it broke. You think you're the only one shocked to find out what his alter ego's been up to while he was away?"
"They took me in!" snapped David, teeth clenched, eyes wet with tears that he refused to allow out. "They gave me everything! Everything I have! And you killed them like animals!"
"They were animals" said Devastator, his voice pitiless and cold, yet brimming with rage. "And I killed them because they needed to die every day they drew breath. I killed them for what they did to me, and to every other person who crossed their path!"
Devastator's voice became louder and louder, the flames at his hand burning higher with every breathless word. "Sanctimonious, self-righteous hypocrites who would stand by and let six million people die at their own pace rather than dirty their hands by acting to stop it. And they had the temerity to turn around and accuse me of malfeasance because I saw fit to use what was given to me in a way they didn't approve of! To come after me all across the planet, to intercede on behalf of the scum I was burning off the face of the Earth, to stand up and judge me because they were so much holier than I was!"
"You were murdering people!" shouted David
"I was murdering people who needed murdering!" thundered Devastator. "I was doing what they wouldn't dare to face, because they couldn't stomach it. I was the one who refused to look away when a job got dirty or when the hard calls needed to be made, and they turned on me for it like vultures! And you stand there and defend them, why? What did they ever do for you, except let you wear one of their ridiculous outfits and chase after shoplifters alongside them? All your protestations of self-reliance, and the instant they give you a roof and a bowl of soup, you turn into their little lickspittle."
David's burning eyes narrowed. "They were my friends," he said, his voice choked and bitter. "I doubt you understand what that even means."
"I understand it well enough," said Devastator. "They taught you to think like they do, share the same bias, the same hypocrisy. Until you'd believe them over your own self."
"I don't believe anything anymore," said David quietly, though with no less emotion for the lack of volume. "But I know them. And I know you."
Devastator frowned. "Oh you know me, do you?"
"Yes," said David without a trace of doubt or hesitation. "You're what I always knew was going to happen." He stared at his older counterpart with an unwavering gaze so direct, that even the unflappable Devastator seemed to flinch. "You're me without brakes. Without anyone to stop you. You're what I always knew that I was going to become. All the years I knew I had these powers, you're the reason I was afraid of them."
"You were afraid of them because you didn't have the spine to act," snarled Devastator.
"I was afraid of them because I knew what I would use them for if nobody stopped me," responded David. "I was afraid of them, because I was afraid of you. That's why I never used them. That's why I never told anyone about them. Because I was afraid that I would turn into you."
"You were afraid of your own shadow," said Devastator. "You became me in sound mind, once you finally stopped this childish obsession with an absolutist morality and predestined stock roles. Not everything is a matter of black and white."
"Murdering the Titans," said David, "was."
"Then I'll ask you again, boy, what do you purpose to do about it?"
There was only a fractional hesitation, but a moment later, David reached behind himself, and from his back pocket, drew a small, metal cylinder, the size of a telephone receiver. He brought it around to his front, holding it in his right hand, and then, still staring straight into Devastator's lifeless eyes, he pressed an invisible button somewhere on its surface. There was a series of soft clicks, the sound of oiled metal sliding over metal, and then all of a sudden the cylinder telescoped outwards into a four-foot steel pole, featureless and colorless, save for an etched monogram on either end, an elaborate "R", the meaning of which needed no explanation.
There was, perhaps, a certain mindset whereby David's action could have been seen as laughable, even hilarious, for a staff made of stainless steel, in the hands of someone who had no idea how to make proper use of it, was not precisely the weapon calculated to offer the greatest threat to the wielder of Devastator. Yet Devastator watched as David drew the staff, saying nothing, and only when it was fully extended did he lift his eyes to meet his younger counterpart's.
"Do you even know how to use that?" he asked.
David didn't hesitate or flinch. "Not a clue," he said.
"And what's to stop me from snapping it like a twig, or turning it into a pipe bomb?"
"Nothing at all."
