"I thought Raven was here with you!" Robin barked. Before him, an unusually grim Beast Boy gave his leader a very good imitation of their teammate-in-reference's scowl.
"I thought so too," the youngest Titan huffed. "So I guess we were both wrong."
The Teen Titans were assembled on the shore of their island home, obeying Aqualad's last disturbing missive. No explanation had come with it, only the insistence that a friend whom they thought was safely ensconced in her room meditating was actually in the ocean and in great danger. This left none of them feeling at ease.
Cyborg left off scanning the waves and moved to rejoin the others. "It's not like this is new for her. You know Raven's been going off a lot lately."
"Yes," Starfire chimed in. "To watch over Vandal Savage, we all assumed."
Robin's brow clouded at the name. "He was here. Earlier this morning. Raven must have gone to meet him. And if he's responsible for this, I'm going to bury him so deep he won't know which way is up!"
"That's after we help Raven, right?" Beast Boy asserted.
The Boy Wonder crossed his arms and fumed. He hated this, hated feeling so helpless. There was no telling what was going on or even how it happened. Aqualad hadn't bothered to go into details, and he hadn't responded to any of their attempts to contact him. But he had definitely wanted them to wait for him. And something in the aqua-Titan's voice had brooked no disagreement.
So they waited.
Robin stayed where he was, immobile and seemingly calm. But this was a forced pose. He knew that if he moved around it might lead to unleashing some of the boiling fury he was suppressing. He had to keep himself in check. Just like Raven. Cyborg had hunkered down on the rocks. Starfire was floating nervously around them. And Beast Boy was kicking aimlessly at any loose debris.
Cyborg leaned back and stretched out his legs. "If we had taken the T-Sub we could actually be going somewhere right now. Why do you think his royal highness told us to wait if things are so urgent?"
"Because I had to know where to find you."
They all swung towards the voice. From out of the ocean emerged their deceptively slender ally. Still some twenty yards away from the shore, he rose up until only his ankles remained in the water, apparently resting firmly on something just below the surface.
"And it's a big ocean."
Starfire dipped down towards him. "Aqualad, what...?"
"I'll explain on the way," he interrupted brusquely. "Right now every second counts. Please come inside my ship."
And out of the waves rose something utterly breathtaking.
"When time is the issue," Aqualad spoke, "this is the only vessel that matters."
Sound travels through water better than light. Usually you can hear something happening underwater long before you see it. Sometimes, if its quiet enough, you don't even realize you've been hearing it.
It was very quiet. Softer than a whisper. But Raven still knew exactly when she first began to pick it up. The sound was arrhythmic, and endless. A background noise, like hearing people conversing softly just a few feet away. With all this darkness around her, that very well might have been the case. Except that there was only one voice speaking here. She had heard it briefly once before. The unnatural dissonance of R'lyeh.
There was no point in trying to use the song for guidance. No matter where you went, the noise came from every direction. And it got no louder. It stayed the same, like a dream of a song. So when Raven saw the light, she should have been relieved. But no one sane could observe such a vista and experience anything but horror.
It was a wavering green glow. The miasma that had penetrated the very water for leagues behind her had now reached the point of saturation so it had all but become the ocean. It made itself evident in the form of a shifting, wavering distortion, an unearthly almost-color that taunted the eyes with its unwillingness to be classified.
For a few unnerving moments, Raven was certain that the light had become solid and displaced the water. The song encompassed her through this sludge. Raven's progress towards its source proved of no use in deciphering any meaning from those sounds. There were words overlapping, but still only one voice, and Raven soon realized that if she tried concentrating on it any further she would go mad.
So she focused on the light. It, at least, was drawing closer, becoming more real and less the deceptive manifestation of her own shivering dread. There was definitely something there. Falling towards a conclusion.
When Raven finally came close enough to observe R'lyeh, she nearly lost her mind.
"Okay," Cyborg whispered. "I'll admit it. Your ride's better."
He didn't like saying it. But it was true all the same.
The Deep Breaker had been bestowed on Aqualad as a sign of his royal heritage. It was sleek. And supple. And oh, you better believe it could move. About 80 ft. long and gleaming blue, the craft shot through the waster as effortlessly as if it were air. Nestled within its confines, the Teen Titans stood on the bridge and watched in awe as the ocean peeled away before them. The ship's fluid, almost liquid construction had left Cyborg breathless with curiosity. Upon regaining his voice the avid techie could not hide his disappointment when their pilot tersely admitted that he did not understand the exact nature of his ship's composition. Atlantean scientists had tried to explain it to him, but at the time he had been more interested in the effect than the design. To put it simply, she was cool. Fashioned in the general outline of a sea serpent, the Breaker saluted its similarity by denying itself a rigid form, instead choosing to undulate regularly along its length, a ripple traveling from its knife-edged prow along the unbroken and unadorned line of its hull to finish on a neat point at the stern.
Forgetting momentarily their reason for being here, the Titans, even the galaxy-spanning Starfire, stood amazed. All but one.
Aqualad had wasted no time with greetings. Bringing the ship's hatch to the surface, he had ushered everyone aboard, flat-out refusing Beast Boy's suggestion of using his polymorphing abilities to tag along outside. After launching the vessel back into the ocean, the potential ruler of Atlantis had begged their patience until they were firmly under way.
Now, thirty minutes later, the ocean teen visibly relaxed and turned away from the helm.
"We're in the jet-stream now. From here on the ship will take care of everything. Now I can tell you what I know."
He led his friends off to one side of the bridge. The Titans followed, their feet splashing through a layer of water along the floor. Their destination was a recessed area that still retained the water which had otherwise been drained from the ship to accommodate non-amphibious guests. Floating on the surface was a tabletop, with arms branching out under it like an octopus to form chairs one could sit on, if you didn't mind being half-submerged. Apparently a great deal of thought had gone into this ship's construction.
Taking their seats, bodies partially floating, they all prepared themselves for the worst.
"About one hour ago," Aqualad began, "I got a visit from Raven." He glanced around. "Did any of you know about this beforehand?" They all shook their heads. "I didn't think so. She seemed upset, or at least not as calm as I've come to expect from her. Anyway, she obviously wanted to talk about something, and I was more than willing to listen, until she told me that what she had come to me for was about..." Here he hesitated. "R'lyeh."
"Rally-ho?" Beast Boy frowned.
"You've never heard of it?" Aqualad looked at them all individually. "You don't know about it?"
"No," Robin insisted. "Now can you please tell us what this has to do with Raven being in danger?"
The young prince leaned his elbows on the table, lacing his fingers together before his face. "Then I have to trust you with a secret. My family has held it for over 100,000 years. It's a secret that could destroy the world, both yours and mine."
None of those listening could suppress a chill at his words, and their host continued.
"Right now, Raven is on her way to a supremely
dangerous place, the underwater city of
He looked up, his face tight with underlying fear. "Its name is C'thulhu."
Cyborg cocked an eyebrow. "You wanna try that one again, a little slower?"
Aqualad just shivered. "I don't like to say its name. Please don't make me repeat it." He took a moment to collect himself. "All you need to know is that this thing is a greater threat than anything you will ever face. I only hope it doesn't come to that in our lifetimes."
"But what of Raven?" Starfire spoke up. "How has she become involved with this perilous foe?"
"She told me it was for a friend, and I have to believe her. According to Raven, there’s someone trapped in R'lyeh, someone she knew when she lived back in Azerath. She said that's the reason why she came to this world."
"No kidding," Cyborg whispered.
"I always wondered," Beast Boy mused.
Starfire could only manage a look of concern, while Robin had grown very grim.
"Did she say why she didn't tell us about this friend, or why she hasn't tried to rescue him before now?"
"Rescue 'her,'" Aqualad corrected. "And she said it was because she didn't know where to start looking, and I don't blame her. R'lyeh is a city that hasn't seen the sun in countless ages. Even other Atlanteans don't know of its location or even existence, and it's my understanding that any surface dwellers who might have heard of it died out a long time ago." He frowned. "Come to think of it, Raven neglected to mention how she figured out that R'lyeh was even underwater."
Robin slammed a fist down on the table, causing it to sink a few inches before rebounding. "Savage!" He spit the name like a curse.
"What?" Aqualad queried.
"Vandal Savage," Cyborg inserted. "A criminal, and an immortal."
"I think he might have been alive when dinosaurs ruled the earth," Beast Boy supplied.
"He has been living in our city," Starfire spoke sadly. "At Raven's behest. His motives have not been clear to us, but he seems fixated upon keeping Raven's company, and thus far he has done no harm that we can see."
"Until now!" Robin fairly shouted. "He must have been the one who told Raven about R'lyeh. It's the only possible explanation!"
Starfire laid a hand on his arm to restrain him. "But if he knows of R'lyeh, Robin, then why would he tell Raven? Surely he must know how awful this C'thulhu must be."
"Why should Savage care?" Robin responded. "This might have been his plan all along."
The other Titans looked skeptical. Aqualad absorbed these revelations before speaking.
"He might be one of C'thulhu's human followers. But then again, he might not have intended to tell Raven..."
He stopped suddenly, remembering that he had not wanted to bring this part up.
"What, you think it just slipped out over lunch?" Beast Boy snorted. " 'Please pass the salt, and by the way, did you know there's a super-evil monster living in a magic kingdom under the sea?' "
"I just meant..." Again Aqualad grew silent.
Robin scrutinized him carefully. "Is there something you don't want us to know?"
No response came from the marine telepath.
