As with so many things, this story began with a dream. The dream heard a song that stirred it, and proceeded to grow in scope and vision. It took shape in our world. There have been many dreams to tell of in this tale; those of humans and aliens, worlds and gods, the lost and the redeemed. Only death can stop the dreaming. Perhaps not even then. The only thing stronger than a dream is love. The will to be with another can be the abandonment or fulfillment of one's dream.
Love and dreams. Though you may claim not to understand either of them, that does not make you immune. They spring from one another, both candle and flame, feeding each other.
To give up on either one is to truly die.
Pity the dreamless, who care for nothing.
The body floated facedown in the water. Rising and falling, a slave to the pulse of the ocean. The sound of waves crashing against the rocky shore could not drown out the calls of curious seagulls. They circled over the form for several minutes, watching to discern if it might be alive. But there was no movement.
At last one of them deemed it ready and swooped down to land upon the corpse.
Arms and legs thrashed, the body heaved. The startled waterfowl took off immediately to rejoin its fellows.
The man went back to being dead.
When he grew tired of this, he swam back to shore.
With the weight of his clothes and the pull of the tides, it took half an hour just to make it to dry land. Still, he kept a steady pace. Long after his muscles should have cramped from the folic acid buildup, he pressed on. At last the man emerged on the edge of his private island.
"Try again tomorrow," he muttered. Throwing himself off a cliff into the ocean had become a necessary part of the day. He was able to accomplish nothing until he had confirmed it for himself. To date, the result had always been the same. He fell. He floated. He returned. And he would repeat it again the next morning. He had the time, and the means. He could afford it.
The owner of the tiny Mediterranean atoll made his way up the beach. The wet formal-ware that covered him would take hours to dry in the sun, but it kept him from forgetting himself. Lately he had been considering Buddhism as a hobby. The only thing that prevented him from accepting this intriguing tenet was disbelief. The world was real. He was too. They had been constant companions for a very long time now. Up until recently, that had been the only company he needed.
A woman had changed all that.
More a girl in appearance. A teenager by necessity on the outside, and on the inside by inexperience. She had captivated him. Love at first sight. Upon affirming this feeling for the only time in his life, he had pursued the object of his affection with quiet, patient fortitude. The attempt had not been without its pitfalls. There were times he questioned his reasons for doing this. Mistakes were made, and a few details hidden. But towards the end, he had finally achieved victory, of a sort. She had agreed to accept his continued entreaties. They had been ready to try a new hand at life.
When she died the next day, he thought he must go mad.
Isolation from the others seemed the most logical recourse. No telling what he might do if surrounded by people. They were never terribly thrilled at his presence to begin with. Before he departed, one of her friends had insisted he take a means of communicating with them. Why, he had no idea. He hadn't been thinking clearly at the time, entertaining wild hopes and crazed plans. Now that he had space to himself, the initial madness had slowly given way to a sort of blank patience.
The man trudged up the path to his villa. He could wait. Forever, if need be. But for now, it was time for the radio. Some of the latest samplings to come out of Europe were oddly fulfilling to his tastes. More often than not he would find himself drawn into his imagination, stoked by the refrains that seemed to know his dejection and longings. He would let those stirrings tell him what more he should do today.
As the white imperial Roman estate came into view, something in his pocket began to vibrate. Reaching in, the man withdrew a small yellow disc emblazoned with a large 'T.' Still works, he thought with mild surprise. Waterproof. The boy thinks of everything. There was hardly any interest in him for what they might have to say. What compelled him to flick the device open was the same thing that drove him to jump off a cliff every morning.
The hope that he might one day fly again.
The round screen sprang to life, and an alien physiognomy peered into his face. He saw orange skin, green eyes and red hair. She saw dark hair, sunken eyes, and a beard.
"What is it, Starfire?" Kultuq asked.
She blinked. "Something has happened I feel you should be made aware of. It began this afternoon, when Robin…"
Robin exited the training room, feeling sticky and dissatisfied. Maybe he should consider asking Cyborg to modify the programs to something more challenging. Even running through the entire selection took him under an hour now. And crime was growing more prevalent in the city. It wouldn't do to stop trying to improve himself.
He flexed his shoulders and winced at his own odor. First thing's first. It also wouldn't do to offend his teammates' nostrils.