"So then let me get this straight," said Devastator. "Because your choices led directly to the annihilation of Earth and the reign of Trigon, you're going to stand there, cognizant of the fact that I have the most powerful weapon in human history at my absolute disposal, and, with a metal stick you don't even know how to use, attempt to beat me senseless for the crime of having killed people you never met that happen to share the same names as your so-called friends?"
David didn't even have the courtesy to look embarrassed. "That's right," he said.
Several seconds passed in silence.
"You know, I think I did hit you harder than I thought," said Devastator, but his voice was stilled, and his heart wasn't in it. Indeed of all the things thrown at him, by Terra, or David or anyone else so far, this last confirmation seemed to have struck the hardest. His sword hung limp at his side, as he stared at David not in disgust, not in amusement, not in the terse, tried patience of an adult addressing a child, but in what looked like total bafflement, as though for the first time, he was witnessing something truly outside his understanding.
"You did," said David, and he took a step towards Devastator, to no reaction from the other. "But that's not why I'm here." Of all things, David smiled, bitter though it was. "Do you want to know why?"
"Enlighten me," said Devastator, mirthlessly.
David drew a small, round object off his belt with his free hand and held it out towards Devastator. Terra recognized it instantly as one of the Titans' communicators.
"Look inside this," he said. "And you'll see,"
Devastator's puzzlement deepened. "See what?"
"The circuitry," said David. "What's it made out of?"
Devastator fell quiet for a moment, before his eyes darted to the communicator with a grumble for effect. It took but a moment for him to find the answer, and when he did, his eyes slowly moved back to David's. "Gold," he said.
David's face remained impassive. "Do you even know what that is?" he asked.
"An all but useless, hyper-conductive metal that people chase after because it's rare and shiny," said Devastator, now with a pronounced growl to his voice. "What's your point?"
"My point," said David, "is that you don't have any."
Devastator scoffed. "I'm not a teenaged girl, David. Gold isn't exactly my highest priority. And besides, I will have some once I take that off your dead body."
"No," said David, utterly serious. "You won't. And you never will. You threw it all away, burned it out of yourself, because you couldn't find any use for it, because it couldn't hold an edge or stop a bullet or do something practical for you, could it? So you don't have any, and you think that makes you tough or pragmatic or whatever. So now all you are is ice and smoke, plated over with a sheet of iron so that no-one will see just what you're actually made of."
Devastator's face slowly lost its smugness, its self-assured superiority, and his lifeless eyes ceased to roll as he stared at David like he was watching something with which he was wholly unfamiliar. His mouth worked several times before he could coax the words to life.
"Is that all you have for me?" he asked, but his voice was hollow and stilled, and carried none of the self-assurance of just minutes before. "Petty symbolism?"
"That's what we are," said David, raising his arms and sweeping them around the area. "That's all we are." He gestured to himself. "The color fade, the eyes, what do you think this is?"
"Trigon's idea of a theatrical joke," replied Devastator.
"Maybe," said David. "But he's not wrong. Not this time. We're the same person, but I'm not the real one, am I? I'm the deviation. I'm the one who went off the rails." He pointed the staff at Devastator. "You said it yourself. You're me, the way I was supposed to be. You're the original. I'm the alternate."
Another step closer, and another, until David was standing within three or four feet of Devastator, and Devastator had only to reach out with his sword, to strike David's head off. And yet Devastator did not so much as lift his arm, and David did not even glance at the sword burning quietly at Devastator's side, his red eyes still locked on Devastator's empty white ones.
"You wanted to know why?" asked David. "Why I turned my back on your path, why I decided to trust them instead, even though I knew what I was supposed to be, even though I knew how it would end?" He held the communicator up to Devastator's face. "Because of this. Because they gave me this."
"A communicator," said David, perfectly straight, "and everything inside of it. That's what they gave me. And they didn't have to. There were good, solid reasons why they shouldn't have done that. In fact, if they hadn't done it, then none of this would have happened. And they knew that. And so do I. But they gave it to me anyway. For a long time I couldn't figure out why, and now I know that it just doesn't matter."
