He was going to kill her.
In the home of Vandal Savage, with the man himself standing there clutching a carving knife, Raven reached for the clasp on her cloak. She was ready to activate it, to bring her friends rushing to her aid while preparing herself for the imminent attack.
But instead, Savage turned his back on her.
And began to slice a jelly roll.
Outside, the sun was making its final appearance for the day. Twilight's calm was lengthening. Night fell, and shadows began to materialize and strengthen.
A young woman faced a man she no longer understood.
Raven's heartbeat was slowing to a less hectic pace. It was only through reflex that she had not destroyed this house in a burst of magic. She was calmer now, but still very upset. In all her predictions of how this day might have went, outcomes dreadful or wonderful, she had never considered that she might find herself in mortal fear of the man who had professed to love her so openly. The man who now continued to calmly chop their dessert into portions as if nothing had happened.
Granted nothing had. But it was still frightening.
The Teen Titan shivered. The house now felt chill, devoid of warmth. Something evil had slithered into this paradise. For a moment, the only recourses that made sense were to run or attack. But now the evolved parts of her brain proceeded past instinctive responses, allowing Raven to consider her options.
She wasn't going to call her friends. Not yet, anyway. And neither was she going to turn her back on this man. First she had to figure out what had just happened here.
She had finally asked him. She had wanted to know if he recognized the name R'lyeh. And then he had pulled a knife and looked at her, his face twisted and murderous, his body coiled to spring for her throat. That he hadn't done so left her only more mistrustful. She couldn't make any sense of it on her own. And then suddenly it dawned on her.
He knew it. Savage knew the name.
This was it.
"Are you ready?"
She almost missed his words, but not their import. Raven made no response.
"I know dessert before the main course might seem antithetical," Vandal continued without pause, his knife still carefully separating the loaf into slices, "but it is a tradition. An old one. Cleanses the palette. I thought you might like it."
His voice was dead, without inflection. Like he was reading from a script. She couldn't take it anymore. "Stop trying to pretend that didn't happen."
His back stayed to her, his arm continued to rise and fall methodically. "Nothing happened."
"Enough!" Raven snapped. She was not about to let him deny this. "If you love me the way you claim to, then you will tell me why you were about to kill me."
His shoulders twitched. "I didn't..."
The knife flashed gold in the light, and with a scream he plunged it down into his hand, impaling it against the cutting board. He leaned down on the blade, bringing his weight to bear. Snarling, lips pulled away from his teeth, he snorted and gnashed inhumanly. Strange, silent curses fell from his lips as he pushed the weapon in deep.
Raven stared. Then she raised her hand, and gestured.
The knife sprang out and fell to the floor with a clatter. Kultuq's knees gave way. He crumpled against the counter, sliding down it to end in a heap on the floor. Brief, intermittent shivers stole over him. Like he was crying. Raven took the time to think about her response. And when she had done so, she crossed the kitchen and stood beside him.
His breath was short, explosive. Out and in, he held it for a long time, longer than a human should. She couldn't see his tears, but she could feel them. Kultuq made no move.
Her velvet voice broke the silence.
It was a plea. Upon hearing it, his convulsions slowly died. He was coming back to himself. Raven waited.
At last he spoke.
"Who are you?"
The best answer was a direct one. "I'm Raven."
Kultuq stirred slightly. "Where are you from?"
"I am from the free-dimension of Azerath."
Raven was afraid she knew what his next question would be.
"Who were your parents?"
She swallowed, her throat dry. "My mother was human. My father w...is..."
Her voice failed for a moment. But he was waiting. She could say this.
"He is the Demon King Trigon, ruler and prisoner of Hell."
And Kultuq let out his breath with a sigh.
"Thank the gods," he whispered.
Raven's face fell. "Come again?"
The undying man sagged over to one side, shifting and fumbling with his hands and feet until his back rested against the cabinets. Finally he looked up at her, his dark eyes glimmering with tears. "I thought you might be one of them."
Now she was utterly perplexed. "Who?"
Kultuq's tear-streaked face tightened, darkened. It worked itself into a fantastic hatred that almost drove her away from him. His voice came out in a snarl.
"The followers of C'thulhu!"
She flung herself down on him.
"Where?" she cried. Fingers clutching his shirt, she stared into the ancient features wildly. "Where is it? Where's R'lyeh?" Demon power seared through her veins like poison, but Raven didn't notice. She had been waiting too long for this. "Tell me where she is!"
The room exploded. Cupboard doors flew open, shooting pots and pans to fly about the room. Flames erupted from the stove in every direction. Wood cracked, the refrigerator tore itself from the wall to land with a deafening clamor.
It was all expended in one burst. Years of frustration and self-recrimination pouring out of her body, and Raven was so drained that she collapsed against his chest.
"Azerath Metrion Zinthos," she whispered. "Azerath Metrion Zinthos."
Over and over and over again. She had to succeed. She had to keep control. For Unizue. It was all for her. Her mantra was the only thing in the world that made sense now. It defined her. Without it she wouldn't be Raven, didn't know what she would be. Raven didn't even feel when his arms encompassed her small frame, lifting her up. When she did finally register the change, she was lying on the couch. She sat up, glaring about. Outside the house, it was night. Kultuq stood at the windows, arms crossed behind his back. When she stirred, he turned and looked at her.
There was something about him now. His stance was not the relaxed posture of before. Instead he projected strength, command. And isolation. Kultuq studied her, his brow knit in concentration.
"Is this why you have humored my advances, Raven? Because you expected to gain some knowledge from me?"
The weary young woman watched this new figure. He looked more the villain now that Robin insisted on believing he was. "I thought you might be able to help me," she replied. "I was willing to give life with you a chance. But I had to do what I came to this world for first."
He folded his arms over his chest. "Which is?"
Her hood stole back up to shadow her eyes. Raven rose, every inch the sorceress of Azerath.
"To find R'lyeh, and rescue the friend who went there."
Kultuq's eyes gleamed. He turned his back on her. "Then you have wasted your time with me. I cannot help you find R'lyeh."
"That's not true," Raven intoned. She floated across the room to stand behind him. "I've spent years searching every means available to me. And in all my time on Earth, you are the only person to recognize the name of this place. You have to tell me."
He turned and looked down at her, his face hard and menacing. "Why should I?"
Was it to be a negotiation then? Well, fine. She was through playing nice.
"Because you fell in love with me," she said calmly. His features twisted in pained scorn, but she continued. "And if you don't, then I'm leaving right now. And you will never come near me again."
His eyes widened. Raven spun about and moved towards the door. Her pace was steady and undisturbed. But inside, she was awash with doubt. Would this work? She knew so little about love, but a great deal about anger. And if Kultuq was feeling both, then which would win out? The love that had pushed him to change his life, or the hatred that had nearly caused him to take hers? Silently Raven prayed that she had gambled correctly, and wished that she knew more about emotions. Had she just ruined the only meaningful relationship she would ever know? Was it worth losing respect for herself by resorting to such a tactic? But in the face of what Kultuq had revealed, it had been the only thing she could think of, her one card to play that might convince him to help her. And if it failed...
Raven was almost to the door.
Can I really go through with this?
Her fingers touched the latch.
Do I really want to?
"You don't know what you're asking of me!"
The girl turned her head slightly, revealing skin the color of burnt-out ash. "I will if you tell me."