The detective crossed the hall and entered the bathroom. Flipping on the lights, he selected a towel and bathrobe for afterwards. Robin turned on the tap to let it grow warm, then stripped out of his training outfit. He dumped them in the clothes hamper, stepped into the shower and closed the door.
"Hello," Lilq/emo said.
There was a cry and a crash. After that came the sound of water running, and some choice language.
"I fail to see the problem," Lilq/emo huffed as he followed Robin down the hall. "I said I wouldn't tell anyone."
"Just drop it," the fuming hero snarled as they entered the common room.
"Lilq/emo!" Starfire exclaimed happily. "Be welcome to our home, my friend."
"Now that's a greeting. Thank you, princess." The Melian vacation planner's floating bubble converted to a sparkling fuchsia. "Sorry it took so long to get back to you. Busy, busy, busy."
"It's only been a week," Cyborg raised a hand in greeting as he entered the room.
"Ah, memories," Lilq/emo sighed. "Good times. Mostly."
"Welcome back, dude." Beast Boy was rocking back and forth on his perch next to Starfire. "You want something to eat? Did Ojryu come with you?"
"No to both." Their new ally floated to the center of the room and studied the view out into the bay. "I come for business, not pleasure. No matter how much I enjoy your company, I do have my professional obligations. You set me a task, and I'm here to report the results."
The Titans all exchanged looks. A new atmosphere settled over the room. Trepidation, and hope. Beast Boy's face had taken on an anxious vein. He swallowed visibly. "Raven?"
"Not on me, no. But that is the reason I'm here."
They all grew silent to listen.
Lilq/emo flew away from the great windows and turned to regard his audience. "It was no easy task you set me, mind. Find one person I've never met who may be anywhere at all? Although being dead did limit the possibilities, I was determined to overlook nothing in my investigation."
Robin moved to the couch and sat down. Previous experience let him know that Lilq loved to talk. You'd think he got paid by the syllable. But this might be important.
"In the beginning, there was nothing. I looked in your dimension first. Got no results. Then I scouted your Heaven. Not many people there, so that didn't take long. Hell proved to be rowdy and overcrowded, not to mention secretive. But eventually they had to admit that the lady was not in attendance."
Beast Boy began tapping his foot.
"Upon verifying this, I turned my attention to more esoteric planes. Nirvana proved a no-go, and the Land of the Dead was a dead-end. Azerath listed her as absent. Numerous spiritual getaways followed."
Cyborg shifted in his seat.
"I took some time off to attend to my other clients, and came back refreshed and ready to try a new angle. Considering the circumstances of your friend's departure, I petitioned for the right to investigate any and all Quarm zones. Fortunately, everyone was still happy-drunk from all the business we've been having lately. And when I explained it was for you, they approved my request with alacrity and some very sincere good-byes. Just between us, I was rather touched by that."
Robin's eyebrow twitched.
"Risking all, I plunged into the better-left-unknown. There were some rather close calls, I won't deny it. Gave me a new appreciation for why we don't go to some places anymore. At times I wished I was back in the Complaint Dept." Lilq/emo's transport was now a quivering ochre jelly. "But in the end, I emerged unscathed. And unsuccessful."
Robin raised his hand. "Do you think you could skip to the end?"
The Melian's sphere turned cloudy. "I'm afraid that is the end, Robin. I've looked everywhere possible. I've spoken to everyone who may or may not know anything. It's distasteful to admit it, but I haven't been able to locate Raven."
His head lowered in chagrin. "I'm sorry. There's nothing more I can do."
The Titans each felt a twinge of grief then. The new-born hope had died.
Beast Boy shuffled his feet. "I guess it was silly to try. Even if you did find Raven, it's not like you could bring her back to life."
"Might've been nice to say goodbye, though," Cyborg murmured. "Let her know we still care."
"We still can. And we still do." Robin slowly stood up. "Thank you for trying, Lilq. We appreciate you risking so much for us." He turned quickly to leave, unwilling to let them see his grief, when Lilq/emo raised an arm.
"Just one thing," the encapsulated alien noted. "I couldn't find a trace of your friend, that is true. But I did happen across something that may be of interest to you."
All about to stand, the Titans sank back down again. It was hard to say why. Maybe hope was just harder to kill than that.