Robin leaned forward. "Then answer me this: if you know all about R'lyeh, why tell Raven how to get there?"
And Aqualad winced. "I didn't, exactly."
The Atlantean pushed a hand back through his ebony mane. "She asked me to, and I refused to tell her. It was for her own safety. And then she got...close to me and..."
His face had grown visibly red. Cyborg suddenly grew very alert. "Just how close are we talking about?" he asked menacingly.
Aqualad now seemed exceedingly uncomfortable. "Close enough to touch my..." He saw Cyborg's left eye glow red, and coughed. "My mind. And I think she read where R'lyeh could be found. At least, I assumed. She disappeared right after."
"Are you telling me," Robin spoke in slow, measured tones, "that Raven invaded your mind?"
Aqualad looked up at him, his features hardening with resolve. "If she did, there was no malice behind it. I believe Raven honestly is just trying to save her friend." His eyes lowered then. "But if she does enter R'lyeh, and wakes its master, then her good intentions will have paved our way into hell."
Upside, down and back. Raven clutched her head and screamed.
She was going mad in this place. Entering R'lyeh had been torture. Every occult and natural sense she possessed was constantly shrieking at her of danger, the need to leave immediately. Even her conviction was not entirely sufficient to subdue this overriding sense of life-threatening peril. And that was because this was a place where reason held no sway, nor even the laws of nature.
Her cry had come out accompanied by air bubbles. Raven should have been able to tell which direction was up by the path these globes of air took. But they seemed as lost as to what to do next as she was. They simply hung there silently. Then without warning, the bubbles dwindled and shrank out of sight. No way to tell from her perspective if they had actually gone somewhere or just vanished, swallowed up by R'lyeh.
Curled up into a ball, the young sorceress shivered in the unrelenting cold of this accursed pit. By following the eerie penumbra, she had finally encountered the city proper, but this had proven to be of little help. R'lyeh was gigantic, not just in scope but in execution. The towering monuments that composed it were suitable for housing a race of titans, composed of immense, slime-speckled blocks dredged from quarries located in another galaxy. The buildings crowded in together, obeying no sense of design or placement, turning their courses, diverging and reconnecting along their heights. They defied any rational attempt of the eye to follow their outlines or even perceive the direction of their growth. At times it seemed possible that more than one edifice was occupying the same space. There was no order, and the miniscule invader found herself immediately lost among the twisted, asymmetrical pillars of a bygone era. Upon trying to look behind her to get her bearings, Raven had realized that she could not see past the limits of the city, even though she had only just entered it. Or at least, she had assumed so. But now the dizzying cityscape swept behind her, a glowing, slime-covered graveyard that went back farther than the eye could see.
Here was the city's true spirit. R'lyeh was a madhouse. Try to move towards a mausoleum in the far distance, and you suddenly find that you're about to touch it. Follow around its sides, only to realize that you're actually going into it. A tower that seems to go straight up must instead be going sideways so as to explain its relationship to another hall next to it. Or perhaps it was she who was no longer right side up. And now you find that you can't tell what's up from down, it's all too huge, and you can't decide if you're looking at the stone temple's top, bottom or middle. You're lost, with no references to help guide you. Stranded in the cold, otherworldly light of a distorted city, where you could wander forever and never find the way out. A maze that was made up of nothing but dead-ends.
I could die down here, Raven thought, and was horrified at the truth of it.
But what shook her more was the knowledge that she would not die alone.
R'lyeh was not without its inhabitants. She had seen them, far off. Or close, who could really tell? They appeared for an instant around a corner, only to fade away. They knew their way around. This was their home. But whether or not they knew that the city had an intruder was a matter of opinion. R'lyeh's denizens did not approach or call out, even to one another. It could be they were content to simply let her wander aimlessly until she expired, the fate of one who had come here without any clear understanding of what she faced.
Now Raven hung silently in the dark. There was nothing to guide her, and the most maddening part was that she knew she was close. For Unizue was here. She could feel it. But her efforts to hone in on that sense resulted in failure, balked by the unnatural layout of this city. And though she had sent out all manner of calls, there had been no response. So it was only natural that Raven was feeling upset.
No, more like furious.
All reason had failed her. Caution was swept away. Raven bared her teeth and glared murderously at the dripping tableau of stone that mocked her with its very existence. What possible harm could befall her if she did?
No, not her. Everyone else. The inhabitants of R'lyeh. Unizue included. Maybe even C'thulhu itself, for all she knew.
And as that name surfaced in her mind, something in Raven rose to a fever pitch.
She flung out her arms, and a small acre of hell erupted on earth.
A flaming pillar of demonic power lashed up, out, any way it could. If one could see, or believe, it almost looked like the city moved to avoid it. At the heart of that black tide, a child of demons unleashed her wrath.
"I will not die here!" she roared. "C'thulhu!! Come out and face me!"
That was the reason for this maelstrom. A name, nothing more. A guttural declaration of an anonymous otherworldly god who had been dead for so long no one even remember it existed. And still this phantom corpse, this beast, had managed to invade her life, steal her only friend, poison her homeworld, and even cause her to tempt her own destiny by coming to this planet, which she had sworn she would never do. Now she was lost in this underwater cemetery, and Raven had had enough! She would destroy this city, if need be!
Beams of darkness shot out, the visible manifestation of Raven's soul, and honed in on the convoluted eldritch monoliths, seeking to possess the twisted cityscape. That was her goal, to inhabit everything in R'lyeh with her spirit, to wrest control away from C'thulhu's ghost and establish her own order in this weird, wild place. If there was no path to follow, then she would make her own!
But R'lyeh had its own design, whether it could be perceived or not. And so Raven was shocked when every bolt she had cast out struck a target at exactly the same time.
Shock turned to fear, as too late she realized her mistake.
It was alive.
The city, its buildings; as her soul touched them all she was bombarded by a sense that had nothing subtle about it, and Raven reeled in terror. It wasn't the structures themselves. No life resided in that xenolithic masonry. It was the luminescent coating, the phosphorescent muck that adorned every inch of this place. It was aware!
The city began to contract, to pull in around on all sides, encasing her in a bubble of warped dimensions. Raven tried to cut the lines, break her spell, but her magic net had become a cord, a guideline that R'lyeh was pulling on, drawing itself close around her. Or pulling her in deeper. She fought back. On every level, Raven strained to break free. But she was faced with something overwhelming. The walls drew in close. Panicked, the desperate magic-user backed away from what confronted her.
As she did, Raven collided against a gelatinous stretch of stone. Her fingers touched it.
And she knew.
Raven had found C'thulhu.
As the titanic presence swept down on her, she did the only thing that made sense. Shut off her mind, and passed into darkness.
With her last sight came a view of inhuman monsters exploding from the walls to race towards her.
"We're here," Aqualad breathed softly.
Beast Boy peered out the bridge port.
"How can you tell?"
He might have been joking, but the others had to agree with him. They could distinguish nothing in this lightless abyss, darker than the reaches of space.
"I can tell," Aqualad responded. He traced his fingers down a liquid panel, and the ship slowed. "We've reached the edge of the 17th battalion's perimeter. If we go any further, they'll attack immediately."
Robin drew up alongside him. "So I guess that means now would be the time you contact their commander and let them know why we're here."
Aqualad continued to stare grimly at the empty wall of water before them. "They don't care why. And the 17th doesn't have a commander, or officers. They have no means of communication, not with each other or the outside world. Words have no meaning among them. Each member knows his or her own mission and takes orders from none of the rest."
"Sounds like my kind of army," Beast Boy quipped, but at a stern glance from Robin he quickly shut his mouth.
"So what, then?" Cyborg crossed his arms. "Don't tell me we're gonna have to fight our way through an entire army?"
"No." The prince of Atlantis turned and strode down the bridge. "I'm going outside. This will only take a minute."
The Titans watched him go, and no one, not even Robin, dared to question him.
Water engulfed him, a hatch opened, and once again Aqualad was in his element. But it gave him no peace. For the first time in his life he had been more comfortable out of the water than in it. Because he knew what awaited them. The others were concerned about the Kraken's Coils. But he knew, as well as anyone, that while dangerous, these sea soldiers were not the threat. Rather they were the only bulwark against an evil that had lurked in these waters since the dawn of civilization.
All the same. Right now, the 17th division was an obstacle in his path. Aqualad knew his responsibilities. He was the future ruler of his domain. That's why he knew he shouldn't be doing this. It was against his sworn duties as royalty to enter this place, tempt the dark master that controlled it. However, if anything, those very duties compelled him to take this course. There was no one better suited, if anyone had to do it. And he was partly to blame for this. He had failed to stop Raven. But he would not fail to save her.
Before him, Aqualad could tell there was a buildup of forces. The Coils were closing in.
And there was only one way to stop them.
Each of their company delayed the attack. They were not hindered by any feelings, whether good or ill. The ships, its owner and its significance were known to them. The boy was their ruler. But this was irrelevant. Unless they received a command in the only way they could, the Kraken's Coils would kill anyone who dared to enter R'lyeh. Just a little more forward, and they would be legitimate prey.
Then something happened. Thoughts, like a current, passed through their ranks. Being mostly human, the warriors could not perceive the signal. At least not directly. But as that power, inherited only down the unbroken line of Atlantis' kings for over 100,000 years, swept over them, it was received. At the base of every soldier's skull, an aquatic worm nestled around the spinal column. A parasite, present since conception and specifically bred for this moment. They grew up together, the worm lying dormant, taking only what was necessary to survive for the entirety of both their lives. It could not awake, unless touched by the specifically focused mind of a marine-life telepath.