From across the room he stared at her, feeling a pain and fear more personal than anything he had ever known. "This is not some story to tell children. It is a part of my life and our world best forgotten if I only could." He raised his hands in surrender. "If you still insist on hearing it then I will consent. But you must be prepared to know the worst, Raven."
As her response, she floated back to him and sat down on the couch. Kultuq moved to the seat across from her. At first, he made no indication of continuing. Only stared at the floor in silence. Eyes closed, he pressed a fist against his forehead, as if trying to force back troubling memories.
And in this position, he spoke.
"I am telling you this in the hope that, once you have heard it, you will appreciate the situation more fully. And since you seem to know nothing about it, I can only pray that when you do, you will agree to drop any further exploration and never speak of it again, to anyone."
He's afraid, Raven thought with some surprise.
A groan came from Kultuq's throat. His eyes opened, focused on her. "I hate to think about this. And I've never talked about it. So bear with me, and remember that you demanded it."
Raven gave him a measuring stare. "I'm not afraid. So stop stalling and tell me."
It happened very, very slowly. Kultuq started to speak, and as he did, his whole mannerism changed. His eyes became wide, they moved erratically about the room, seeing things that were no longer there but were never truly gone. His lips quirked, and sometimes he lost the ability to speak. At one point he needed a full minute to regain control of himself.
The story he told was pure horror.
The prolonged, ecstatic sacrifice of the captives, taken in the night from their homes on the mainland and dragged to this unnamed isle. All were made to watch, and some even participate. Their corpses were thrown into the pit. Raven almost cried out when he came to the part about his turn, how the abominable throng became more excited as his body resisted all attempts to terminate it. But not without pain. The other captives were turned upon then with even greater abandon. As they continued in their depredations, more and more of them joined in, until every man, woman and child was present for the last remaining victim, savagely tearing at his limbs with their hands and teeth, howling and bleating in the cacophonous triumph of their sacred slaughter. And finally, the voice from the well called out to them, demanding, and the degenerate worshipers took up their undamaged prize and cast him screaming into their subterranean temple.
What he met, down in those macabre depths, Kultuq could not say. Nor could he explain what it was, or how it came to live, and Raven could not find it in herself to press him, not for anything. Kultuq refused to tell her what it said, what it did to him. He lost his mind down there. There was no recollection of when or how it ended. But apparently he was released, for whatever reason. Perhaps because it found that it could not kill him. Or maybe he killed it. There was no way to know. But he crawled up out of that hell, and found the islanders waiting for him. So they raised Kultuq up, and they worshiped him. And endlessly, they asked him the same questions. As his mind gradually returned, he began to understand them.
Kultuq stared down at his hands, flexing them.
"In the end, they had retained just enough humanity to
be curious. The questions they asked of me were the same. Why had the master of
the pit stopped calling them? When would the great city of
"And when," he continued in a croaking rattle, "would their great C'thulhu arise?"
And Raven remembered.
"So," the little girl fidgeted uncomfortably. "Did you learn anything?"
-Oh, no- Unizue assured her. -Not without you, Raven. I did not go there seeking anything, because you were not with me-
The two friends were alone in Raven's room, engaged in a sort of "girl-talk." Despite Raven's repeated admonitions, Unizue had finally begun to take dream-sojourns into the dimension of her Mother's birth. As of yet, the out-of-body forays had not resulted in any of the catastrophes Raven feared. Her alien companion was still in Azerath, and they were still very close. But anything having to do with her native home caused Trigon's daughter great distress, even when it didn't directly concern her. And so she had insisted that Unizue spend more time with her. To this, the eclectic wanderer had agreed without a qualm.
"You're sure that nothing bad happened?" She pressed the other sorceress. Unizue only fluttered her tongues dismissively.
-I faced more threat from the inhabitants of the Dreaming than I did from the dreams of your people. They are not so fearsome as the other planets I visited earlier. Pay it no heed-
Raven fell back on her bed with a loud groan. "Dreams are bad news, Unizue."
Unizue made a keening sigh and shuffled closer. Reaching out an arm, she began to tease Raven's hair. It was something she did whenever her teacher went into a sulk. -You are distressed with me-
"No, it's not you." Raven drew her chin up to her knees and stared moodily at nothing. "Can we talk about something other than me?" The girl turned and looked up at her student. "Did you get to see a giraffe?"
-Yes- Unizue trilled. -It was most bizarre. It thought of me only as 'tree.' Do you know what it meant, Raven?-
"Kind of. I think my Mother would know more than me. You should probably ask her."
-Humm- Unizue mused. They sat there for a time, the peace of Azerath around them. Sometimes Raven wondered whether this dimension might just force everybody who came here to be calm and quiet. Like you just couldn't resist. If so, maybe if she stayed here long enough, Azerath's magic would just suck all the violence out of her, and she could go anywhere she pleased without fear of the results.
Delicate fingers still combed through her hair abstractedly, and she was starting to feel a little sleepy.
-Do you know of something called Urr-lee-eh?-
Raven frowned to herself. "That's a really ugly word. Where did you hear it?"
-In the dreams- Unizue murmured. -The dreams of your world. As I was leaving, I thought I heard a song, but in a language I had never known. Still, I could almost understand it-
The little dreamer closed her eyes and settled back against her friend's body. "I don't know. Mother says that there are lots of languages where she comes from. She might know it."
-I might ask her, then- Unizue sighed. -It was such a mysterious song, but it seemed to be an answer to its own question-
"Weird," Raven mumbled, feeling very calm and heavy. She knew that she could go to sleep now. They had already had dinner, and Mother was at her prayers. It was still a little early, but when you feel tired, you might as well. Raven began to drift off, and as she did, she heard Unizue speak.
-Perhaps I will search for that song on my next visit. I would like for us to know more about it-
Just don't leave me, Raven thought. And with that in mind, she slept.
A tingle passed up Raven's spine. "What is...?"
"HSST!" He cut her off with a sweep of his arm. "Never say its name! I don't want to hear you speak that vile word!"
His voice was harsh, lips twisted with disgust. Raven was shocked at the sheer violence of his emotions. The name inspired such deep-rooted hatred in this man.
"It is a beast."
voice caused her to start. He brought his face up to meet hers. It was hunted,
fearful, filled with memories that he clearly wished to forget but never could.
"A monster, not of this world. It came from the stars
ages past, invaded the primordial planet. The creatures that lived in the
civilizations before the dinosaurs were its first victims. They fell
slave to its will, its damnable song. They worshiped it under the light of the
young stars, and in the twisted streets of the capital it brought with it. The city of
Her blood ran cold, but her heart was racing with excitement. At last! After all these years, the truth was finally revealed, and she had her answer. Yet more questions arose.
"Where is it now?" she pressed him.
And Kultuq smiled grimly.
"It died, Raven. C'thulhu went into death, its worshipers died out, and its city was lost. But that was not the end!"
Raven leaned forward in fascination. She found herself entranced, like a child sitting at her parent's feet, listening to a story.