All of the ambient noise, for Terra, began to fade into nothingness, and she felt her breath catch as she caught the tone in David's voice. The golden aura around her hands faded as she watched the two David's staring at one another, one preternaturally calm, the other looking much as she must have. David did not glance in her direction, did not seem to notice overtly that she was there, yet to her ears, it was as though he was speaking directly at her.
"I'm not here to punish you," said David, "or get revenge. I'm not gonna fight you for them, because I can't, and you know it. But I'm here, we're all here, because they gave me something I didn't have, and you never found." David reached forward, and placed the communicator in Devastator's free hand, before drawing his own hand back. "I'm your evil twin," said David, as Devastator slowly lifted the communicator, staring down at it as he might a magical talisman, his expression unreadable. "I'm not supposed to exist. But I do exist. And I'm here because, if this is really the end, then I won't let the last piece of me alive on this planet, be someone made of nothing except ice, and iron..." he stepped back from Devastator, and only then did he seem to catch Terra's gaze, if only for an instant, "and smoke."
Very slowly, the man called Devastator lifted his head, his gaze passing from the communicator to the younger version of himself in front of him. His face was rigid and mask-like, his movement precise and carefully controlled, as he lowered his arm to one side. He locked his eyes on David, his fingers gripping the hilt of his sword, and the ridged surface of the communicator.
"You've got me all wrong, David," said Devastator, his voice a flat, hoarse tone that seemed to tremble with the effort he required to keep it still. "There's no smoke here. No iron either. I did away with them a long, long time ago. All I've got for you is ice." He stepped forward, leaning in towards David, his voice beginning to tremble as it shrank to a harsh whisper.
"Ice," he repeated, "and fire."
The ground exploded beneath David's feet, a blast more shocking for the silence that had preceded it, hurling David up and away in a shower of asphalt and gravel. He landed twenty feet down the street, sliding to a stop against the curb, stunned and coughing, the metal staff still clutched in one hand.
Devastator walked towards him with deliberation and poise, neither speeding his step nor lifting his arms, yet there was something wholly different about him, an intangible, ineffable thing, found in his bearing and expression and the mechanical way in which he moved, as if each motion had to be precisely controlled for him to avoid flying apart.
"You want to talk about my shortcomings?" he asked, his voice a deep snark. "Tear me apart and see what makes me tick? It's late in the game to get introspective, David." His teeth clenched, and he hissed the words out like bad-tasting liquids. "Very. Late. Indeed."
David struggled to his feet, before swinging around with the staff in hand, aiming at the side of Devastator's head. With a single slash, one that he managed to make look contemptuous, Devastator blocked the blow, before lashing out and clubbing David in the face with the hilt of his sword, staggering him and sending him stumbling back against a car.
"Maybe you're right," said Devastator. "Maybe you were created to torture me. Maybe this is all just an elaborate put on to get through to the man who dared to wield what Trigon thought was rightly his. Have you considered that? That your bout of enlightenment was nothing more than the afterthought of a demon bent on tormenting me for some perceived slight? Hrm?" Louder and louder got Devastator's voice, as he paced back and forth like a caged animal. "You insignificant afterbirth, what gives you the right to judge me? If I'm so broken, so incomplete, then what's it say about you?"
There was a roar, not of monsters or people but the earth itself, from behind, and Devastator turned to see a barrage of boulders the size of minivans hurtling towards him. Yet he neither wavered nor hesitated, sneering as he turned and raised his sword to the heavens like an angelic warrior. The rocks exploded as one, flying to pieces like massive fragmentation bombs, casting debris and rubble about the ruined street in a cacophony of violence and rage, leaving a cloud of impenetrable smoke behind. With a swipe of his sword, he bisected the cloud itself with two thunderous explosions, revealing Terra standing on the other side, sheathed in her golden glow. She moved, as though to summon more stone, but with a contemptuous overhead slash, Devastator blew a car into the air effortlessly, before propelling it towards her with a series of rocket blasts, forcing her to abort what she was doing and erect a shield of bedrock, against which the car smashed and detonated.
