AQUAMAN: DARKEST DEPTHS Aug 19, 2015 19:41:41 GMT -5
Post by David on Aug 19, 2015 19:41:41 GMT -5
Written by David Charlton, co-plotted with Brandon Herren
Cover by Brandon Herren
Written by David Charlton, co-plotted with Brandon Herren
Cover by Brandon Herren
Ten years later…
See the king in his city of ruins, my boy, perched on his throne of coral and shell. Mark well how far he has fallen: the tides swirl through empty streets and abandoned palaces… forgotten mementos of life float by (a child’s toy, a scrap of cloth, a sidearm); none will mark them but him. At his feet lays a crown, tarnished, bent and broken, forgotten and meaningless now. Where once he ruled one of the greatest kingdoms of the world, now he is no better than a surface-world beggar. Thus do men pay for their hubris, and for their sins. So much for him. Let him brood over his silent realm.
But Atlantis… Ah, once it was the glittering ornament of the ocean floor! The twin cities of Poseidonis and Tritonis were heir to a civilization older than the pyramids. Here was a utopia of science and art, magic and technology, with a history spanning 100,000 years. But the lights have all gone out now, my boy… I fear they will soon go out all over the world.
What has brought about this cataclysm, you might ask? Wherefore the forests of kelp growing in the houses of the highest and noblest families that ever lived on Earth? Look again at the lonely king. See the hand on his knee, blue as the ocean, cursed as the blood of his fathers: the Mark of Kordax, made manifest in his diseased flesh. All that he touches he destroys. Know our enemy, boy, the enemy of all peoples, the one who would drag the World Above and Below into the darkest depths, the one raised as Arthur Curry, the one who ruled as King Orin II of Atlantis, the one who will forever be known as Aquaman…
The boy regarded the old man with a dead-eyed expression. They stood on the observation deck of a submersible vessel, all running lights off. Red back-up lights cast the only illumination amidst the darkness of the depths, and made the craggy, white-bearded visage of the old man seem demonic.
“Must the king die?” asked the boy in a casual tone.
“All men must die,” grunted the old man, staring out the glass window at the ruined city sprawled across the ocean floor. “Even kings. Especially kings. And especially Atlantean kings.” A long, breath like a sigh escaped him. “I greatly desired his death once, when life and ambition burned brighter in me. But I see no point in it now: alive, he has always been a greater danger to himself and those he loves. My best revenge has been to let him encompass his own doom.”
“Your revenge?” the boy mulled the words. He followed the old man’s gaze out the window, as if he could see the lonely figure so far away, brooding in the ruins. “As if one could measure a personal vendetta against the end of all there is.”
The old man laughed bitterly, and without mirth. He turned on the boy, his lips twisting into a sneer. “By all means go to him, lad. Take that harpoon on the wall and drive it into his guts, if you think that will help one damn bit. Seeing you alive would probably do the job just as well; either way, I doubt he’d resist you much. But it’s already too late. I’ve read the Chronicles of Choloh, and the signs are clear: the Great Disaster is upon us, and killing him now won’t stop it.”
The boy turned away without another word.
The boy swam through the cracked and broken spires of the sunken city. As far as he could tell, nothing else lived there. No crabs crawled in the sand, not even a minnow swam by him. But for himself and the Sea King brooding somewhere below, it was a dead zone. He had lived here once, but it had been long ago, and he had been a child then. Trauma caused him to remember very little of it: images of happy and free people, at peace under the sea; his mother, her red hair a swirl around her, smiling down on him; fire and war; a hideous mask; and him…
He clutched the harpoon in both hands and dove down toward the abandoned plazas and empty gardens.
The throne was empty now, the high platform as still and silent as the rest of the city. The boy hooked the discarded crown with the harpoon, and held it up, regarding it with minimal interest. So many had fought and killed for that little circlet of gold and pearl… How many innocents had died, sacrificed on the altars of ambition and avarice for a bauble? What was it all for, in the end? He let it fall again to the sea-floor, and swam away, in search of the king.
He found him on the outskirts of the city, close by the Plains of Thamuz, site of that last, cataclysmic battle. The boy only had confused memories of it, but the old man had told him of that hour, about how the sea broiled with violence and blood in a clash of science and sorcery the likes of which had not been seen since the Obsidian Age. Being there brought back memories of his mother fighting back to back with the black-haired, purple-eyed man, as the dark things rose all around them. He remembered the fall of the bald fat man, swallowed by shadows even as the old man--- old even then--- arrived to steal him away. The old man had rescued the boy, had kept him safe for ten years, had raised him in anticipation of this day: to deliver him to his destiny.
And what was his destiny? To finish the work of that day? To slay--- except for the boy himself--- the only other survivor of that battle?
If the Great Disaster was coming to plunge the World Above and Below into an eternal darkness, than the boy would at least put an end to the man who brought it about.
The boy settled to the ocean floor among a pile of bones, broken swords and rusted armor. The king had his back to him, staring up at the face of a rocky outcropping; if he had heard the boy’s approach, he gave no sign. The boy raised the harpoon in one steady hand, cocked to throw.
The king laughed, low and fraught with irony. *Do it,* he projected in the telepathic speech of Atlanteans, but he didn’t even turn around. *Some would call it justice.*
The boy hesitated, taken aback not by the words, but at what the king had been staring at. Pinned to the wall by a gleaming trident were the remains of a man, ornate regal robes clinging to hollowed-out bones, the face covered by that hideous mask of the boy’s memories, the finned gold and opal mask of the Atlantean Contender, the mask of the so-called Ocean Master, and brother of the king: Orm Marius…
*My offense is rank. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it…* the king muttered.
The boy said nothing. The harpoon was still poised to throw, but he stayed his hand; he couldn’t take his eyes from the corpse of the Ocean Master, the boogyman of his darkest dreams.