As it was now.
As one, the worms responded to that command, and roused from their stupor. When they did, they immediately sensed what lay close to them.
And they knew panic.
As one, the members of the Kraken's Coils shuddered, their symbiotic partner's terror letting them know they were awake. The message was obvious. Their master had arrived.
No response was available, or even necessary. They simply obeyed. Down to the last man, the underwater death squad broke rank to make a path. Once they had, the prince sent another telepathic signal, and the worms subsided into blissful torpor, the knowledge of their surroundings once again unnoticed. The prince returned to his ship. The way was clear, and he took it. Into R'lyeh's waters they went.
The soldiers watched them go. It was not their place to try and stop these interlopers, much less help them. No matter what the reason, they were going to their dooms. Once they were gone, the wall of fighters closed behind them. Should the royal line end, it was not their concern. They would continue in their primary goal. Hold back the evil. Kill those who sought it. End lives, not save them. Unto death. They understood nothing else. And they would never know why those people went to their damnation so willingly.
It still wasn't safe. Of that much she was certain.
Raven had awakened ten minutes past. Unlike with true sleep, she had come to with a full recollection of where she was and what had happened. But certainty had done nothing to console her. She had yet to open her eyes, and this was because she was afraid of what she might see. Not of what was around her, but what had become of her. Raven did not want to know what those things might have done while she was passed out.
But if she dwelt on her fear any longer it might overwhelm her, cause her to lose her restraint. And her previous experience in this place left that a distinctly undesirable option. At last she could not bear the darkness of her own thoughts any longer, and she opened her eyes, preferring to see what it was she had so brashly called down upon herself.
Raven looked down immediately, anxious to ascertain her own condition before inspecting her surroundings. To her extreme relief, she found that she was unchanged. No damage done. So then. What was left to worry about?
The weary enchantress looked around. She was in a small circular room. The distance from one wall to the next was only about fifteen feet, but those walls curved up, and up. They rose so high Raven wondered if she might not be at the bottom of a pit. But they met somewhere, up above. She couldn't see where exactly, and not just because the room was so dark. But she could infer. There were things hanging down everywhere, strands of matter whose provenance she did not wish to guess at. They seemed to glisten without the aid of any available light, and when she looked at them she could just make out the area in which she now found herself.
To her surprise, she was dry. There was no water here, and apparently no shortage of air either. What was this? She was certainly still in R'lyeh. Raven thought about staying quiet, keeping put. She considered leaving, phasing through the walls. And then she thought how she could just return to Azerath, right now.
The spell-weaver drew a breath of remarkably clean air. She closed her eyes and rose to hover above the floor a few inches, careful not to let the still strands come anywhere near her. Azerath Metrion Zinthos. Azerath Metrion Zinthos. What do you want to do, she asked herself? The answer was obvious. What she came to do. Stay here and find...
She realized it then. Like a sound you've been hearing for some time, but didn't notice. Almost not daring to hope, Raven whispered, "Is anyone there?"
No answer came. But she got one anyway.
They came from out of the walls. Although the way they did, it was almost like they stepped around a corner. There were three of them, and they were silent. This was a relief to Raven, because the mere sight of these beings was enough to turn her stomach. Each was a loathsome array of glowing green and dull silver. They carried themselves upright, but moved in a hunched, shuffling manner that bespoke of unfamiliarity outside of water. Their skin was scaled, their hands and feet clawed, with webbed appendages. Tendrils, or a collection of thick fins, fell in locks from their heads. Their mouths were vertical slits, rimmed with tentacles that hung like overgrown mustaches to their chests. And their eyes were gigantic, great globes that took up half their heads on either side like a fish, causing them to turn their necks from side to side as they watched her. Raven could see herself and the room reflected clearly in their gaping black pupils. They swayed before her, and Raven coughed as the air became thick with a fetid miasma, an odor that she could only describe as rotten death.
The R'lyeans regarded their floating captive, shifting their unblinking eyes from side to side, staring without making a sound.
Slowly, Raven settled back to the ground to stand before the worshippers of C'thulhu.
"I've come for Unizue," she spoke softly, fighting to keep the seething rage and disgust she was feeling from causing another catastrophe. "And if you think you've seen all I can do, you are sorely mistaken."
At her words, all three heads stopped moving as one. Raven found herself confronted by three abysmal sets of eyes, and she caught a hint of something, a whisper of thought.
C'thulhu fhtagn, it hissed softly, like a greeting.
Then a storm of song went off in Raven's mind, and she crumpled with a scream. Senseless words clashing, an orchestra the size of a planet, a chorus of a trillion voices, if conducted at all then by a madman. It seized space in her head, sought to overwhelm her, to fill every corner of her being with that lunatic melody.
What propelled her response was a blend of both instinct and reason. While the R'lyeans sought to remake her, Raven attacked. In the wake of such an onslaught, any defense would only give them a foothold, prolonging the battle. Raven knew she had to end it now. On her forehead, the diamond gemstone began to glow with power. And while the trio's intrusion continued unabated, three beams shot forth from the gem, striking for the core of her enemies' thoughts.
The resistance offered was surprisingly weak. Whereas Raven had automatically opposed the forced excursion into her consciousness, apparently these denizens of Earth's darkest depths had no experience in mental combat. Her goal had been to shut off their capabilities at the root. But instead of separate minds, she found only that song, erupting in thunderous declaration, and they themselves were nothing more than doors opened to the place from which the song originated. Since there was nothing stopping her, the mystic did the only thing that made sense.
She simply shut the doors.
At once, she found herself back in her body again. The R'lyeans were grouped around her, scattered on the floor like discarded toys. That song made them dependent, and while they seemed to be a part of it, cutting them off had apparently robbed them of volition. Raven knelt swiftly beside one. It gave no indication of life, but was definitely still functioning, to her relief. The sorceress leaned back on the floor, panting.
"What are you?" she whispered. The stinking figures could give no response.
But Raven did not make another attempt, as she suddenly felt another presence in the room.
A feather-light touch brushed her cloak, and Raven sprang upright.
And something rose up from the floor.
It only took her a second for recognition to dawn, and it made her want to cry.
It came out fully.
Aqualad killed the engines, and the Deep Breaker drifted to a halt.
At least they hoped it did. For all the Titans could tell, the city was still moving around them. Their reluctant guide pressed a button, and the viewscreen went dark, occluding the eye-twisting vista before them.
"This place is not right." Starfire closed her eyes and shivered. "I believe it is trying to confound us."
Robin sat down. He rubbed his temples, trying to dispel the pressure and pain he had felt building for the last twenty-five minutes. "R'lyeh obviously wasn't built with finding people in mind. The only good news is that nothing has attacked us yet."
"Just led us around in circles," Cyborg muttered, sitting at a console, head propped in his hands. "You can't map this place. Sonar never comes back to you. You go one way and turn back around, everything’s changed. For all we know we could be upside down right now."
"The city poses its own threat," Aqualad agreed. "But let's not forget that R'lyeh is inhabited. The Deep Ones are out there right now. I can feel it."
"Are you sure about that?" Beast Boy looked up from his spot on the floor. "We haven't seen anything that looks alive down here, and the only feeling I'm getting is the wiggins. I'm telling you," he said with a shiver, "right now this is the last place on earth I want to be." The young polymorph sulked. "And we still haven't found Raven."
"She's here," Aqualad insisted. "And so are they. The Deep Ones are immortal. Barring some damage inflicted on them, they never die. But for whatever reason they haven't come after us, maybe the same applies to Raven. Maybe she's wandering around right now, just as lost as we are."
"It's hardly good news that they can't find her if neither can we," Robin rumbled.
"Then what shall we do?" Starfire wailed miserably. "Raven needs our help! We must act!"
The prince of Atlantis clenched his fists. He stared at the cloudy window before him.
"I'm going out there," he whispered.
"Man, don't even think about it!" Cyborg leapt up. "You get five feet away from the boat and you might never find your way back!"
"Everything within my power." The slender nobleman's features were set in grim resolve. "That's what I'm sworn to do." He looked around at all of them. "The royal family are the caretakers of the seas. But it is also our responsibility to defend everyone on this planet from the threat of R'lyeh. And right now, Raven needs all the help we can give."
Robin moved to stand before him. "I'm all for that. But I'm hoping you've got something in mind to keep there from being two Titans lost out there."
"Three!" Beast Boy sprang up. "I'm going too. There's no way I'm letting you go out into that alone. And I'm not gonna argue about it with you," he stated decisively as both Robin and Aqualad looked about to disagree.
"All right." The wave-diver strode over to the side hatch. "Robin, I showed you some of the Breaker's capabilities. What I need once I'm, er, we're out there, is for you to tag us both with the gel lines." The door slid apart at a touch, and he stepped inside, followed closely by Beast Boy. "They've got a stretch limit of up to half a league. That should give us enough room to explore and allow us to find our way back."
"Makes sense," Cyborg offered. "But aren't you forgetting that this place wasn't built with sense in mind?"
"It’s the only option we have." The portal closed, and at Aqualad's command, began to fill with water. "We'll watch each other's backs, just don't assume that you're safe. Ever."
"Please return safe, with Raven." Starfire waived with considerably less optimism than usual.
A colossal jet of air bubbles shot out into the environs of R'lyeh, ejecting along with it the two intrepid aqua-Titans, one of them now in the guise of a shark. From the side of the ship, two glistening lines shot forth and struck them both, adhering to their bodies immediately.