Back swept Devastator to David, who was still picking himself up, and he strode towards him with purpose, the sword tracing fiery figures in the air around him. From within his coat, he drew out the canesword's sheath, and slid the sword back into it bare instants before the reconstituted cane caught 'fire' once more. Yet before David could determine what this augured, Devastator walked up to him, knocked his clumsy swing aside with his cane, seized him by the collar, and smashed him across the temple with the head of the cane.
"You think this is a game?" he asked, voice quavering with emotion. "You think I made my decisions in a vacuum?" Another blow, sending David reeling, propped up only by the iron grip Devastator had on his collar. "You want to know what pain is?" asked Devastator, hitting him again. "What it's like to be helpless and broken and with nobody to come and save you? You want to find out what it's like to be discarded and abandoned? Well let me show you!"
Reeling from the blows, blood tricking down the side of his head, David could not resist or even speak, as Devastator strode off down the street, dragging him by the collar, one hand gripping his throat, the other holding the blood-spattered cane. From behind, he saw Terra lower her shield of rock, and despite her own injuries, half-limp, half-run after them, pulling rocks from the ground as she did so. Yet Devastator sensed her without turning his head, and raised his hand with the cane without bothering to turn back. An entire section of the street between Terra and David exploded like a thermite bomb, sending a wall of flames hundreds of feet into the air, blocking all access.
Ahead, the road dropped away sharply, running down from the shallow ridge they had been ascending, and Devastator reached the edge of the ridge before hurling David to the ground at its very lip. Before David had a chance to get his bearings, Devastator stepped around him and grabbed his head, forcing him to raise it, and to look out upon the scene before him, a ruined cityscape that trailed on into the darkness, seemingly forever, choked by smoke and the red flames of wrath.
But there was something else.
Ahead, far far away, in the distance, there was movement, so far off and with so much dust and smoke between, that David could not tell what was actually there. The figures were tiny, mere ants at this distance, yet they moved, unquestionably, towards and away from one another. For a moment, David thought that they had to be demons, more of Trigon's minions, dancing at some unspoken command, but then, faintly but visibly, one of them emitted a light.
A bright blue light.
"That's right," said Devastator, releasing his head and standing back up. "You know what that is, don't you?"
His head still reeling from the blows, David struggled to form coherent words. "C... Cyborg?"
"Of course," sneered Devastator. "Who else would it be?" He pointed to one side with his staff. "And have a look over there."
David followed the gesture, and thought he saw more movement, this time atop what looked like an enormous black edifice, all but invisible through the haze. The moving figures were invisible at this distance, save that every so often, one of them emitted a flash of bright green, seemingly from nowhere, but of a color that had been burned into David's very soul, that he would have recognized anywhere.
"They're alive?" he choked out, staring wide-eyed at the far-off display.
"Of course they're alive," said Devastator. "Trigon doesn't kill outright if he can avoid it. He likes to play with his food. He'll keep them alive until the torture isn't worth it any longer. That's what he does. David's eyes slowly turned back to Devastator, as the demolitionist stared daggers down at him, cane in hand. "But it's not what I do, David."
Something like ice wrapped itself around David's heart. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that I'm tired of this waste of time. It's not my style, and it's not my preference, but Trigon wanted you tortured to death for presuming to hold Devastator back from him, and I'm a man who completes the jobs he's given. So what I'm going to do, David," said Devastator, as he gestured in turn at the near-invisible figures, "is go to each and every one of your friends in turn. And I'm going to kill them. All of them. In front of you."
David's voice deserted him, his eyes widening to saucer size. "No," he managed to say.
"Yes," snapped David. "Every one in turn. I'm gonna kill them, the way I killed them once before. They didn't have a prayer of stopping me then, even all together and with thirty years experience under their belts. What chance do you think they'll have now, alone, surrounded, mere children?"