Still the king did not turn, remained staring up at his long-dead enemy, musing aloud. *Atlantean history was always defined by the strife of kin against kin, from the first Orin against his brother Shalako, the rape of Cora by her cousin Dardanus, the war Kordax their son raised against all of them… all culminating in Orm and me, on this spot, and that awful moment ten years ago when I drove the Trident of Neptune into his chest. You would have thought we would have learned from the past, or that we could have seen it coming. That we would have stood together against the… larger threat that was always lurker, waiting, hungering to be unleashed…* A shuddering sigh caused his shoulders to slump. *But we walked right into the meat grinder of history, played our parts in the tragedy as ordained since before the Sinking… Fitting I suppose that it ended as it began: brother against brother. So it was at the rise of Atlantis as it was at the final fall. They’re all gone now. Mera, Garth, Vulko, my son,* his voice caught. It was a moment before he could go on. *All that’s left is for you to strike. I don’t even want to know who you are. It doesn’t matter. All I ask is that you finish the Atlantis Chronicles. You’ll find the books in a cave overlooking Poseidonis. On the last page write that Orin the Last, more cursed than Kordax, surrendered to a destiny written long before he was born.*
The harpoon in the boy’s hand fell just a little. Brother against brother, cousin against cousin, kin against kin, the cycle repeated itself down the ages unto ruination and a dawning darkness born of the weakness and blindness of fools. The boy was no fool. He lowered the harpoon.
*No,* he said, grinding out the word as if it pained him. *We don’t get off that easily.*
Something in the boy’s tone caused the king’s head to cock. He turned and stared at the boy in astonishment.
The boy pointed the harpoon at the king like an accusation. *It’s not over yet, Father.*
*Thomas…* Aquaman could not believe what he was seeing. The boy--- no, the young man--- in front of him was clad in a skinsuit colored in shades of blue camouflage, and had long yellow hair that spread out behind him, with eyes as familiar as those Aquaman saw in a reflection. *My son… But I saw you die…?*
*No,* Thomas Curry said. *The minute you slew your brother in anger, you saw the fulfillment of Xuthulu’s curse. You saw the Black Vortex swallow all you held dear. You saw the tentacles pull down my mother, drag her away to torment, and you saw Xaos triumphant. That cry you heard was the trumpet announcing the dawn of the Great Disaster, father. But what you didn’t see was my death. I lived. The old man saved me.*
Memories of that day flooded back to the wretched Sea King. He remembered his rage evaporating when he had realized Orm was dead, and the panic setting in when the dark things rose, wriggling from the sea floor, slimy and foul and everywhere. They took everything. Everything but him. And when it was over, when they were gone, he had been left alone to live with what he had brought about.
*I don’t understand,* he buried his face in his hands. His right hand was marbled blue and veined in red and green; it had been like that since he slew his brother: the Mark of Kordax. *What old man? Vulko…? Neptune’s beard, you’re alive. All this time…* He fell to his knees, the weight of the realization too much to bear.
*Get up,* Thomas snarled. *You don’t get to act like this. You haven’t earned the right. I know what you are. The old man told me: you’re no hero. Your pride, your hubris, you’re what came out when Pandora opened her box. You’re no king at all; you’re a puppet, dancing on the strings of fate. I would kill you here and now if it wouldn’t set the curse in motion again.* He tossed the harpoon aside and rushed to his father, seizing him by the hair and dragging him to his feet. Aquaman did not resist his son, his eyes wide and red.
And then his eyes got wider. Behind Thomas, coming on fast but running silent, was a ship. The enormous submersible emerged from the depths, dark and huge, and pointed straight at them at top speed. Though he hadn’t seen it for decades, Aquaman recognized the vessel, and he recognized the old man seen clearly through the cockpit glass, looking both crazed and triumphant as he realized a long-cherished moment of victory.
*Krell,* gasped the Sea King.
Thomas turned and looked over his shoulder, stunned at the sudden danger.
Speakers on the outside of the Leviathan blared to life: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! Down, down! For my Mariana!” Cornelius Krell, the old man, cackled and held his course, his wild-eyed gaze locked on Aquaman and his son.
The ship was too big, too close, and coming too quickly: there was no way they could have gotten out of the way in time.
*Father,* Thomas gasped, and Aquaman wondered which man he meant.
A madman’s laughter echoed in the depths. Aquaman raised his right hand, reaching for the Trident of Neptune, embedded in the rock above and behind him…
The Leviathan slammed into the ocean floor, into the cliff-face, like a spear hurled from the gods, and exploded. The fireball expanded to encompass the entire battlefield, and a wave of force vaporized almost everything in the impact zone. The sea churned and bubbled crazily; wreckage burned and twisted in a new crater, and sediment clouded the water.
But when it cleared, the last king of Atlantis was upright and alive, his right hand holding his trident aloft, and at his feet, within the protective shell of force conjured by the ancient magical weapon, lay his son…
When the boy regained consciousness he was in a bed. The room was flooded with natural light, and filled with long-neglected children's toys and games. On the walls were old, peeling posters, including one depicting: "Neptune Perkins, King of the Seas!" He heard the raucous squawking of seabirds, and the sound of waves crashing against breakers.
He was on the Surface. He hated the World Above. Already, his skin thirsted for immersion.
Wasting no time, he flung himself from the bed and disregarding his surroundings, he left the room. He found himself on a walkway high up a tall structure overlooking the ocean. Ahead and around the curve of the building, was the king. His father. His marbled hand on the parapet, staring out over the turbulent waters.
"Why?" demanded the boy in a ragged voice.
Hearing his son approach, Aquaman turned to regard him. His bearded face, seamed and creased with age beyond his years, now wore a kind of forlorn hope.
