At Titans Tower, a dozing Kole stirred as Jericho, Cyborg, Starfire, and Changeling entered the computer room.
“Rise and shine, Red! We heard your snores back on the mainland,” joked Vic Stone, the Titan known as Cyborg.
Changeling became a green rooster and crowed, “Good morning! Good morning! Good–!” Jericho covered his ears in mock displeasure as Cyborg nodded.
“Green-genes, you are no Lennon or McCartney,” said Cyborg. “All I’m sayin’ is give peace a chance!”
Gar Logan assumed a hulking form and sighed. “I am the Walrus, so nuts to you.”
Kole laughed and said, “Fellows, my snoring and your singing are both sounds we can do without. I guess I fell asleep while studying the files.”
Jericho patted her back and signed, “We were up late talking. I should have brought you home earlier.”
She said, “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Gar said, “Hey, that trouble-alert thing is beeping.”
Cyborg switched a dial and frowned. “Somethin’ weird is going down at four locations. The local cops have sent the alert on to national agencies, and they fed it to us. We better split up. I don’t suppose Artemis, Raven, or Nightwing are around.”
Starfire, the alien princess from Tamaran, shook her head, bobbing her luxurious mane of hair. “No, Donna is on a vacation with Terry. He’s been offered a job. Raven must be at college, and Dick is in Gotham City, I’m sorry to say,” she replied.
Cyborg nodded. “Wally, Roy, and Lilith are away, too. We can each take a location and handle the problems.”
Starfire said, “X’Hal! They report monsters at large in four towns.”
Gar grinned. “Most likely the farm folk saw Culture Club on tour and freaked out. I suppose Kole and Joe will pair up, while Kory, Vic, and I take the other trouble spots?” Jericho signed his approval.
Cyborg led them to their T-Jet and nudged Logan as they exited. “Trouble-alert?” Cyborg asked. “You been watchin’ too many Saturday morning cartoons.”
Gar grinned and became a Great Dane. “Scooby Dooby Dooo!” he quipped.
Shortly after the New Titans members reached their destinations, Nightwing approached the Tower and made his way across the waters on the remote barge.
“I hope the others are OK,” he said to himself. “That dream of Kory’s death was so vivid. She may have married Karras for political reasons when I wanted her to remain single and mine, but I can’t bear the idea of losing her like that to violence. If this dream is anything like the prophetic ones I had before we founded the Titans, then I will do anything I can to keep her safe. The same goes for Gar, Vic, Kole, and Joe.”
He entered the headquarters and made his way to the computer center. He quickly noticed the monitor and the beeping alerts and recognized the individual signals that tracked each member’s progress. “The group has split up into the exact formation I saw in my nightmare. They’ve headed for the same rural areas, too. This could be serious.”
Raven entered and silently stood near the grim young man. “Richard, I sensed your concern below. What troubles you?” she asked.
He turned to the empath and said, “Raven, I’ve been having nightmares. They’ve involved folks I care about rejecting me as worthless and have included the violent deaths of Kory, Gar, and the rest. The computer shows they’ve moved into a case that may fit the particulars of that nightmare.”
Raven inhaled sharply. “Azar. Let me lend you strength as we combat this crisis.”
Nightwing nodded. “I’m going to need it.”
Meanwhile, Starfire flew directly down into a small community marked by quaint farms, bucolic scenery, and — on this day — a rampaging monster. The creature’s gray skin looked rock hard, and its wings spread wide as it glided along the narrow streets, creating panic in all those around.
“X’Hal!” she exclaimed. “That creature is unlike anything I’ve yet encountered either here or during my travels in space. I cannot allow it to harm anyone by its mindless rage.”
The golden-hued alien fired one of her potent star bolts at the hulking creature, but the blast merely attracted its attention. It moved forward as before and appeared entirely unharmed.
“That thing’s skin must be thicker than it looks! I’ve destroyed entire rooms with my most powerful bolts,” said Kory as she nimbly dodged a huge wing and drew closer to the creature.
