Kultuq moved to the bar, and poured himself a mixed drink. More flavor than there was alcohol, but the latter had no affect on him anyway. And besides, being immortal didn’t mean he lacked taste buds. During this proceeding, he kept a careful eye on the super-villain seated across the room from him. Plopping the ice cubes into his glass, Kultuq strolled over to an adjacent leather armchair and took a seat, lounging back into its embrace. He sipped his drink in silence. Neither of the room’s inhabitants had bothered to turn on a light, and they sat amid shadows.
Ancient eyes slid down to scrutinize the contents of his glass. “Slade. The mysterious arch-fiend of this city. What could this obscure citizen possibly provide you?”
Slade’s fingers were laced in front of him, and his eye trained on his reluctant host, attentive to his every move. “I came to speak to you on the topic of R’lyeh, and what resides there.”
The other man swirled his glass around, the ice colliding and clinking. “You’ve been watching me.”
“You weren’t exactly trying to hide yourself.”
“And you asked one of your new recruits to transport me into your company.”
“Manifest,” the masked man supplied. “A very useful operative. He couldn’t be with us.”
“Ah.” Kultuq’s eyes flickered briefly around the room, then returned to exploring the melting contents of his glass.
Slade’s voice chilled the air. “To be honest, I find myself surprised that you’ve in no way attempted to gain the upper hand. Not even resorting to calling for help, or to get a hold of one of the weapons you have stashed here. Your past history led me to believe you were a man of action.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” Kultuq mused.
A groan came from a corner of the room, followed by the sound of something striking the floor. Kultuq reached up to find a lamp switch, and turned it on. Lit by bright lights, the contents and occupants of the room leapt out in stark detail. To the right of his seat there now lay a prone figure. Its length was hard to determine, as was its shape. It looked to be a great interconnected mass of twitching purple limbs.
Kultuq finished his drink. Slade made no move.
“Twist, I presume.” The extant caveman craned his head around for a better look, and then turned back to Slade. “A good agent, from all accounts. But no less susceptible to airborne chemicals than anyone else.”
Slade unlocked his hands and laid them at his sides. “The drink?”
Kultuq shrugged. “The ice cubes. When dissolved in liquid, they release an odorless sopophoric, effective up to twenty feet away and capable of penetrating any known air filtration device.”
“Impressive,” the figure of Slade remarked.
His host set down the glass. “Sending a robot here in order to gauge my receptivity is a rational step, but not one given to inspire me to help you.”
The machine now stood up. “It sounds like you might be interested all the same.”
Kultuq rose as well. “Show me what you have to offer.”
Waves lapped against the side of the boat. A Chilean fisherman by the name of Raul LaFe hauled on his nets. The light was fading. Maria would be preparing dinner, and tonight’s catch would serve as a welcome addition. All the more so since it would be of little use for anything else. The day had been a poor one, and Raul offered up a silent prayer for better luck tomorrow. As always, his fate lay in the hands of a higher power. The old seafarer had no doubts as to the existence of such a being. But sometimes, he questioned whether or not it always had his best interests at heart. Raul traversed the length of the dinghy. Last net to go, and then home.
Beneath his feet, the boat gave a sudden lurch. Surprised, LaFe fell to his knees. He could feel the planks vibrating, buffeted by an unseen force. The mystified peasant crawled to the side of his ship and peered over.
In all his years of experience, he had never encountered anything like what lay before him.
Swimming and churning. Gleaming and flashing. Their sinewy forms beat the ocean into a turbulent soup of living beings, streaming under the hull in an inexplicable exodus towards the mainland. Raul gaped in astonishment. Another toss of the boat on its fishy swell brought him back to reality, and his predicament became clear. The heavens had answered his prayer.
Grabbing the winch, he began to eagerly haul in his catch. The net rose slowly from the waves, a veritable feast of sea creatures visibly straining its limits. The catch was so huge that he could barely manage to get it above water. But at last he did, and feverishly wound the crank to bring it over the boat’s hold. The rusted steel poles groaned under the weight. At the flip of a switch, the miracle of fish poured in a waterfall down into the belly of the ship, glutting it with a horde of floundering, gasping life. LaFe raced over to bask in the sight. A thought occurred to him: why not return to port, unload the catch and come back for more? With sprightly glee, the nimble old fisherman scurried up the ladder. He grasped the wheel and …
Suddenly the ship settled in under his feet.
Raul glanced around in perplexion. On all sides, the water lay becalmed. Undisturbed. Not a single fin marred its surface.
The tide of food was gone. Like magic.
The wizened Chilean peered off into the distance. Far away, he thought he could see a silver line receding towards the horizon. He considered giving chase. Then he glanced back down into the hold, still overflowing with the contents of his miracle. And he got the point. He had been blessed, and to ask for more would profane that gift. With that, he turned the nose of his boat around and headed home.
The hull ground against the boards of the jetty. LaFe cast his rope and snagged a post. Securing it, he hopped off the deck. His body felt tired, but in a good way. The ocean’s bounty was his. Gazing down, he marveled at the memory of it, the power that could cause such a reaction in these marvelous creatures.
Behind him, the ancient mariner heard something go plop on the walkway.
Raul turned, just in time to see the Devil climb up onto the pier.
Its skin was scaled, and snakes sprouted from its head and face. As it hauled its body up onto the wharf, two enormous eyes swiveled back and forth. Raul could see himself reflected in the monster’s glare.
Behind him, the fish had gone silent as death. As Hell’s master rose up into the open air, a smell struck the human’s senses that made him stop breathing.
He turned and fled, choking and floundering for his life.
The oceanic terror took no note of its surroundings. Instead it raised its arms to the sky, and from its throat burst an eruption of sound only barely distinguishable as words.
Speed constant at 30 knots. Perimeter contact in 30 seconds. No sonar response.
Kultuq scrutinized the dark, swirling images carefully.
20 seconds to contact.
He strove to recognize something distinct, but there simply wasn’t enough light.
10 seconds to contact.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Slade surmounted on his throne. The steel-plated villain was perfectly still. Hovering protectively behind the chair, the elongated form of Twist watched Kultuq with undisguised malevolence. No forgiveness in those eyes.
5 seconds to contact.
Serenade and the one called Manifest sat apart from the rest. They showed equal levels of disinterest in the proceedings.
There was a burst of light, and the screen was filled with static.
Slade rose and moved to the Global Positioning System. Kultuq remained watching him. “That’s the location?”
“Possibly.” The masked fighter began to key in the coordinates on a separate program. “I’ve launched quite a few unmanned drones into the target zone since the incident occurred. As a result, we have a rough outline.”
A satellite photo of the
southwest Pacific region appeared on the main monitor. Glowing dots sprang up in
a ring, encircling an area off the coast of
“There is R’lyeh.”
Kultuq moved to join Slade by the display, and both studied it.
“How did you even know to start looking there?” the elder man asked.
Slade began to call up some more programs. “While the Titans were chasing after Raven, they repeatedly sent out communication signals in an effort to contact her. She never received them. I did. From there it was a simple matter of tracking their coordinates.” He gestured onscreen. “It was around that location those signals ceased. They never seem to consider an outside party might be listening in. No thinking in broad terms with that group.”
For some reason that irked Kultuq. “They emerged more or less unscathed from the most dangerous locale on Earth. That is more than can be said for your efforts.”
From behind him, Manifest’s hauntingly distorted voice was heard. “Did you just compliment them?”
The immortal’s head shifted slightly, but otherwise he gave no indication of hearing. “What do you have in mind, Slade?”
His host turned to fix him with a solitary probing eye. “Are you making a commitment?”
Kultuq glared back. “I am no hired hand, mortal. I owe you no assurances.”
“Now, now,” a voice purred, and he froze. “Don’t say that.”
Behind him, Serenade had risen to her feet and flowed gracefully over to them. She reached up and tilted Kultuq’s face to hers with one gloved finger.
“Just stick around,” the black-eyed female smiled winningly. “I’m sure you’ll like it here.”
Kultuq gazed at the young woman with spell-bound eyes.
Then he reached into his pocket. Withdrawing a small tin, he proffered it to her.
Serenade blinked, startled, and Kultuq smiled.
“Sorry, Nade-chan. But whatever portion of the male brain your voice affects, it hadn’t developed in people at the time I was born.”
All sweetness and grace drained away, and she took a step back from him. Her posture became tense and furious, a look passing over her features that Kultuq recognized easily as a preface to murder.
“Don’t,” he warned her softly. “It can’t be done, anyway.”
“One question answered.” Slade stepped in and placed a restraining hand on Serenade’s shoulder. “My dear, would you go monitor the channels? Let me know if anything of note should occur. ”
The Oriental mercenary shook off his grip. Casting a venomous look at her unresponsive target, she stalked from the room without a backward glance. Manifest watched this scene with keen interest.
Slade glanced at Kultuq and tilted his head. It could have been an apology. “She’s unaccustomed to being refused by our sex.”
“I noticed no one else in the room made any effort to obey her.”
Manifest rapped his helmet, the face on it grinning a perpetual leer. “We’re covered, so to speak.”
Kultuq glanced over at him, then back to Slade. “Is this all you wanted to show me?”
Slade placed his metal-shod gauntlets behind his back. “Your reputation alone was enough to afford you the courtesy of being allowed to enter here freely. This was done with the expectation of cooperation, whether through your aid or by remaining silent as to our location. But if you like, we can discuss the matter man to man.” He gave a dismissive waive to each of the remaining mercenaries.
Twist’s arms unwound, a question in the flat yellow eyes. When Slade made no further move, the rangy superpower leveled a murderous glare of warning at Kultuq, and then slouched towards the door. Manifest merely shrugged and hopped to his feet. He ambled lazily past Kultuq, making a gesture at his departing comrade.
“Don’t let him get to you. He gives that same look to everybody. Comes with the face.”
This time, Kultuq did look at him, if only for a moment, before returning his attention to Manifest’s master. “That might change, if you would only stop addressing her as a man.”
Halfway out the door, Twist jerked to a halt and spun about. The lanky woman stared at Kultuq, eyes wide, body trembling.
Inside his helmet, Manifest was making a choking sound. At last he managed to blurt out, “That’s… a GIRL?!!”
Twist took a step back, head swiveling from Kultuq to Slade. It looked as if she was trying to ask a question. Then, with a strangled cry, she turned and fled from the room.
Slade watched her go, then moved toward an exit on the opposite side of the room. Kultuq took up step behind him, and together they departed, leaving Manifest still standing aghast in the empty chamber.
“Raven? It is ready.”
The shadowy teen opened her eyes, her meditative rhythm ended. In her lap a small green tabby flicked its ears restlessly, then settled back into undisturbed sleep. Raven rose gently into the air, and floated over to where her companion stood.
Starfire, royal heir of Tameran, stepped out of her way. As the mystic passed, she carefully levitated her fuzzy burden over to the alien’s waiting arms. Beast Boy did not awaken. His somber guardian put her index and forefinger together and passed them over his unconscious form. In their wake a gleaming ebony band unwound and wrapped itself loosely around the feline, continuing the service that Raven had begun. Satisfied, the sorceress moved to enter the structure before her.
“What did you say this was called?” she queried Starfire.
The princess looked up from teasing Beast Boy’s fur. “A Cup of Choices.”
Raven turned her head from side to side. She was standing in between two identical half-ellipses, each about twelve feet high. The interior had a silvery surface that glowed at intermittent points. A band at her feet connected the sides, and a pedestal rose up from that joining.
“Now,” Starfire spoke, “you need only say the words.”
Her friend’s shoulders slumped slightly. “Do I have to?”
Raven blew out her breath in consternation. Why did everything involved with this species seem nuts to her?
“Mully mully frool qua,” she muttered.
At this, the separate halves moved together automatically, encasing the Titan in an egg-shaped house. Almost immediately, the sides became transparent, like dark green glass, and tiny sparks of light began shooting along its curves. Outside, Starfire and Beast Boy were still visible, as was the midnight sky, uninterrupted by clouds and now shimmering faintly with stars. The streaking lights danced over Raven’s pale gray skin.
“Starfire, can you hear me?”
“Yes, and see you as well.”
“You say this thing is used for art on your world?”