"In my line of work," Lilq pronounced pedantically, "It always pays to converse with the clients. Try and formulate your researches to reflect their hopes and dreams. We employ a few professional dreamers on staff to keep us abreast of any swings or downturns in the collective dreaming. I was taking a break with one of them a few tae back, and she mentioned something that piqued my interest. I was chatting with her about how much things had picked up lately, and she asked me what I meant. I pointed out how business was booming, and her response was, 'Not on my end.' I felt intrigued by that, so I asked her to explain."
It was infuriating the way Lilq/emo tended to draw out his narrations. But to be honest, his skill at doing so was nothing to sneer at. The Titans all found themselves on the edges of their seats.
"According to this dreamer, the state of dreams is in a negative spiral. Apparently the Dreaming has had some very severe restrictions placed upon it. It was when she mentioned how long this had been going on that something clicked. When I checked that against your timeline, imagine my surprise when I found that this occurrence began at the same time that you defeated the Quarm ^*."
"Well, there was a big mess of dreams running around in the world," Cyborg pointed out. "Don't you think that might explain it?"
"Maybe back then, but what about now?" Lilq/emo was sounding more excited. "Things should have gone back to normal, they have everywhere else. After this I scouted out some experts on the Dreaming, and they shed even greater light on the situation. From the discussions they have had with the residents of the Dreaming, it seems that a significant portion of that realm has been cordoned off. A whole segment of the Land of Dreams is not open to the public. Completely restricted, no entry permitted, and no one can say why. But what they will admit to is that the edict went into effect after your friend disappeared."
Starfire rose and moved to stand close to him. "Do you believe… it might have something to do with Raven?"
The alien traveler exuded a blank white gel. "I can't say, princess. No one seems to know what might be happening in there. But I do hear that a lot of dreams are afraid of it."
"So let's go there," Beast Boy shrugged.
The team's travel-agent turned on him. "What?"
"We want to go there," his green client explained patiently. "You said last time that you'd take us anywhere we want to go. So we wanna go to the Dreaming and look for Raven." He shot a look around at the other Titans. "Right?"
Cyborg blinked in astonishment. "It's kinda sudden, but… Yeah. Why not?"
"We can take a little time to learn about this place, but that wouldn't take too long," Robin mused.
"All are in agreement? Wonderful!" Starfire placed her hands behind her back and addressed Lilq/emo. "We wish for you to escort us to the Dreaming."
The Melian regarded them all curiously. "I can't."
"Say what?" Cyborg got to his feet.
"Why not?" Beast Boy whined.
"You said you could take us anywhere," Robin accused.
"Yes, but… it's the Dreaming! What do you need me for?"
Beast Boy trotted forward. "Are you scared of this place or something? I thought you were our travel agent."
"I am!" The representative of the Chuv travel group sounded both surprised and upset. His transport globe was filling up with the colors of fall foliage. "But the Chuv doesn't provide trips to the Dreaming, nobody does! Everyone goes there on their own, you don't need permission. It's the Dreaming! It's free for all."
"So," Robin hazarded, "Are you saying that all we have to do is go to sleep?"
"No. After all, you don't decide where you go in dreams. The Dreaming just takes you there. Some people create environments in it, and some of them even live there. But dreams aren't real, that's the point. You may dream about meeting your friend, and dream about talking to her. But that doesn't make it really her. Just a figment of your imagination."
The gung-ho eagerness that had seized upon them was starting to fade. "So what can we do?" Robin asked.
Lilq/emo spread his arms. "Got me. I'll keep investigating the matter on your behalf. But I'm afraid I can't make any promises."
"You'll keep in touch, right?" Beast Boy's eyes pleaded. "You won't give up?"
"It's a given," the alien replied. "I'll get started right away."
"Thanks, L," Cyborg saluted.
"Stay safe," Robin called, and Starfire waved good-bye sorrowfully. "Farewell, friend."
Lilq/emo bowed his head, then folded up his sphere and vanished.
For a while the Titans stayed where they were, each digesting the information they had received. They pondered their options, and questioned their beliefs. Then the changeling looked at their leader, and sniffed.
"Dude, you reek."
Robin jerked, and everyone seemed to notice his attire at once.
"How come you're wearing a bathrobe?" Cyborg asked.
Jumping to his feet, Robin mumbled something incoherent and quickly left the room.
Cyborg raised an eyebrow, then rose to follow suit. "I'll be in the garage."
Beast Boy laced his fingers behind his neck. "I think I could use some fresh air. I'm going for a flight. Wanna join me, Star?"
The emerald-eyed beauty shook her head. "No. There is something I must attend to."