"When the race of man rose to take the reins of our world, some of them began to have dreams. And in dreams, they learned the name of C'thulhu. For the monster didn't really die! Even death cannot finish it, at least not forever. Its body lies in its tomb, but still it speaks to us. And so humans came to crave the power of the ancient beast-god. They built it altars upon which they made sacrifices. Touched by its mind, they all went mad, and they slew their fellows regardless of kin-closeness. And they waited! They learned of patience, were told of a time when they might meet the master. For this is not the first time C'thulhu has perished. At other times, when whatever unfathomable cycle of madness by which it lives has drawn to a close, the beast dies. But like a damned phoenix, it always, always, ALWAYS returns! And it will, Raven! One day you will be sitting down to breakfast, just like any other. And you will never know that today will be your last day alive and sane. For C'thulhu will rise. It will step forth from its city, and cast its mind out to drag us all into an eternal hell that will forever seal the fate of our world. And when it leaves, it will take us with it, to careen madly through the stars, until it finds another world to desecrate. Trigon the Terrible!" He spit contemptuously. "Pah! A mere bogeyman. His foretold ascension will come and go, none of us will notice! Trigon does not dare to venture into our world, because he knows what is here, and he wants no part of it. Even demons will not tempt the gruesome fate that awaits us."
"Rest easy on that score, Raven," he continued. "I know the prophecies, and they are without fear for me. Your father will not risk becoming C'thulhu's slave. Our human world is nothing more than the iridescent sheen on a soap bubble, and when it bursts the nothingness that lives within will come spilling out to profane the universe with its lunacy." He slumped forward, head hung low. "And when it happens, I will be there to see it. On that day I will rejoin the race of man, and share in their terror and pain. We are all of us just squatting in C'thulhu's shadow." He grew silent, finished. Run out of breath, or hope.
Raven sat quietly before him. There was no doubting that he believed every world of what he said. Kultuq had accepted the promise of a horrible doom. She knew exactly how that felt. The young super-heroine drew a breath of cold air.
But she also knew what it meant to find other reasons to live. She had come to Earth, in defiance of the prophecy of her birth. And she had done so with full knowledge of the consequences, for her and the rest of the universe. Raven had done it regardless. Because more than she feared her destiny, she loved her friends. And right now, the person who had been her only friend and companion when she needed it the most was trapped on this world. It was time to set her free.
Raven stood up. "Tell me where it is."
Still hunched over, Kultuq emitted an empty chuckle.
"You don't understand, Raven. Your friend is lost. If they answered C'thulhu's call, then they are dead to all of us. Just let it go."
"I didn't come to this world," the half-demon retorted firmly, "risk all our lives and break every promise I made to myself just to give up in the face of some dead god. Now where is R'lyeh?"
"Just go, Raven," Kultuq waived his hand dismissively. "Go from here, from this world. Return to your Azerath, and live. Forget about C'thulhu, and all of us. We are already dead. Only you can carry on for our dreams, in exile."
She strode forward, grabbed him roughly by the chin and jerked his head up to face her. "You can say anything you want, try anything you can think of, and I still won't stop. I am going to save her, if it costs me my life. And you are going to help."
His features were slack, empty. The eyes held a vacant confusion, like a drunkard's. "I can't."
"Yes, you can. Just tell me where to find R'lyeh!"
"No, I can't." Voice quavering, his eyes pleaded with her. "I really can't. I don't know where it is. I've never been there. No one has, and returned to tell of it."
Raven's eyes narrowed. "Don't lie to me."
Something, a flicker of pride or anger, caused his face
to light up. "I have walked the trackless wastes of the Sahara, the frozen ice
She scowled. "The people you mentioned, who captured you. Where can I find their descendants?"
"You can't," and he laughed at the look on her face. "They had no descendants. For you see, Raven, I have already killed them."
"Yes!" he intoned with relish as she flinched from the word. "After I had recovered from my ordeals as much as I ever could, I resolved to eradicate that blasphemous horde. And I succeeded." He smiled a loathsome, self-satisfied smirk. "Your face is filled with contempt for me now, Raven. But if you knew the whole truth of this affair, you would be thanking me for that, congratulating me on doing our race, indeed our planet even, a service by expunging that ghastly lot. From infant to ancient, I slaughtered them all. And from their most learned and most depraved, I wrung the secrets of their abominable cult. I showed them pain, before I slew them. And so I gained an understanding of what it was we faced. No salvation for them, not after what they had done. For several hundred years, I made it my duty to travel the world, ridding it of every last vestige of C'thulhu's stink, his taint. They made a dire enemy in me. Now no trace of them remains. They are extinct, their line abolished. No more will dead C'thulhu find aid amongst the ranks of the living. Not while I exist. I have killed anyone who has even mentioned that name, immediately. You are the only exception, the one person I cannot bring myself to murder, not for any reason. And looking at you now, I fear that we might all come to regret my lapse."
He stood up then. "Do not seek R'lyeh, Raven. Instead live here, with me. You can make yourself happy, taste the joys of our world before it is gone forever." His hand reached up towards her face. "Forget about saving lives, and find what you can do with your own."
It was the wrong thing to say.
Without warning the room exploded around them, Raven's demonic soul flooding out to grip anything it could find. Floor panels and furniture were torn from their rests to whirl madly through the air, careening and crashing into one another, smashing to bits. And in the eye of this household hurricane, a furious Raven locked minds with an impassive Vandal Savage. For this was the man who had destroyed her every lead, every hope of saving Unizue. Through a campaign of murder, he had changed the world. Now only he remained to show her the way. And so in spite of her upbringing, and knowing to the depths of her soul that it was wrong, the daughter of darkness called on her magical and mental training to invade her would-be lover's unwilling mind.
And she failed.
Raven actually reeled back. Where once before the mind had been open, now it was immutably sealed. Never before had she encountered mental defenses of this caliber. But then again, Raven had never before attempted anything like what she had just done. Now that it was over, and with nothing to show for it, Raven was sickened by her actions. The physical manifestation of her rage had dwindled, leaving them both standing in the gutted remains of what had been an artfully constructed sanctuary. She felt guilt rising up to swallow her. The sorceress turned away, unwilling to remain at the sight of her personal failure.
Kultuq's hand gripped her arm. His fingers dug into her flesh.
Slowly Raven sought to pull herself free. Without success.
"I forgive you, Raven. Because you don't know what you are up against. This is no time for your deluded notions. You can't play the hero this time. It will kill you. Just stay here with me, and I will protect you. For the rest of my life."
He was still in love with her.
"Stay with me, Raven."
His free hand reached up, touching her cheek.
"Stay with me."
Fingers, gently stroking, caressing.
A lover's touch.
"Azerath Metrion Zinthos."
But already she was flowing through his fingers, a glowing black shadow.
"RAVEN, COME BACK!"
Her room reformed around her. In familiar surroundings, Raven flung herself onto the bed. Her face was hot with unshed tears, and she felt a scream building up. Or a sob. Either way, she couldn't let it out. Couldn't do anything. Just lie there and dwell on the enormity of her shortcomings. You're hopeless, she accused herself.
And the brave young woman curled up on her bed and began to cry.
She had only done this once before in her adult life, at the passing of her Mother. It was then that she realized what it finally meant to be alone. After making the necessary arrangements, Raven had stayed for a week in their home, never leaving. Just wandering about, remembering. And regretting. After a while, there was nothing intact left in their house. Her magic saw to that. Only after wallowing in remorse for that long had Raven resolved to set out and locate Unizue, the only person left she cared about. Perhaps it was madness brought on by her grief. But if so, it was a madness that had become a part of her, compelling Raven to disregard her lifelong duty and seek out the planet her Mother had called home. The search had brought her here.