“Most assuredly.” The alien princess was now floating cross-legged in midair, with Beast Boy resting comfortably in her lap. “It is an ancient tradition. When my people first began to explore beyond the bounds of Tameran’s star system, they used the Cups to record the scope of their travels upon return. Hand-sized versions were then created to act as star maps for subsequent journeys. Since the movement of the galaxies was already known then, cups were designed to convert old information into a semblance that reflected the current position of the celestial lights. However, the reverse is also true. Over thousands of years, superior methods of navigation other than visible starlight were produced. With the advent of these new designs, the Cup of Choices fell out of favor as a practical technology, and gradually its use was taken up as a means of creativity and self-expression. The works of the master Tum’r Wrlr are considered to be…”
The glowing alien prattled on merrily, but Raven had stopped listening. Around her the shifting lights had gradually begun to fade, leaving now an immense replica of the solar bodies outside, but far more than had been visible earlier. She recalled her extraterrestrial ally informing her that the device would not be hindered by the glow of town, sensitive as it was only to solar radiation. The entirety of the Milky Way was now laid out before her, as well as a fair amount of star systems and galaxies that the human eye could not perceive from Earth. Raven now seated herself on the pedestal. Narrowing her eyes, she began to concentrate. In her mind, a new image began to form, released from a part of her consciousness that was cordoned off from the rest, even more severely than the restrictions she placed on her own emotions. Here there be nightmares. The ancient memories of a time when this planet and everything on it fell prey to the depredations of an outside force, a threat from a nameless galaxy.
The reign of C’thulhu.
Dead now for millions of years,
Earth’s alien overlord lay entombed at the bottom of the
Slowly the tiny lights began to move, to resolve and refashion into a picture of the night sky that matched her thoughts. Raven was surprised at how many stars there were. Sometimes even she forgot, living in the big city as she did, that there was a masterpiece of immeasurable beauty high above them. Their glow was overwhelmed by the lights her people used to live and work by. But, she thought reflectively, the stars are the lights we dream by.
And suddenly she felt it, the certainty of approaching knowledge, building in her head and connecting thoughts and memories, in just one more second it would all become clear…
“Raven? Are you all right?”
The cloaked enchantress blinked and shivered. The insight was gone, and Raven couldn’t help but feel that she had just missed something important. The regret she felt was tinged by irritation at the interruption, and the scowling teen looked up to find Starfire staring at her, a look of worry causing her merry mouth to turn down into a frown.
“You were very still for a time. It frightened me.”
The blue robed beauty gazed at her ally, then gave a weary sigh. There was simply no way to hold anything against Starfire. The song-happy princess was as impervious to blame as she was to radiation.
“I was just watching the stars come out. They really are lovely in here.”
The Tameranean visibly relaxed. “If you like, once we have employed the Cup in our research, I can instruct you in some of the fundamental disciplines of star-painting.”
“I think,” Raven slid her hood down onto her shoulders, “I’d like to learn that.” She glanced carefully around her, and stood up. The unearthly maiden was now surrounded by a representation of the night sky culled from the soulless mind of a Deep One. The stars outside of this shell were no longer visible. “So how do I check the date?”
“Oh. All right. Sguq.”
A brief line of symbols popped up across the glassy surface. At the same time, the Cup split open again. Still holding the slumbering shape-shifter, Starfire now joined Raven. Together they stared at the message.
Raven shifted from one foot to another. She was possessed by a sensation of blended dread and curiosity. Without even asking, the enchantress reached out and reclaimed the sleepy kitty, letting the softness of its fur beneath her trembling fingers dispel some of her anxiety.
After a few seconds, Starfire still had not spoken.
“Starfire?” Raven hazarded. “What does it say? How much time do we have?”
Slowly, the alien warrior’s head turned to regard her closest female friend. The look on her face sent a shiver up the other girl’s spine. “You are certain that these positions are accurate?
Raven nodded silently, and Starfire turned back to the Tameranean message. “But this cannot be.”
“What do you mean? This is the only thing I found that had such a high level of clarity, Starfire. Nothing else in the R’lyean’s mind was so precise. When this series of constellations forms, C’thulhu will come back to life.”
The alien redhead reached up and touched the transparent walls. “But that cannot be true.”
“What?” The half-demon’s skin was tingling now. “Is it going to happen soon?”
“Not soon.” Starfire clutched her hands to her chest and turned to face her. “Already.”
Raven’s eyebrows came together in a frown. “Are you saying…?”
“According to this, these star-patterns have already arrived.”
The dark Titan hugged the feline nuzzled protectively in her embrace. “Now?! Right now?” She stopped. “But… I know that one of us would have picked up on R’lyeh’s rising. And anyway, these stars aren’t arranged even close to what’s up there tonight.”
Starfire shook her head. “I am sorry, I should have spoken more plainly. What I meant is, this arrangement has already occurred, in the past.”
Raven blinked. “How far in the past?”
There were stars reflected in the princess’ eyes now, light that was ancient when the world was young.
“Before you or I were ever born. According to this, C’thulhu should have revived over 300,000 years ago.”
“I take it you are the one who trained her for this lifestyle.”
The hallway down which the menacing pair strode was lit only occasionally by spotlights, leaving wide gaps of shadow in between. Kultuq had already noticed that Slade did not seem comfortable with too much illumination. How much of his character was real and how much done for effect was harder to determine.
“Correct.” The voice came from the darkness before him, and Earth’s oldest villain stepped out of the light to join it. He could now see the figure of his guide silhouetted against the next cone of illumination. “And you are only the second person after me to recognize her on first contact. A sensitive topic for Twist.”
Kultuq smiled. “Not surprising. What is unexpected is to find you sensitive to women.”
“Women are a mystery,” Slade responded. “As you have had cause to find out.”
The immortal made no response. His partner, however, was not finished.
“As I said before, it isn’t as though you’ve been trying to hide it. I’m rather surprised that the local media hasn’t printed a story already on the subject. But then, I do keep the Titans under closer watch than anyone. And Raven doesn’t always travel by ways that can be seen.”
A guttural noise came from behind him. Slade was prepared for an assault, but it did not emerge. He was careful, though. There were many avenues of interest to explore here.
The pair finally came to a door flanked by a squad of Skulkers. Slade keyed it open, and they entered what looked like a combination communications center and armory. The room was triangle-shaped, with the door opening at one of the points. The far wall was covered with screens, in front of which was a table and chairs. The rest of the available space was divided by plexiglass walls, forming compartments that contained targets, computers, and a host of weapons. Ranging from hand-held shock blasters to shoulder-mounted napalm throwers, the war gear served to confirm Kultuq’s suspicions. Slade was operating a high-stakes game, and doing so completely under the radar of most international organizations. Including his own. It seemed Robin had the right idea. This man was dangerous.
Slade entered one of the enclosed spaces. Kultuq followed suit. The instant he set foot inside he caught a whiff of something foul. The door sealed shut behind him, and he could detect the sound of a ventilation system cycling air in and out. His faceless associate was standing by what looked at first glance to be a giant glass dome on a metal base. Inside the contraption, lying at an awkward angle, was a monster that bore an unsettling resemblance to a human being.
“The R’lyean.” Kultuq’s fists clenched involuntarily.
”Part of my triptych,” Slade announced. “The other two are resting more or less comfortably elsewhere. At least, they haven’t complained.”
Kultuq sucked in an unnecessary breath of the foul air, held it. And exhaled.
“Why haven’t you killed them?”
At that, Slade turned around. He watched his quarry, and Kultuq swore he could detect the hint of a smile in the man’s dark eye.
“I have to say, it’s refreshing to speak to someone who shares an appreciation for that concept. But I generally like to know what I’m executing before I do the deed.”
Kultuq stared at the fish-demon lying in its cradle. A memory came to him then, of a Chinese tech schematic he had studied twenty years earlier, including detailed diagrams and research applications. “That’s a Shi Tong scanner.”
Slade nodded. “Excellent. It is indeed. Engineered by the Eastern bloc decades ago, after the first invasion from Apokolips. The Western powers got wind of its development and took measures to see that it was neutralized. One small setback for mankind, a giant promotion for certain politicians. But the original designs survived and came into my possession.”
“I always wondered,” Kultuq murmured. He cast a discerning glance over the device. “Does it…?”
“Work? To a point.” Slade turned a dial on the side of the machine, and a whisper of sound began to emerge from its depths. “The device was supposed to act as a combination universal translator and mind reader. Perfect for interrogating alien invaders. By recording and analysis of the subject’s language, it detects the recognizable brain-waves and uses the result as a reference point by which to define a language system. Questions can then be interpreted for it, and even if they don’t respond out loud, their resultant cerebral activity is captured and converted into approximate visual and auditory information.”
He glanced over at Kultuq. “Unfortunately, our captive doesn’t speak. Not a word, regardless of outside assistance on the subject. But we already know two sounds from its vocabulary. Namely, R’lyeh and …”
“C’thulhu.” Kultuq spit the word, feeling stained even as he did so. Slade nodded in satisfaction.
“There is our opening. The words elicited a response in our target. Hardly a gold mine, I’ll admit. But enough to give us something to work with.”
Kultuq had not overlooked the inclusive pronouns. “What have you learned?”
“Are you ready to throw your hat in?” Slade challenged.
“Let’s say I’m interested and leave it at that.”
The shadowy fiend moved back to the door and held it open for Kultuq. Together they headed over to the monitor wall. At a tap to his gauntlet, Slade brought the bank of screens to life. Moving over their surfaces came an army of sluggish colors, accompanied by indescribable noises. As Kultuq watched, several recognizable images began to take shape. He saw an ancient sun rising over the horizon. That line suddenly spread wings and rose up, resolving into a fantastic monster that could have dwarfed skyscrapers. Earth and sky gave way before it, losing shape in its wake.
The scene was then replaced by one of stars. The tiny points of light began to grow huge, and then were cut off by the outline of the monster dropping towards the Earth, a mad city of alien proportions traveling behind it. The beast danced and flowed, its body as ephemeral as plasma.
Then suddenly, it lay dead.
The shifting world sprang back into place, reasserting its natural form. The stars returned. Their light focused into bright points of laser-like intensity, scouring the face of the planet with recognizable purpose. But they could find nothing. The city had closed up over its master’s body, hiding it forever. R’lyeh’s sprawling limits floated on singing gray oceans of ice, glowing an unearthly aura. Then swiftly, there was a flash and roar. Walls of water rose around.
After that, the screen went dead.
Slade and Kultuq stared. At last, the elder criminal stirred. “That’s all?”
“All that’s useful. Or comprehensible. There were things hinted at in other stretches that made me regret looking at them. Those I destroyed immediately. It was the right thing to do.”
The immortal felt a shiver run up his spine. He knew where thoughts like that came from. Painful memories started to resurface, and he couldn’t stifle a groan. Kultuq’s knees began to shake, and he slowly lowered himself to the floor, hiding his face with his hands. Slade stood off to one side. There was not even the remotest spark of compassion in him.
“The majority of these scenes defy description. But they have served to grant me insight into what it is we face.” He strode across the room and took a seat, swiveling around to face Kultuq, who still knelt on the floor before him. “Here is what I have decided. A direct strike against C’thulhu himself is pointless. He’s already dead, and even if this were not the case, there’s no guarantee that any conceivable force can, in fact, kill him. Though it might be educational to try, I propose a more far-reaching strategy.”
He tapped a control on his forearm. Beneath their feet, the hum of machinery activating could be felt.
“We know that neither C’thulhu nor R’lyeh is indigenous to this planet. Perhaps they are simply natives to a distant galaxy. But its lifecycle and power defy all recognizable rules of reality. Could this indicate a nativity outside our very universe? Is C’thulhu’s presence here at all an aberration, one Creation would seek to correct if it only could? If the monster makes no sense to us when it is alive, perhaps there is a measure of rationality that can be discerned upon its death, in a form that we even recognize. A city.”
From out of the floor, there arose several gleaming black objects.
“I believe R’lyeh to be less of a home and more a fortress. Why else
would a creature like this bother to travel with a city, much less have one in
the first place? Apparently when it died the last time, some move was made
against it. We saw that much. By whom, we can only surmise. But the attempt
failed, because C’thulhu’s remains had already been
interred in R’lyeh. Taking all this into account, it
is not without basis to assume that when C’thulhu
expires, certain measures must be taken to ensure it remain unmolested until the
next cycle can begin. Hence the city of
Four identical tubes had risen completely into the room. Kultuq now gazed at them listlessly. He had seen their like before, touched them even. So he knew.
“Antimatter,” he whispered, turning to look at Slade. “You stole it.”
“For a rainy day.” Slade gazed intently at the cylinders, and there was no hiding the eager tension that gripped his form. “Threats are more persuasive when you can back them up. When this situation arose, I had the idea.”