Aqualad gave a brief tug on the line. Designed for entrapping and exhausting prey, it should work in just the opposite. We can stay in telepathic contact, he thought to Beast Boy. Let me know right away if you find anything.
The shark gave no reply, only hung in the silent stench of R'lyeh's waters.
The predator twisted, but still made no movement forward. Now he was growing concerned. In this form, if Beast Boy didn't swim, he couldn't pass the water through his gills to breathe. Gliding closer, Aqualad stretched out a hand to touch his friend.
Beast Boy, what's wrong?
The shark's eye, covered until now with its protective membrane, slid open. Aqualad could see himself in it. Moments passed by, and then he heard its thoughts.
The telepath blinked. Before him, the vicious sea-beast gave a spasmodic jerk.
Must leave. Eaten.
And then he knew. The beast form was reacting to R'lyeh. All creatures in the ocean naturally feared this place, avoiding it with an instinctive sense of the perils it represented. To his knowledge, no animal had come into the city of madness in all its history. Aqualad cursed himself for not realizing how this might be a problem for someone of Beast Boy's abilities.
Beast Boy. He laid both hands on the trembling animal's thick hide to keep it steady. I know you're still in there, and we need you to come back. You stepped out into these waters knowing what it might mean. That took a lot of courage, and courage is stronger than the fear you're feeling right now. The beast might always be inside you, but the same goes for you in it. The muscle convulsions beneath the skin started to subside, and Aqualad pressed on. You remember why you're here, right? You're here to save Raven. She needs you, Beast Boy.
Raven. The thought came clearly. The great white shook itself, then swam out a bit. It turned back towards its companion. Dude, that was freaky. I almost lost it there.
His teammate swam up alongside. Can you go on, or do you want to...?
No way! The shark thrashed its tail forcefully. I can take it. No way am I backing down to this place.
Okay. Aqualad kicked his legs and shot off towards what appeared to be the nearest building. Let's go.
The shark hung back for a moment. The wavering, unhealthy green impurity of this necropolis' aura reflected in his eyes. Beast Boy felt panic building up on some level, and quickly thrust himself forward. If you've hurt her, he thought darkly at the overreaching mountains, I'll turn into a leviathan and smash you all up.
Trailing their lifelines, the two heroes began to explore.
"I'm sorry," Raven sobbed, tears and magic pouring from her eyes. "Please forgive me."
Unizue floated towards her, and Raven pulled away, goaded by equal amounts of horror and self-loathing. If only she had come sooner. If only she hadn't wasted so much time on this world, she might have been able to prevent this.
It was worse. It was so much worse than she had imagined.
She had finally done it. Raven had found Unizue. But her alien friend, who had once frightened the little girl with her bizarre form, now had the same effect for exactly the opposite reason. Hanging in the air before Raven was something that looked ostensibly humanoid. Her trunk had thinned out in places, now resembling a curved pyramid. The fronds about her base had lengthened and twined together with her arms, now pointing down to form a parody of legs, whereas the hard plates which had served to connect Unizue's mouth and body had become two elastic limbs with separated flanges that hung loosely towards the floor. And positioned at the tip of her base's highest point was the y-shaped implement that Raven had come to know was a mouth. Unizue's long, hair-like tongues had dripped down to hang in a cluster below the start of her snout, like a nest of feelers. In place of where they had once been was the enchantress' eye globe, now split in two and firmly attached to what could only be her head. For the first time, she looked slightly human, and it was this drastic and relatively grotesque transformation that caused Raven to break down so utterly.
-It is you- Unizue sounded so happy. -I could not be sure, you allowed so little of yourself to escape. Such control you have mastered. But then, your earlier spells, and now here before me… it is confirmed. We are met in R'lyeh at last-
Slowly, Raven picked herself up off the floor. She could not stop staring.
"Are you... in pain?" she whispered.
In response, Unizue's eye glowed. -There is no pain here, Raven. Ah- her long, thin limbs traveled up and down her body. -It is this that confuses you. I made it myself, Raven. Once I came to fully understand, I made of myself a temple incarnate, to protect and honor the words of the Great One-
Briefly Raven recognized that the Deep Ones had roused from their stupor, and now once again stood unmoving behind her. They made no new assault, but she did not wait to respond in kind. She turned to face them, a terrible grief lending her preparatory power a singular intensity.
-Do not fear-
Unizue stretched her arms up, and cast a spell. To Raven's astonishment, she felt her power distance itself, and then surrender. The spell was specifically fashioned to affect her, and cast by one who knew her thoughts and magic better than anyone else in the whole of creation. It wrapped itself around her like a lover, and bound the teenage mystic fast. Raven turned, shock written on her features, half-expecting to be unable to move. She was so aghast at this unexpected betrayal that nothing could have surprised her.
-They meant only to show you the object of your quest, seeker Raven. Here lies the call and answer that has drawn you to us, the solution to all problems revealed for those who can…-
"I didn't...!" the young woman interrupted savagely, struggling against the magic without success, "...come here looking for answers! I came to find you!"
Unizue inclined her mouth to one side, and Raven held in her tears. Nothing was going right. Mother help her, what was she supposed to do now?!!
-His song touched you- the deformed alien continued patiently. -I knew this, as I know all things. Raven, I was aware when you first left Azerath and came to this dimension. How I dreamt of going to you then, to end your confusion. But one cannot force understanding. That is reserved only for He Who Sleeps. I had to wait for you to come. There was no uncertainty but that you would. I apologize for attempting to take you before, Raven. You were not ready. But now...-
It moved towards her. Raven stood her ground, even as she felt the other three come lurking up behind her. It was so much like a nightmare. Perhaps R'lyeh was the source of all night-terrors.
-You are home at last. Do you recall how we spoke of this once before? Of your eventual homecoming? I did not know how right I was, for both of us-
Unizue halted. Raven was trembling, teeth gritted against the injustice of it all.
"I can't believe this, I don't want to hear another word. What you're saying is wrong, so just stop talking as if I wanted any of this."
The Piran's eyes glowed. From the mess of her mouth there issued a low noise. And then once again, an assault came. Just like before, it was a jackhammer, a supernova of lunatic sound and no reason. Raven screamed. She felt the hands of the Deep Ones catch hold of her, preventing any escape. Frantically she tried the same tactic as before, disregarding conscious resistance for direct assault. But this time she met with no success. Unizue stood unwavering, and where the others had acted merely as portals onto a chaotic nightmare, she was both door and singer. The young heroine knew that she must lose. She saw herself from outside, mouth agape, tears spilling from glowing white eyes, as the Deep Ones pushed her to her knees and her friend Unizue continued to attack her.
And then it stopped. The cessation of mental combat left Raven gasping on the floor, sucking in the loathsome air without regret. After a while, she drew her breath apace. Unizue leaned down before her blankly staring face.
-You mislead yourself. I do not attack you. I strive to impress upon you knowledge, for the sake of our previous journeying. When first I came, I was confused. You were not with me, to help me understand. But the Deep Ones recognized my predicament, and they gave me all that they could. It was so hard without you, Raven. I thought myself deprived of a teacher. And then, as I stayed here longer, I began to comprehend. There is no loneliness in R'lyeh. Because He is here, first and foremost. We must seek admission into His light-
-Follow the song's meaning, Raven. Once you do, you will meet Him, and there you will find an end to your own pain. All things are known to C'thulhu. I have basked in the fount of His teachings and learned all that I ever needed to know. The questions themselves were the problem, you see. To defeat them, you simply have to know. He is the answer to all existence, the core of all thought and understanding. And we await the day of His rebirth. So that He might look upon us, and we upon Him. These others- she gestured at the three R'lyeans, -were alive when C'thulhu reigned supreme. They have known Him in all His glory. The rest of us must languish at our own limits, 'til the day arrives, and we are free to rejoice in all that life can give-
From her position on the ground, Raven remained with head bent, arms held tightly behind her.
-Raven?- Unizue queried, bending even lower. -Do you understand? Are you ready to begin? You came here to learn, yes?-
"Unizue." A faint, pleading whisper.
-NO- Unizue drew back, turning away from the girl restrained at her feet. -That is no longer allowed, Raven. No more, I told you. Since He cannot perform this duty, then it falls to me. You may no longer address me so. No more am I Raven's Unizue-
She turned back around, fanning her tongue-fronds gently.
-I am His, now. I am C'thulhu's Unizue forever-
At those words, Raven felt something inside her die.
She had failed. Always, there had been a hope, not just that she would find her friend, but that she could also rescue her from the madness that had marred their last encounter. She had told herself, as a child, that Unizue couldn't have gone willingly, that she had been taken by force or tricked. Her friend was a prisoner, and she had to save her. Unconsciously, she had nurtured this fantasy for the rest of her life. But the dream had ended here, with the confirmation of an even older fear. She had been discarded.
"How can you be his Unizue?" she snarled. "He's not even alive!"
-Just sleep, Raven- Unizue trilled. -The time of waking is not far off. When all is ready.... but we may talk more of this later- She turned away. -For now, we will begin to teach you all you need-
"You're mistaken, Unizue," Raven spoke clearly, disdaining the possessive form. Before her, the warped sorceress flinched, her tentacles giving off a sibilant whispering.
-Raven, I have already told you not...-
"Unizue is more than the name of a friend." Raven bore on, and Unizue trembled in agitation. "To me it means hope and understanding. Unizue means trusting others. Unizue is what I hope to be, what I want to be for other people! A protector and teacher, Unizue."
The acolyte of C'thulhu shook her head. -This is not right. You must not confuse me so, Raven. You must not...-
The power of the spell began to dim, a little.