"Why did I take you here?" Aquaman scratched his beard, unsure of what his son might have be asking him. "This lighthouse used to be my home. I grew up in that room you just came out of. I know it's not much to look at anymore, but it's my last refuge on the Surface. The only place I know I can go and... just be alone and think things through."
"No," the boy rasped. "Why did the old man try to kill me."
So much anger flared within Thomas Curry. Aquaman saw a reflection of the man he had once been in that inferno. The man who had gone to war and wrought a cataclysm.
"He hated you, I always knew that," Thomas pointed a quivering finger at his father. "But he sent me out to you. He was going to kill me, too."
Sins of the fathers...
"It had nothing to do with you, son," Aquaman held up his hand, blue and baleful. "Krell swore revenge on me a long time ago. He blamed me for the death of his daughter. He could never really---."
"Had nothing to do with me?" Thomas' rage was close to boiling over. He took a threatening step toward Aquaman, seething. "He raised me from a child. He was the only father I've had for the last ten years. He died trying to kill me, and you think what happened had nothing to do with me?"
The words were like blows to Aquaman, the more so for the truth of them. But he wasn't sure what he could say to them, how he could comfort his long-lost son. Not after ten years.
He tried a different tact.
"Putting aside for the moment why you wanted to kill me, why didn't you do it?" The question was thrown like a challenge to his combative and distressed son. "You were obviously pointed in my direction like a weapon. Krell must have been grooming you for that moment for years, and there you were, harpoon raised, and I wasn't going to fight you. Why didn't you do it?"
Thomas was taken aback by the question. But the answer was simple. "I saw you there in the ruins of your kingdom, above the dead body of your brother, and I saw what those decisions had done to you, and to everyone around you. I saw immediately the consequences of kinslaying. I wanted to be free of it all..." Hot tears scalded his cheeks. "Free of you, free of the old man, free of the past, and free to be the man I want to be..."
Aquaman nodded, tears stinging his own eyes now, but they were tears of pride: wisdom like that was bought with heartache. He should know.
"There, that's why." He answered his son's original question. "Because you surpass us both."
Thomas stared at him, unheeding of the tears flowing down his face. But he did not resist when his father stepped close and put his arms around his weeping son.
For the first time in ten years, there was more in Arthur Curry's world than ashes and memories. Against all hope and expectation, his son had been returned to him, rescued by an old enemy, but redeemed through the boy's own strength of spirit.
"You're named for the man who raised me in this lighthouse," Aquaman gestured behind him. He stood on the rocks as his son came in from a swim, his long yellow hair dripping. "He was the best man I ever knew. Until today."
"Don't put that on me," Thomas' voice was flat and unemotional; he'd spent the last ten years masking all feelings and yearnings, but storms seemed to rage beneath the surface. "I'm having a hard enough time trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do now."
"Anything you want," his father asserted. "We're the last Atlanteans. We have certain responsibilities to the world. There is place in San Francisco called the All-Star Academy---"
Pulling himself out of the water, Thomas wore a puzzled expression. "Last Atlanteans...? You mean you really don't know?"
"They're not dead," said Thomas, his eyes searching his father's for signs of deceit; trust was coming slowly. "The peoples of Poseidonis and Tritonis, I mean. Some of them did die in the battle on the Plains of Thamuz, but not the ones who were sucked into the Black Vortex. They're still in there. Trapped in a hellish nether-realm, but alive."
Alive...? The word reverberated through Aquaman's skull. Blood and adrenalin surged through him. He didn't even notice that he had staggered until Thomas had caught him, saying his name in alarm.
"That's not possible," he gasped. "Mera, Garth, Tula... I saw them all die..."
"No," Thomas helped his father steady himself. "You saw them swallowed by the Black Vortex of Xuthulu, but they weren't consumed. They can't be. Xuthulu is long-dead, killed thousands of years ago by Arion the Sorcerer; only his curse against Atlantis survived. That's why they live, trapped in Xaos."
Aquaman heard the harsh truth of his son's words and the judgment implied in them. It was almost too much for him to bear. "All this time," he shook his head, muttering that same phrase over and over. After a moment, he asked Thomas in a quiet voice: "Are you sure?"
His son nodded, his eyes unblinking and unwavering. "Yes. I saw them. Krell had a black mirror."
Reaching for the trident he'd laid on the ground nearby, Aquaman told his son: "Show me."
In the North Atlantic, far from any shipping lanes or civilization, the late and unlamented Captain Cornelius Krell kept a private island and submarine base. Thomas was a fast swimmer, almost as fast as his father, but by the time they reached it the sun was dipping low over the horizon.
"Red skies," Thomas pointed out to his father as they ran up the shingle of the beach towards Krell's compound. "It's beginning. It's really happening..."
"What is?" In his impatience, Aquaman tore the rusty metal door off its hinges, but looked back at his son before going into Krell's deserted base. Thomas was rooted to the spot, staring up at the sky, and Aquaman saw genuine fear on his face. "Thomas, what is it?"
"I told you before. It's the Great Disaster. It's really happening."
Aquaman followed his son's gaze. The sky was the color of fresh blood, not just near the setting sun, but across the heavens. It had the look of a dire potent.
"What is this Great Disaster?"
Thomas looked at him, frustrated. "I'm not quite sure... It's something the old man--- Krell--- would talk about sometimes, like it was doomsday, and that one of the signs that it was upon us was red skies. He blamed you for it. He said that it all began with you killing your brother."
The memory of that moment made Aquaman wince. Orm had given him little choice. The Ocean Master had invoked terrible magicks from the Obsidian Age, putting the fate of the World Above and Below at stake. And Aquaman had paid a high price for his act, though perhaps not as high as he once thought.
"Never mind that now," Aquaman's voice was as gentle as he could make it. "Sounds like the ramblings of a crazy old man. Nothing but a fish tale." He tried to smile, but it came out like a grimace. "The red skies are probably just a natural phenomena. Sun spots, or something."