It was a dangerous move. A gamble, in more ways than one, and Kultuq understood that. This revelation, Slade laying all his cards on the table, the admission…
No, he corrected himself. Not an admission. A strategy. A maneuver, more in line with chess than a card game. Place a bishop in position. Draw out the enemy’s queen. He could almost see the board laid out before them, and he didn’t like the odds. Disturbed, Kultuq got to his feet and walked over to the lethal containers. He rested his hands on their smooth, sealed surfaces. Almost, he could feel the potential for destruction contained therein. Almost, he could sense death close at hand.
“You intend to destroy R’lyeh,” he stated finally.
“And C’thulhu as well. One way or another.”
“What makes you think something so powerful can be defeated at all?”
“Instinct,” Slade replied, his voice echoing around the room. “And strategy. At the worst, C’thulhu rouses himself and the end comes sooner rather than later. And at the very least, he has one less tool at his disposal, which could be the deciding factor in future moves against him.”
Kultuq withdrew his hand, dusting it off officiously. “If this fails, there will be no future moves. What you propose is tantamount to suicide. A game of Russian Roulette with only one chamber empty, and that’s if we’re lucky.”
“Think of C’thulhu now,” Slade murmured. “Powerless. Lifeless. R’lyeh might actually be necessary for its future resurrection. Without it, the monster might just remain dead forever. Or perhaps all we need do is make an opening, and let the rest of the universe finish it off. Surely in its existence, such an entity has made its share of enemies.”
Kultuq threw back his head and laughed, a gale of wild mirth. “And you think they will take us into consideration when they attack?! Might as well worry about the algae that will die when you wipe out a quarter of the ocean,” he jeered. “I never imagined you were such an optimist.”
Slade took his tone without concern. “I see many possibilities for victory here. And only one solid defeat. One that we are already assured of. A risk worth taking, in my opinion.”
“Do you think the world will accept an apology should you be proven wrong?”
“I make no apologies. Only demands.” The masked warrior rose smoothly to stand there, his presence dominating the room with ease. Kultuq could not shake the feeling that he was at a severe disadvantage. But still, he strode forward to face his opponent.
“Why should you demand anything of me?”
Slade met him eye-to-eye. “You saw why. Thirty-nine incursions to date. Not a single one has managed to penetrate that region, despite my best attempts. I believe you can get me in.”
They stared at one another, quietly measuring. Calculating. In the end, the bygone eyes closed. And Kultuq smiled.
“I think I understand.”
He crossed his arms behind his back, and began to stroll casually about the room. “The Titans made it into R’lyeh, and back out. No indication that they were stopped beforehand. But then, they had an escort. The prince of Atlantis himself, our very own amphibious superhero Aqualad. He knew about R’lyeh. Which means Atlantis knows. And with R’lyeh as your neighbor, you’re bound to set up some very dangerous watchdogs to deal with whatever might come oozing out. Or in. Given the current state of C’thulhu and his…” he gestured at the chamber containing the silent Deep One, “underlings, we can reasonably assume that whatever has been thwarting your underwater investigations is Atlantean in origin.”
Slade eyed him with a measure of delight. It was nice to not have to explain himself for a change. Kultuq stopped and regarded the supervillain with a sardonic air. “And you anticipate some assistance from me in overcoming that obstacle.”
“I can safely say,” Slade intoned dryly, “that a man of your years and experience, having decided at some point to conquer the whole world, would not have neglected to notice that 70% of that world is underwater, and under the dominion of the king of Atlantis. Some very dangerous competition. So of course, that opponent must be eliminated. Swiftly. Decisively. This is best assured through a first strike, one that could not be detected, by a device capable of delivering that blow thousands of leagues below the ocean’s surface. Would you happen to have anything that might fit the bill?”
The immortal smiled faintly. “I might.”
“Then let me have it.”
Kultuq stared at him, and the smile widened. “Think in broad terms, you said,” he smirked. “If your strategy succeeds today, I wouldn’t want to be the Sea King tomorrow.”
Slade swept his hand authoritatively through the air.
“Tell me now. Are you in?”
Kultuq looked around the dimly lit lair. He took a deep breath. Held it. And exhaled with a laugh. “No.”
“So…what? It overslept?”
“I guess so. Or something kept it from waking up.”
“Maybe not. Maybe C’thulhu really is dead this time.”
“Yeah. Trust me, it’s still down there waiting. And if not C’thulhu, then something just as bad.”
“If we only had more answers…”
“Slade and his allies have gone deep underground. There has been no sighting of them at all in three days.”
“He’s planning something.”
“Or he’s already figured out how dangerous those things are and flushed ‘em down the drain.”
“Do you want to take that risk?”
“Raven? What do you think?”
“I don’t know anymore. Excuse me. I need to go check on something.”
“This isn’t working.”
They walked together through the woods. Kultuq and Raven. There was no one to interrupt them. Finally alone together, as they hadn’t been in weeks. The decision to meet had been Kultuq’s, and Raven could find no excuse to put it off. Now the somber sorceress strolled at her paramour’s side, hidden in the folds of her concealing attire.
“It doesn’t matter. I love you.”
She looked up at him. The time since their last meeting had seen an improvement in his appearance. Kultuq was no longer the disheveled wreck that had accosted her and her friends. Now he was well-groomed, displaying one of the Imperial Chinese suits he seemed to favor both as Vandal Savage and Kultuq. Just as she had first seen him. So much had happened in her life since then. But one thing remained the same.
“I don’t love you.”
Did he falter, ever so slightly? If so it came and went swiftly, and they continued their aimless trek. “I’m still here,” Kultuq stated simply.
Raven drew to a halt. She looked at the ageless man looming over her. The hood was up, keeping her features wrapped in shadow. Keeping her safe. She was grateful for that.
“What do you think is going to happen here? Do you expect to just wait around until everyone I care about is dead, and then I’ll come running to stay with you forever?”
He turned his head to her. Calmly, as if they were discussing something different, he spoke.
“It can be forever, if you choose. We can leave today.”
That hadn’t helped. He could see that right away, by how she stared at him.
“I’m not leaving.”
“I made a promise to her.”
“She told me I could live here, if I never took another life. Even if C’thulhu did survive, the explosion would exterminate the R’lyeans…
the radiation would murder the Atlanteans on guard,
possibly everyone living on the
“Better to lose part than the whole.”
“It’s decided. I’ll be going now. Don’t contact me again.”
“She won’t leave, you know.”
“You might change, in time.”
Her dark eyes hardened. “Not going to happen. Get over it.”
“I don’t understand!” Kultuq hissed. “Why won’t you escape?! Why do you stay here at all, if you know what’s going to happen? Your friends could come with you, we could go away from…”
She shook her head. “Azerath would not accept them.”
“Not Azerath then!” Kultuq reached out and gripped Raven’s shoulders. He was beyond caring about boundaries. The hood fell away, revealing her beauty in the post-dusk air. A light breeze rippled the violet tresses around her face. “Take them elsewhere, I know there are other worlds! Take them to the Dreaming, take them to Heaven, Hell, I don’t care! Just get out of here before it’s too late!”
His words were so pleading, and Raven was seized by a wrench of emotion. Sympathy. She raised a hand to touch his face, and black energy snapped like static electricity.
“You really don’t understand, do you? That’s sad.” Her voice was shaking, and she could feel tears threatening to come out. “I can’t leave anyone here to die. Not the blackest soul. I have to try to save them all. That’s what keeps me here.”
“Raven will never leave. Wherever she came from, she’s not going back there, and she’s not taking you with her. She will die defending this world, because she wants to.”
“You don’t know her.”
“Are you always such a fool? Or is it just when you’re in love.”
“You do love her, don’t you? Do you think telling her that will change anything? I’ve watched this girl. I’ve spoken to her when there was no one else to hear us. I’ve held her dying in my arms. I don’t claim to know her motivations, but she holds her survival at no value if it comes at the cost of another. Even my own. Do you believe love will change that?”
Kultuq was awed. “You’re not a demon,” he whispered. “You’re an angel. That stupid bastard Trigon went and sired an angel.”
Raven’s eyes shut, and two tears flowed fast down her cheeks. She leaned her forehead against his chest, crying softly. His arms encircled her as she shook from the strength of her own feelings. Around them shafts of black light shot out of the earth like knives, and the ground trembled. Neither of them moved. The demon magic couldn’t hurt them.
“You once told me that you didn’t love,” Kultuq murmured, stroking her hair gently. “It’s not true. Even if it is, you still care! More than anyone I’ve met in 50,000 years. Protecting people is what’s in your heart, but there’s also a great deal of fear about what you might do to them. So you’re not in total control of yourself, so what? You’ve chosen to be the Earth’s guardian angel. You could have stayed in Azerath forever, but you chose to come here and try to save Unizue.” He felt her body grow tense against his. “She wouldn’t let you, I know. But even then you remained, because you recognized what it meant to care for more than just one person.”
“That’s the difference between you and me, Raven,” Kultuq realized suddenly. “I stopped caring years ago. People came, but I knew they wouldn’t last, so I never gave them much consideration. They were just props moving in and out of the one-man show that was my life. Then you appeared, and all that changed. You told me I had to start caring again. And I remembered how. It’s easy, once it comes back to you.”
“Change is not impossible. I am living proof.”
“This won’t stop me. I’ll find another way.”
“You won’t do it unopposed.”
“Do you intend to be my enemy?”
“No. I tell you now, I will not hinder you in any way. Nor will I help. That is the extent of my involvement in this.”
“Your involvement will be the same as the rest of us, once C’thulhu returns.”
“I still have time. I will try to make good use of it.”
“She’ll die too.”
“Stay away from her.”
“Her fight is not yours.”
“But I still care.”
“You’ll regret this.”
“You’re right. I will. But not for a long time, I hope.”
The hellish outburst dwindled. Raven’s crying was subsiding too. It came to her just how close they were to one another. She pushed away, but slowly. There was no awkwardness, it was just very new.
“I think you do love, Raven.” Kultuq smiled. “Many people. You just don’t recognize what you feel.”
She dried her eyes on her sleeves. “You could be right. I’ve tried not to think about it, the same way I was trying to avoid you.”
The older man beamed. “Do you know what this reminds me of?”
“The day we met?”
Raven took a step back and regarded him, head tilted to one side.
“I never told you, but I felt really good about that night. When you first came back, I was glad to hear it.”
Kultuq smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry things didn’t go so well.”
“It wasn’t your fault. Not entirely, anyway. Believe me, I know I can be a difficult person to live around.”
He extended his arm to her. “The benefits far outweigh the costs.”
She looked at his offering, and then shyly slipped her arm through his. Her other hand rested on his forearm, and together they continued walking beneath the boughs.
“So… is this love?” the sorceress opined.
“It’s a beginning.” The immortal smiled down at her.
“I’m willing to try now.”
“Thank you, my love.”
Their journey led them along an idyllic way, past gurgling streams and bushes that rustled slightly to the unseen rhythm of the wind.
“Thank you for the roses. I… love them.”
“I knew you would.”
Slade strode down the corridor,
with Twist at his side. “Contact Methodius in the
“He costs too much.” The voice was murmuring and resonant, one of Twist’s favorites. She used it only for him.
“Then throw his life into the deal. See how much he values that.”
“What should we do about the old man?”
The mega-criminal gave a desultory nod. “We’ll show him his due of respect. And plan for any treachery. Our location is secure for now. That’s…”
The voice of Serenade sounded in his ear, and the nemesis of the Titans halted.
“What is it?”
“There’s some footage on the Internet I think you should see.”
“Raven!” Cyborg waived at her from the rooftop. ”I was just coming to look for you.”
The blue-garbed beauty touched down and appraised her metallic friend.
“Trouble?” she asked.
“Maybe. Dinner’s ready.”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “Who made it?”
“Robin.” A wicked grin touched his face. “And Starfire.”
Raven blew out her breath. “Tell them I already ate.” Her stomach growled, and she cursed it silently. Cyborg laughed at her.
“Come on.” He draped an arm around her shoulders and ushered her to the stairs. “It’s easy to avoid the stuff Starfire makes. Just pick out anything that moves.”
“I feel a stomachache coming on.”
“You and me both.”