"Unizue showed me good things about myself, that there were parts of me I didn't have to be ashamed of!"
They were still in the same position, Raven held captive and Unizue floating freely before her. But now it was not so clear who was in control.
"Unizue means freedom!'
"Unizue means self!"
-No more- Unizue was dancing about the room now in her frustration, but she could not leave.
"You are my Unizue!" Raven shouted. "RAVEN's Unizue, who belongs in Azerath..."
-I DO NOT-
The spell broke!
"... METRION ZINTHOS!!!"
Raven's eyes flashed, and at the last pronouncement of her spell the room was enveloped in black magic. It crossed dimensions, seized upon those within and cast them beyond the bounds of this plane, sending the call to alert Azerath of their arrival.
Then the vessel of dark energy shrank in on itself, dwindling to nothing.
Raven sat in the center of the room.
Behind her, the Deep Ones were gone.
The stone floor beneath her was cold.
C'thulhu's Unizue rose to face her.
-You forget, Raven- she clicked gently, -that I too am a sorceress of Azerath. C'thulhu's blessing in no way diminished my powers. Your spell cannot send me anywhere I do not wish to go. You would not leave without me- She gestured, and the festooning strands of unnamable stuff sprang down, seizing Raven's hands and feet, wrapping her fast. The cords wound quickly around her mouth, then up to touch her chakra stone. They glowed with the seething energy of R'lyeh's life-force, its own master. When they were done, Raven was trapped, all her magic sealed within her by Unizue's arts.
-And I do not wish to leave here-
It was a final declaration, and Raven knew she had lost.
They stared at each other for a long time. The hanging tendrils brushed against Unizue's head, and she raised her snout to tangle in them, drinking in their eldritch glow. At last, she sighed.
-I had thought to bring you to understanding myself. But I lack the skill after all. It seemed perfect- Unizue turned away and her globular eyes began to shine.
-C'thulhu lets His will be known to me- she announced dreamily. -Such glory for you, Raven. I am awash in rapture for your sake. Since none of us can guide you, then there is only one option left. You shall be offered to C'thulhu Himself-
Unizue bent down, wrapping her long limbs around Raven, lifting her up.
-Now, we go-
Beast Boy, you find anything?
The great white twisted around.
Nada. And I'm really not feeling up to snuff here. Does this water smell as nasty to you as it does to me?
No, the telepath responded. But your nose is better. And it does taste pretty foul. So does that mean you haven't caught a scent of Raven?
Not even a little. His thoughts carried a great tone of gloom.
We can't give up. Listen, I'm at the end of my line. I'm going to swim around a bit and then head back to the ship, try a new direction.
OK, Beast Boy responded. I've still got some slack, I'm gonna keep going some more.
Stay safe, remember? And the contact withdrew.
Beast Boy swung his tail, moving about a bit more. He hadn't reckoned on the sensory overload his new form might include. Being a shark in R'lyeh was like being a bloodhound in a manure pit. The water flowing over his nose and through his gills was so tainted and befouled, it was a wonder he could get any oxygen out of it. He had been hoping that the shark's keen orifices would enable him to locate Raven's distinctive aroma. He knew it well enough. Actually, he knew how all of his friends smelled. Nothing weird about that. Beasts often had superior senses. And Raven actually got along well with animals, though she might not appreciate that fact. So Beast Boy sometimes went into animal form when she was around, just because doing so meant she was less likely to avoid his company. Though he had yet to find a form she was willing to let snuggle in her lap and pet.
The youngest Titan blinked his onyx eyes. He was getting distracted. Caught up in memories. He had a mission, save Raven. Determinedly, he swam on ahead.
R'lyeh's structures appeared from all around him, gigantic monuments to lunacy. Although their incomprehensible design and origin did not confound his bearings now as they did when he was human, there was still a stomach-twisting sense of delusion to this place. More than once he had tried to swim around something only to find he was now above it. And there were a few close calls. Several times he had almost bumped into them, but quick reflexes had saved him. Beast Boy couldn’t say precisely why, but something told him he should not touch those oozing green gravestones. Not safe.
Suddenly the shark felt a tug against his back. It would seem he had gone as far as the gel-line could allow. Time to rejoin the others, with nothing good to report. He turned about, crestfallen, and began to retrace the line. R'lyeh's buildings loomed in eerie silence above and below him.
So much for the underwater hero, he thought. I could search forever and still not find her.
What if you really can't find her?
What if you never get a chance to make her laugh, or play at getting a reaction from her, or catch her scent as she walked by...
Beast Boy froze. Her scent. Had he just...?
The shark swiveled about, striving for another bit of something real. Had he just imagined it?
No, there it was again!
Excitement gripped him. Beast Boy fixed on that smell, so slight, where was it coming from?
There! He found it, caught the trail. More intoxicating than blood to this nose, it was definitely Raven. He was on the scent now. Close, really close. One building's glowing, shifting outline stood out to him now. As he drew near it, he could make out more. Coming from one slimy patch was the aroma that taunted him. Raven must have brushed against it. Eagerly the shape-shifter swam towards his target. He was no longer using his eyes, and that seemed to help. The tower, whose dimensions and walls seemed to fold in on themselves, was still a good ways off, but he never lost track of it, he was going to find it!
And then it was like the building jumped straight at him, and Beast Boy crashed into it head-on.
His skin touched the slime, and he screamed.
Already at the ship, Aqualad heard it.
Beast Boy! he called. What's wrong?
The shrieking in his mind only intensified. Quickly he depressed a button on his belt, keying in the code to begin retracting the lines. The ship responded, and Beast Boy's line, stretched taut, started to reel him in.
Aqualad swam out along the other gel-line. His teammate's mental cries had degenerated into an animal howling, totally unlike the usual subtle spike of his thoughts. The Atlantean continued to strain his vision for some glimpse of his friend and his predicament, but the oppressive environment of R'lyeh blocked his vision.
Then from over a ridged dome it shot into view, a sight that made Aqualad blanch.
Something huge was hanging onto the end of the line.
Beast Boy's screams pounded into his head, an unceasing note of horror. The creature that had him was enormous, over thirty feet long. Its body was flowing, distorting into shapes more chilling and unearthly by the moment. Arms and limbs, both large and small, sprouting everywhere, he couldn't tell one end from the other, it moved about too much. Aqualad surged to the attack, not certain how to win but knowing he must save his friend from this evil green...
And then it occurred to him.
The gel-tag retreated past him, dragging the creature along with it. As it went by, time seemed to slow, and Aqualad could see so much more. The bubbling, growing skin, twisting coils that spread in aimless routes, and vestigial sprouting of great fins or what could be wings. This much he saw, and more.
He knew that it was Beast Boy.
Quickly the aquatic hero swept after it. His choices were few. On the one hand he could cut the line, but to do so might risk losing his friend forever in R'lyeh. Bad enough with only one of them. However, to let the afflicted polymorph get close to the ship in this condition was to risk him hurting the others with his wild flailings. If only he knew what had caused this transformation. But Beast Boy was in no condition to tell him.
Aqualad fought down the paralyzing horror that threatened to engulf his mind. He was the only one with a hope of saving his fellow Titan now. With that, the marine teen called on the water all around him. It responded sluggishly, pushing him forward. Propelled by the sea itself, he split the dark liquid before him, reaching his struggling target in seconds.
Beast Boy, he called. I'm here to help you.
The other mind continued its wild contortions, no response evident in its cries.
Aqualad dove in regardless. He located what he assumed to be Beast Boy's head, a great swaying gelatinous sack from which tentacles writhed. Dodging their frenzied dance, he approached. His telepathy worked best at close range. If he could pierce Beast Boy's pained thoughts, maybe he could bring his friend back to a state in which he could help...
Something caught his eye. Another turn of the thing's head and...
Yes! There, at the front of what now passed for a face there was a glowing blot of something, standing out against the monster's dull skin. It was from here that ripples could be seen emerging, traveling back under the flesh, causing it to change.
Aqualad wasted no time. He swung out both arms, summoned a swirling tunnel of water about both fists and sent them slamming into that one spot, wiping every last trace of the R'lyean protoplasm from his teammate's features.
Instantly the body went limp. It began shrinking in on itself. The guttural groans died out. They were in view of the Breaker now, and Aqualad pushed them forward in a wall of water. He had to move fast. Chances were that when this effect disappeared, Beast Boy would automatically become human again. If not back in the ship, at these depths, this temperature, he would die in seconds.
If not already.
Aqualad detached his line and grabbed hold of the other one. Together they shot towards the entry hatch. Reaching it, he keyed it open, and then gave a mighty yank on the gel-line, reeling his friend in. The form on its end was now less than ten feet across and becoming distinctly human. As it drew closer, Aqualad grabbed hold and pulled it in after him, shutting the hatch behind them. He punched a panel, and the water began to drain out through several grates.
In his arms he now held a shuddering Beast Boy, eyes shut tight and blood spilling from his ears and nose. The sea prince didn’t wait for the room to drain completely. He shoved open the door, letting a small flood spill out to drench the feet of the other Titans, who waited anxiously at the door.
“Beast Boy!” Starfire cried, and rushed to take him in her arms.
“What happened?” Robin demanded.