Her teammate nodded and sauntered off, eyes rooted to the floor. When he was gone, Starfire went to the main video screen and punched in a specific code. Half a world away, a communicator went off.
"And that is all," she finished.
Kultuq was seated on the stoop of his home. He cradled the compact device like it was his most cherished possession. "Dreams," he rumbled reflectively. "It all comes back to dreams."
Closing his eyes, he pressed a fist to his forehead. Kultuq remained in this position for nearly a minute. Starfire hesitated on her end, uncertain whether or not he had any questions. At last the ageless man slowly opened his eyes. "Thank you, Starfire. I'll be in touch."
She seemed about to say more, but stopped herself. The line went dead. Kultuq leaned against a pillar and stared out over the sea. The sun was just starting to rise. His clothes could dry in the heat. He watched the world go by around him. Thinking. Remembering something he had last done when he was less than a hundred years old.
"Now how did that part go?"
Three days later, Beast Boy went to answer the doorbell of the Tower. When he did, Vandal Savage brushed by him.
"Hello. Please follow me."
The supercriminal strode ahead without another word. After finally mastering his surprise, Beast Boy trotted after him. In just a few minutes they reached the community room, and Savage turned back around. "I need to speak with all of you."
He stared at Beast Boy, who stared right back. Both were reminded of the first time they had met. Both were aware that neither viewed the other quite the same as back then.
"Please," Vandal spoke softly.
The teenager regarded him for a moment longer. Then he tapped the signal on his belt buckle, and the two of them waited. In just over a minute, the other Titans joined them. Robin was the first to speak. "What do you want with us, Savage?"
The immortal wasted no time. "I'm going into the Dreaming, and I need something from each of you."
There was no animosity from Robin or any of the others, but neither was there trust. "And you're doing this because…?"
"Starfire told me what your friend said. I'm going to try and find Raven."
Robin turned a questioning look on his girlfriend, who showed no hint of discomfort. "He had a right to know," she explained softly. The masked warrior's eyes drifted off to the side. Then he gave a brief nod.
"We're coming with you."
"That's not possible," Savage intoned. "The way I know to enter the Dreaming is applicable to me alone. What I require from you is your hair."
"From where?" Beast Boy sounded leery.
"And you expect us to give it to you," Robin spoke in a flat tone. "Without any assurances."
"I'm thinking no," Cyborg declared. "We've got enough to worry about without the chance of evil clones of ourselves."
"I will not use it in any way against you." Savage regarded them all in turn. "This is something I need to bring Raven back, if she is there. Whatever the outcome, I will never raise my hand to any of you ever again, in any way."
"Why should we trust you?" Robin again.
The supervillain turned to regard him. "Because I love her. So do all of you."
They all looked at him like he was speaking gibberish in clown makeup. Not knowing what to think. "What do you intend to do?" Starfire asked with surprising concern. Savage squared his shoulders staunchly.
"I'm going to perform a ritual that will guide me into the Dreaming entirely. Once I have done everything I can there, I will need your hair to lead us back to the living world. It's just that simple."
"You will do this to try and save Raven." She gave him a penetrating stare.
"If she is there," the former criminal spoke in a tired voice, "I will bring her back. At any cost."
Starfire then reached up and pulled a long red hair out, offering it to Savage. He took it from her and placed it in a leather pouch he withdrew from a cord around his neck. Beast Boy watched this procedure. He was suspicious. And hopeful. Uncertain of what he expected, but aware of the risks, he then plucked out a hair and handed it over.
Next came Robin. It wasn't peer pressure, or even hope that he was feeling. Savage had already said the one thing that could have convinced him. He made his own offering, and when Vandal took it, he grasped the older man's forearm. The look that passed between them was not a threat. More of an understanding.
Cyborg rubbed his bald head at the last. "Ah," he shifted his feet nervously. Then Beast Boy tapped a finger against his eyebrow, and realization dawned. "Oh yeah." Reaching up, he twiddled his brow and came away with a few hairs. Savage accepted these, laced up the bag, and moved to depart. The Titans followed him all the way to the Tower's entrance. There he turned to survey their group. "Thank you," was all he said.
They watched him make his way down to a skiff and return to his yacht. They did not speak to one another about this. Only went back inside to wait.