Kultuq laughed to himself at the foolish notion. And then paused. Raven, bedecked in silk and lace, a veil taking the place of her omnipresent hood, her train extending back 20 ft. In her hands, a bouquet of blue roses. The ceremony would be outdoors, of course, since neither of them subscribed to any recognizable faith, and…
“Gods!” The ancient one drew to a halt. “I’m a love-struck fool again.” Then he let out a loud ‘Whoop!’ and leapt high into the air. He clicked his heels. Just because he could. Then Kultuq threw himself on the sofa and flailed about screaming for the very same reason. This bout of manic energy quickly subsided into gales of helpless laughter, until Time’s nomad spent himself and lay in a tangled heap. He stared up at the ceiling, glad that he had finally acted upon a renovation. In his previous moribund state, the wreckage of Raven’s last visit had been all he had of her. A curious and costly memento. Cleaning up was a natural reaction to their renewed affair.
“She loves me not,” he whispered to the empty house. “She can’t help it. Maybe in a hundred years, I can steal a kiss. What a wait.”
And Kultuq grinned. “But worth it.”
There was so much they could do, and a whole world in which to do it. Live for today, forget about the past and tomorrow. He was building a new life, after all. Where to start? Earth’s permanent resident fell to musing, mulling over sites of interest and topics of note.
In his pocket, the cell phone buzzed loudly. He pulled the device out and snapped it open.
“Turn on the news. Now.”
“I made it clear we were done.”
A dial tone greeted him. Kultuq stared at the phone. Debating. Calculating. He put it down. Picked up the remote. And turned on the TV.
A few clicks to a local channel and…
“…isturbing sight, and panic is already starting to grow as word of a potential alien invasion becomes widespread.”
A beach in the northern part of the state. A prim, professionally-dressed woman with too much makeup talking to the camera, standing at the edge of a crowd of people.
“Can we get a close-up?”
The picture focus zoomed past her, shooting out to the water’s edge. The mob of curious onlookers had left a wide semi-circle of empty sand at the edge of the sea. In that clearing’s center, arms spread, head to the sky, waves lapping around its feet…
There stood a Deep One.
The remote fell to the floor with a clatter.
A moment later, Kultuq’s knees hit the wood. His body went cold, heart thudding hugely in his chest like it might explode. Onscreen, the R’lyean swayed in one place, its mouth opening and closing as it grunted forth some incomprehensible dirge. Paramedics were on the scene. Some people had fainted. Others lapsed into screaming fits. A SWAT team was now erecting a barricade around it, ushering the onlookers away from the disturbance. All the while, C’thulhu’s creature continued its song.
“No. No no nonononono.”
Kultuq realized that it was him saying that. It felt as if his mind was sliding away. At any moment, he would go mad. He could feel it. Crawling over his brain. Calling out for him. Soon reflex would kick in, and he would lose his sanity to hold onto his soul. There was no other solution that made sense.
In his hand, the phone rang again. And rang. And rang. And kept on ringing.
He pushed a button, and held it to his ear.
“Our time is up,” Slade spoke. “We have to act now. You know what must be done.”
“Trick,” Kultuq slurred. “This is a trick. You’re trying to trick me.”
“Check the international channels.”
He did. The Mexican news.
“Make it stop,” Kultuq whispered hoarsely. “Please make it stop.”
“I will.” Slade’s voice was steel. It carried not even a trace of fear. Only a quiet resolve that caught its listener by the throat and demanded his full attention. “There’s still a chance. Satellite images show no sign of R’lyeh surfacing. This may be just a precursor. Give me what I need before it’s too late.”
“It’s coming,” came the whispered reply.
“Yes. Coming for all of us. And her.”
Hunched on the floor, clutching the tiny device for all its worth, Kultuq’s head shot up, eyes wide. “Raven.”
“It will take her,” the voice lilted softly. “It will use her in ways that will…”
“Make her choke on her own blood, and tear her eyes from her head!”
“Remember what needs doing. Something only men like you and I can do. It’s time to kill.”
“You made a promise. But keeping it won’t save anyone’s life now. Especially not Raven’s. She’ll fight it and die.”
Kultuq’s eyes flared suddenly.
“Think. And choose.”
He did as the voice commanded. He thought.
He thought about his past. And his future. He wrapped his mind around a vision of Raven. And shrank as he saw her pulled from him by a pack of howling wrecks of men, dragged across the sand by her hair, and thrown alive into a reeking stone well. But not before they had done everything to her that they had to him.
The anger woke up in him.
The rage kindled.
The blood-lust screamed.
He scrambled across the floor, frothing and gouging his nails into the wood. Reaching the table stump, he pounded on its surface until the interface came up.
Login name: Savage.
Locate the files. Attach to the message. Send NOW.
“TAKE IT!” Vandal Savage screamed. “TAKE IT AND KILL THE BASTARD! KILL THEM ALL!!!”
The cell-phone went dead. It dropped from his hand.
Savage fell to the ground with a groan. He lay there. After a while, he closed his eyes.
“What have you done?” Kultuq whispered.
The bay doors began to cycle open, revealing the runway. Maintenance crewmen scrambled to get out of the way. They had been working hard for almost an hour, fueling and prepping the craft. They were professional, dedicated, and in a few minutes none of them would remember doing any of this.
Slade flicked a bank of switches, keying on the SR-71’s engines. The sound of the supersonic propulsion system warming up filled the hangar.
“Green light means go,” Serenade sang over the radio.
“Loading is complete,” Twist called in.
“Our course is set,” Slade announced. “Prepare for takeoff.”
“Hey, hold up,” Manifest spluttered from the seat beside him. “Aren’t we forgetting somebody?”
From the observation booth on the wall, Serenade gave a cheerful wave, and then slipped past several smiling flight coordinators and disappeared from view. The ship began to taxi out of its berth. “All those going are already onboard,” Slade said.
“Well, how come the Last Empress isn’t coming along for the ride? Why does she get to sit this one out?”
“I’m done, Lollipop Stick,” the female mercenary’s haunting tones resonated in their ears. “Money’s in the bank. Go save the world for me, hero.”
The plane exited the hangar,
out into the serene quiet of the
“Then why am I still needed?”
The reconfigured bomber rumbled beneath them. Manifest was starting to sweat.
“You are insurance in case of trouble.” The single dark gray eye turned to fix him with a deadly glare. “It’s the life you chose to live, for more money than you should ever be allowed.” He produced a small tube and passed it over to his trembling hire. “Take this and be quick about it. We’ll be there by the time you wake up.”
“This bites.” Manifest reached out and grasped the device gingerly. “This bites so bad, I hate flying. I hate not being able to switch.” He placed the tip of the mini-hypo to his arm and depressed the switch. “Are you sure… you’ll know how to work that thing, when we…?” His shoulders sagged, and he was asleep.
With a rumble, the fastest
lower atmosphere vehicle in the
Starfire nudged a fallen Skulker with her toe. Off to the side, Robin was speaking to one of the officers on the scene. The city’s inhabitants were trickling back into sight, eager to catch a glimpse of their triumphant protectors after the latest battle.
The fight had been short, but vicious. Without warning, calls had flooded in reporting squads of Skulkers at various spots throughout town. The Teen Titans had separated into three groups, Cyborg and Beast Boy together, Raven on her own. Even though they all knew this was exactly the sort of divide-and-conquer tactic that Slade had utilized in his last assault on the city, they also could not ignore the threat to their wards. And this time, they had help. The police had learned from past mistakes, arriving swiftly and armed with the latest law enforcement armaments to aid their teenage counterparts in the fight to retain control of the city. With their support, the threat had been subdued in record time. Now all that was left was clean-up. And questions.
The Titans’ leader finished his discussion and rejoined the princess. “The others have all reported in.” Reaching up, he removed the ultra/sub-harmonic scramblers from his ears. “No sign of Slade or his hired hands. Not even a chance to see if these things would work.” He slipped the devices back into his utility belt.
“Such random devastation.” Starfire turned her head and gestured at the trashed streets and smoking skyline of the business district. “We should rejoin the others quickly. I do not feel comfortable at all being separated like this. There seems to be no purpose to these assaults except to get our attention.”
“That’s probably exactly what Slade had in mind,” Robin bit out grimly.
“But at least the battle is over,” the warrior-girl announced brightly. “And now we can begin to search for clues.” She let her natural joy carry her up into the air. “Robin, are you coming?”
The masked hero stood motionless.
In front of him was the shattered window of an electronics superstore. In spite of the recent devastation, a big-screen TV remained intact and functional. Robin was staring at it as if mesmerized.
Confused, Starfire slipped down to join him. She raised a hand to touch him on the shoulder, but froze halfway there.
On the television, police in
Starfire gasped as she recognized it. Beside her, Robin’s communicator flicked open.
“Titans. Assemble back at the Tower on the double. We’ve got R’lyeans on the loose.”
If there’s one thing that tells you a deserted island might not be so deserted, it’s a landing strip in the middle of the jungle. The runway ended on the side of an unremarkable hill.
Slade called up the appropriate program on his laptop, and entered the password.
Almost immediately, a rectangular line appeared in the hill. It lifted up, dislodging dirt and tropical plants to reveal a hangar. The criminal mastermind guided his craft in, and the hillside shut behind them. Slade then keyed open the bomb-bay doors. Beside him, Manifest stirred and fumbled groggily for his seat-straps.
“Twist!” the supervillain called as he climbed down the ladder. From the hatches on the ship’s underbelly, a spindly form untangled itself and dropped with surprising grace to the concrete floor. Twist stretched herself upright, and then turned to face him.
“Our transportation is one floor down and one dock over. The base is unmanned, and I’ve already shut off the security measures. I want the ship loaded and ready for takeoff in one hour.”
She bowed her head in response.
There was a shout from off to the side, and Manifest tumbled out of the cockpit.
“Are we there yet?”
“Are they the ones Slade took?”
“No. I’ve made some calls. There’re hundreds of them all over the Pacific.”
“But R’lyeh still isn’t rising.”
“We should warn Aqualad.”
“My guess is he knew before we did.”
The Titans drove along the submerged tunnel to their island. The mood in the T-Car was restrained. They all knew this could only mean one thing.
“C’thulhu will awaken soon.” Starfire gazed plaintively at the faces of her friends. Blue lights flashed intermittently over their features, more dear to her than any others.
“But why?” Cyborg mused aloud. “Why is it happening now?”
Robin kept his arms crossed, head bowed in concentration. “Who knows? You say that the Deep Ones were expecting C’thulhu to revive over 300,000 years ago?”
“Yes,” Raven rubbed her eyes. “Obviously it didn’t work out as planned.”
“Maybe they got the timing wrong?” Beast Boy’s voice was thin, and his face looked haggard. He had not cracked a single joke the whole time.
“No.” Raven insisted beside him. “C'thulhu is the spark that guides their beings. He’s the only thing in the world to them. Everything they know comes through him. If his revival didn’t occur when they expected, it means that something went wrong.”
The T-Car came to a smooth stop in Cyborg’s underground garage. The Titans hopped out and made their way over to the hydraulic lift. “A weakness, maybe?” Robin hazarded as they began the ascent. “Something, or someone, that kept it from coming back to life?”
“That’s nice and vague,” Cyborg grunted. “Just what do we know for sure?”
Beast Boy was hunched down on the floor. It was plain to see that he was not taking the news very well. Raven laid a comforting hand on top of his head, then looked up at the others. “One thing I never bothered to think of until now. When I spoke to Unizue, she told me that they were waiting for the city to rise again. So then that means, at one point, R’lyeh was above water.”
Starfire placed a finger thoughtfully to her chin. “You believe the city was sunk on purpose, perhaps to keep C’thulhu from returning? How? Why?”
“Mother Nature, act of God, who knows?” The goth Titan looked around her. “We’re just grasping at straws here. But if C’thulhu had to wait on a certain configuration of stars to come back, maybe it actually had to be able to see the stars, and that’s why submerging R’lyeh in the ocean disrupted its life-cycle.”
The rise arrived at the upper levels. “There’s no point in just guessing.” Robin led them all out. “We’ll try to contact Aqualad and see if he or his father can tell us more about the city’s history. After that we…?”
The Titans entered the main hallway and stopped.
Standing before them was Vandal Savage.
He had one hand pressed against the wall, as if for support. His eyes darted back and forth frantically over them, searching for something. Raven stepped to the front of the group. “What…?”
“HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?!!” Robin yelled.
Vandal started, and took a few steps back. He fixed a pleading, miserable gaze on them.
He looked like an injured animal, lying on the highway with a car speeding towards it. Raven shivered at his obvious pain. “We know. We’re going to try to stop it.” She took a few steps towards him.