And now it was ended.
There were no more clues left to follow. Everything had pointed to Kultuq. And thinking back, she realized that he had indeed been telling the truth. He really didn't know where R'lyeh was. She had wasted her time, and thoroughly disgraced herself in the process. If her friends ever knew, or Unizue...
Raven lay on her side, staring out the window. Night had long since fallen, and the cloudy sky overshadowed the ocean, sloping to meet each other and join at the horizon.
"Where are you?!" she whispered to her empty room.
And Raven thought.
She couldn't give up. Unizue was still alive. That much she knew in her soul. And if she had to scour the earth, Raven would find her. Even if it meant leaving all her friends behind. And Kultuq, too.
Raven, come back!!
He had sounded so frightened. Just like in the dream she had that confirmed her suspicions about him. Like in a dream.
Something occurred to her.
She stared out the window.
Slowly, she sat up.
Her eyes widened, the breath caught in her throat.
Memories rushed in on her.
Floating over a lamppost, meditating. Sitting in a boat, searching.
"I don't know where it is. I've never been there."
Dreaming of an unknown force. Bringing up an otherworldly nightmare.
"There is no land I have not been to."
An ocean of stars. Was it of the ocean, the starry sky or...?
"You could walk to the ends of the earth..."
The same presence as had been in her dream last night. When the only living human to know about C'thulhu stood not twenty feet away from her.
"...and it will not be there."
Raven leapt to the window, her mind awhirl with excitement. She pressed her face to the glass.
"Where does the earth end?" she whispered eagerly. Tears came to her eyes.
On the horizon, the darkness was starting to fade.
"The earth ends..." and the droplets fell to the floor.
"...where the sea begins!"
She felt an insane urge to just throw herself through the glass. That was it! It all made sense now. No one else knew about the city. No map had it listed, the maps that dealt with only 30% of the Earth's surface. Kultuq had said that he never set foot in the land that held R'lyeh, and he had told the truth.
"Because you're not on the land, are you?" Raven smiled, tears coursing down her face. "You're underwater."
R'lyeh was in the ocean.
And you just happen to know the Prince of Atlantis. How about that?
Desperately Kultuq raced through the house. There was nothing, nothing!! The phone lines weren't working, and the cell phone was dead. Raven's anger had destroyed any means of contacting her, or even of warning the other Titans. But he had to get through! He couldn't permit Raven to find R'lyeh, he had to stop her!
Flinging open the door to his bedroom, he searched for something, anything to send a signal.
And there, on the dresser drawer by his keys, he saw the beeper.
Kultuq snatched it up, thumbed it on, and froze.
He didn't know the Titans' number! Didn't even know if they had a number.
He had never bothered to ask.
With a scream, Kultuq snatched up the keys, turned and leapt out the window. Alarms began to blare. He landed, rolled to his feet and sprinted for the garage. The garage door opener did its work, and he dove underneath it. Kultuq lunged into the sports car and keyed it on. He didn't even wait for the door to clear, just slammed on the gas, ducking as the windshield was smashed to pieces and peeling out the driveway.
Even evading the police, it took him over an hour to reach the docks.
In twenty minutes he had anchored the yacht, and was
pounding on the door to
But no one came.
In the end, teleporting from surface to ocean depths is a lot like moving between dimensions. You're not just stepping from one room into another. You have to take into consideration the shift in environment with regards to your body. For Raven, this meant adjusting her temperature, density, and internal pressures to keep from developing nitrogen blood bubbles right before her heart exploded. It paid to look her best. She was meeting royalty, after all.
Even if his home did look more like a hermit's grotto.
10,000 leagues deep in the
She gave a small jerk, whirling about.
From a dark side cavern emerged a tall, slender young man with permanently slicked-back hair and pure black eyes. His smile was honest and disarming. Raven already knew the effect this scale-clad warrior had on her, but she was unprepared for it every time.
"Aqualad. Hi." Just a little tongue-tied.
The teen hero and future ruler of Atlantis walked up to her, his grin growing even bigger. Raven was reminded of Kultuq, but swiftly pushed such thoughts aside. She couldn't afford to let anything deter her now.
"This is a pleasant surprise." The unabashedly sexy monarch drew up close to her. "Everything all right? You look a little..." He hunted for the right word. "Apprehensive."
Raven looked away. "Just, um, a little magic-lag. I teleported to get down here, so..." Oh, like he hadn't already figured that out for himself.
Aqualad just raised his eyebrows. "That must have been intense. Well, at any rate, welcome to my home." He reached out and took Raven's hand, leading her over to a well-lit passageway. The aquatic Titan made no sign of noting Raven's response to the tactile gesture. Either he didn't follow up on the line of thought, or Aqualad considered flushed cheeks and shortness of breath natural for girls. Maybe around him it was. He probably thought it was nothing. Raven shook her head and sighed. Boys.
"Here we go."
The two teammates entered into a bright cavern. Small and well-furnished, the main attraction was a pool filled with glowing stones and luminous fish. The water actually spiraled up out of the pool on a twisting course to fountain at the top, sending water cascading down in a gentle splash. Fish and stones also traveled along this route to end up in the same place with no discernible stress for either one. The Atlantean led her over to this aquatic architecture, around which were arranged several plush, cushion-like objects.
"Please, have a seat," he indicated. Raven accepted his invitation, both pleased and disappointed at the return of her personal space. As she settled in, the couch shook and shivered. The young woman glanced up questioningly.
"Sponges," Aqualad informed her. "Bred to retain softness with minimum water. Just something I picked out in case friends from up top dropped by." The marine telepath took a seat near his demure guest. "So, Raven, to what do I owe the honor? I'm guessing since you're the only one here it's not official Titan business."
"No." Raven pulled her hood down a little lower. "I'm here for myself."
Aqualad smiled. He made it look so natural. Raven envied that, a little.
"Anything you want, I'd be glad to help."
She shifted on the living seat. "I'm sorry for not letting you know I was coming, but it was kind of an abrupt decision."
"Hey, life's full of them. And you don't have to apologize. I'm always glad to see you."
"Uh-huh." She was staring at him. It was an easy thing to do. No, cut that out. This was serious, remember? If you wanted to know what was going on under the sea, this was the guy to ask. But Raven recalled her previous encounter with Kultuq. It was possible the mere mention of her destination might prompt the same violent reaction from Aqualad. Unlikely, maybe. But she did not want to go through that again.
Raven lowered her eyes. "I'm going to have to ask you something, and I need some assurance that you're not going to go ballistic on me."
He looked surprised. "That's kind of an odd way to start, Raven. But okay, if it'll make you happy, I promise to keep a grip. And I also promise to help you in whatever you need." He paused, considering. "Unless it's something that would be a threat to the oceans or Atlantis." The smile came back quickly. "You know, it's family." The pretty surface-dweller brought her feet up, crossing her ankles. Aqualad studied her. Something was definitely troubling this normally unflappable individual. His natural response was to offer his aid. And more, if Raven should desire it.
"I don't really know what it means anymore." She was avoiding looking at him now. "But I've got too much at stake to let this pass me by." She stole a glance at him, and her eyes were so forlorn that the young nobleman felt a shiver run up his spine.
"I'm looking for a city that's somewhere in the ocean."
Aqualad leaned back and rested his chin on one hand. "There are more cities down here than surface dwellers might expect, but I know all of them. What's the name?"