She gasped as it raked out with a huge clawed hand. She received a gash across one leg and fell to the pavement in her efforts to avoid the beast. She pushed herself up and grimly resolved to subdue the monster.
“No one trained by the warlords of Okaara will fall to a monster like this,” she vowed.
Elsewhere, in another community full of small homes and rural culture, Changeling swooped down to confront a gray monster like the one Kory battled in her own troubled community.
“OK, so this is what happens to Mayberry when Andy takes a vacation,” joked the green teen as he saw the damaged buildings and the brave firemen working to put out several fires.
He drew closer to the creature and hovered directly above the beast’s broad back. “Going down,” he said as he switched from fly to whale.
He crashed into the monster and sent it plunging through the broken pavement, but he scowled as the monster rolled around to growl and claw at his green body.
“Easy, pal, I’m not just your friendly neighborhood mammal. I’m special. In fact, you might say I’m a Prince of Whales, and I’m just Lady Di-ing to teach you some manners,” said Gar.
The monster moved relentlessly forward, and Changeling switched forms desperately as he tried to halt its onslaught.
Cyborg grunted as his white sound blaster did little to slow down another charging gray creature in the tiny town of Chilhowie. He had tried every trick in his impressive arsenal, and none had succeeded.
“That thing’s about as welcome as Prince at a 4-H Club. I can’t hurt it, nor can I see any sign that it even cares about my attacks,” he said, using his artificial legs to bound through the air and land in the path of the huge creature. “Can’t let it get to the folks nearby. It has damaged property but not harmed anyone yet. I’ve got to see that it stays that way.”
He glanced left and right and saw frightened people running for cover. He could buy them time, but he doubted he could stop the massive monster for long. “OK, I may end up as scrap, but I can’t live with myself if I do any less. That old couple on the porch look like my own grandparents,” he said as he recalled the feisty Stones.
Kole and Jericho also battled a gray monster in a small town, yet they failed to slow their foe at all. Jericho’s eyes made contact with the creature’s eyes, but he was unable to use his mutant gifts to enter the beast’s body. Some magic repelled him. Kole had met with equal amounts of frustration, since her crystal creations were shattered by the creature’s brute strength.
“Jericho, take my hand! It will crush you!” she cried as she rode a slide of crystal and reached desperately for his hand. He failed to reach her with his hand, but their eyes locked, and he rode to safety inside her body.
Nightwing saw all that occurred, and Raven said, “Should I transport us to one of the battle scenes?”
Nightwing shook his head. “Those creatures were in my dreams. I think the outcome may be inevitable unless we try something bizarre. Can you use your powers to help me enter that dream in some way? You have generated dreams before. I think those monsters were sent from an old foe of mine. His name was Brom Stikk — Mr. Twister — but he later became a humanoid thing not all that different from those beasts. We called him Gargoyle then. He manipulates dreams from some limbo, and I think this has his M.O. written all over it. More to the point, those four towns surround a place called Hatton Corners. We first met him there.”
Raven nodded and said, “I’ll try. Take my hand.”
Nightwing reclined on a cot and took her hand even as he fought his natural apprehension for his friends. He could not sleep, but he did not really need any. The lure of his enemy’s call drew him into a void of mist and fog and fear.
“Limbo! He let me enter all too easily. Or is someone else helping me?” wondered Nightwing.
Raven drew closer to his silent form in Titans Tower and clutched his hand. The empath fed her feelings of faith, confidence, and hope to the still hero. She prayed her efforts could help him confront the heart of the problem. She knew his leadership was uncanny, and he was likely correct in thinking that this odd tactic was the best one for their friends.
“Stikk, I know you’ve been sending me those dreams of reproach and despair. You wanted to weaken me and prevent me from helping the others. Somehow you are behind these things. I’ll stop you now just like we did years ago!” shouted Nightwing.
A man in a long coat and old-fashioned hat appeared before Nightwing. He carried a staff and he scowled in displeasure. “You have been the bane of my existence for far too long,” he said.