“NO!” Savage closed his eyes. Clutching his head, he shook it wildly from side to side. “Slade! You have to go after Slade.”
Robin’s ears perked up. A new sense of foreboding shot up Raven’s spine. “What are you saying?”
The immortal’s hands dropped to hang limply at his sides. “You wouldn’t… leave,” he whispered. “I thought we would have more time together. A few months? It couldn’t end now, not when I was just starting to live again. I had to try and stop it! Couldn’t bear to see… what they did to you…!”
“Is he drunk?” Beast Boy hazarded.
Cyborg shook his head. “He can’t be, remember?”
“What about Slade?” Robin pressed.
Savage’s gaze fell wandering over the floor. “He came to me. Told me what he had learned. There’s an antimatter bomb, four of them, and he needed a way to get them into R’lyeh, past the Kraken’s Coils. At first I said no, but then I heard… and I knew… it was coming.” He started violently. “I broke my promise, Raven. There wasn’t enough time. I wanted to be with you for as long as I could, I had to…”
Raven didn’t move. The other Titans stared at the two of them uncertainly.
“Raven?” Cyborg spoke up hesitantly. “Is this guy in lov…?”
A snarl, a snap of black magic. Raven sprang across the room and pounced on Vandal Savage. She grabbed his head and wrenched it down, twisting it past human limits. The undying criminal hung from her grip without resistance. Dark energy shot from her eyes into his. The rest of the Titans stared in horror.
Then she let go, and Savage fell back with a gasp. He reached an unsteady, pleading hand for her. Between them, a curtain of black fire sprang up, and he snatched his arm back. It smoked and burnt hellishly before finally restoring itself.
“I warned you.”
The voice was low, it rumbled with a demonic timbre. “You made a promise to me, and now you’ve broken it. And when I get back…”
Raven stopped. There was too much pain, and shock. The hope she had fostered only recently was torn out by the roots from this betrayal. Tears of magic streamed down her face. “When I get back I am going to keep my promise to you! I am going to send you away to where you will never hurt anyone ever again!”
She raised her arms, and the fire blazed. It became a raven, and turned its head to scream at the cowering form of Vandal Savage. Then the midnight avian dove backwards, swallowing Raven and the Titans. It streaked through the walls, over the ocean, into the open sky. Faster than anything in existence, it shot towards the west.
Alone again, scared and cold, Kultuq curled up. Waiting for his world to end.
And it would. One way or another.
Aqualad joined his father on the bridge. The Sea King gave an order, and the entire Atlantean fleet began to move out. Three hours after reported contact with what the royal family recognized as a R’lyean, the military might of Earth’s oldest human empire sailed toward an unimpressive patch of ocean. There to rendezvous with a division of their brethren none of them knew had existed until today. It was Atlantis’ call of judgement, a battle the city’s leaders had envisioned since the cataclysm of old, when they had learned of the ocean’s darkest secret after a failed attempt by monster magic to raise the dead hulk of R’lyeh had instead sunk an entire continent.
Briefly, Aqualad considered contacting his friends on the surface, but decided not to. This was their moment of destiny, and the land-dwellers need not know of it. Should Atlantis triumph, they would sleep never knowing the gruesome fate they had so narrowly evaded. And if not…
Nothing. There would be nothing left. Only the curse of C’thulhu forever.
The cargo elevator descended through the floor and into the underground dock, giving the three self-appointed avengers their first look at Vandal Savage’s contribution to their efforts.
“Whoa. Dark,” Manifest murmured. Slade nodded in satisfaction. Even Twist showed some interest, craning her neck to get a better view.
Shaped like a curved arrowhead, the sea craft lay at berth in the watery stillness. Its surface was black and completely devoid of features, at least from a distance. As the trio watched, a ripple suddenly passed from the ship’s prow and diverged ‘til it reached both tips.
“Nano-based coating,” Slade supplied to their unspoken question. “One of the more eye-catching achievements of the SlipStream. It’s the surface world’s most advanced hit-and-run weapon. When activated, the Slipwave system channels radar beacons along the hull without any noticeable detection. Heat and sonar signatures are useless since all emissions are completely internalized. Upon full deployment the coating records visual information external to the craft and forms a video screen that copies the surrounding environment perfectly, making it completely undetectable. Long-range navigation is achieved by analyzing the Earth’s magnetic field, and short-range systems are governed by a dome of nano-bots extending six-hundred meters in every direction around the ship. Designed for an underwater cruise speed of 80 nautical miles per hour, SlipStream is the greatest innovation ever in underwater war.”
The elevator came to a halt.
“Let’s get moving.”
A black magic phoenix shot across the globe. It defied space and time, upsetting the laws of physics just enough to get its five occupants from one side of the Pacific to another in less than a split-second. Using the information ripped from Vandal Savage’s mind, it zeroed in on one out of many tiny nameless atolls. The shadowy raptor descended on the cleared field, depositing the Teen Titans gently and then winking out of existence. Four of them blinked and squinted against the tropical sunlight.
“Come on,” Raven snapped, and began to fly towards a featureless hill at the edge of the field. Her compatriots ran to catch up.
“Raven!” Robin shouted as he drew abreast of her. “What’s going on?”
The sorceress did not look at him, didn’t even slow down. “Savage gave Slade a vessel that will allow him to enter R’lyeh. Once there, he’s going to try to destroy the city with antimatter bombs.”
“Hey, stop, wait!” Beast Boy transformed from a deer. “Just how exactly is that a problem?”
At this, Raven did pause. She descended to Earth and held herself very still. But before she could respond, Robin spoke up.
“Beast Boy, combining matter with antimatter converts the whole thing into pure energy. It makes nuclear bombs look like a sneeze. The energy comes out in many different forms, including radiation.”
“Should he trigger the bomb underwater,” Starfire spoke up, “it will unleash enough power to kill the R’lyeans, and quite possible everyone and everything living in this area for hundreds of miles.”
“The Kraken’s Coils, the city
“None of us could.” Raven drew a deep breath. “If these are our last days, we’ll do what we’ve always done. Save people.” The lilac-eyed maiden turned and looked at her closest friends. “I’ll do anything to keep you all safe. And I don’t want to lose a single life because I made the mistake of letting Vandal Savage run free.”
Beast Boy met her eye. Slowly, he nodded his head in agreement.
They turned and raced for the hill. Raven gestured, and the door tore itself open and went sailing into the underbrush. The Titans entered the complex.
“Gently,” Slade cautioned. Twist reached into the transport case and removed a gleaming cylinder two feet in length. She inched over to an opened torpedo, stepping carefully over its inert explosive contents, and laid the cylinder inside the weapon’s cavity.
“Manifest. The detonator.”
The slender thief stood unmoving.
Slade turned on him. “What is it?”
Manifest raised a tentative hand. “There’s somebody here with us. They just… popped up on the island.” He concentrated. “Five of them.” The grinning brigand looked at his employer. “I think we all know who that must be.”
The one-eyed super-criminal considered this for a moment. “So Savage had a change of heart.”
“Hey, Boss-man,” Manifest piped up. “How about I take care of them while you two keep working? Yeah…” he continued as Slade fixed him with a baleful stare, “I can handle those turkeys myself. Or at least keep them out of your hair until you’re safe at sea. You’re the ones who know what you’re doing here anyway, right? This is the whole reason I came along. Besides, I wasn’t exactly relishing the thought of going underwater. And all that that implies.”
Slade looked at him. Then he turned back to the torpedo assembly. “If you feel up to the challenge, then by all means proceed.”
Behind his mask, Manifest smirked. “Sweet. See-ya, Stretch!” he called to Twist. “Fifty bucks says I make it back stateside before you do, super-sonic sniper rifle or not.”
The corded menace directed a lethal look at him, and Manifest chose that moment to abandon ship. Both of the remaining occupants continued their work.
Passing by the empty Blackbird, the Teen Titans proceeded to investigate. “Hey Raven,” their shape shifter whispered, “Why don’t you just slip through this place all teleporty, find the ship and crush it into tinfoil?”
She looked over at him. “There are antimatter bombs somewhere in here, remember? Do you want to be around if they get crushed?”
“Oh yeah. I forgot.”
Robin signaled to Beast Boy, who nodded and quickly transformed into a Doberman. At the same time, the Boy Wonder settled the sub/ultra-harmonic scramblers into his ears. The superheroes moved warily across the hangar to a door at the far end. “Azerath Metrion Zinthos.” The portal opened with minimal resistance.
“Y’know you’d make a great burglar, Raven,” Cyborg quipped.
“Hush,” Starfire raised a hand. “Something is there.”
The Titans entered a large chamber. The room was completely bare, with a ceiling lost in shadows. At the far end, an elevator offered access to the lower floors. And between them and it, there stood an eerie figure.
The door closed behind them, and the Titans spread out in a line. Whatever was at the center of the room was still as a statue, and dressed almost entirely in white. It stood turned to one side, and the more they looked, the more confused they became. The head was concealed by a helmet shaped like a cone. A red bill protruded over distorted facial features, and the same thing was repeated on the back of the helmet. The chest and shoulders were encased in a smoothly molded symmetrical armor. Arms and legs were skinny to the point of being almost indistinguishable from front to back. Identical pairs of red shoes stuck out in either direction. For all the world, it looked like two people standing back to back had been joined together.
The group hesitated, uncertain how to proceed.
“Who are you?” Robin called.
His voice echoed through the empty room. Suddenly the figure spun on one heel to face them, revealing a crooked crimson countenance. The red slash of a mouth sneered in frozen mirth.
“Who are you?” an electronically distorted voice reverberated from the helm. “No no, wait. Let me guess.”
The man raised the cannon on his arm to tap his head thoughtfully. “Lessee here.” It slowly leveled to point at Robin, who tensed in preparation. “Gomez,” the costumed enigma spoke lyrically. It redirected its aim to Starfire. “Morticia.” Over to Raven, Beast Boy, and Cyborg. “Wednesday, Pugsley and Lurch. It’s the Addams Family!” And he wrapped his arms around himself and screamed with laughter, a manic high-pitched titter.
At the sound, Cyborg’s good eye grew wide, and his teeth clenched. “It’s you,” the hulking teen growled.
The white clown spun on his heel again, revealing a face and back that were indistinguishable from the front. “You got that right, Tin Turkey!”
Raven flicked a glance at her comrade. “Cyborg, is that…?”
He nodded his head. “The guy from the police station. The one who attacked Patty. Mr. Red-Eye.”
“Attacked?” The villain raised a hand to his breast and feigned hurt. “You exaggerate, Mr. Coffee. I don’t hurt helpless women. Not the way I did you, I mean. I’m actually pretty popular with the ladies.” He turned a winking leer on the wide-eyed Starfire. “Ah, that Come-Hither stare.”
He then shifted over to Raven,
and gave an exaggerated leap back. “Yikes! That Get-Thee-Hence
glare! Okay,” the maniac chortled mirthfully. “Okay, enough sideshow. You’re
obviously here to prevent our little ‘Charge up
A birderang appeared in either of Robin’s hands, and Starfire’s eyes flamed with power. Raven’s hands glowed,
and from behind her cloak a green
Before anyone could make a further move, Cyborg raised a hand.
“You guys go on ahead. Do what we came here to do.” He stared fixedly at the grinning ghoul not thirty feet away. “This one’s all mine.”
“Are you certain?” Starfire asked.
“Yeah, Robocop, you sure?” his adversary taunted him.
Cyborg’s left eye burned with a crimson fury. “I’m sure. Now go.”
Reluctantly, the other Titans accepted their teammate’s decision. They moved off to either side of him, and began to edge down the length of the hall, keeping close watch on the demented supervillain. Their enemy did not move to stop them, only placed his free hand on his hip in a sardonic fashion.
“Now what makes you think that it’s gonna be that easy? If you want to fight, that’s fine by me. Plenty to go around. Oh, and incidentally, just so we’re on a first name basis, I’m called…”
His other arm jerked upward. Far quicker, Cyborg’s sonic cannon deployed and fired. The blue beam streaked across the room.
It hit, and Robin screamed.
At the same time, Starfire froze as she found herself staring down the barrel of a multi-pronged battle cannon.
Twin heat beams sprang forth and connected with her chest. The princess flew back with a cry.
“Robin!” Cyborg shouted. His scanners tracked around the room, locating the figure of his target. He aimed his blaster again. Manifest just looked at him, and started laughing. The metal man paused. What just happened?!
“Confused?” the lunatic sneered. “Here, let me make it clear for you.”