The first part of the journey was by plane. He rented an American brand SUV in Rostov-on-don and drove the rest of the way. It was winter here, and the snows were heavy. Once he entered the wilderness, it didn't take him long to find that even this supposedly all-terrain vehicle was of no use under these conditions. But that was why he had brought the snowmobile.
Kultuq abandoned the Rover but made sure to remember where he left it. He had packed two types of winter clothing and enough food for five people. Whether or not this would be put to any use remained to be seen. The snowmobile took him the final stretch of this journey. Instinct and memory guided him through the cold woods, and upon first sighting Mt. Elbrus, he felt a pang of something like home-sickness. It was not useful, so he did not dwell on it.
An hour later he had reached the foot of the mountain. In twenty minutes he had located the cave and descended into its depths. Even going all the way back in, it wasn't far. A hundred feet, at most. But the sounds of the outside world were dampened by solid rock. The only light came from a candle he had lit. He could have done this blindfolded, but fire was a necessary part.
Kultuq was dressed from head to toe in pelts he had sewn together. He found a slightly hollowed-out piece of rock. The way it felt between his fingers, it might have been the very same stone he had first used on his 11th birthday. The last living member of his tribe removed all the ingredients he remembered collecting back then. A stone from a stream. A leaf he had found blowing in the wind. Certain odoriferous herbs, and a small strip of still-bloody squirrel meat. Leaf and herbs he set in a pile on the curved stone. The pebble he placed over the bit of flesh. When this was done, he lit the plants with the candle and then blew it out. Smoke and scents touched his nostrils, and he began to sing.
It had not taken long to recall the chant. Memory might fade, but ingrained responses never left. As quick as instinctive rage or fear, the words rolled off his lips. He swayed and hummed, calling out entreaties. Demanding, he watched the light flicker against the walls, and the shadow of his hands dancing against them. He laced his fingers together and mimed the flapping of wings.
Off to one side, movement registered that did not belong. The great chief and shaman did not stop. The shadow of his hands twisted and blended. A part of that darkness separated from the rest, and went flying about the room, its passage a hushed beat that could be felt as well as heard.
The flames suddenly burned blue. And a raven landed on the ground before him.
"Vrork," he greeted it by its name. The spirit turned an eye on him.
"Old-young Kultuq," it croaked horribly. The bird was in a semi-rotted condition. Feathers clung to it in sparse, pitiful clumps. Hardly any flesh remained, most of it was dry bone peaking past the dull black plumage. Its single remaining eye was milky and hanging partway out of its skull. "I am unwell, thanks to you."
"So I see," he replied. The last time he had called him, the spirit had looked much better. But that was 50,000 years ago. "I am in need of a guide to the Sky of Dreams."
"Take a nap," the corpse-bird snapped. "You have no needs. For food or blood or guides." It eyed the strip of meat hungrily, but did not approach.
"I must go there with my body," he explained. "So that I may decide when and by what way I must leave."
The raven ducked its head beneath a wing and picked at a maggot there. Swallowing this, it coughed, then hopped over the blue flames. "Haven't called me for ages. Haven't fed me, but haven't stopped believing in me. So long I've wanted to return to the land of the spirits, but you never let me go. You and your unending life."
"Then let this be the end for you. Take me to the Sky of Dreams. Wait for me to fulfill my quest. And when it is done, I will give you your freedom."
Vrork watched him, cocking its decaying head back and forth. "You will?"
The shaman reached down and removed the pebble from the meat. "I will."
The spirit guide considered this. Then it hopped a few steps, bent down and gobbled up the meat in an instant. Immediately there was a bit more flesh on its bones, and the feathers regained some of their glossy sheen. Vrork looked up at his charge. "Then let us go."
The fire was snuffed out. In darkness, Kultuq heard the beating of wings. He rose and followed them out, walking assuredly. As he moved, he noticed the smell of the smoke was dying. A few more steps and the mouth of the cave came into view. The light coming from it was unbelievably bright, but it still did not hurt his eyes. He took his first step outside.
Snow was falling from a blue cloudless sky. A white blanket covered the ground, more pure and pristine than he had remembered. It might have been the real world. Except there was no cold. Kultuq could feel the furs against his skin. But when he tilted his head up and caught a snowflake against his cheek, he felt nothing. The absence of senses. The air was no longer sharp or filled with the scents of the forest. A sure sign that this was a dream.
Kultuq shifted the sack on his back. He patted the club and wooden spear attached there. Then he set off on his way.