Thomas snorted derisively, but followed his father into Krell's bunker.
It was dark inside, but both of their eyes were adapted to the near lightless depths of the ocean. Thomas brushed past his father, muttering, "This is where I was raised. Follow me."
Clutching the Trident of Neptune to him, Aquaman led his son lead the way.
The complex was large, but mostly dilapidated. Krell had long ago set aside his oceanographic researches in favor of a kind of eco-terrorism. But that, too, he gave up for more esoteric studies. The laboratories were dark and dusty. The aquariums were filled with strange hybrid aquatic animals, many of them belly-up in the water, abandoned in the deranged captain's final and suicidal voyage to Atlantis.
In a narrow room filled with enormous aquariums, Aquaman paused at one in particular, where a fanged fish the size of a small whale stared back at him with milky, occluded eyes, tentacles where they should not be, extending from its sides to squirm listlessly. The Sea King probed the creature with his mind, but recoiled at the feelings of fear and self-loathing. Krell had poisoned everything he had touched.
Except, perhaps, Thomas.
*I'm sorry...* he sent to the unnatural creature. *I'm sorry this was done to you.*
The creature only watched Aquaman with its baleful stare as the Sea King moved away.
The living quarters were in better shape. Krell had been content to live in squalor, lavishing all his care on his vessel, the Leviathan, so it had been left to Thomas to keep these rooms livable in recent years.
"Through here," Thomas led him into Krell's study, and went around lighting several 19th century oil lamps. It was a large room, filled with bookshelves and old nautical charts. Tables were piled high with books, many of which had spilled onto the floor. There was a fireplace, cold now, and comfortable chairs close to it. But Aquaman only had eyes for the mirror. It was a large, stand-up rectangle of volcanic glass in a dark wood frame. He approached it slowly, afraid both of what he would see and might not see.
It's surface was polished smooth, and as black as the sea on a starless night. Arthur had never seen one of these artifacts before, but he knew about them from the Atlantis Chronicles. The black mirrors were said to be windows into Xaos, the dark realm of Xuthulu. In the Obsidian Age, acolytes of the Elder God used them to summon strange and terrible beings to plague Atlantis.
"I don't see anything," he muttered, staring deep, into the glass.
Thomas turned from where he was studying a shelf of elaborately carved scrimshaw, and said, simply: "Wait."
Peering deeper into the blackness, he let it dominate his vision, blocking out all else. After a moment, he discerned whorls and eddies of deeper blackness within the void. His vision telescoped, focused sharply on the smooth, dark plane, and a feeling like vertigo came over him. Swaying on his feet, somewhere in the back of his mind he reminded himself that it was possible to lose oneself in a black mirror, to become lost in Xaos. That's when he became aware of shapes emerging from the darkness. They were barely visible and completely intangible, but soon coalesced into humanoid forms, free floating as if through space. First one, then another. Then dozens. And hundreds.
Tears blurred Aquaman's vision, but he dashed them away. He needed to see clearly.
The Atlanteans trapped in Xaos seemed to be in a kind of dead-eyed, slack-jawed fugue state. Their limp-limbed bodies tumbled end-over-end, through the black nothingness. It would be a mercy if they were unaware of what was happening to them, but as one young face drifted closer, Aquaman saw her eyes tracking back and forth, the pupils dilating as if she was in the grip of some unseen horror.
"We've got to get them out," he gasped. "Neptune's Beard, we can't leave them in there!" He raised his Trident, preparing to stab it through the glass.
"Are you mad!" Thomas barked at him from across the study. "Father, think! The mirror's not a portal: destroying it won't free them!"
Aquaman drew himself up, his chest heaving. Thinking of Mera trapped in there, of Garth and Vulko and Tula, all suffering for the last ten years... His first inclination had been to lash out, but Thomas was right: that wasn't the way. He should have learned that lesson long ago. He lowered the Trident and turned to his son.
"This is my fault. I have to get them out of there." He told Thomas, his voice raw-edged.
The muscles in Thomas' jaw tightened. He seemed to be in the throes of an inner debate. After a moment, he let out a breath, and shook his head. "No. That's what Krell wanted me to believe, too, but it's not true. Orm gave you no other choice: killing him triggered the Black Vortex, yes, but much greater harm would have befallen had he been allowed to resurrect Xuthulu. Our people are alive for us to rescue only because of what you did." In his hand he held a book, a crumbling tome reinforced with brass edgings. "If there is a way to bring them back, it'll be in here."
Aquaman sucked in a breath. "Is that what I think it is?"
Thomas nodded. "The last surviving copy of the Chronicles of Choloh. Written nearly 100,000 years ago in the City of the Golden Gate. I don't know how Krell got his hands on a copy of this, but---"
"I got it for him."
A beam of red-hot energy lanced into the room, slamming into Thomas and sending him flying backward to crash into a bookcase. The front of the boy's blue and white wetsuit was shredded, and his chest was blistered and smoking as he slid, unmoving, to the floor.
Filling the doorway of the study was a menacing figure in dark, gleaming armor, with a massive oblong helmet; crimson light glowed from the oval optical screens, and in his hands were two long knives with serrated edges.
"Damn you, Manta!" Aquaman yelled and in one fluid motion hurled his Trident at his archenemy.
Black Manta spun aside and the Trident stuck in the wall where he had been, and stuck there, quivering.
"You gotta be faster than that to hook me," came the mocking reply, eerily-pitched and distorted through the villain's helmet. "Whereas I've been waiting for this moment since Krell left on his last fool voyage." He raised the two wickedly-curved blades and advanced into the room with a confident stride. "I suppose he's dead? I told him his Trojan Horse wouldn't work." He nodded his helmet towards Thomas' body. "Poetic, maybe. Dumb, definitely."