He pointed his weapon at the floor, and a conical device shot out to embed itself point-first in the cement. On its tip, a red light began to blink, faster and faster. The criminal raised his hand and waived at the immobilized Cyborg.
Raven stared, and realization struck. Before she could open her mouth, before she could even think to…
Suddenly Cyborg stood over the glowing bomb, and Manifest was across the room in his place.
A second later, it blew.
Cyborg was flung off his feet to collide with a steel post. He slid down it and hit the ground hard. Over the sound of the explosion came the distorted laugh of a madman.
“He can switch!”
In the center of the room, Robin had risen to his feet. Starfire floated by his side, the metal of her collar plate melted and smoking.
“Don’t attack him! He can switch places with people!”
“You’re quick,” Manifest sneered, and fired a deadly beam at him. The young martial artist dodged nimbly aside, drawing a disc instinctively. Suddenly it was Starfire in his line of fire, and without thinking he dove to one side, barely avoiding an attack from the spot the alien warrior had just occupied.
“Titans!” he called. “Snowblind!”
The disc flew straight up into the air, and on ingrained response, every Titan ducked their heads.
A split second later the magnesium bomb went off, and the room was filled with blinding white-hot light. As it faded, the five heroes came quickly to their feet.
Manifest now stood where Cyborg had once been, his arms raised before him and flailing blindly. “I can’t see!” he shouted. “Help me! I’m blind! Somebody get me a seeing-eye dog.” And then it was Beast Boy standing there, staring uncertainly about him in human form. From behind Raven, there was a click. An arm wrapped around her waist, and a sharp blade twelve inches long hovered at her throat.
“Sorry, false alarm,” her captor breathed, and looked at Robin scornfully. “Did you really expect that would work? This helmet’s not just to protect my secret identity, rich boy. It gives me 360° vision, and scans out any light levels that could damage my eyes. Try the sound throwing disc next. I’ll enjoy watching your friends writhing in pain while the same blockers you’re sporting protect my ears from anything over 85 decibels. No applause,” his helmet leaned close to Raven’s ear. “Just throw money.”
Everything went black.
The room became pure ebony before his eyes, all tinted in white, and Manifest found himself unable to move. Raven slid down out of the crook of his arm. She turned to face him, her eyes smoldering, hands raised to crush him.
There was a crack and burst of black light, and then it was Robin standing there.
“Whew!” Manifest shouted, dusting off his armor. “That was scary, my little Pouty-Mouth. Ever since I was hired for this gig, I’ve been curious about whether I can play musical chairs with the Green Goober when he’s an animal, and with you if my gear’s possessed. Now we know.” He punched his fist into the air with a delighted shout. “I’m stronger than all of you! Not one of you’s got the goods on me! You can run or teleport or whatever, but the result’s still gonna be the same. You all go down, and I get paid enough money to buy your stupid city and everyone in it!”
At the front of his helmet, hidden eyes flicked up and down. The scene in front of him was playing on one screen, and in the left corner of it, everything at his back showed up in a small rectangular format. Now cockier than ever, he watched the Titans recover. “So what’s the next move, heroes? Maybe you can reach deep down within, harness your inner spiritual strength, and proceed to defeat me in righteous combat! No wait! You should try using the power of True Love!” The thief gave a bark of laughter. “Hang on, I’ve got it! All of you combine your powers into your weakest member, and thereby create…. SUPER ROBIN!! DUN-DU-DU-DUNNNNN!!!” He twirled in mockery, and then stood straight once more.
The teen goth looked down, to where Robin crouched behind her.
“He was right,” the Boy Wonder whispered. “Savage was right about this guy, he’s an amateur. Think about it. With a power like that, he could have crippled us with one bomb in the first second. But he’s just showing off, like a kid wanting attention. And I’m betting he’s not used to getting hit by anything. We probably only need one good shot to beat him.”
“Hey! Captain Color Wheel!” The crimson-streaked criminal waived an arm. “Why don’t you speak up so everyone can hear you? Let’s hear the big plan, Deep Pockets.”
In response, Robin rose to his feet. A lazy smile touched his lips. “For a guy who found his costume at the bottom of a discount Halloween bin, you like to dish out a lot of insults, Manifest.” He moved slowly past Raven.
The criminal’s whole body went rigid. In that moment, Robin’s hand strayed behind his back. He swiveled his fingers around in a circle, a signal Raven knew. Her thoughts reached out to touch the minds of her teammates.
“Don’t you dare insult me, you puny little prick!” Manifest fumed. “What do you bring to this team, anyway? You haven’t got any superpowers, but you and your buddies live like kings on your private island. I figured you out a long time ago, you’re a rich boy! Just a spoiled brat hiding behind a mask and playing hero until his trust fund kicks in!”
“Got an awful lot of anger in you towards something you want to become,” Robin drawled. The five Titans eased in around their nemesis. He made no move to counteract them, only stood there, brimming with confidence and hatred.
“I can see you, you know,” Manifest spat. “The old ‘Rile-Up-The-Villain-So-He-Loses-His-Cool’ trick? I think you’ve been doing this gig for too long. Did your rich Mommy and Daddy buy you that mask so no one would know you were their kid, rich boy?!”
Robin stopped and smiled. “Better than that disposable diaper you’re wearing.”
Manifest’s arm shot up, his cannon quaking with fury. They were all around him now, Robin and Raven in front, Beast Boy, Cyborg and Starfire behind.
“Go write me a check, you stupid leech! It’s the only thing you’re good at!”
“Can you break a five?” Raven chimed in. “You’re not worth much more.”
The weapon snapped to her. “Shut up, you …you creepy little…!”
“Scrawny little wimp,” Cyborg swore. The velociraptor beside him snarled.
“Sylpak Flubnut!” Starfire shouted.
Manifest spun about. “WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?!”
Starfire’s left arm shot out, and a star-bolt burned forth at him.
An identical blast flashed towards Beast Boy.
The dinosaur swung its tail at Cyborg, who was firing double sonic cannons aimed at both Manifest and Raven.
Raven to Robin, Robin to Starfire. Standing at exactly the same distance from their enemy as each other, the Titans directed attacks at everyone in the room, and the shadows were lit by the resulting explosion.
When they arrived, Aqualad felt his stomach churn. The sea was virtually alive with the spawn of C’thulhu. From the darkness of the ocean they came, faster than sharks, glowing with the unhealthy fetor of their execrable master. Members of the Kraken’s Coils launched their attacks on the ancient enemy, creating a maelstrom that churned the seas.
The Deep Ones made no reprisals. They streaked through the night-black waters, apparently taking no notice of the danger, concerned with nothing more than breaking through the ranks.
Outside the flagship, Aqualad suddenly felt the presence of his father ringing out, carrying the unmistakable mark of royal command. For a moment, the war before them ceased, the 17th fleet in its entirety digesting the presence of the king and their compatriots.
And then, for the first time in history, the whole of the Atlantean military joined together to defend the world.
“IDIOTS! Fools! You like that?! Huh? Do ya? You like how that feels?!!”
The Teen Titans lay unmoving. In the center of the ring of forms, the smoke of their combined attack cleared. Twenty feet above it floated Manifest. From the heels of his boots twin jet panels burned the air into superheated ripples.
“Who’s laughing now, dorks?” Manifest screamed crazily, descending back to ground level. “Who’s the greatest, I ask you?! It’s me!!” He laughed so much that he drooled, his eyes flickering from the sight of one downed opponent to another, lost in his victory. “Super heroes. HAH!” The white menace pirouetted about in ecstasy, shaking his fists wildly at the whole world. “Not the Man of Steel, not the World’s Greatest Detective, and not you! Nobody… NOBODY can bring me down! I’m the most powerful person on the planet! I’M MANIFEST!!”
He pumped his left arm, firing a laser blast into the ceiling, and Cyborg shot back up.
The hatches on the bionic warrior’s chest flew open, bombs burst out, streaking with deadly intent.
And something struck him in the chest.
The villain gasped, switching again. He regained his balance, and turned his attention around the room.
Across the way, Cyborg smiled at him.
“You!” the maniac snarled. “How did you…?!”
He stopped short. Stuck to the bio-mechanical hero’s torso, there was an X-shaped device. On it a round screen sprang into life, displaying the number 60. This became 59, and 58.
“W-what…?” Manifest stuttered. The other Titans stood up. Attached now to each of them was a small glowing ‘X’ with a timer. The pale thief reached up to touch his breastplate, and felt the foreign implement suction-plated to the white armor. He stared aghast at his attacker, who still stood there smirking smugly.
“You think I’m stupid?!!” Manifest screamed. “You’re not gonna blow up your whole team just to get me!”
“You’re right. I’m not.” The robot powerhouse raised his arm. A panel on it flicked open, and he tapped in a sequence of code. “Deactivating bombs 2 through 6.”
Around the room there were identical clatters as the defunct devices dropped harmlessly from their targets’ bodies, leaving only one still active. Manifest stared.
“You can’t do this,” he whispered in shocked tones. “You… can’t do this.”
Cyborg came to his feet. “Everybody put some distance between each other,” he called out, and grinned wickedly. “This is gonna be large!”
They obeyed, leaving their enemy standing by himself.
The helpless villain spun about wildly. “No, you… YOU CAN’T DO THIS!!” he screamed, and switched.
Manifest fired his beams at Cyborg, who dodged out of the way.
He switched again, and again, lobbing missiles at the Titans, but his aim was off, and they exploded without harming anyone.
“NO!” Manifest shrieked, and began to claw frantically at the bomb. It remained stuck fast.
With a curse he flung the cannon off his arm. Switching all the time, he fumbled with both hands at his torso plate.
His fingers scrabbled desperately for the latches as he staggered about.
Couldn’t find them!
He froze in one place.
A black hole opened at Robin’s feet, and he dropped down into it. Reemerging in a crouch behind Manifest, the Titans’ leader deployed his bo-staff, brought it up with a powerful swing, and smashed the weapon in between the villain’s legs.
No one moved, or spoke.
The staff snapped back into Robin’s palm, and he stood up.
A shudder passed through Manifest’s frame. Slowly, he began to cave in, crumpling and shrinking down towards the floor.
A single large metal hand tapped his chest. Another pushed his head back up, and the bulging eyes registered Cyborg standing in front of him.
“Hi. Name’s Cyborg. It’s nice to meet you…”
The other hand clenched, and drove into the grinning red face with superhuman force. Manifest flew across the room, rebounded off a wall, and fell to land face-down on the floor. The mask-plate of his helmet skidded to a halt, its leering features now caved in by the imprint of a human fist.
“Face-to-fist,” the tech-teen gloated.
“Let’s go,” Robin said, and they headed for the elevator.
Twist replaced the cover. The weapon hummed with unmatched destructive potential. Together she and Slade rolled the torpedo into its launcher, fastening it securely into place.
“Hurry,” the super-criminal ordered, and they moved swiftly to the bridge.
As they entered the room, sirens went off, and red lights on the walls spun and flashed. Below them was a deep well, and in it floated the SlipStream. A metal gantry was retracting. The water churned, and before their eyes, the ship began to sink.
“Move!” Robin yelled.
Beast Boy became a hawk, and dove. Starfire’s hands extended, and both Robin and Cyborg reached out to grasp one, letting the inhumanly strong female bear them towards their target.
They arrived within seconds of one another. Less than three feet of the dull black surface remained above water. Raven’s eyes glowed, and the Titans dropped down into the craft just as the waves closed over it.
SlipStream descended to the bottom of the exit chute. Before it the tunnel lights came on. Slade keyed in the destination code.
“Prepare for launch.”
Beside him, Twist wound her fingers tightly into her seat straps. The red glow of the interior lights went out. Suddenly, in the thirty square feet of seemingly empty space before the pilot’s seat, a blue glowing image sprang to life, resolving itself into a picture-perfect representation of the view around the ship. Twist murmured appreciatively.
“Now,” Slade breathed, and SlipStream sprang forward at incredible speed, snapping them both back into their seats. A second later, the inertial restraints for the ship’s interior kicked in, dispelling the feeling that they were both about to be crushed where they sat.
“Excellent,” the one-eyed master combatant breathed. He checked the controls. “Speed is stable at just under 80 knots. We should arrive at the target perimeter in about 45 minutes.”
He paused. On the console between them, a small red light was blinking. Both Slade and Twist stared at it.
“What does that mean?” the gangly woman spoke.
Hidden behind cold steel, Slade’s lips pursed in amusement. “We have company.”
“We seem to do this a lot,” Raven intoned irritably.