She raised her head a little. Her body tensed. This was it.
This time, it wasn't just his spine. His whole body shook. The smile disappeared, and once again Raven felt like she was in the presence of an enemy.
Or maybe she was the enemy.
"Never mind," she said, and stood up abruptly. Moving towards the exit, now very eager to be elsewhere, Raven was almost there.
And she did. It wasn't so much the word as the tone. Quiet, commanding. It expected obedience as its due. She knew that it was Aqualad who had spoken, but she had never heard him use that voice. Suddenly Raven knew without a doubt she was in the presence of royalty. And as the prince rose behind her, she also knew that she was in trouble.
He crossed over to her, stared down into her face. She shivered. The eyes were cold, his expression stiff. Like he was looking at a stranger. Raven's throat went dry.
Then he spoke again.
"I ...am the first-born son of the ruler of Atlantis, the city that once ruled the world and now oversees a much greater empire. We've endured by following the dictates of both nature and man. Over the centuries, Atlantis has strengthened and advanced itself. We aren't as dependent on the capriciousness of the ocean as we once were, and contact with the surface world is no longer expressly forbidden." His lips grew tight, and the shark-like eyes narrowed. "But there is one law that does not...will not change. It's a law known only to a few, but one that is enforced strictly by the royal family. And that is, any citizen who expresses knowledge of the city R'lyeh is to be captured." His voice grew soft. "And destroyed."
Raven's mouth fell open, and she stared at the suddenly sinister young prince. "You're serious," she whispered.
Aqualad's black-gloved hands rose towards her.
Then he paused.
A tremor shook his frame.
"But you," he rasped, "are not a citizen of Atlantis. The law doesn't apply here directly." It almost sounded like he was trying to convince himself of something. "And more than that, you're my friend. I know I can trust you. You're not one of them, I've seen how they are, like madmen." He turned and stumbled back towards the couch, reaching for it with unsteady hands. Once seated, Aqualad let out his breath, and then turned to look at her. "Please sit down. I won't hurt you, Raven. But I think you're in very real danger, and I want to help you. So please..."
The ashy-tinted maiden remained where she was. This was horrifying. Two people she had come to know and trust were ready to kill her over a word. Could she still go on with this? It became clear that her life was at stake if she continued. How much was she willing to lose?
Raven returned to her seat.
Both of them watched the other carefully.
"Have you...?" She paused, considering. And then, cautiously, "Have you ever really...killed someone... over this?"
The Alantean nobleman shivered. "Not me." He looked absolutely sick. "My father. One night he woke me up and told me to come with him. I'd never seen him look so... enraged. I thought he was angry at me for some stunts I had pulled, but that wasn't it." He rubbed his arms, as if cold. "We went to a part of the palace that I didn't know existed. Just him and me, no guards or anything. There, in a room protected by sea creatures, he sat in judgment over a man. At least, he still looked that way. Father didn't say much, except that this was important. The man was some kind of scholar, or a scientist. I couldn't make it out from his condition. Chained to the floor, and gagged. Father said that he was possessed by something evil. He got one of the attendants to remove the gag, and when they did..."
Aqualad shivered with the memory. "He started screaming and babbling. But it wasn't like he was afraid of us, he seemed...ecstatic. Crazed. And the words he used, they weren't Atlantean. They were horrible. I didn't think a person could make those sounds. It almost sounded like he was singing it. I... I started hoping to hear more, actually. Something made me want to. But Father pulled me aside, and we communicated telepathically. And while we were speaking he made a sign, to a barracuda, and it just streaked in and... tore the man's neck open. He screamed out one last word...'R'lyeh!'...and then died."
"I was so scared." Aqualad spoke in a musing, thoughtful tone, staring at the watery display of colors and life beside him. "Father and I went to his private quarters. He sent my mother away, and then he told me why he had done that. He told me about R'lyeh, and what lies inside there."
"C'thulhu," Raven supplied.
Aqualad shut his eyes. Of a sudden he leaned forward, covering his face with his hands. "Don't say it again," he begged. Raven could only stare. She had never seen anyone so afraid.
Still in that position, he whispered, "So you know it. Now you have to tell me. Have you heard the song?"
And Azerath's daughter shivered.
"You're not the first person to ask me that."
Raven was worried. Something was wrong here, worse than anything she had ever known.
She was floating at the opening to Unizue's house. At first glance it was just a plain, flat surface about thirty feet across. That simple facade was really just Unizue's garden, the place wherein the Piran conducted whatever inexplicable methods she used to feed herself. But Unizue was not here now. In fact, Raven had not seen her friend for nearly two days. And she knew something had gone wrong.
For over two months now, ever since Unizue had started her dreaming investigations of Raven's home planet, she had been behaving oddly. Like she was distracted, no longer fully aware, and definitely not her usual inquisitive self. Whenever they met, Unizue would talk about nothing but her dreams. Where they had taken her, what she had heard. But the things she spoke of made no sense to Raven. It was all about questions. Voices that couldn't be traced, a language that had no basis in communication. Unizue went on and on like this, explaining how she would find herself moving but never knowing in which direction. She would try to follow the voices, singing their endless droning, only to find herself in a place that she suspected was the same where she had begun. If Raven was confused, Unizue was even more so. But at the same time, she was definitely enraptured.
When the teenage girl could finally convince her friend to join her in meditation, she would sometimes wake to find Unizue floating off, talking to herself and disturbing other Azeratheans. Or worse, vanished altogether. It hurt Raven when this happened. Even though the other sorceress always came back, and never missed one of their accepted meetings. At first, Raven had feared that their association was over, that Unizue had finally learned all she could from her and was starting to move on. But her friend had insisted this was not so. And Raven had no choice but to take her word for it. After all, it was not like anything had happened.
Or to be more precise, something had not happened. Unizue hadn't come. They were supposed to meet at the curve to Belab's, to go on a trek through the info-center's mazy collections of dream-journals. One of them would decide where to stop, and they would discuss what they found there. Raven had arrived early, only to find that Unizue was not already there as was her custom. So she waited. The time had come around, and her pupil still did not appear. She told herself to wait five minutes. Then ten. After twenty, Raven was more than upset. She was afraid.
And so she had followed the curve to Unizue's abode, a place she knew well. The flat, horizontal yard also served as a door. Stepping over its surface, Raven murmured her mantra, and slid through the pane. If any observers had been present, they would not have been surprised when she did not emerge on the other side. Instead the teenager floated down into an onion-shaped inverted dome. Waiving up from the floor were several smooth, liquid strands, each topped by a glassy teardrop. These acted as the portals to the different areas of Unizue's house. Or maybe the rooms were contained within the strands. Raven had never asked which was the case, and now was not the time. One of the rods was glowing. That meant Unizue was inside. Quickly Raven descended towards it, and stepped in.
She looked around, finding herself in Unizue's workroom. The place was packed with DiVuCle cylinders, their surfaces glowing with the telepathic ink used to convey their meaning. But that message, usually undeniably clear and precise, was now fundamentally warped.
At the center of the room, resting in the hassock that stretched out from the walls, stood Unizue. She was keening indecipherably, her concentration bent upon the task at hand. As Raven watched, a cylinder rose up, and the ink on it began to respond to Unizue's command. It squiggled, and began to take form. Raven stared.