“I’m not sure. Put him over on the table for now. Cyborg,” Aqualad turned to the metallic powerhouse. “There’s a first aid kit under the…”
“Already found it, man.” The mech-tech moved past him calmly. “I looked around for it just in case something happened to you guys.” He sloshed over to the sitting area, where Starfire had gently laid Beast Boy. The small superhero was curled in on himself, trembling like a frightened animal. He inhaled and exhaled in brief starts through his teeth, all the while keeping his face covered. Cyborg opened the case, withdrew a small purple pad. “I checked your computer records on this. It’s a tranquilizer, right? Designed to return a body to a more relaxed pace?”
“Yes,” Aqualad agreed. “But are you sure that’s what he needs?”
“His muscles are frozen up, and his heartbeat’s a mile a minute.” He tapped the metal side of his head in explanation. “Sure wish you had an oxygen tank, but I suppose you folks don’t set stock in those.”
“No, we don’t,” Aqualad sighed.
Cyborg attached the pad to the side of his best friend’s neck while the others looked on in concern. Slowly the purple color began to fade, the chemicals absorbing into his bloodstream. In moments, Beast Boy’s convulsions had subsided considerably, and his breathing returned to a relaxed pace. The others exhaled in relief.
Cyborg sat down heavily. “I think that helped. We should let him rest.” He swallowed, his throat suddenly feeling very dry. It occurred to him that his friend had just come very close to dying, and the thought seemed to be encouraging his body to its closed approximation of a panic attack. He shut his eyes, put his head between his legs and took slow, even breaths.
Everyone was drawn about the table now. Starfire stroked Beast Boy’s sodden hair gently, her face making no attempt to hide her sorrow. Across from her, Robin looked up from his exhausted teammate.
“What happened?” he repeated softly.
Aqualad shook his head. “I think he touched something out there. Whatever it was, it started to transform him into a monster. I managed to get it off him, but that’s all.”
Silence reigned. Then Starfire looked up. “And Raven?”
Aqualad continued to watch the verdant polymorph breath. “No trace.”
Cyborg covered his face with one hand. “I’m feeling sick.”
“What can we do?” the Tameranean asked.
Arms crossed resolutely, Robin looked up. “We can’t stop looking. But right now, we have to tend to…”
Startled, they all looked down. Beast Boy’s eyes were open.
“Iss… issa beast,” he slurred.
They all shouted, relieved. Clustering about the table, they peered anxiously at him. The young Titan stirred and began to move. Robin reached out, plainly worried. “Don’t try to get up,” he insisted. “We don’t know if…”
“It’s a beast.” The green changeling sat up. He began to shake, and wrapped his arms around himself. “I touched it,” he whispered. “It’s all over the place, and part of it’s still dead but most of it…” He hunched his head down, as another tremor wracked him. “We,” he hiccuped. “We gotta get out of here. We can’t, we…can’t…”
His jaws clamped shut, and his face clenched like he was in pain. Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes to trickle down his cheeks. There was something new there. He almost looked like he was angry.
“We can’t leave her.” His eyes came open, full of hurt and tears. “Not with that. I’d rather be dead than do that.”
The other Titans stood amazed by the intensity of this boy’s words.
Cyborg looked up towards the ceiling. “We gotta do it. I don’t know how but we got… to…”
His voice trailed off.
“Oh man,” he whispered.
Everyone, Beast Boy included, followed his gaze. After that, no one moved.
Through the observation windows, vast multitudes of creatures could be seen swimming past the ship. They seemed humanoid, but at the distance they remained it was hard to tell. Yet they swam relentlessly on, thousands of them, maybe millions. And they paid no attention to the five pairs of eyes far below.
“It’s them,” Aqualad whispered. “The Deep Ones. The people of R’lyeh.”
“Where are they going?” Robin wondered.
“To him.” Beast Boy dropped his eyes with a shiver. “They’re going to where he is.”
“Then we have to follow them.” Aqualad stalked over to the controls and powered up the Deep Breaker’s engines. “There’s no doubt that Raven will be with them.”
The ship moved forward, lights remaining off. It followed beneath the limitless swell of bodies high above, or below them. The prince remained at the head of the bridge, occasionally glancing up to confirm their position.
Then a wall loomed out of nowhere before them. He banked steeply to one side. Upon righting the vessel, Aqualad immediately checked the position of the swarm. His eyes widened.
The R’lyeans were gone.
“How…?!” he gasped.
“What gives!!” Cyborg bellowed. “They were there just a second ago!”
“They filled the whole ocean!” Robin swore angrily. “How could they just vanish?”
“It is the city.” Starfire’s shoulders slumped disconsolately. “It has tricked us yet again.”
“Go back!” Cyborg yelled. “Go back to where we just were!”
Aqualad complied, reversing their course. In a few seconds, they had returned to their previous position. At least it seemed that way. But the buildings around them were all different. And no host of water-men greeted their eyes.
Their pilot slumped in his seat. He had been defeated again. R’lyeh had won.
Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he found Beast Boy at his side.
“Go straight, then up,” he said softly. “I’ll tell you when to change course.”
Robin came up behind them. “Beast Boy, do you know where they are?”
“No.” The master of forms stared out the window. “But I know where I don’t want to be, and that’s where they’re going.”
They didn’t argue. They didn’t have time.
All knew at once. Something grand was about to happen. Not the Rising, that was yet some time off. But an offering. That was rare lately. Great C’thulhu would accept a being into its presence. All must come to sing its praises. And they did.
From all over R’lyeh, the Deep Ones came, Unizue included. She brought with her Raven.
-We go to where almighty C’thulhu sleeps- she crooned while casting another spell about Raven, enabling her to withstand the ocean’s climate and breathe it as air. –I had hoped to spend more time with you, Raven. But every moment I delay is a moment where you are not bathed in His light. And I will not deprive you of this-
She wrapped her unfeeling fingers around the half-breed’s helpless form. –Since you still do not understand, I cannot teleport. We must go the long way. Unless, of course, you have accepted knowledge of the blessing you must receive?-
Raven’s eyes flashed with deadly fire, and C’thulhu’s Unizue moaned.
Then the entire room they were in vanished, and both sorceresses of Azerath found themselves in a great mob of Deep Ones. Raven shrank from their vicinity, but they did not draw close. All eyes gazed fixedly ahead, into the darkest reaches of R’lyeh, of which the city’s weird glow was unable or unwilling to penetrate.
They moved on, and Raven thought. She thought about death, and suicide, which was no longer even an option open to her. She considered fighting. But her powers were caged by something older than demons, fashioned by someone who knew her too well. She thought about friends, and hoped they would never learn how she came to her end.
I’m resigned to this already, she thought. Not much of a surprise. The world will be safer without me. Let my Father take it up with C’thulhu, if he dares. And my friends will live, free from the prophesied rule of a Demon King. It’s better this way.
Yes, better, another part of her sneered. Better this way. Now they can bow to an Insane Alien Beast-God instead. They’ll certainly get the better deal out of that.
A flash of anger, and for once nothing was destroyed as a result. How ironic, when there was not a single thing here worth saving. Not even yourself, her inner voice chided.
Raven bit down on the cords, chewing furiously. If I am totally, brutally honest with myself, she thought, I must admit that I don’t want to die. And it was true. Maybe once that might not have been the case. But here and now, surrounded by all these horrors, Raven did not find any value in giving up. She wanted to attack, to fight back. Prevent this evil from ever being unleashed on the world. That was how she had chosen to live. Protect this planet from the dark powers that sought to ravage its inhabitants’ hearts and souls. She was a hero now. It was her mission to save as many people as she could.
Raven glanced up at Unizue.
Even if they didn’t want it.
Around them, spaces began to appear among the tightly packed R’lyean throng. Puzzled at first, Raven quickly realized that some of them were simply stopping where they were, to float there quietly. This occurred more and more, until finally, the crowd had thinned enough for Raven to actually make out their surroundings.
It was empty. At least of buildings. The Deep Ones filled what remained. Faintly beyond them, Raven could make out the colossal monuments of R’lyeh. They were in a cleared space, possibly the very heart of this corrupt city.
Then the demon’s daughter looked ahead, and she
realized it was not entirely bereft of temples. One lone tower occupied this
spot, a solitary mountain of alien design, and it was towards this that Unizue
bore her. The height of this sister to
They were alone now, and rising. Raven began to perceive some peak to the column, and fought all the harder. If her attempts were in vain, then at least she made the effort.
The pair crested the top, floating on the edge of a plateau that stretched hundreds of feet in diameter. There were grooves worked into it, but in this position they seemed to have no function.
-Only a while longer, Raven. Until the last have come. I apologize, but we must consider them-
Let me go, Unizue, Raven thought. Come home with me. I can still save you.
But the alien spell-caster did not respond. She only waited, holding tightly to her captive.
The demon-girl looked up at her friend. The form she had come to cherish had been grievously mangled into a pitiful semblance of another being. The mind that had offered her solace and understanding had become warped beyond her comprehension. And the soul she had risked so much to save was now the property of an interstellar monster.
I will save my friend. I will.
-It is time-
“STOP!” Beast Boy cried, and Aqualad responded immediately.
All the Titans gathered to stare speechlessly out the view-port. What they were looking on made them sick.
It appeared to be the back view of a great, drifting mass of flesh, composed of the creatures they had seen before. A vast wall of identical freaks of nature.
Cyborg shook his head. “Never a break. How can we find Raven in all of that?”
“A goldfish in an eel’s nest,” Aqualad muttered.
They all looked at Beast Boy.
“Go up,” he insisted, staring straight ahead. “We’re still not there yet, it’s farther in.” His face was a school in terror. “We have to get below them, so go up.”
Robin nodded. “We’ve gotten this far. Once we find Raven we can start thinking of a way to deal with all that.”