One did not follow a course in dreams. Experienced dreamers knew that. The trick is to keep moving, and stop when you get where you are going. Disregard anywhere or anything else that comes along. Kultuq knew just how suddenly things could change in a dream. That didn't happen this time.
Snow continued to drift down. Daylight glimmered off of ice crystals, but when he looked upward there was no sun. No animals or people came out to greet him. As he trudged along, not another thing, be it living or dead, made itself known. And yet…
At times Kultuq would stop and look behind him, certain that someone was there. Or he would catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. But whenever he paused to check he would find himself alone.
Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that he had company on this journey.
Nightfall came suddenly to the Dreaming. When it did, the lone dreamer stopped and made himself a fire. He didn't need to, since cold did not exist in dreams. But it served to keep any nightmares at bay. That had been the province of fire since before his time. Sitting on a fallen log, the ardent immortal gazed into the licking, snapping flames. He felt no hunger, so he did not eat. The glow of the blaze reached high up into the air, and lit the snow with a flickering golden aura.
By habit, he felt he should sleep. But he resisted that too, even though he was starting to feel drowsy from the image of the flames. It was an ingrained response. Fire let you know you were safe to go to sleep. Safe to dream.
Kultuq blinked and rubbed his eyes. He stared at the bonfire, willing himself to wakefulness. No sleeping in dreams. It meant you were lost. The illusion of tiredness dissipated. Good.
Kultuq raised his head, and through the flames, he saw a figure seated across from him.
Immediately he sprang over the divide, grasping his club with a roar. Upon landing he swung the weapon violently.
He hit nothing. All around him, the space was empty.
Kultuq peered carefully about his camp. Then he returned to his seat, remaining there until the light resurfaced so he could resume his progress.
One thing was clear. He was definitely not alone.
Several turns of the Dreaming later, he knew he had reached his destination.
When Kultuq crested a rise, far below he saw someone waiting for him.
I should see who it is, he thought, and trudged down to meet them.
Upon closer inspection, the tiny figure proved not so tiny after all. It was at least ten feet tall, and had the bluish-gray spotted fur of a snow leopard. Its legs were that of a rooster, with curved obsidian talons. A white cloak draped about its shoulders kept its arms hidden, and surmounting its neck was a platinum helm with a burnoose wrapped around it. The being was sleekly muscled, and no eyes were visible within the slit of its visor.
"Hello!" Kultuq called as he descended to the same level.
The being bowed its head in greeting, and he altered his course slightly to move past it. The guardian, for that was clearly what it was, responded by shifting its own position, remaining firmly planted in his path. Kultuq drew abreast of this obstacle, and stopped.
"I wish to press on."
The helmet moved slowly back and forth. "No, dreamer. This place is forbidden to enter."
"Nevertheless, I must pass. Will you attempt to take my life if I try?"
Something like a snort came from the helm. "You know better than that. You are of the living. A dream cannot kill you here. But I can stop you, dreamer."
"Of course you can." Kultuq talked to give himself time to think. He had known that his entry into the forbidden Dreaming would not go unopposed, but up until this moment, he had not been able to conceive of a reliable strategy that would serve to get him past. "Perhaps then, if you do not wish to fight me for it, you might agree to face me in a riddle contest?"
"I am bad at riddles." The cloak shivered expectantly.
"Set me some task to perform?"
"I can't think of any."
"Flip a coin for it?"
"I always lose. Why do you think I'm here?"
The man and the dream stood and studied one another.
"What if I told you," Kultuq stated precisely, "that the woman I love might be beyond here, and I intend to go and rescue her."
"I would congratulate you on falling in love, and continue to bar your way."
"Well then," Kultuq dropped his pack, unslung both club and spear. "We must fight. But have no fear, I will not kill you."
The great shoulders hunched in preparation, and its breath came out in a cold burst of mist. "I will return the courtesy."
Snow fell all about. The duelists gauged one another.
In a tree above them, a raven flapped down, and emitted a sharp caw.
The guardian dream relaxed and stepped to one side. "Go ahead, then."
Kultuq remained in an offensive stance. "Say again?"
"You have permission to enter." His opponent readjusted its robe, and stood still.
The ageless figure did not move either. Was it a trick? This dream didn't seem the type to resort to such tactics. Perhaps it was his idea of a game? Retrieving his goods, Kultuq took a step forward, and another. He skirted carefully around his giant adversary, keeping a wide berth and never letting his attention waver.