"Manta, if you've killed my son---" Aquaman spat through clenched teeth, unable to fully contemplate the thought. So soon after getting Thomas back...
Black Manta moved to block Aquaman from the boy, making a few slashing passes with his knives. "Oh, he's not dead. At least I don't think so. I didn't calibrate that blast to kill, but people can be so fragile." His laughter sounded hollow and metallic. "No, my employer needs him alive. And now that my erstwhile ally Krell is out of the way, I'm going to deliver your whelp to his own bloody destiny. You, on the other hand," he ran the edges of his blades together, causing them to make a steely slithering sound. "I can do whatever I want with you. I think I'll just carve out your guts."
He lunged. Aquaman had been expecting it, of course, and dove to meet him. He caught at Manta's wrists and pushed him back. In the past, the two had been almost evenly matched. His body adapted for life beneath the waves, Aquaman was fast, tough, and strong, but Manta's armor matched that. The villain dug in his heels, angling to keep himself between Aquaman and his son.
"You're weak, Sea King," snarled Black Manta pushing his helmet close to Aquaman's face. "Ten years of brooding lethargy has left you a little rusty. This is almost too easy."
Aquaman heard the high-pitched whine just before the blast went off. Red light flared as eyebeams shot from Manta's helmet, the blast hitting Aquaman with the full force of a runaway train. It blew him backward through the wall of the study, breaking through wood and plaster, sending the Sea King skidding into the narrow aquarium lab.
"It's almost disappointing," Black Manta crashed through the hole made by Aquaman, his knives glinting in the weird blue lights of the tanks. "Back in the day, you were pretty impressive. Now you're just a dead fish, flopping on the floor."
Aquaman lay on his back, stunned by the optic blast. He tried to rise, tried to get back to Thomas, but Black Manta was there, crashing into him, pounding him down.
"Time to die," Black Manta straddled his foe and drove down with one of his knives. The point stabbed through Aquaman's left hand, the one unblemished by the Mark of Kordax, piercing flash and muscle and wooden floorboard. He screamed in pain, pinned. He raised his other hand, feebly striking out, but his Black Manta grabbed his wrist, keeping him at bay easily. With his other hand, Manta raised his second knife. Aquaman was at his mercy, but he hesitated, savoring the moment. "So long, Aquaman. Your boy will join you soon enough."
But Aquaman didn't hear the taunt. Blocking out both his pain and his fear for Thomas, his concentration was fierce and focused--- and not on Black Manta.
*Help... Help me!*
Glass shattered and a wave of noxious water washed over them. The first concussion was almost immediately followed by a second, then a dozen more. Every strange and dangerous hybrid creatures of Krell's twisted experimentation hit their old and neglected tanks at the same time with an urgency compounded by a summons from their king. The room was flooded and abominations squirmed in the water. Black Manta was knocked sideways by the fanged and tentacled whale-shark, grappling with it furiously, the water already churning with blood.
Free of Black Manta, the call and the fight had taken a toll on Aquaman, nevertheless. He was slow in reaching for the knife that pinned him to the floor, but bracing himself, he ripped it out of his hand. Blood gushed under the water. One of the krellings swam up to him, hungry for the blood, but he waved it away and levered himself to his feet and out of the rancid water still draining from the huge aquariums. Black Manta was nowhere to be seen, and the monster that had been assailing him was floating on the water, sliced in a dozen places, dying.
*I'm sorry,* Aquaman stood over the pitiable monster, putting his hands over the gushing wounds. But the thing was beyond saving, and the long torment of its existence was quickly ending. *That seems to be the only thing I can say to you...* Sparing time he didn't have, he sent a telepathic urging for the krellings to follow the flood of water out to the sea. Perhaps they could find a measure of peace after all.
The sound of Black Manta's optic blast sent him rushing through the compound. Through a smoking hole in the wall of the study, he saw the supervillain running full tilt towards the water, and slung over his shoulder was Thomas.
Aquaman yelled his son's name and leaped through the hole in the wall, running headlong down the beach. In the water now, Black Manta turned and his eyebeams lashed out, slamming into Aquaman so hard he was flung backward into the compound. By the time the Sea King was able to rise and stagger back outside, disoriented, bruised and bleeding, Black Manta was gone.
His first reaction was to dive into the water and hunt down Black Manta, to tear apart the supervillain and get his son back. That was what the man he had been would have done: react on impulse, strike without consideration. Ten years ago, that Aquaman had been the puppet of a curse that was enacted with the sinking of Atlantis and fulfilled the day he killed his brother. But Thomas' words, and Thomas' example had changed him. There was simply too much at stake, and he was done being a victim of destiny.
Besides, Black Manta could not escape him. When he had caught his breath, dressed his wounds, and determined his next move, Black Manta could not hide from him: the sea was filled with Aquaman's eyes and ears.
Figure it out, Arthur, he clenched his fists until blood seeped from the knife wound in his uncorrupted hand. What's going on here? Who is Manta working for? And why do they need my son? This was more than a simple kidnapping. Aquaman had a feeling it was connected with the exile of the Atlanteans to Xaos, and this Great Disaster he was supposedly responsible for setting in motion...
The Chronicles of Choloh.
He found the book where Thomas had dropped it, back in Krell's study. Already ancient and fragile, it was further damaged in Black Manta's attack, though luckily it had fallen onto a pile of other books, so it had escaped the flood caused by the shattered aquariums. Setting it on a reading table, he started flipping through the yellowed pages, many of them crumbling in his ungentle haste. It was written in the same extinct Antediluvian dialect as the Atlantis Chronicles, which, thanks to Vulko, Aquaman could read. Still, the antique scrawl of the long-dead sage was not easy to decipher, nor was he exactly sure what he was looking for.