Without even a sound of warning, the top of the pillar split. Raven stared. It didn’t appear as if the stone was retreating, but like the opening was growing, spreading, undoing anything it came into contact with. Until at last Raven hung over the void itself.
It was black. The total absence of light, and Raven found it hard to look down into it. The emptiness pulled at her eyes, like it wanted to swallow her. Raven wrenched her head aside. Was it a black hole down there? Was that what held C’thulhu imprisoned? Maybe it was the only thing that could…
-Not imprisoned- C’thulhu’s Unizue sang rapturously. -Preserved. Awaiting the right time and space to arise in, and bring us all into His glory- Long flat fingers clutched around the girl, and then brought her up to stare into the alien’s dreaming eyes.
The Deep Ones began to sing. It carried underwater, until it was like they were floating in the song itself. Raven groaned. In her mind, the song was horrible. Here in the real world, it was less damaging, but to hear, really hear, was somehow like blasphemy. Like it was a death threat made to the universe and everything in it. And these creatures shaped those words that held no meaning for anyone but themselves.
C’thulhu fhtagn, they slobbered. Sh’nblq tur lvub inha I utack gurntsla. I’a! I’a! C’thulhu fhtagn.
It continued. Senseless. Offensive. Powerful. Millions of voices raised in opposing song. They made no attempts to synchronize, only shouted the guttural mouthings as fast as they were able. But they all said the same thing, that much was clear. The sound pressed tight around them.
Unizue drew her close, pressing their bodies together. She brought her fingers up to stroke Raven’s hair gently.
-Whatever discomfort you feel right now, Raven, it will pass. Ah, how I wish I could go with you, to see the very face of C’thulhu, and to bestow myself upon Him as you will. Boundless rapture, Raven. But I will wait, for the city to rise again, though it is hard-
Floating out over the abyss’ center, she held Raven up, and then let her go. Unable to move, Raven began to sink down under her own weight.
-Go on, Raven- Unizue called. –I will meet you when the time is right-
Slowly the girl plummeted into darkness.
She thought about her home, and her mother and friends. She said goodbye to them all.
And lastly, she said goodbye to the only man to show her love.
Kultuq, I’m so sorry.
“It’s there,” Beast Boy choked. “Right below us, I can feel it.”
“There’s fewer of them around the top, er, bottom.” Aqualad’s fingers danced over the liquid crystal controls. “If I angle it right, I think I can get a view of what’s down there.”
On the screen before them, the Titans could see what lay directly beneath their position. The image focused in, moving past the milling R’lyeans.
“I see something!” Robin whispered. “There!” He jabbed his finger at a spot. “Zoom in there!”
Aqualad obeyed. The image moved past the last ring of Deep Ones, Atlantean technology picking up on far fainter lights than any on dry land.
And then before the Titans was revealed a great circular stone disc, with an image of an octopoid face emblazoned on it.
“This is it,” the sea-diver whispered in unwilling fascination. “C’thulhu’s Tomb.”
“RAVEN!!!” Starfire cried and flew up to the screen. Startled, they all trained their eyes on the spot where she hung. Aqualad scrambled with the controls, bringing that image into the center and enhancing it.
Filling the ship’s forecastle now was a top-view of a weirdly structured figure, more bizarre than the other R’lyeans. And tucked under one of its arms struggled a very familiar cloak.
“YAHOO!” Cyborg roared.
Robin leapt into the air, fist pumping. “Yes!” he exulted. “We found her.”
Starfire was crying with relief, and Aqualad swept back his hair with both hands, sighing happily.
Only Beast Boy made no outcry.
“All right,” Cyborg beamed hugely. “We found her. Any ideas on how to get her away from all that?”
“A frontal assault would not be wise.” The princess of Tameran sank down, eyes still locked on the sight of her friend. “We cannot hope to defeat them all.”
“We’ll take the time to prepare a strategy,” Robin announced. “Aqualad, anything you know about these creatures would be of help.”
“There’s not much information on them,” the princely Titan answered. “They worship C’thulhu and want to see him rise. Beyond that there might not be much.”
“It’s started,” Beast Boy said quietly.
Robin glanced sharply at him. “What has?”
The multi-species’ face was grim. “The song.”
Everyone paused to listen. They heard noises now through the ship’s hull. A rumbling, pulsing murmur that lacked a beat or syncopation.
“You call that a song?” Cyborg hazarded.
“Look!” Beast Boy hissed.
Onscreen, something was happening. Aqualad zoomed out, and then they could all see clearly. The stone disc was disappearing, revealing a hole into absolutely nothing over which Raven and her captor were now clearly visible. Beast Boy cringed.
“That thing is waiting in there. And they’re going to sacrifice Raven to it.”
As his teammates gaped in horror, their comrade turned and walked to the exit hatch. Spying this, Robin pulled himself together and ran to join him.
“Beast Boy, what are you doing?”
Beast Boy pressed a pad, and the hatch cycled open.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said, and Robin was surprised at the deadly seriousness he saw in his friend’s usually carefree features. “I’m gonna give ‘em what they want, so we can get what we want.”
“How?” the Titans’ leader pressed.
Beast Boy stepped into the portal. “Don’t worry. I can handle it. Just be ready to run as soon as we get back.”
With that, the door closed behind him.
A few seconds later, a small green piranha tore down towards R’lyeh’s heart.
Raven couldn't actually see if she was descending. But she could feel something, down there. Unizue's binding spell had not deprived her of her ability to sense danger. Mores the pity. It would come in time. And Raven's most fervent wish right now was that she die in the next few seconds. She knew that she should really shut her eyes, didn't want to see what lay in store for her. But something, a perverse curiosity perhaps, kept them open. She had always been an iconoclast, living outside the bounds of normal society, whether by force or by choice. Why should now be any different?
Because I don't want to die, she thought.
And there in the ocean, she began to cry.
The tears melted away unseen, but the fear and sadness that produced them were real all the same. At last, in the darkness, the girl who had spent most of her life fighting off her emotions finally succumbed to them. Free to do so, by the gift of the friend who had sent her to her death. Raven sobbed miserably.
Unizue, how could you?
Something swished by her, and Raven paused in the midst of her pain. What was it?
Then a scream sounded, and before Raven could realize it was not her own, a vast fist reached up from the void and grabbed hold of her.
Unizue sang with the others as she watched Raven fall. She gave her exultation full throat, so consumed by the rapture she felt for her friend's immortal honor. There was nothing more splendid than to know the will of C'thulhu.
When a small green shape darted past her, Unizue barely registered it. But she did. And even in her exuberance, a small part of her thoughts directed her eye-globe to focus down into the pit, to try and determine what it might have been.
Should she investigate? Did she dare to enter those sacred depths? Perhaps this too was C'thulhu's will...
And even as she thought it she knew it was true. So C'thulhu's Unizue dipped her legs below the rim of the pit.
She was flung back, as something erupted into the city proper.
As one, every last Deep One broke off their song.
Unizue's mind could scarcely believe what her light globe was telling her.
From out of the tower came her dreams.
C'thulhu had arisen.
She was numb. The fear of death Raven had allowed herself was completely gone. Her mind was empty of emotion.
Azerath Metrion Zinthos. Azerath Metrion Zinthos.
Over and over she chanted. It was her ingrained reaction, and she saw no reason to fight it. Terror was not one of the emotions she had desired to experience to any great extent.
Her eyes stayed closed, but she knew that she had been thrust back into the ocean's depths when the Deep One's own mantra came to a halt. Being divorced from her feelings, Raven could take no satisfaction from their surprise. She only wished she could. But her own remorse was there.
I caused this, she thought calmly. I came here heedlessly, and somehow my doing so has caused C'thulhu to awaken and be released.
It was all over now. Her friends, her world, they would all be destroyed. And she was to blame. The least she could do was subject herself to the same horror they were going to experience.
So Raven opened her eyes, to find her suspicions confirmed.
She was in the grip of C'thulhu.
Before the calm of her meditation could vanish in its entirety, Raven deliberately took the time to study the creature she had unleashed. The demon-god of R'lyeh was titanic. Spawn of some unknown alien star it may be, but the monster had certain familiar features. It had arms, for instance, and legs. Even a head. However beyond that there was nothing. Everything about it was in a state of flux. Its skin shifted from green to black. The eyes were unmoored, and they roamed about the bubbling face, seemingly without intention of stopping. Its tentacle-encrusted mouth sprouted and retracted new appendages with every breath. Beneath the skin were constant convulsions, throwing up another arm here, a wing there. Apparently C'thulhu had difficulty staying in one set form, which made sense. After all, he was mad. It just made sense.
And this gruesome menagerie of form carried her up, past its now wildly howling minions who were rendered mad with joy, towards the world it would soon deprive of sanity.
Raven looked down at Unizue far below her, and her last flicker of self-control melted.
I hope you're happy.
And she drew breath to scream.
C'thulhu swam up, leaving its servants groveling and worshiping in its wake.
C'thulhu's Unizue paused.
It took every drop of control Aqualad possessed not to fire on the thing as it swept up towards them with ocean-rending force. The shock alone could not prevent him from making the connection, realizing that he had seen this before, and the tremendous sacrifice Beast Boy was making for them. Putting himself back in that tortured form on purpose… it left him awed.
The creature swam past. And Aqualad followed them both. Towards freedom.
Up and out, past the bounds of R’lyeh. Trailing in its wake, remembering at the last second to paralyze the members of the 17th battalion who rushed at them.
Until they made it out safe.