When he moved past the spot where the gatekeeper stood, something in the world was different.
"I wish you success, dreamer." The guardian moved to take up its place again. "We are all counting on you."
Kultuq stared at the broad back uncertainly. Then he turned and proceeded into the unknown.
It made no sense, he told himself. What was the point of a guard who let anyone by? Was it something he had said or done? Was this all an elaborate ruse, and he was now headed back the way he came without knowing it?
No. That, at least, was not the case. This was not the same world he had seen before. The sky had grown dark with heavy, menacing clouds that hung silent and unmoving. In fact, nothing seemed to move here. Almost as if it were afraid to. The quiet that imbued this place was deathly. When true darkness fell, Kultuq lit a fire for more than just security. The blackness that engulfed him now was absolute. He feared losing his way in it. The immortal journeyman hunkered close to the flames, and tried to rid himself of the feeling that he was being watched.
For a time he studied his tiny campsite. Then he turned to check the black wall that loomed at the edge of the light behind him. Nothing moved within it. Certain thoughts had begun to band together in his mind.
Turning back, Kultuq saw someone seated across the flames.
"May I join you?"
The voice came from behind, but it failed to take Kultuq by surprise. He had been expecting this for a while now. "Of a certain, you may."
The one who spoke moved to sit beside him, and the ancient stared openly.
Everything about this person was white as new-fallen snow. His cloak, hair, skin and fingernails. His eyes were the only part of his body that did not complete the effect. They were deep black wells, and in one of them a single star gleamed. Around his neck hung a pendant bearing a deep green emerald, and the Paleolithic survivor noted the poise and bearing that marked one of superlative stature. Nobility. Dignity. He strove to capture a word that could contain this figure's qualities, but failed. His virtues and power emanated with such surety from his body that Kultuq knew without a doubt he had entered the presence of something more than immortal, something…
"You were waiting for me," the young noble spoke in an unearthly voice. "Do you know who I am?"
Kultuq found it hard to look away from this being. "I do. There is only one who could have commanded the gatekeeper to abandon his charge, and that is the one who granted it to him. You are the soul of this realm, my Lord Dream."
Dream stretched out a hand, and stirred the dancing flames with it. "What brings you into my domain, dreamer, to defy the edict that I have laid down?"
Kultuq watched the pale fingers pass through the fire unharmed. "I came for my heart."
Dream nodded. "I have fallen in love many times. But that was in my past. Now I find myself unused to love, and uncertain of its wisdom." The measuring hollow eyes turned to scrutinize him. "Do you know what might become of you now that you are here?"
Kultuq shifted uncomfortably, feeling woefully naked before that gaze. "I am not here to further my well-being. It has been a long time since that concerned me. I have come for the sake of another." He paused then, uncertain whether or not he should risk the next question.
But he needed to.
"Is she here?"
Dream withdrew his hands and clasped them over his knees. "She is."
Kultuq made an involuntary sound. A whimper. Or a cry. He turned his head and hugged himself tight, trying to keep from trembling. There was more he had to know. "Where can I find her?"
Dream rose smoothly to his feet. "Come with me."
The prince of stories walked forward, and at his first step, the night ended. Gray half-light again lit the snow. Kultuq stood and moved to follow. When he had almost caught up to Dream, he chanced a look back. Beyond the smoke of the fading fire, someone sat in the place he had been. The ageless wanderer turned and followed the King of Dreams.
The pair crossed over snowy plains now. Mountains sprang up to their left, and there was no longer any snow falling. They moved through the threatening twilight for a brief time without speaking, until at last Kultuq decided he could no longer abide the uncertainty.
"My lord, will you tell me why I have had cause to come here?"
Dream continued on his way, bare feet leaving only a faint disturbance in the powder all around them. "You are in the Dreaming for your own reasons, but I have allowed you to enter Nightmares because you are needed."
"This is Nightmare?" Kultuq glanced about warily. "I've seen nothing particularly traumatic since I entered."
Dream nodded, as if in agreement. "Even nightmares can know fear," he said.
The white prince stopped. His vanguard immediately followed suit. Dream remained motionless.
"Have you ever looked at yourself, Kultuq, and disliked what it is you see?"
Cautiously, he gave a nod. "Of late, yes."
"It is no longer in me to be a tyrant."
Where had that come from? Best proceed with care. "I understand," Kultuq spoke slowly, "that you found reason to change yourself some years back."