Nightwing recognized the original form of Brom Stikk and felt his confidence grow. “You wanted to kill my friends with those manifestations of your gargoyle form,” the hero said. “You could not leave this limbo yourself, so you somehow created those things to do your dirty work. You sent those dreams to feed doubt and failure in me so I would not act in time to stop you. You failed to realize that I’m not the boy you fought years ago. I’m a mature man with the support of his peers and the courage of his convictions.”
Stikk said, “Bah. Pretty words. I don’t know how you entered this realm, but I cannot allow you to stop me before my pets kill your friends. Their deaths at those specific spots around my former ancestral home will result in the release of enough mystical energy to free me from limbo at last.”
Nightwing felt Raven’s faith surging through him, and he moved with his natural speed and skill. He kicked the staff out of Stikk’s hand and brought his elbow around to crash into the man’s narrow features. The blow raised a gray-hued bruise; Nightwing realized that even in limbo Stikk retained his monstrous form beneath the human illusion. He decided to play upon this fact as he faced the villain.
“Your skin — or hide — is showing,” Nightwing said. “No wonder you live in nightmares. No waking being could stomach your looks.”
He ducked a blow from hands that extended suddenly into talons. The transformation of this limbo form from human back to monster was beginning. Nightwing took that to mean that Stikk’s resolve was also cracking.
He claims to not know how I got here, mused the agile youth. I assumed he would lure me in on his own. Odd, but I’ll worry about details later.
“Child! You can never beat me!” cried Stikk.
Nightwing looked around and saw himself suddenly as a boy in red and green as reflected from one of the Gargoyle’s large eyes. “That’s not me. I was Robin. I’ve accepted that my time in that junior role is over. I don’t deny my past, Stikk. I embrace it. You can’t riddle me with doubts by trying to imagine me as a kid,” he said.
Gesturing to the fog around them, Nightwing added, “My dreaming mind can work with the smoke and mirrors of this realm, too. See?” He concentrated, and the approving forms of John and Mary Grayson, Batman, and Superman appeared. “These people shaped me into the man I am. No phantasm of doubt can change that. I learned from them, and I apply all they taught me every day of my life.”
He spun around and flipped through the mist to land with both feet on Stikk’s scaly chest. The hero then gripped the monster and connected with three swift blows.
“It’s over,” Nightwing said firmly. “I have beaten you. I’ve freed myself from any lingering self-doubts. My friends are safe, and your pawns have reverted to normal. I suppose those poor men were just mentally ill or drugged individuals whom you took control over while they slept or dosed themselves. You lose again. Without that long-lost ring of yours, you can never leave this realm.”
The Gargoyle looked up helplessly with eyes that reflected his own awareness of his defeat all too keenly. He was beaten and would remain trapped in limbo once again.
Nightwing shuddered and sat up back in Titans Tower. Raven bent over him and held him.
“Richard!” Raven called out. “You were struggling in your sleep. I could only feel your will fighting and getting ever stronger.”
Nightwing nodded and gently raised her to her feet. “The screen shows Kory and the rest are safe. Their foes were just altered humans. They were victims, too. Stikk was trapped in limbo long ago, but he’s managed to slip into some dream realm before. He did so again and tried to kill the others to achieve freedom for himself via some ritual. He also tried to weaken my confidence, as if he knew we’d meet before his plan was done.”
Raven asked, “How did you enter that realm? I could project emotions, but nothing as literal as what occurred to you. I felt some other being helping you.”
Nightwing nodded. “I think he is called the Sandman. Wonder Woman told Donna about him before. I’d say Gargoyle was trespassing on his property, so to speak. He allowed me entrance long enough to shut down the scheme.”
Raven said, “Our friends are returning here. They have questions, too.”
Nightwing smiled. “Raven, for now I feel as if I have all the answers they’ll need.”
He was free of any lingering doubts, and he knew that now that he had exorcised his past demons, he could lead the team with his old confidence once more. But this didn’t mean he would have to choose one family over another, for he could and would return to Gotham City regularly. Finally, Dick Grayson had achieved a balance between his roles as leader and partner, and he was happy.