Precious minutes ticked away, and then hours. He searched out every mention of the dark realm of Xaos, and of Xuthulu, its dread lord, reading frantically, and with dawning horror at the travails of the Obsidian Age. The Chronicles told of how weird and terrible entities come from outside reality to wage an eternal struggle against each other, near-omnipotent powers who deemed themselves the Lords and Chaos and the Lords of Order. Xuthulu was one of the most feared Lords of Chaos. The squamous monstrosity took a particular interest in the great empire of Atlantis, the brightest light at the dawn of civilization. There, magic and science flourished side-by-side in a utopia humanity would never again achieve, and there mad Xuthulu took root, seeping into the souls of the cities. He whispered wickedness and obscenities into the ears of the Atlantean sorcerers and kings, corrupting many of them to the cause of Chaos. It was an age of depredation and strife, for while acolytes of Xuthulu brought cruelty and abomination, followers of certain Lords of Order, like Deedra, opposed them with chains and tyranny. Mighty kingdoms rose and fell, trampled in the contest between Chaos and Order.
Much of this Aquaman already knew from the Atlantis Chronicles. He flipped hurriedly through the pages, tearing some in his haste to find what he needed. There! Xaos...
Xaos, the sage Choloh wrote, was the spinning void of despair which first spawned Xuthulu. An eternally unfolding otherspace, a cocoon of incomprehensible madness and terror, from which the Chaos Lord took his power, and somehow it fed on him, as well, in a kind of predatory symbiosis. There had been a portal to Xaos, but it was lost when when the cities of Atlantis sank beneath the waves in the first dark blossoming of Xuthulu's curse. It had been, noted Choloh, in the City of the Golden Gate, chief city of ancient Atlantis.
Now he was getting somewhere. The ruins of the City of the Golden Gate were buried in the deepest trenches of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, in a haunted region of the ocean now known as the Vales of Cykroth. If he wanted to free his people from Xaos, then that was where he'd find the portal.
He almost closed the book then, but he paused. He was missing something. He was hoping he would find in these crumbling pages the reason why Black Manta's unnamed employer wanted Thomas. Aquaman read at a frantic pace, knowing that every minute Black Manta got further away from him, carrying Thomas to some dark--- and no doubt bloody--- destiny.
Several precious minutes passed as he searched, with no idea of what he was looking for. In frustration, he almost tossed the book aside--- but then his eye was caught by another mention of Xaos. "Xaos slumbers not, but waits to wake, when the blood of the last son of the curse waters the darkest depths..."
The words had a hypnotic effect on Aquaman, taking his mind in the direction the long-dead sage wished it to go, as if they had been written expressly for him to read millennia later. The key to the stanza seemed to be "the last son of the curse." The curse, of course, must be the Curse of Xuthulu, uttered by that dread lord upon Atlantis even as Arion slew him, promising "Kin shall slay kin, even unto the final ruin of Atlantis."
Was this the reason Black Manta had taken his son? Thomas Curry was the last-born son of Atlantis still alive, therefore it was his blood that was needed to water the darkest depths, and awaken that slumbering hell-dimension. They were going to sacrifice his son, and this time the Black Vortex would swallow the whole world to feed Xaos.
Aquaman cut through the water like a torpedo. Manta's trail was not hard to follow: every sea creature reported the passing of the ray-shaped submersible, its red beams casting the ocean in a nightmarish light. Though the ruthless mercenary had a significant head-start, Aquaman was faster, and driven by urgent need. Besides, it soon became obvious where Manta was headed: he was making straight for the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The darkest depths... mused the Sea King. Was Manta headed for the Vales of Cykroth? It certainly made sense: if they wanted to unleash Xaos, they would bring Thomas to the portal. And it fit the description. The ruins of the greatest city of ancient Atlantis were buried deep; uncharted by the Surface World, the rift valleys were almost twice the depth of the Marianas Trench.
A grim chuckle escaped Aquaman, for he knew something they didn't know. Manta and his master had made a critical miscalculation. But would that be enough to save his son and their people, as well?
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge was the volatile site of two diverging tectonic plates and the rift valleys between them roiled with magma from the Earth's mantle, bubbling out in sometimes violent eruptions. Atlanteans and marine-life both generally avoided the area, particularly the Vales of Cykroth, because after the Sinking, it had become the refuge of monstrous creatures, now long extinct. But Aquaman had no choice. He swam between the towering, craggy peaks of the Ridge, and dove down into the fissures of the world.
Steam and gasses arose as if from suppurating wounds of the Earth, and still Aquaman descended. The pressure this far below water was enough to crush a normal man, and even the Sea King felt it. But for flashes of magma oozing from a crack, it was completely lightless. If anywhere on Earth deserved the name the "darkest depths," this was it.
Black Manta's trail had gone cold, for here lived no sea life to report the passing of the ray-ship. Nevertheless, Aquaman knew he was still on the right track; his adapted vision caught sight of the remains of a city wall, sloping down into the gulfs. Here, at last, were the ruins of the City of the Golden Gate, swallowed by the power and malice of a dead god's curse. He swam by the fabled walls that had once held back the creeping glaciers of an ice age and hordes of sub-men thirsting to dash civilization against the rocks of savage barbarity.
Even in his dire straits, the Sea King could not help but feel awe: here was where human civilization began, here was the city ruled by his ultimate forefathers, targeted and doomed by malevolent entities from outside reality.
The descent leveled off into a gorge, into which the debris of the City had seemed to settle from its long slide down into the belly of the world. It lay spilled-out haphazardly, as if scattered by the hands of giants. Tall towers of graceful and exotic design were toppled, but a few still stood, thanks to the vagaries of happenstance. The site was hallowed by its tragic fate, but Aquaman did not linger; he plunged deep into the labyrinth of the devastated city, drawn on by the dim glow of red lights up ahead: he had found Black Manta.