The word coalescing there was a jumble, straining for purpose. Unconsciously her lips tried to form it.
No, that wasn't right, it was more like...
And the ink shook, shuddered. It vibrated suddenly, its members seeming to react under some overpowering inner force. A strange droning sound began to emanate from it, shaping new words in Raven's mind.
She felt a presence behind it. Maybe even an awareness. Something so strong that it made her quake with horror.
And for the first time ever, Raven was glad of her evil heritage, as her powers lashed out instinctively to dash that horrible painted word away, obscuring it forever. She slumped to her knees, shock and relief overwhelming her. Thankful that it was over.
Then she remembered Unizue.
The segmented sorceress hung in her net of solid light, unmoving. She gave no sign of having registered the event, or even Raven's presence. Cautiously, the girl crept forward. "Unizue?" she called.
When no response came, she climbed up into the hassock.
"Unizue!" she insisted more forcefully.
Her alien companion stirred. Something strange, a low, eerie gurgle, projected from her tongues. And when she spoke next, it was in a voice that Raven did not recognize.
-Yes- the tall sorceress croaked. -That is the name. At last I know- Her light globe flashed and seemed to focus on the distraught human crouched beside her. -You see, I could not pronounce it, Raven. Its language eluded me. And the song would not let me in until I did. It was tribute. And I did not know the way- One of her prehensile filaments sprouted to touch Raven's cheek, stroking the smooth skin gently. -How could I have not seen it? It is who I am: Raven's Unizue. What I could not do, you have achieved for us both. I am beyond rapture for you, Raven-
"Unizue?" She stared at her friend, tears of confusion and fear in her eyes. "Please tell me what's going on. I'm so scared."
Cylinders in the room began to glow black and quake. Unizue lowered her arms and drew Raven's trembling form against the Piran’s trunk, there to hold her tenderly.
-We are free to enter, Raven. You and I. Did you not hear the song? We are worthy to stand in his presence, and receive his gifts. It is time for us to go-
"Go?" Raven struggled slightly. Something in Unizue's tone, like she was only half-awake. "Go where?"
Unizue's body began to glow. -To R'lyeh. Afloat in the dreaming space of your home dimension. On Earth-
She felt her heart beat faster, her bones turned cold with fear. "No," the slender child whispered. "I can't go there, Unizue. I told you. The prophecy says we'll die if I go there, everybody will! I can't go!"
-Nothing to stop us- her friend continued in a sing-song manner like she had never spoken. -All questions will be answered and rendered meaningless. That is what the song was about, Raven. At last I understand-
Her arms tightened around the struggling mystic, pulling her closer in their unrelenting grasp.
"No!" Raven cried, panicked. "No, I don't want to! Unizue, let me go!!"
-All will be revealed- And the globe above Unizue's mouth began to darken and expand, reaching out for them as she began to cast a spell. -We will go now-
It was a scream of absolute childish terror. In a swell of black energy, they were torn apart. Raven's Unizue went hurtling through the air to collide against a wall. She landed with a grotesque smack against the floor. At the other end of the room, Raven lay huddled on her side, fearfully watching her only friend in all of creation.
Then Unizue gave a jerk. And slowly began to drag herself across the floor towards Raven. Some of her tongue-fronds were broken, but she hadn't even bothered to repair them.
-I uwll prus-eed, and oo uwll fallo. A promist was muuuyd, rRay-ven. Ooowee go t-t-t-t R'lyeh- Unizue slid along, grasping anything at hand. Her luminescent blood left a trail on the ground.
In the eyes of a frightened child, it looked like a monster coming to get her.
Raven bolted up and ran. She didn't think to stop and do something or call for help. She just wanted out of that room. Hitting the wall, she tore through it in an explosion of power.
Out into the dome hall, scrambling up the side on her hands and knees. At any moment she expected to feel the thing's hands on her and all she could think of was to get out and away, back home to Mother where she could be safe. Raven didn't pass through the portal, she broke through it, and the curve outside, coming out at home. She ran to her room and hid under the bed, pulling the sheets and pillows down to protect her.
It was only 15 minutes before Mother returned, but it seemed much longer. The doting parent did everything she could think of to try and coax her daughter out, or at least get her to tell what was wrong. But Raven could not explain what she herself did not understand. The room was quickly being reduced to wreckage, until her Mother finally had no choice but to crawl under the bed and hold her sobbing child until the trembling form went to sleep. It was a rare display of true affection for the wayward adolescent. Mother and daughter remained that way for the better part of the day.
Until a delegation of Azerathians came to their door.
Raven remained in her room. Mother forbade her to come out until she had ascertained for herself what was going on. She did so, and tried not to listen, because anything that was said would mean trouble.
Of a sudden she heard Unizue's name with her own. Then the exhausted little mystic, fearful now for a whole other reason, stole to her door and opened it a crack.
And the words she heard came from her Mother.
"Raven's Unizue has disappeared?"
Raven covered her mouth to prevent a squeal from escaping. She looked wildly about the room, unsure of what to do. What could she do?
There was really only one thing. And so Raven translated through the wall of her home, and followed several roundabout curves to arrive at Unizue's dwelling.
A large crowd had gathered there, speaking in hushed tones, but all grew quiet when the lavender-haired human appeared in their midst. They regarded her with speculation and wariness, but Raven did not spare them a thought. Their fears were no longer her concern. She glided past them without a word, stood over the portal-lawn, and slid down into it.
That was as far as she got.
Raven floated in the center of the room. Below her, the strands of passage lay limply on the ground, drained of all color and life. Without them, the room should have been otherwise featureless. But this was not so. There was writing on the walls now, and worse than anything it said was how it was written.
It was blood.
Unizue's blood. Scrawled across the floor and ceiling, every available surface was daubed with a glowing, livid testimony to madness. The symbols this macabre ink formed made up only one word. Endlessly repeated.
All around her, that name stabbed into her brain, whispering its perverted sound incessantly. Raven sank down amid the ruined heap of a place she had only yesterday thought of as a second home. Hunched over, she covered her head with her hands. But still the word seemed to resound in her ears.
She opened her eyes. And there, on the floor in front of her, was a message.
Follow me, Raven, it said. I await you in R'lyeh.
Raven stopped talking, her throat dry. She was unused to so much conversation. But she had finally told someone the story of her and Unizue. She had never really thought it would be Aqualad in whom she would confide. In spite of the way he made her feel, and even though she trusted him, this was something she had hoped to never tell.
He sat quietly before her. Lacing his fingers together, he rested his chin on his hands, staring at a point on the cavern wall. "Eyes of Thetis," he murmured. His own gleaming black orbs turned to her with a questioning look. "And you're sure Unizue is here?"
Raven kept her features blank. "Positive." She still didn't know where this was headed.
"Do you know when it was she came?"
Careful here. "Not really," she hedged. "I stayed in Azerath because of my Mother. Otherwise I think I would have come straight away. After she died, there was nobody left in Azerath that I really knew. The only other person in all creation whom I cared for was here. So here was where I came."
"It's just..." Aqualad hesitated. "You see, Raven, about R'lyeh, its location is known to the royal family, but outside of us, the only Atlanteans that have that information are the ones who guard the city itself, the 17th fleet. And according to them, no one has gone into R'lyeh in over 7,000 years. They know this... because..."
He turned his head away. Raven picked up on his discomfort even without her powers.