She told him to stop, let go. They were safe now. He could let it go.
But the pain was so intense she couldn’t reach him. In the end, it was too much. Beast Boy suddenly blacked out only a hundred feet from the surface. The proto-C’thulhu form shifted back into an unconscious green-skinned boy. And Raven was still bound.
Together they both began to sink.
For about two seconds. Then the Deep Breaker rose, and they landed on its hull. It bore them swiftly to the surface.
Raven drew a deep gasp. Unizue’s water-breathing
enchantment broke on contact with the air. Her eyes were momentarily blinded by
“Beast Boy!!” she cried. Looking around, she saw him just a few feet away, on his back. No way to tell if he was alive. So still. Frantically the sorceress tried to crawl over to him, but the viscous strands held her yet.
“Let’s get you out of those,” a familiar voice said. Then she was hoisted on her feet. There was a metallic whir, and the ties fell away from her in pieces.
She turned to find a grinning Cyborg behind her.
“S’up, Dark Girl?”
In response, Raven threw her arms around his neck and hugged him, too overwhelmed to speak. He returned the favor gladly. A few more minutes and she would have been dead. Cyborg didn’t know if he could have lived with that. But they had made it in time. She was safe.
Then Raven let go. She dropped and turned to see Starfire, Robin and Aqualad kneeling around Beast Boy, and she rushed over to them.
“Move!” Raven commanded. They did, and she fell by the limp form. Closing her eyes, she brought her palms together. Get yourself under control! Her hands were now glowing in a blue light, and she placed them on her savior’s chest. He coughed, and some water came up. That done, Raven attended to the injuries. It was heartbreaking how much damage the little changeling had suffered by assuming that shape once in his life, much less twice. But Raven was not to be balked by anything. She threw herself into the healing as she never had before, fought tooth and nail to find and repair everything that was wrong.
Finally, her hands fell back into her lap. She had done all she could.
Before her, Beast Boy lay unmoving.
The wind blew all around her, rustling her wet hair.
“I beg you,” she spoke in a soft, pleading whisper. “Wake up.”
And the green boy gave a snort. His eyelids slid up, and he focused on her face. A slow grin came to his lips. “I saved you,” he murmured.
“Yes,” Raven almost sobbed. “You did.”
He winced, and closed his eyes. “Shoot me if I ever try that again.”
And he fell asleep.
Raven reached out and stroked his cheek. “I will.”
She looked up to find Robin standing above her. Cyborg, Starfire, and Aqualad gathered around.
“There’s a lot we need to talk about,” the Titans’ leader spoke quietly.
She hung her head. Can’t it wait, she thought about saying? But instead, her reply was, “OK. You’re right.”
“Robin,” Starfire pleaded, but he held up a forestalling hand.
“Of course, that’s after you get some R&R.” And he grinned at her.
Raven’s lip quirked.
“Thanks.” And she meant it.
Robin smiled himself. He opened his mouth…
And a scream came out.
The inhuman sound persisted, zipping raggedly up and down in pitch. Before her Robin’s features had melted into a look of concern. His lips shaped the words, Raven, what’s wrong?
It was coming from everywhere, and Raven knew. She drew breath and shouted, “LOOK OUT!!”
Off the bow of the ship a detonation erupted, rocking the boat in its perch. The geyser of spray swept skywards as C’thulhu’s Unizue shot into the open air.
She whirled about, tentacles writhing. Spotting Raven, she flung out her arms and sprang for the mystic’s throat. The others leapt in her path, but Unizue struck them aside without hesitation. Raven surged up to face her. They collided, and the two of them disappeared with a splash into the ocean.
Raven flailed in desperation as the water filled her mouth. Unizue pulled her farther down. The piercing psychic agony continued, and she heard the voice of her first friend inside her head.
-You think to defy the will of C’thulhu? There is no hope. I will take you down to him by force if necessary. Now come into the light of all, Raven. Join us in R’lyeh-
The Teen Titan fought back. Her breath had been knocked out by Unizue’s attack, and her vision was red and cloudy, with flashes of light erupting before her eyes. Unizue’s hands on her throat, there was no time to cast a spell, consciousness dwindling.
She was dying.
And then the grip was wrenched from her neck. Sinking again, Raven looked back to see Aqualad grappling with C’thulhu’s Unizue. Up towards the light, she could make out Robin swimming down after them. The teen prince drew back a fist and smashed it into Unizue’s features, even as her legs wrapped around him and her fingers found his throat. No, not there, Raven thought weakly. It’s not really her head, just a device she uses. The rest is down in her trunk. That’s the real Unizue.
Unizue’s eyes, the now-lopsided light globes, flared with green power. With that light there came the murderous intent that only a lethal spell possessed.
No, don’t do it!
You’re a citizen of Azerath, you’re my friend! I came to save you!
The water burned and bubbled green, and Aqualad’s mouth went wide in shock.
She’s going to kill him, Raven thought as the world went dim around her.
Save your friend.
Robin pushed through the water. Aqualad was fighting for his life. Raven was sinking, out of his sight, gone. He hesitated, uncertain who was in the greater danger.
Then, from out of the shadowy pall of the ocean, a black disc came spinning, end over end, straight at the struggling pair. It hit them, and…
Passed right through, shrinking, dwindling to nothing.
For a moment, Aqualad was encased in total darkness. He pulled away frantically, swung his arms in every direction. Then it cleared.
His opponent was gone.
He didn't bother to question his good fortune. The sea-diver sped down, to where his marine-canny vision picked out Raven. Scooping her up, he shot to the surface, catching Robin on the way. The three of them burst out to land on the ship’s deck. Starfire sped over to their side while Cyborg stood protectively over the unconscious Beast Boy. “Are you injured?” the princess wailed.
On his knees, Robin managed to shake his head. “Fine,” he gasped. “I’m fine.”
He turned. Beside him, Raven was in a similar position. Head sunk low, palms splayed flat on the deck. Her body was tense and rigid.
“Raven,” he panted. “Are you…?”
“What?” Robin stared. He stretched out a hand.
And drew it back as Raven’s lips pulled away from her teeth.
“I didn’t want to!” she hissed. Clenching her fists, she banged them down on the metal hard. And then she began to pound on it wildly, swinging her arms with all her strength, her head flinging back as she cried.
“Didn’t want to I didn’t want to I DIDN’T WANT TO!!!!”
And with that shout a shaft of black demon’s fire exploded from Raven’s body and went shooting into the sky.
The demoness collapsed forward, face buried in her arms and black lightning snapping around her body in bursts.
“I didn’t…want to…”
And she began to cry.
Her enemy vanished, and C’thulhu’s Unizue hung in great confusion.
A moment later, she had analyzed what her light globe told her.
She had been teleported. By Raven!
How could that be?! She had known it was coming, and there was nowhere Raven could send her that she wanted…to…
Unizue looked about her, felt about her. And she knew where she was.
In the column.
In C’thulhu’s Tomb.
She looked down, and saw it. What Raven’s eyes could not.
The great unmoving grey hulk of C’thulhu.
-C’thulhu fhtagn- she moaned rapturously, and drifted towards it.
On C’thulhu’s face, something flickered.
A line appeared. It squirmed, spread. Then, a sharp fragmented eye slowly pushed out.
-Mighty C’thulhu- she managed.
It focused on her.
–I… I am…C’thulhu’s Unizu…-
A beam of green light sprang out from the eye, ripping a swath through reality itself. It engulfed Unizue. The world exploded all around her. Matter twisted, reeled. In that light was all manner of contortions and dividing, at stark contrast to the solid reality that existed right outside its edges. Like a hole torn out of the universe, to reveal some other realm beneath. The mind of C’thulhu’s Unizue expanded. And then it burst, leaving her gibbering with delight. Her body twisted and lost shape under the influence of the light. It separated into many different existences. Around and around they went in the vortex of chaos. Atoms screamed and died, lost their form and became energy, and then something altogether unlike itself.
The eye pulled back in. The pieces of Unizue began to lengthen and twirl, spiraling down to be pulled into the source of the light. It took her, all of her. And shut.
Once more, there was only darkness.
Still asleep, C’thulhu waited.
It waited to dream.
The boat docked, and they all clambered out. Wordlessly
the Teen Titans trooped up to
Sitting on their doorstep was Vandal Savage.
He stood up as they approached, his eyes seeking out Raven. Leaning on Cyborg for support, she avoided his gaze and chose to simply walk on by. Too much had happened to tell right now.
The doors closed, leaving him to stand alone.
The doors opened, and a man walked through. Dressed completely in white, his head obscured by a conical helm, he sauntered across the room. Over to one side, a young Oriental woman reclined on a couch, scanning the latest fashion designs on her cell phone. She did not look up at his entrance. At the other end, on a large display of flat-panel screens, a video was playing. The same one that had been going when he left.
The bleached figure halted by a chair in front of the screens.
“This flick any better the 200th time around?” the white man drawled.
The figure sitting in the chair made no reply. But in a dark corner of the room, something stretched and hissed at him.
“I mean, no offense or anything, boss man, but, are we gonna get started already?”
In response, the silent watcher reached out and pressed a button. The images rewound onscreen. He pressed play, and it started exactly where he wanted it to.
“We have to stop Raven, and it might already be too late!”
With a disgusted sound, the ghostly figure turned and stalked out, muttering to himself about obsessive-compulsives and passive-aggressives.
“…dammit, she’s on her way to R’lyeh!”
Slade swiveled about in his chair, and stood up.
“I think this calls for further investigation.”
To be continued…