In the center of the ruined sprawl was a great plaza, marked by what looked to be an enormous sphinx, and before it, a great well lined with black stones. At the base of it was Black Manta's ship. He watched as the mercenary, protected by his armor, emerged from a hatch, dragging behind him, bound and chained, Thomas Curry. Manta presented the boy to a figure seated on a throne that was nestled between the forepaws of the sphinx, but Aquaman only had eyes for his son. Thomas' head was bowed, but he struggled against Manta's control. He seemed relatively unscathed, but Aquaman was certain that would not last much longer.
He swam to an overhanging ledge, and watched, scanning the plaza for the Xaos portal.
"I have brought the boy, your so-called Last Son of the Curse," Manta's weird voice was electronically amplified through the water. He threw Thomas at the feet of the throne. "I neither expect nor desire your gratitude, Atlantean; just give me my reward, and I'll be on my way."
The figure on the throne got to his feet. He was an albino, with flowing white hair and cruel crimson eyes. Aquaman recognized him immediately; any child of Poseidonis or Tritonis would have known this greatest villain of Atlantean history: he was the brother and betrayer of Arion, and the wickedest man of a wicked age, Garn Daanuth. Preserved by unholy magicks, the sorcerer had survived the millenia, lurking in these very ruins, waiting for the time to be right to make his last gamble for mastery.
Like a shark, Garn circled Thomas, regarding him carefully before turning back to Black Manta.
*You have done well, Black Manta,* the telepathic projection was like silken strands through the water. *The lost trove of King D'Tilluh is yours. Enjoy it while you may.* He stepped aside and gestured to the sphinx behind him; behind the throne there was an opening, from which could be seen a faint golden glow.
The eerie laughter of Black Manta sounded from his helmet. "You mean your so-called Great Disaster? You're just as crazy as Krell. But I will take your gold."
*You scoff at your peril,* Garn's red eyes flared dangerously. *Thanks to the Curse of Xuthulu, I was bound to the ruins of this city, so I needed an agent of your ruthlessness. But now that I have the Last Son, I will be free, I will command the Black Vortex, and in the conflagration between Chaos and Order, I will reign supreme!* He clenched a fist, an action which only caused Black Manta to laugh again.
"Sure, Atlantean," Manta strode purposefully towards the open chamber at the base of the sphinx. "Whatever you say. In the meantime, I'll be spending your money. I think I'll go buy an island or a mountain somewhere, and wait out your Great Disaster. Have some women in grass skirts feed me grapes all day---."
His back to Garn Daanuth, Black Manta missed the warning signs. The ancient sorcerer had been pushed too far by the mercenary's impertinence. He waved his hand, and far above, the eyes of the sphinx lit up. The stone monstrosity roared to a fierce and unnatural life, and faster than Black Manta could move, it's great head shot down, and in one motion, gobbled him up. There was one agonized scream from the mercenary, then it was abruptly cut off, to the sound of crunching metal.
Watching from his hidden vantage point, Aquaman was horrified by the sudden murder of his longtime arch-nemesis. Just like that, Black Manta was gone for good.
Now it was Garn's turn to laugh.
*Thanks for saving me the trouble,* Thomas addressed his captor for the first time. He was on his knees at the edge of the well, but looking up Garn. There was no mistaking the defiance in the boy's tone. *One down, one to go.*
The albino sorcerer seemed amused, stalking up to the chained Thomas. *Black Manta was an insolent fool who outlived his usefulness. If I didn't need to shed your blood, I might have kept you around just to make me laugh, boy.*
*You're going to finish what Orm Marius started,* Thomas guessed, stating it like an accusation. *You're going to resurrect Xuthulu...*
Garn lashed out. The backhanded blow caught Thomas across the side of the face, and blood flew from the boy's mouth. Aquaman almost dove down to his son's side then, but restrained himself. He only had once chance at this, and rash action always led to disaster. He had to be sure.
A small ribbon of the boy's blood swirled out over the well, and a smoky tendril of blackness rose from it, like a tongue, and lapped it up. The darkness in the well seethed. Was this the portal to Xaos?
*Utter that Dread Name in reverence or not at all,* Garn hissed. *How little you understand what is happening, boy. Orm Marius was not seeking to resurrect the Chaos Lord; he didn't need to: he was already Xuthulu incarnate! You see, my dear brother Arion had not actually slain the Chaos Lord all those years ago, but had reduced him to little more than a malign shade. Xuthulu persisted in Atlantis, whispering in the ears of this king, or that queen, sometimes a great sorcerer, always seeking a way to recorporealize. But ultimately they rejected his intrusions, all of them until Orm Marius. In his hate for his brother--- ever the birthright of a true Atlantean!--- and in his self-loathing, he allowed the Chaos Lord to take root in him, to reincarnate. Alas, before that might could find full flower, the damned Sea King your father slew his brother, and with him, the now mortal vestige of the Chaos Lord.*
Damn you, Orm, Aquaman was surprised to find his eyes stinging, learning of the depths of his brother's despair and perfidy.
*So you see, boy, resurrecting Xuthulu is quite impossible now,* Garn continued. *The act of destroying a Lord of Chaos has upset the delicate balance--- it has ended the stalemate and began the great war. The long-slumbering Lords of Chaos and Order are fully awake now, and even the skies are smeared red with the promise of the cosmic carnage that is upon us. If any mortal is to survive--- even one as puissant as I!--- he must ascend to Lordship! That's why I need you. In your blood, lingers the last malice of Xuthulu, his curse against Atlantis. With it, I will assume mastery of his dread realm, cocoon myself in Xaos and emerge from that chrysalis as a dark power to shake the rafters of creation!*
With that, Garn drew a knife from his cloak, brandishing it in a ritual manner over the squirming Thomas. And Aquaman knew he could wait no longer. Hoping his instincts were correct, he pushed himself from his perch and dove down into the plaza.