“It’s not so bad,” Beast Boy said from beneath her.
The Titans were lying piled up against a wall of the ship. The sudden movement which had thrown them back had now subsided, and they began to extricate themselves from the tangle of limbs.
“Okay,” Cyborg grunted. ”We’re here. Now what?”
“We split up,” Robin stated firmly. “Raven, did you pick up anything from Savage on how this ship is configured?”
“I know the torpedo bays are located in either tip of the two sides.”
“How many bombs altogether?”
“Savage saw four.”
“They’re probably distributed evenly. Raven and Cyborg,” he pointed at them in turn, “You two are the best-suited for neutralizing those bombs. Take one side for each of you. The rest of us will find Slade and his cronies and shut them down.”
“I’m registering them right now.” Cyborg’s eye grew distant. “There’s two heartbeats about one hundred meters down this hallway.”
“Only two?” Starfire asked.
“Maybe Slade didn’t come with them,” Raven suggested.
“No. He’s here. One of them might have just abandoned them at some point,” Robin mused. “These guys are mercenaries, they might not have been too devoted to the idea of risking their lives like this.”
“It could also be that the one called Twist does not register a heartbeat,” Starfire pointed out.
“Whatever it is, be careful,” Raven warned. Beast Boy shifted into a blood-hound, and gave a brief bark. They then departed on their separate missions without goodbyes. All knew that their time was playing out.
“That cretin,” Twist hissed.
“He’s all yours later.” Slade continued to adjust the instruments at hand, scanning the perfect 3-dimensional recreation of their pitch-black environs. “Right now I need you.”
Twist glanced down, considering. At her feet was a ventilation grate, too small for any normal human to enter. “Are there security cameras onboard?”
“Everywhere.” Her master indicated the room behind them, where several screens along the wall displayed alternating areas around the ship. Twist nodded, and reached up. The coiled mass atop her head shifted slightly, and from out of it emerged a combination ear-piece and eye-camera band. “Can you patch the signal into here?”
Slade accepted the device. Opening its service hatch, he pressed a tiny button. The frequency for the viewfinder jumped to a blank setting. Consulting the information Vandal Savage had provided him with, he entered a new code.
“I must be able to speak to them,” Twist insisted.
Another adjustment, and Slade handed her the device. She slipped it into her hair, where it was pulled back in. The view finder now settled over her left eye.
“I’ll direct the cameras you see through from here,” Slade informed her. “Just tell me where they are.”
“They will not stop you.” Twist’s form suddenly bent, thinning and lengthening as it spiraled like a corkscrew. She pulled off the ventilation grate. Her body entered the space provided, and disappeared from view.
The door was motion-activated, and it slid upwards at his approach. Cautiously, Cyborg delved further into the bowels of the ship. Normally he would have been ecstatic at the chance to scrutinize new technology. Now all he felt was a disturbing sensation at the base of his spine. He knew what was causing it.
They were drawing closer to R’lyeh. A place that had come close to consuming him and all of his friends. He didn’t want to die. And he didn’t want to see that place again. Briefly, a notion occurred to him: what if they failed? Say Slade destroyed R’lyeh, would that be so bad? The world would be saved, and what would be lost? A bunch of people he had never met and probably never would. Could he accept that?
Would it matter if he could?
And suddenly, he saw himself standing in front of Patricia Hastings. He was explaining to her how he had let hundreds of thousands of people die.
When he finished, she was crying.
That settled it. Cyborg quickened his pace, and moved on.
Twist gestured, and the metal fan blades bent at a 90° angle without altering their course. She squeezed under the gap of the whirling mechanism carefully. Even though it couldn’t cut her, there was no sense damaging anything in here. She had entered the ventilation system as an added protection for Slade. If the Titans thought of a gas attack, she could close off the passage before it reached the control room. Also, she served as a block should the shape-shifter have the same idea as she did.
Once through, the spindly devil allowed herself to unwind a bit, and her anxiety eased slightly. Twist would never be completely comfortable in confined areas. They brought back memories of waking up in the sensory-deprivation tube, the narcotic syringe having been ejected by the developing movement of her skin. Starving and weak, she had flailed blindly in the dark for an exit, finally finding an opening and squeezing into it. At the time, she was too panicked and sightless to realize just how small that hole really was, and what she was doing to enter it. Crawling desperately inch by inch through the empty food transport tube, falling into a vat of experimental nutritional supplements which she had consumed mindlessly, nearly choking on it when her eyes had adjusted enough to see the monster reflected in the glass sides.
Stop it, she told herself. You have work to do for him.
“Slade,” she purred into her microphone, “Let me see them.”
Before her eye, the view-screen lit up. She saw the blue-tinted confines of the ship laid out before her one room at a time. The images shifted until she located the first of them. The black man. “There.” This shot became frozen in one corner of the screen, and continued to track his movement. Next was the witch, and the same thing happened. The other three were heading to the pilot chamber.
Sandwiched between two sets of buzzing fans, Twist got to work.
A dark wraith among shadows, Raven stole silently through the halls. Now that she was away from her friends, her thoughts were starting to worry her. Could she disable these weapons without any help? Would Slade launch them before she got the chance? Had Savage been correct in assuming there were only four?
Vandal Savage. The traitor.
No matter how this played out, it was over. Raven had been betrayed once before by someone who professed to be her friend. At Beast Boy’s insistence she had stayed her justifiable wrath. Not this time. If Savage wasn’t gone by the time she got back, that was his mistake. Not that it would save him. She had not been untruthful. She was a demon’s daughter. She could do violent acts, when provoked. And knowingly conspiring with her avowed enemy was an unforgivable breach of trust.
I’ll send you away, Kultuq, she thought. I will burn the roses you gave me. Eventually even your memory will die from this world. Because you chose to hurt people. Because you hurt me. And I will never again…
Someone’s watching me.
Raven spun, searching. Looking for a sign to guide her. No movement. Well, then. If you won’t come to me…
“Azerath Metrion Z…”
The opening in her cowl closed up. Plunged into darkness, the dark mage gasped, and her spell was cut off. Unseen by Raven, a pipe in the wall behind her suddenly twisted along its length, stretching out to loop over the blind mystic’s hood. The curved steel then pulled suddenly back, yanking Raven with it. Her head struck the wall with a jarring crack. And then she truly was in darkness. Lost to the world.
His previous scan of the ship’s length told Cyborg that he was coming close to the end of the trail. Two more rooms and he should be in the torpedo chamber.
The door before him opened, and Cyborg inched inside. Just another adjoining hall. At the far end was a door that had to lead to his goal. He took one step in, cannon at the ready.
He never finished that step.
Cyborg’s mechanical appendage twisted and bent at the knee like a piece of paper, and he crashed to the floor.
For a moment he could only stare in horror at his distorted body part. And then the same thing happened to his right leg. And his arms. They spun away, curving and hardening, dancing to the will of some unseen controller. There wasn’t even any pain involved. It was just a violation, a possession of the one thing everyone should be able to rely on, their own body.
“Stop it!” Cyborg screamed helplessly as his limbs continued to stretch out.
The movement ceased, leaving the hero spread-eagled on the floor like some dismembered daddy-long-legs.
“Dammit!” the warrior shouted, clenching his fists helplessly. “Let me go!”
The voice was soft and deadly. Totally unfamiliar. Cyborg craned his head around. It was coming from an intercom on the far wall.
“You are not harmed,” the speaker continued. “And you can no longer interfere with our mission. Lie there and do not strain yourself. I will be watching you.”
He was beaten. Just like that. Totally helpless. None of the others could have been taken down like this. Just him. It felt like being a kid again, held down and bullied by someone bigger and stronger. He remembered that feeling, and hated it. Cyborg’s titanium systems surged, he screamed aloud with all his might.
For the first time in years, he thought he might cry. But he couldn’t.
I will be watching you.
That’s just what they all wanted. To see you cry. So he didn’t.
Robin motioned them forward, twin batons held at the ready. The narrow confines of the ship’s corridors meant force of numbers would be neutralized. But every sliding door held the potential for a deadly attack waiting to greet them. So they took it slow, even though every second brought them closer to R’lyeh. There could be anything ahead. A group of Skulkers. The two remaining mercenaries, Twist and Serenade. Even Slade himself.
Robin’s pulse pounded at that. This was it. Slade was onboard. He had trapped himself on this ship. No secret escape routes, no trick levers, no loved ones held hostage. Just you and me. It was time to pay him back. For the cruel enslavement. For his corruption of Terra and mistreatment of Raven. For everything.
Padding along behind, Beast Boy could feel it. He knew that the city of madness was coming closer, rushing towards him like a crazed bull elephant. The animal body was finding it harder to move. He had to fight against the creeping, growing instinct to flee that seemed built-in to every beast on Earth. He had overcome that fear before, for the sake of his friends. He had the nightmares to prove it. Those horrible voices that never quite left him alone, sleeping or awake. They were growing louder now. More persistent. And it wasn’t just the nightmares getting stronger as they got closer to R’lyeh. It was their source. The shape that haunted him down to his very cells.
The promise of madness. The end of hope. C’thulhu.
Starfire followed Robin. That was all she needed to know. Right now she burned with the need to protect him, to keep herself between the friends she had made here and monsters like Slade and C’thulhu. She would never understand the willingness of others to impose unnecessary pain on all those around them. But she didn’t have to understand it to fight it. She was a warrior of Tameran. She feared no one. Not for any reason would she give in to the beasts in the dark. Her name was Starfire, and she was strong.
In front of them was yet another door. The last room before Slade. Robin had been counting their progress. He was prepared for this. It was his choice to fight the demons, those in human form and not. Time to end this. He approached the blank metal surface. It slid up from the floor with a slight whisper.
And stopped two feet off the deck.
Robin drew back, prepared for anything that might come through that opening. Seconds ticked by. When nothing happened, the three Titans slowly bent down and peered into the next room.
It was perhaps ten feet long, and from what they could see, there was just a wall lined with video screens. The door to the bridge remained shut. Other than that, it was completely empty.
They looked at one another questioningly. Miming for silence, the leader of the group withdrew a small mirror on a handle. Robin plied the reflective surface beneath the doorframe, tilting it to see what lay directly above and beyond the threshold.
There was nothing. Not a sentry or laser cannon. The teen hero sat perplexed. This was a trap. That was so obvious even an idiot could see it. But despite that, he couldn’t tell what it was. The young fighter debated quickly. If you want us, Slade, you’re going to have to deal with me first.
They were running low on time. For all he knew they were now approaching R’lyeh. Countless people could die. He wasn’t about to let that happen. Time to bite the bullet.
With that, Robin grasped the underside of the door and swung himself feet-first into the next room.
As his torso swept through the gap, the hole suddenly contracted in and slammed shut around him. Robin screamed. Starfire lunged towards him with a cry.
A low buzzing filled the room. “Do not touch him!” a voice snapped harshly.
The alien teenager froze, green eyes failing to locate the source of those words.
“Move to aid your friend, and I will cut him in two.”
Robin lay helpless, forearms pinned to his chest. In response to the threat, the metal of the surrounding floor, walls and door twisted even further, constricting his ability to breathe. “Starfire,” Robin gasped. “It’s Twist! Do as he says!”
There was a hiss, and the metal shrunk even further. The Boy Wonder lay still, concentrating on bringing air into his lungs to keep from passing out.
“What can I do?” the princess wailed.
“You can do nothing,” Twist spoke. Starfire looked up. In a corner behind her, she saw a round security camera watching them.
“Do not think about it, alien. If you value your leader’s life. We are all going to wait here quietly. Any other choice means the death of your teammate. Your comrades have also failed. Accept your loss, and there may be some hope for you to survive.”
The buzzing cut off, leaving the three of them to stare miserably at one another.
Slade nodded in satisfaction. Out of all his wide range of associates, Twist was by far the most useful. She was intelligent and creative, the most profitable investment in a person he had ever made. Were it not for her severe emotional issues, he would have chosen her to be his apprentice. But he specialized in inflicting wounds, not curing them. Ah well. He could only do so much.
They had arrived.
Off in the distance came the flashes of battle. They were traveling close to the ocean floor, skimming smoothly over the rocky terrain. Time to see just how well Vandal Savage had crafted by this vessel.
Slade activated the Slip system, and the vessel began to change. The twin prongs that trailed the bridge suddenly swept out to either side of it. From the nondescript black coating of nano-machines, a rippling blanket extended, taking over the task of propulsion through the water. SlipStream’s surface seemed to grow even darker for a moment. And then, it was no longer there at all. The nano-shell transformed into stealth mode, perfectly mimicking and adapting its light output to blend into the environment from every angle.