"No," repeated David, "no, no, you can't!"
"Oh yes I can!" roared Devastator. "but that's not the best part! The best part, David, is that they'll know who's doing it. We share more than a name, you and I. You recognized me instantly. So did Terra. They'll do the same. They'll know who I am when I come after them. Only unlike their evil sides, I'll be coming at them in living color! And it's possible that they won't know the difference, but I would bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets that they've got just enough left in them to put it all together! And when they do..." he smiled ferociously, raising the hand in which he still held the communicator, "... then they'll know, once and for all, just who it was they gave this to."
"NO!" screamed David, and he leaped up, swinging the staff at Devastator once more, who blocked the swipe with his cane almost laughably easily before smashing the communicator against David's forehead, knocking him back to the ground. An instant later, and Devastator was crouched over him, tossing the crushed communicator aside as he grabbed David by the throat.
"And the whole time," he hissed, as David struggled and squirmed wildly, to no effect, red fog dancing before his eyes as the rest of the world began to fade. "You'll be watching. Free and unhindered, no ropes, no cuffs, no restraints. Free to do as you would, just so that you can experience the wonder of them begging you to save them, to help them, to defeat what they will initially assume is just your weaker, darker self. You'll be there to witness their reactions when they realize that I'm not some figment of Trigon's imagination, not some dark side of you conjured up from his imagination, that I am you! I am everything you ever were, everything you ever might have been, everything you ever could have amounted to! I am you distilled, condensed, reforged, and cut loose from my leash. And I want you to be there, at their last breaths, when they realize what it was that you always were."
The fog descended into totality, and as he felt something explode within him, David threw back his head and screamed.
The most painful thing in the world is a functional sense of scale.
Scale kills more people than cancer. Scale destroys more dreams than all the tyrants, mischances, and disasters of history put together. Scale ruthlessly slaughters entire ideologies, brutalizes and demeans and grinds one into the mud. Not content to slay indiscriminately, scale is unrelenting, assaulting its victims over and over, relentlessly, single-mindedly, a myopic brute satisfied with nothing but the abject surrender of its chosen victims. Scale is the bully whose existence is only validated when his targets are utterly degraded, for whom the pleasure of subjugating others is no pleasure at all, but the only purpose of existence. It strikes in the night, in dark hours, when the clouds have closed and the stars refuse to shine. It cloaks itself in reason, introspection, cold analysis, wheedling its way inside with appeals to superiority and cynical pragmatism, laying the greatest of wonder-workers to waste until all is brought to ruin.
For the universe is unfathomably large, time unspeakably vast, and compared to its immensity, what is man? What are his works? His geniuses and triumphs? Scale reduces all to ash and mockery. What is a symphony, but symbolic instructions for the production of a momentary arrangement of vibrations in the air of a tiny portion of a planet, gone moments later, meaningless to anyone besides a small subset of the living beings on this one, insignificant rock? What is a soaring cathedral, but a minor re-arrangement of stones at the surface of the same? An arbitrary symbol of an invisible delusion produced at the command of petty nothings who flatter themselves with importance. What are these things by comparison to a sun? What are they to a galaxy? To a universe entire? Should they have never existed, would the universe notice the lack? Would God? Flatten a city, burn a continent, destroy a planet or a galaxy, and the universe barely blinks, for such is its scale.
The knowledge of this is a terrible thing. The understanding of the futility of oneself by comparison to the universe is sufficient to drive men mad. This is not mere idle speculation. Men have destroyed themselves in despair of the scale of their universe and their own place within it, disowning all their works, cursing themselves for having had the vanity to imagine that they mattered. The work of a lifetime invalidated in a heartbeat of sudden doubt masquerading as realization. What purpose to labor and create? What purpose to compose, to paint and sculpt, to build or design or dream of anything, what purpose these things, when scale proves them all vanity? What purpose to fight for anything, to rage against the dying of the light, to struggle against odds not merely insurmountable but whimsical and arbitrary, constrained by nothing? What purpose to write deeds? What purpose to compose and struggle, in late hour or dark room, in the service of creating a thing the universe will neither notice nor recognize, a pale imitation of the tales of one's betters, whose very existence cannot be spoken of in polite company, tarred with illegitimacy, mired in legal and moral speculation. An arbitrary act with arbitrary consequences, signifying nothing. A road leading nowhere.