The albino sorcerer looked up in surprise at the unexpected appearance of Aquaman. He held up one hand, the fingers curled in a gesture of mystical significance, warning the Sea King off. Above them all, the mouth of the sphinx golem curled in a growl. But Garn seemed genuinely pleased.
*The Sea King, himself!* Garn crowed, triumphantly. "The very catalyst of the Great Disaster! That you should be here to witness my ascendancy seems only fitting.*
*He's wrong,* Thomas didn't seem surprised at all to see his father. *It's like I told you before. Orm hadn't left you any other choice. Imagine where we'd be now if Xuthulu had completed his incarnation ten years ago.*
Aquaman smiled like his son had given him a gift. But he addressed Garn Daanuth. *You're wrong about a lot of things, actually,* he pointed with his Trident, floating closer to the sorcerer. *In fact, you've made a fatal mistake.*
Garn's smile was bland, confident. *You're bluffing, Aquaman.* He held the knife over Thomas, poised to plunge. Aquaman halted his forward momentum, floating over the well, and too far from Thomas and Garn.
*I'm not above that,* Aquaman's smile turned wolfish: all teeth, like he wanted to tear into his foe. *But I'll let you decide. You wanted Thomas because you think he's the last son of the curse. That's your mistake, Garn. Thomas is no kinslayer. He rose above the conditioning from Krell. He rejected the curse and the bloody heritage of his fathers. The curse has no hold on him. He doesn't have in him that sliver of Xuthulu you need so badly to control Xaos.*
Realization bloomed on Garn's face. He blanched, the truth of his miscalculation rushing in on him.
*But if that's true--- then the last son of the curse...!* Garn shoved Thomas aside and lurched forward with a strangled cry. But he was too slow.
*... Is me.* Aquaman finished the thought, and with a quick motion of his Trident, he slit the wrist of his own corrupted hand, sending crimson streamers of blood into the well. Into the darkest depths.
Garn's scream of rage and frustrated ambition echoed through the ruins of the city, but Aquaman was barely aware of it. Darkness erupted from the well beneath him in swift, gasping torrents as the portal to Xaos burst open. Like all the virulence and malice in the world it vomited forth in an unceasing stream. The roaring of Garn's sphinx-golem shook the few remaining structures still standing around the plaza. Somewhere, the Sea King heard his son calling his name...
But for Aquaman, in the midst of the geyser, all light had gone out. His mortal mind struggled to contain what he had unleashed. Something gibbered in his ear, words and feelings that made no sense, a swiftly rising crescendo of enticing insanity. The Black Vortex swirled around him, but he was its master.
Like it was a thing alive, or one of the sea creatures he could command, he expanded the howling fury of the Vortex to encompass the plaza. Inky tentacles grasped the sphinx-golem, pressing in on it inexorably, crushing the ancient stone until it crumbled to dust.
He flung the portal to Xaos wide, disgorging all that was inside it. Bodies of Atlantean men, women, and children tumbled crazily in the water around him, but all he could see was indistinct shapes, blackness, madness... Xaos called to him, promising release and power and an almost sensual ascendancy. With it, he could fix his mistakes, oppose this Great Disaster, and make everything all right. It was within his grasp. He need only hold out his hand for it.
His hand. His bleeding, corrupted hand, forever sullied by the Mark of Kordax. And then, in his hand was another hand. A smaller one. A feminine hand.
The blackness that obscured his vision, the rushing of the Vortex, all of it fell away as the figure that belonged to that hand became visible. Her long red hair was blown back from her face in the torrents of force, and she squinted against the wind, but he could just see her eyes, the curve of her cheek and chin... Mera.
And behind her, leaning into the hurricane surrounding his father, Thomas pushed forward, looking at Aquaman in amazement, as if he was his hero.
In the end, it was easy. And it was the hardest thing he ever did, too. He snuffed the Black Vortex, rejecting it as Thomas had rejected the curse, and he sealed the portal to Xaos back into the well. All at once, as if a switch had been pulled, the ocean was calm. The surges of force were gone, and what remained was a ruined city filled with thousands of Atlanteans slowly coming to their senses. And in the middle of it, floating above the well, was their king, his queen, and their son, locked in an embrace that they wished could go on forever.
But the battle in the City of the Golden Gate had destabilized the rift. Rocks from the peaks overlooking the valley started falling, and the Atlanteans were forced to move, and move quickly. Exhausted from his exertions against Xaos, Aquaman had to be all but carried away by Mera, and the evacuation was led by Thomas, who kept a calm head through it all. Some among the people would remember that time with pride at the boy who would one day be their king.
It was only when they had cleared the Ridge, that anyone had thought to ask what had become of Garn Daanuth. Some reported seeing the albino sorcerer being sucked into the abyssal portal, while others could have sworn they saw Black Manta's ray-ship fleeing into a deeper part of the trenches. But it was too late to investigate. When the ocean floor finally stopped rumbling, the City of the Golden Gate and the portal to Xaos were buried forever beneath tons of rock.
*You came for us,* Mera held her husband's head in her lap, as they rested some time later, their people all around them. *You saved us all.*
Tears blurred his vision, but he saw the familiar face of his old advisor Vulko, laughing, his former protege Garth and his beloved Tula, their heads close together, sobbing with joy, and his son, beaming with pride. He reached out for all of them, and as one, they supported him, helping him to his feet. Someone had bandaged his cut wrist, and in wonderment he saw that his hand, though pale from blood loss, was unblemished and unstained; the Mark of Kordax was gone, drained away, expiated.
He felt lighter. Redeemed. And once again like the hero they knew he was.
*We saved each other,* he told them. He touched Mera's face, kissed her. The cheers and love of his people enveloped them. And while he knew the days ahead might not be easy, or even long--- after all, a Great Disaster had begun--- no matter what they would bring, Aquaman was at peace and ready to face them.
... NEVER THE END!