The prince of Atlantis looked up at her. "Because they kill anyone who tries."
If Aqualad was expecting an emotional outburst, he was disappointed. Raven's face might well have been carved from stone. "Not Unizue."
The boy hero shook his head. "Anyone. Anyone but the royal family who approaches R'lyeh's territory, they kill. And any who try to leave R'lyeh as well. The 17th fleet is called the Kraken's Coils, and they are more than just soldiers, Raven. Their very existence is also a closely held secret. They possess strength derived from the most lethal predators of the sea, and know magic that is outlawed to all other citizens. They were granted these gifts at the height of Atlantis' glory, over 200,000 years ago. Charged to contain the evil of R'lyeh. They have all accepted that responsibility as their only reason for living. The members of the Coils may never leave their posts, on pain of death. They are born there, on the outskirts of R'lyeh, and they live there until they die." He shivered. "It's not just the enhancements. Close proximity to that city makes men go crazy. No one would live there unless they wanted to. Even the beasts of the sea avoid it. And so should you."
Aqualad grew silent. It was hard to discuss matters like this, something he had only talked over with his father, the Sea-King. And he still wasn't even sure if it was the right thing to do. It seemed he knew better than Raven the dangers of what she thought to face. He had to make that clear. For her sake.
Beside him, the ghostly young woman stretched out a graceful hand to dip into the fountain's depths. Absently she trailed her fingers along its surface. The fish darted up curiously, mouths puckering at this unknown intruder.
"You've been there, then," she murmured. "You know where it is."
Aqualad scrutinized her warily. Raven seemed lost in the shimmering contents of the pool. "Yes," he replied. "My father and I went. Every prince of the line must present himself before the 17th fleet in order to learn how to command them."
Her fingertips stroked the docile fins as they floated languidly with the swell.
"Please tell me."
It wasn't a plea, really. There was no emotion in her voice. More like a command couched in polite terms. And in spite of it all, Aqualad felt a compulsion to obey that request. There was more at work here than just words, he realized. He wanted to tell her. When seconds ago he did not.
But not for nothing was he Prince of the Seas. He had been schooled in all manners of discipline, his parents knowing that their son could not fall prey to those who might seek to control the future ruler of Earth's oldest empire. Aqualad knew himself, his obligations and convictions. Some things could not be. And thus he resisted the urge to speak, fighting a war in his own head. Against what, he could not say. Himself, or her.
But he won.
The struggle lasted only a few seconds. But it left him feeling drained. And something else. For as Aqualad sat beside his quiet companion, a shiver shook his frame. And he knew that he was afraid of her. Afraid of Raven, of all people.
He stared at her cool gray profile, still apparently absorbed in idle play. And maybe, he thought, I always should have been.
"No." He made his voice firm, betraying nothing of his previous turmoil. "I won't do it, Raven."
"I've listened to your story, and while I sympathize with it, it's not a good enough excuse to send you into R'lyeh." His decision on this subject was final.
Her fingers drew away from the rippling liquid. Droplets of reflective seawater dripped slowly down them into the pool.
"I understand," was all she said.
Aqualad allowed himself a brief sigh of relief, but he remained on guard for anything unexpected.
Like when Raven's hand stretched out to gently cup his face.
The nobleman froze. Raven was touching him tenderly. Wet, pale fingers stroked over his skin, and he felt surprised at how warm they were. The defender of the oceans found himself completely at a loss for what to do.
Then the young girl before him slid along the couch, legs crossed beneath her. Her arm pulled him closer until only a scant inch kept their bodies from touching. Raven placed a small gray hand on the Atlantean's chest, palm pressed over his heart. Aqualad shuddered. His mind knew that danger was present, but it was also very much concerned with the undeniably attractive female form that was sharing a greater degree of closeness than he had ever expected from her.
From under the shadow cast by her cowl, Raven's large, opalescent eyes sought his, and Aqualad was mesmerized by the sight of them. Her lips, full and yearning, parted, and her rich, secret voice whispered, "Please forgive me. I didn't want to put you at odds with your duties."
He felt overcome with a quick stab of guilt for her, which he hurriedly sought to undo. "You don't need to say you're sorry, Raven. It's my fault. I shouldn't have been so cold when I..."
A single smooth finger pressed against his mouth, preventing any further protest. She moved forward. Her hand rose up to caress his cheek. And her legs moved suddenly around his waist, encircling him warmly.
"Don't say anymore." And he didn't. There was some resistance, but the clear moral divide of before was subsumed by a response that was much more deeply ingrained. He was feeling now, strongly. The beat of his own heart, the pulse of his blood, and this alluring woman before him.
"I know you meant well." It was all so unexpected. This situation had crossed his mind only casually.
"And I thank you for it." Her eyes never wavered, didn't blink. They were drawing him in, closer and closer.
"So it's all right..." He could feel the unfamiliar softness of her breath tickling his face.
"If you can't tell me..." Hands moving into his hair. Her thighs slid over his hips.
"How I can find..." Her mouth hovered near his own.
And Aqualad remembered.
A place. A city. On the other side of the
In the blink of an eye, Raven was gone.
Aqualad leapt to his feet, body shaking, mind reeling. Had she just...? Could she...?
Shock. Outrage. Self-reproach.
And finally, fear.
He reached for the communicator on his belt. Only one thing mattered now. She had to be stopped.
But whom should he call? The Titans?
Or his father?
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. And so Raven learned to breathe underwater.
It wasn't terribly difficult to do. After her near-fatal drowning on the Titan's first deep-sea mission, she had been given a lot of incentive to learn. Not just for herself, but for her friends. It was like Unizue had told her; her power had more than one purpose. All she needed was the imperative.
I'm going to save you.
She was a gleaming ebony figure in a world of total darkness. Raven had invoked the necessary spells to keep herself alive at these depths during her transition to this spot. Multi-tasking was the hallmark of an orderly mind. The precise location she had picked out of Aqualad's memory was about two leagues outside the boundaries attributed to R'lyeh. His recollection was dim. Of course, it wasn't like there was much to see at these depths. No available landmarks were visible to normal eyes.
And something more than just the lack of light. Something that let Raven know she had finally reached her destination. A shifting, sluggish feel to the water. At first it had just been a sense of unease. As she had proceeded deeper, that feeling had become an intense dislike of this place. And now, every sense that Raven had at her disposal was screaming at her that she should not go any further.
But Raven was beyond listening to anything resembling common sense or a conscience. She had tried to force her way into the mind of a man who loved her. She had projected her own emotions into the head of a trusted friend in order to heighten his own responses and render him susceptible to reading his most guarded thoughts. She knew that she had crossed a line. Even if she brought Unizue back safely, Raven would have to face the ramifications of her decisions.
When they found out, she might lose all her new friends. But first, she had to live to face them.
Sliding through the pitch-black ocean, awash in protective magic, Raven considered her situation. She was about to attempt an invasion of a city whose layout she did not know, to find one person in possibly millions, all under the eye of some alien god who may or may not be dead. Normally, she was not the sort of person to rush blindly into a fight. But even though Raven had no real idea of what lay ahead of her, she knew there was no other way. Strategies, plans, they couldn't help her. Even careful, logical thinking wouldn't cut it. Sometimes all you could do was plow ahead.