What purpose to write this story, if every sense of scale weighs against it? What purpose to write these words and this sentence, whose language and symbolism are arbitrary, whose pretensions of meaning and importance are laughable? What purpose to create it at all?
What purpose, dear reader, for you to read it?
Scale is a terrible thing, hiding in a million guises, the words of scoffing cynics, the dry figures of a textbook, the sneers of a million 'experts' and doomspeakers who revel in their own superiority of reason or comprehension, seeking to deflect the quiet desperation of their own empty lives onto others. Scale is nihilism writ in physical form, a death to all things, even the intangible concepts of idea and faith and wonder. It is the death of the soul. If embraced, it can even make one complicit in the murder.
And yet, there are two sides to every story, even that of scale.
To peer into the heavens is to be humbled. To measure oneself against eternity is to be found wanting, to conclude the uselessness and vanity of life and action, of creation or struggle. But the very desperation with which scale assaults our sense of worth belies its great weakness: That scale itself is also arbitrary. And if the scale one employs is arbitrary, then cannot one select another?
If there exists a universe wherein our actions are so dwarfed and pathetic to be meaningless, if there exist a million such universes, are there not also ones where this is not so? For there are an infinity of things infinitely greater than ourselves, it is true, but the road runs in both directions, and thus there are an infinity of things infinitely lesser than us as well. If we can define our lives as meaningless when compared with the greater universe, what are they when compared with a lesser one, the universe of our own lives, of those of our loved ones, our pets, our friends? What are we by comparison with insects? With bacteria? With the dust beneath our feet and the air that dances through our hair? What are we, ultimately? The cynic may answer that we are insignificant insects, and by a sufficient sense of scale, so we are. But by another sense, we are towering collections of fifty trillion living cells, each of which lives and dies and labors to ennoble the whole. Within us reside hundreds of billions of living things, of bacteria and viruses, beings smaller to us than we are to the planet entire. Yet they labor endlessly, in their billions and trillions, and change minute elements of us, in their own manner and image. Through us, do their labors sum to perform actions unfathomable to themselves. Through us can they move distances that must seem as remote as interstellar space, ascend to layers of action and creation to which they have no suitable conception. Perhaps through us, they can even make their mark on a universe infinitely greater.
Thoughtless and brainless though they may be, governed by the most pitiable of instincts, as we understand it, one wonders if they ponder, as we do, their place in the universe. Do they think on the vastness of ourselves, and their minute scale by comparison, and know despair?
To them, might we not be Gods?
And if, to them, we are Gods, then how can what we do be anything but of the greatest possible import?
We live, we love, we create, we struggle, we build, we compose, we craft and we seek meaning in it all, and it eludes us, and some of us fall prey to despair. Our fine sense of scale contrives to drag us from our pedestals and beat us into the dirt among the slimy things we imagine so far below. Yet our perpetual defeat, overcoming some, waiting in the wings for all, does nothing but cast relief upon the ultimate truth. What we do is both of no meaning and ultimate importance, simultaneously and at once. In this, as in so many other ways, we are creatures of paradox.
What we call moments of clarity are many things, but often times, if we look back on them, we find that they are nothing but sudden, dramatic adjustments in our conception of scale. A shift in scale can change everything, for "the odds" are a function of the scale whereby we evaluate our ambitions. A negative shift can arrest one in mid-word, tear down all the work of a lifetime, reduce a man to groveling misery within his own head. But a different shift entirely, discarding the old conception and refocusing upon what we consider our essential universe, engendered by anything from external abuse to internal enlightenment, a sudden shift in that direction can do almost anything. It can open a conduit to wonders, transform men into angels or poets or warriors of virtue. It can raise the dead and set the heavens to singing, carve temples to imagined gods from the living stone of mountains. It can raise the dead, protect the living, give those who might have been imagined to have no hope at all against the all-encompassing hatred of an infinite malice, a chance, however faint, to stand in defense of that which is, to us, the most important thing of all.