Silently the machine stole upon the chaotic onslaught being waged between the forces of bestiality and humanity. They were now approaching the previously known limits. At that point they were a target, potentially. Slade felt his pulse increase slightly with excitement. Had Savage misled him? Would the best of surface technology be enough to deceive the superior science of Atlantis? Would this unexpected war be enough to keep all attention from them?
Ten seconds later, he had his answer.
A group of R’lyeans came swimming straight at them, with over a dozen individually-manned death-boats in pursuit. Hunter and quarry flew towards the ship. Slade altered his course to avoid them.
The R’lyeans moved by, not noticing anything.
And the Kraken’s Coils followed without so much as a pause.
“We’re approaching the target,” he spoke to Twist. “Keep them down.”
Beast Boy sat on his haunches, gazing with morose dog eyes at his two friends. Robin’s labored breathing filled his sensitive ears. Starfire stood not two feet away from him. Earlier she had tried to touch her leader’s hand, to offer him comfort. Apparently Twist had taken objection to that, and closed the trap even tighter, making him cry out. Now they stayed where they were. While the feeling of mortal danger crept up the animal’s spine. He felt his humanity leaving him. There was nothing he could do about it.
The canine shifted restlessly and panted. If only he were smarter, he could figure something out. But he was just dumb old Beast Boy. He never came up with the brilliant plans, like Robin or Raven or Cyborg. He just did what he did out of instinct. His brain didn’t work like theirs. The best thing he had going for him were his ingrained reactions and physical senses.
He watched Starfire with animal awareness, seeing and scenting the strong grief and worry that poured off of her. Robin was putting up a brave front, but he couldn’t hide the bitter tang of fear in his scent. That and…
Beast Boy sniffed. What was that?
His eye roamed around. A cool breeze blew on him from a ventilation duct in the wall. Faintly he could hear a slight buzzing sound. Familiar. What was it like…?
He thought back carefully, and it came to him. When Twist had spoken. The noise that accompanied his voice. And before, at the police station, the smell of the villain in the air.
If so, then maybe, just maybe…
The dog suddenly bounded to its feet. It gave an ear-splitting howl, and began to dance about, shaking its head madly.
“You, beast!” Twist hissed warningly. “Sit down!”
Robin gasped in renewed pain. “Beast Boy!” Starfire cried. “Please, what is wrong?” She reached out a hand, and jerked it away as the animal turned and snapped at her. “Beast Boy?!”
A ripple passed through the creature’s skin, and for a moment the dog was replaced by something foul, a pulsing, gibbering monstrosity that slobbered on the floor. Then it morphed again, becoming a cobra that lunged madly for them.
And Starfire knew.
“You were warned,” Twist’s voice came.
“No, please, he cannot help it!” the tall beauty leapt upright, looking at the camera. “It is the R’lyeh affect! Animals cannot come close to that city without being driven mad with fear! Oh please, do not hurt him!”
There was a pause. “Then make him resume human form.”
“He will not,” Starfire pleaded. “He resolved to remain in beast guises on this mission to keep from being hypnotized by your partner Serenade!”
“Serenade is not here,” the eerie tones threatened. “Now do something to calm him down, or I…”
The cobra hissed loudly. Then it turned and rushed into the grate.
“Beast Boy, NO!”
The Tameranean dove for him, but he was already gone.
Raven dreamt of stars and oceans. She dreamed of herself swimming in them with Unizue by her side, the two of them laughing merrily like children. Playing in the water.
<The water> Unizue spoke to her.
She replied back, This is a dream.
<The water. The water is a dream>
As Raven watched, Unizue broke into pieces and fell into the ocean. The arms and legs tried to reconnect themselves, but every time they reached for Unizue’s organs, the waves kept washing them away.
<Are you still confused, Raven? Do you still not see the ocean for the waves?>
Help me, please, Unizue.
<I am Raven’s Unizue. I am C’thulhu’s Unizue. The answer is the ocean. The answers have no meaning. The ocean is the beginning. The ocean is the end. Do you love your mother, Raven?>
Yes, I do. I do love.
<Do you love your Mother, who bore you? Do you love the Ocean?>
Please help. I don’t understand.
<The dream is the ocean, Raven. The city is the dream. A dream within dreams. More than one. There is more than one>
Okay, what next? The rat pondered as he raced along, tracking the scent. The villain was hiding in the pipes, directing his attacks. If he could only find him…
Yeah? Then what, genius? You going to beat an enemy that Robin couldn’t?
I’m going to try.
He talked to himself to keep the madness at bay. He had only been half-pretending back there. As they approached R’lyeh, the alien mark on his soul was beginning to react. It infected him, singing the song in hushed, insistent tones.
Beast Boy skidded along the polished round pipes, rodent eyes straining against the dark, fighting the cancer inside him. He rounded a corner, and came to a halt.
Twist’s glowing yellow orbs pierced the gloom like lamps, and the changeling knew he was spotted.
The convoluted menace lay further down the pipes. Between it and him was a furiously whirring steel fan, ruffling his fur and pushing recycled air throughout the ship. Hero and monster faced one another.
At last, Twist spoke.
“If you can still understand me, beast, then get out. You can do nothing. You cannot even reach me. Any form you assume that can fit in here will be cut to pieces before you come close.”
The rat approached, trembling, and Twist hissed.
“Your friends are all defeated. Go back and join them. We are the heroes this time. You are just children who do not understand what we must do.”
Through the spinning blades, the youngest Titan stared. What could he do? Maybe if he became a turtle… No, the fan would just knock him away. Spider? He would never be able to hang on. Spider monkey? Chopped pâté.
“This is your last chance, American. If you do not leave, I will kill your friend.”
The rat drew back apace. Twist meant it. He could hear it in his voice. Shivers ran up his spine, like the first time he met Vandal Savage. Wait a sec… Savage. What had he told them about this guy?! Come on, Beast Boy, think! Twist was… Russian, could twist things, had thick skin… there was more! You’ve got a brain, use it! Twisted stuff becomes super strong, he was… sensitive to touch and smell…
Suddenly before Twist there now crouched a small fluffy green weasel. The yellow eyes blinked in perplexion. The rodent turned about to face away from her.
So you’re from
The weasel lifted its bushy tail. A tail with a great white stripe running down it.
Throughout the ship, a faint scream was heard, and Cyborg’s arms and legs snapped back into place.
The metal vise fell away, and Robin did not question. He pulled himself into the next room, shaking with relief. Behind him, Starfire gripped the doorjamb and heaved upward, crushing the metal into tinfoil. She rushed to her admirer’s side and knelt beside him. “Are you hurt?”
Before the young trapeze artist could respond, a tiny green fly buzzed into the room, bringing with it a pungently distinctive odor. Then it was Beast Boy reeking there.
“LOOK OUT!” the shape-shifter screamed. “He’s coming, he’s…”
There was a cracking like whips, and from out of the shaft Twist burst shrieking into the room. Choking, half-blind, and wild with rage, her flailing limbs filled the small space, knocking into the Titans like a sightless octopus. Claws raked lines in the walls and floor. Robin laid about him with his batons, striking at the unbreakable strands. A leg wrapped around Starfire’s waist, and she wrestled against it with all her great strength.
Twist’s head darted about, the one good eye fixed on a flailing Beast Boy. An arm snaked over swiftly and wound around him, slamming the changeling against the wall in a suffocating grip. He tried to switch forms, but the song was coursing through him now, and the only one coming was the one he could not allow. Twist’s claws gripped his scalp, and the terrified teen’s head was wrenched around to be confronted by another horror’s stinking, disfigured face. The yellow eye blazed madly.
“I… TWIST… YOUR… HEAD OFF!!!!”
Beast Boy closed his eyes.
There was a crunch of glass, and he winced.
Cautiously, the green kid cracked open one lid.
Beside him, Twist’s head had been shoved face-first through one of the thick video screens. A grim-eyed Starfire withdrew her hand, and her opponent slid free to collapse with an unconscious moan.
The rest of Twist’s body retracted to its usual length. As the Titans watched, the contortions that bent her joints and waist suddenly released. The head bindings also came loose, giving them a brief glimpse of the mercenary’s real face before it was completely covered by the fall of a six-foot mass of flowing purple hair.
Robin rose shakily to his feet. “Slade,” he coughed, and moved towards the door.
“Fire,” Slade intoned, and pressed the button.
From the SlipStream’s torpedo bay doors, four antimatter torpedoes deployed and shot down towards the wavering green mirage of R’lyeh far below them.
The ship resumed its arrow shape, angled upwards, and streaked away like a bolt of lightning. The Titans were hurled back to collapse on one another. The ship blew through the ranks of embattled Atlanteans. Clearing the surface, it shot into the air. Three turbojet engines roared to life along its length, and the SlipStream tore across the waves at nearly 800 miles per hour.
Over 100 miles away, it landed on a rocky shore. Slade killed the power, unbuckled his restraints and stood up. Moving out of the room, he cast a disparaging glance at the struggling Titans. The armored menace stooped to pick up Twist and carried her off.
“Slade!” Robin cried.
Along the passages, over to the emergency exit, and Slade popped the hatch, climbing out into the open sunlight. Laying down his burden on the black hull, he looked out to sea and breathed deeply.
When it happened, it was visible even from there.
The water shivered. You could see it coming up from the deep, like a great glowing bubble.
The ocean exploded.
White water erupted high into the sky for miles, before being immediately eradicated by a pillar of light. A wind swept over the face of the world with the force of a hurricane that sent Slade stumbling back to clutch at the ship’s smooth surface. The noise that came next was painful, a cannon roar that lasted almost a minute. It finally died down. The light was gone, leaving behind a great billowing ripple on the horizon.
There was a hole in the ocean the size of an island. It did not close. The sky over it had turned an unhealthy shade of yellow.
Slade picked himself up. In front of him, Robin and Starfire crawled out of the ship, holding Beast Boy between them. They looked over at him.
“It’s over,” Slade announced simply. “We are safe.”
“Fool,” a voice murmured weakly.
A black hole opened on the ship’s top, and Cyborg rose up from it, carefully holding a bleeding Raven. The azure-eyed sorceress swayed on her feet.
“You’ve killed us all,” she croaked.
Slade regarded her with contempt. “I did what you are incapable of doing. We are protected from any radiation by the ocean and distance, and…”
“IDIOT!” Raven screamed, and staggered forwards. Robin rushed up to catch her just as she was about to fall. The demon’s daughter glared at Slade from over his shoulder. “He tricked you!” she shouted. “HE TRICKED US ALL!”
Slade’s eye narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“IT WAS THE WATER!!” Raven sucked in a shaky breath. “C’thulhu couldn’t wake up because he was surrounded by water! That’s what kept him from coming back! HE NEEDED YOU TO DESTROY THE OCEAN!”
Beast Boy gave a pitiful moan.
There was a rumble of noise. The tear in the ocean began to glow, a weird, shifting green aura. From out of it there could be heard a sibilant whispering.
I’a I’a C’thulhu fhtagn.
It grew louder.
I’A I’A C’THulhu fhTAGN.
I’A I’A C’THULHU FHTAGN I’A I’A C’THULHU FHTAGN I’A I’A C’THULHU FHTAGN!!!
The ocean peeled away from the shore, sucked away to reveal sand that had never known the touch of the sun. All over the world, the earth quaked, the wind began to howl and shriek.
The planet SCREAMED!
From out of the wound in its skin, the green penumbra gushed like rancid pus. An unholy smell washed over the ocean, tainting the air.
Twisting and flowing, mocking the restrictions of space and matter, the great necropolis of R’lyeh rose up all at once into the world.
The slime that covered the buildings began to detach. As it did, it sang. C’thulhu Fhtagn C’thulhu Fhtagn. The viridian ooze suddenly surged up. It joined together in a blanket over the alien landscape, and then focused down on one particular structure, a colossal cylinder that alone stood straight and unmoving at the city’s center. The swirling plasma spiraled down into the fountain’s top, draining into it like hungry water into a hole.
The song broke off.
All was quiet.
A pair of immense green wings slid out from the tower’s sides. The rest began to grow out from there. Arms and hands. A naked, bloated body, surmounted by a demonic octopoid head.
Clutching the spire of its twisted city, glowing with the restrained power of hundreds of millions of years, Great C’thulhu finally awoke.
To be continued…