Of a sudden, through the viscous pull of a polluted sea, Raven detected life. Even a little was enough to set off her senses here. Aqualad had been right about this place being taboo to underwater animals. But this was more than a little. It was a lot. She allowed herself the briefest moment of worry.
The Kraken's Coils lay in wait for her.
Azerath's disciple had no doubt as to the identity of these beings. According to what she had gleaned from Aqualad, she was still well outside of the city limits. And the telepathic teen had been right. There was not so much as a clump of seaweed alive in these parts. All things of the sea shunned this place. The only reason anyone would be here was that they wanted to be. Just like Unizue...
NO!! Unizue had been ensorcelled somehow. Deceived into coming here. And Raven had to set her free.
As if waiting for that one moment of hesitation, they struck.
From over a hundred different directions, streaks of plasma converged on the sorceress in an underwater explosion of unparalleled destruction.
The attackers did not wait to see whether or not their assault was successful. They simply launched a new one. Torpedoes sped noiselessly towards their target, separating their courses for maximum spread. When the timers clicked, a reverse-nucleic reaction occurred, the result of each missile's eruption being a vacuum of all available heat energy in the area to sustain the implosion. This left less than a milligram of super-dense matter and over half a square mile of black ice.
Raven had to admit it was an impressive display.
Floating above the limit of the already-dissolving glacial field, the bold young mystic considered her opponents.
She was almost overwhelmed by the sheer scope of it all. In the brief time that they must have been aware of her arrival, the 17th fleet had deployed a huge amount of its forces. There were at least thirty yacht-sized vessels and thousands of individually manned attacked pods. All of this Raven had inferred by concentrating on the dots of abnormal mental energy. There was nothing else to go by. No lights of any kind emanated from these machines, they were moving shadows, at one with their underwater universe. Briefly Raven wondered how they kept from running into one another, much less shooting each other. Precise readings in this psychic morass were impossible, and she could only surmise that it would get worse as she got closer to R'lyeh.
But as the entire armada turned their sights in her direction, it occurred to Raven that she might not have to worry about that at all.
The next attack came in the form of the single-man submersibles. Each about the size of a German sportscar, the silent death-boats streaked towards their target with unerring precision. Raven reconsidered her previous assumption. Apparently, pinpoint accuracy was possible, whether a result of some Atlantean technology or perhaps the legionnaires of the 17th had learned how to get around the psycho-sensory distortions evoked by their chosen prison. Living in exile here for over 200,000 years, the latter might not be so far-fetched.
R'lyeh's watchdogs gave no cries, projected no emotion of any kind. But what Raven could not help but pick up on was the intense, focused ambition of every cold heart in this fleet. They wanted her dead. Each of them. The shark-boats were still several hundred yards away but closing fast. Swiftly Raven considered her options.
Obviously a head-on battle was out of the question. She could not possibly prevail against this much firepower. Nor could she hope to just slip quietly away. Whatever other enhancements they might have received, Raven knew from Aqualad that these warriors were capable of using their abilities to locate their quarry in these night-dark waters. They could sense her. Don't let your worries overtake you, she commanded herself. Whatever else they might be, they were still human. Not infallible. They could be deceived and ultimately defeated. But there were miles of ocean still ahead, filled with these weapons of singular destruction. And every man and woman in this fleet was hell-bent on her death.
Not half-demon. In the end, their only concern was to kill her body. Well, Raven was much more than that. And she knew about things they had never dreamed. Just by walking in the sun.
Time to give these fish something they had never seen before.
The fleet closed in on their diminutive prey. Size and numbers meant nothing to them. Their weapons were primed. They felt no pity. They knew not of remorse. Their mission was clear, and death their only commander.
The tiny figure of their target seemed to shrink in on itself, as if in pain.
But before another move could be made, the intruder threw out her arms and transformed into a gigantic monster of darkness deeper than the ocean.
It had red eyes, a beak like an octopus, and two enormous fins. There were no shouts of surprise, no confusion. Almost as one, every soldier fired their weapons at the target. The lethal bolts struck home, splintering it into fragments that went spinning off.
And then the whole thing burst.
From the giant raven there now emerged a score of underwater avians, a limitless flock of tiny glowing black birds that darted towards the defenders. Undeterred, they attacked. Weapons of all types were brought to bear. The flock did not attempt to fight back. Instead they surged in the direction of R'lyeh. When hit, they disappeared. But while thousands of these creatures were brought low in the first few minutes, the deep-dwelling assassins could not prevent the majority from invading their ranks. The birds flew into the ships themselves, passing through them and the people manning them to emerge out behind the fleet.
They gave chase. How could they not? There was simply no other option. But maneuvering ships of any size takes time. And the birds didn't seem to be made up of any matter. More like ghosts, the water did not exist to slow them down. The fleet continued to attack, as did the reinforcements lying in wait behind them, miles of artillery that followed their advance guards' actions and turned to give chase deeper into their territory.
But at a certain point, they stopped.
Out ahead, the remaining aviary coalesced back into one great specimen. It remained where it was, waiting. Then, when no pursuit was forthcoming, the raven folded its wings on itself, and once again it was Raven who hung there.
Looking back, she could still distinguish nothing visible in these stygian depths. But other senses told her far more. The 17th fleet had reached the limits of its protectorate. To go any further would bring them into the greater bounds of R'lyeh.
And this they would not do.
Raven turned away. Lack of pursuit was not the only thing she was feeling. The very water around her felt like it was becoming thicker, as if polluted. Its touch was now loathe to her. And she could tell more. Whatever awaited her, it was close now. She could almost hear it. The song of madness.
The call of C'thulhu.
"OK," Beast Boy pronounced. "We've got the basil, oregano, and tomato sauce. We can substitute swiss cheese for mozzarella, tofu for meat, and if we cut it real thin, bread in place of noodles. That should work, right?"
Starfire eyed the ingredients laid out before her. One had to be exact. The creation of a new Earth dish was never to be taken lightly. "But I believe the recipe also called for cottage cheese."
"Yeah. And we've got it." Beast Boy pointed to a container filled with a green and orange fur. The expiration date had long since worn off. "I bought it last December, and I've been saving it."
The bouncy princess clapped her hands. "Then we may now make lasagna?"
About to voice his agreement, Beast Boy was noisily cut off by the electronic panic signal of their living room view screen. Forgetting for the moment their joint cooking venture, the two Titans rushed to the frantically blaring device. Before them appeared the face of Aqualad.
"Friend Aqualad!" Starfire cried. "It gives me joy to see..."
"You need to come to me, now!!" the aqua-teen shouted.
"Whoa, time out," Beast Boy waived his hand. "Can we say hello first, or maybe even make conversation?"
"Stop wasting time!" Aqualad slammed a fist down, making his image skip and waiver. "We have to stop Raven, and it might already be too late."
"Raven?" Beast Boy exchanged glances with Starfire. The polymorph turned a confused look on their obviously troubled friend. "Aqualad, Raven's been in her room since breakfast, she hasn't left.."
"She's not in her room, dammit!!" The Atlantean exploded. "She's on her way to R'lyeh! And if we don't stop her, you'd better pray that she doesn't survive, for her sake."
Starfire's mouth fell open. "WHAT?"
"I'm sending you transport," Aqualad continued grimly. "It'll reach you in under half an hour. Just get the others and don't ask questions, I'll explain when we meet."
And with that, he vanished.
To be continued…