"I am so sorry..."
The green flash lit up the air like a firework detonating in the midst of all present, as sudden and unexpected as a bolt of lightning on a clear day. Warp jolted, leaping back a pace as he wafted the ozone-tinged smoke from his face, blinking back the flash as he tried to see what had happened. Something warm and wet splashed across his face, and he did not have time to think through what it had to be before his vision cleared, and he saw what was in front of him.
Starfire stood at the edge of the pit, leaning forward, one arm wrapped around Robin tightly, her head resting on his shoulder, eyes squeezed shut. She was holding him in place, perhaps using him as a support to stay on her feet, perhaps vice versa. She stood there, motionless, as did Robin, neither one moving so much as a muscle, locked, for all anyone could tell, in a frozen embrace.
The eight inch hole that had been blasted through Robin's chest glistened in the preternatural twilight.
Warp stood in mute shock, Robin's blood running down his face, coating the floor and the pillars and everything else within twenty feet, staring at the greenish glow from her hand that shown through the hole in Robin's chest. He watched as Starfire stood holding Robin up, her fingers dug into his titanium cape, before slowly opening her eyes, revealing slits of radioactive green that seemed to churn and boil like the fires of some infernal reactor set to motion. In the searing green light, could be glimpsed the roiling, inconceivable rage that bubbled like molten iron beneath the surface of Starfire's motionless form. And in the void left by the shock of what had just happened, Warp felt the first tinges of fear creeping into his conscious awareness.
"Warp," said Starfire, in a whisper so fine it could cut a blade of grass, "you have made a terrible mistake."
The green glow in Robin's chest vanished, as Starfire released Robin, letting him tumble lifelessly to the ground.
"You have made many mistakes, Warp," said Starfire, tears shimmering in her eyes, yet refusing to fall, "so many that they cannot all be catalogued. But of them all, there is one that stands above. You believed that by bringing me here, and presenting me with these puppets of your will in the shape and form of Robin, that you would destroy me. You thought this, because you envisioned me as broken. You pictured that which Robin and I had as a candle, in the darkness, which with the tiniest motion, you could extinguish between your fingers, and thus cast me into nothing."
Starfire took a step forward, and without even glancing towards him, reached out her hand and shot Nightwing between the eyes with a starbolt that could have levelled a building, instantly turning the entire upper half of Nightwing's torso to vapor.
"In this," she said, "you were mistaken."
Warp recoiled, not in horror so much as shock, stepped back despite the book in his hand, despite the shield that even now shifted around him, stepping back through commands unconscious and unsummoned.
"What Robin and I shared," said Starfire, her voice as even as a plane of obsidian glass, not the slightest tremor audible to hint at what might rage beneath, "was beyond your capacity to harm. There is no torment you could devise, no outrage you could contrive, no crime you could fathom in your darkest of nightmares that would serve to tarnish its luster in the slightest degree. Were you capable of understanding this, you would have known that these puppets you summoned had no greater chance of disrupting the memory I hold of Robin, than your curses do of bringing you peace. You have failed, Warp, in every degree, to comprehend what it was that you sought to tear down."
Starfire's hands glowed with emerald light, as she stared at the dark-mantled supervillain, her eyes washing out slowly with the volcanic fires of Tamaran.
"It is said that the greatest weakness of the darkness, is that a single candle suffices to hold it back," said Starfire as she strode towards Warp, outwardly poised and calm, hands sheathed in flame. "What Robin and I shared was not merely a candle," she said, only the tears in her eyes serving to reveal what dwelt within. "What Robin and I shared, Warp, could ignite the stars."
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