"Had events proceeded differently on your world, I would have had neither the chance nor the inclination to do so."
Dream stepped forward. All of a sudden the mountains went by impossibly fast, and they now stood upon a great flat field of snow.
"But there remain parts of me with which I am uncomfortable."
His attendant stamped his feet unconsciously and blew out his breath. He remained a respectful step behind the master of the unknown. "Is that why I am here?"
Dream turned to regard him. The star in his eye grew brighter. "Look," he pointed upward.
Kultuq followed the direction. He examined the sky above carefully. What was it he was meant to see here? There looked to be nothing but clouds overhead.
Wait. What was that?
Far, far above, he thought he saw something. Like a tiny speck.
"Do you wish to proceed?" Dream's voice came from all around him, and Kultuq continued to stare. It seemed so far away, but still… it unnerved him. Like glancing up suddenly on a sidewalk to find someone staring at you. Someone's eye upon you.
And he knew he didn't want to go. He couldn't see. He should just run away now, before he knew for certain. Just run away now!
"Take me there," Kultuq whispered. "Let me see it for myself."
"As you wish."
The next thing he knew they were up among the clouds. Supported by nothing. Dancing on air.
Hanging before them was an immense sphere.
Colors flowed under its surface. Black. And green. The interior was as unstable as a mirage.
A noise came then. Kultuq tried not to listen. He looked at what lay before him. And for the first time, he wished he had never come here.
It sang to him.
And against his will, the answering refrain came to mind.
A firm hand gripped his shoulder, and Kultuq jerked upright like a sleepwalker. He gaped around with wide, panicked eyes, searching for a place to hide, somewhere it couldn't see him. But the Dream King's touch kept him there. And gradually, the sense of awakening died down.
"Do you know what this is?"
No, he told himself. It couldn't be. It was gone. We cast it out. For mercy's sake, why don't you ever stay DEAD?!!
"C'thulhu," he whispered.
"No," Dream spoke, and the wind rose to rustle their hair and clothes. "His Dream."
The nightmare abomination hung there. Kultuq felt something he shouldn't. Cold. "What's going on?" He wanted to run. Get away, leave this place and never come back. It knows me, he thought as he watched the sluggish aura churn. It knows who I am.
"Before the Universe had settled, C'thulhu appeared." Dream was speaking again, and Kultuq could do naught but listen. "His great Dream emerged as well, the strongest ever to exist. I knew it as a part of myself. I am always Dream, so I had no choice but to accept it. Being alone with C'thulhu's Dream at first did not allow me to perceive much of myself. But gradually, as living things were born in the universe, I grew to match them. The Dreaming became myriad. And as I understood the workings of existence, I came to know my dilemma."
Dream stepped in to study the noxious ornament. In its side his reflection came back warped and nigh unrecognizable. "Being who I was at the time, I did not care to consider what this Dream meant for other living things. C'thulhu was alive as well, after all, and it was his to dream. Though this one Dream did have the power to extinguish others, and proceeded to do so, I did not try to halt it. After all, I told myself, it was not killing the dreamers. Merely replacing that which they dreamed with itself. If it truly had no right to impose itself, then what right had I to stop it? The Dreaming would be altered, but not destroyed. And, truth be told, its presence fascinated me. I felt how strong I was from this Dream. I was able to do much because of it. And being so satisfied with myself, I made allowances for it."
The storm about them now made Kultuq think it would sweep him away at any moment. Dream stared fixedly at the Dream.
Then he averted his eyes.
"When C'thulhu first died, representatives of the living came and beseeched me to put an end to the Dream. Without a dreamer, it was within my power to do so. But I resented their insistence that I destroy a part of myself for their sakes. It was not in me to commit such admitted altruism. To save myself from having to do so, I sent a dream to C'thulhu's worshippers, showing them how to build a form that the Dream could inhabit in the real world. In this manner, the Dream would technically be out of my reach. And as further measure, now it could use this construct to protect C'thulhu himself, for I knew that it was in his nature to rise again at a later date. I did all this out of pride, and self interest. I placed myself above the living, to retain that tremendous power."
"But as I said…"
The perfect figure turned and looked at Kultuq, and the furious wind suddenly died down.
"I no longer wish to be a tyrant. Recent events have forced me to change. And when even that was not enough, I chose to reinvent myself. I realized it was the only way I could continue to fulfill my function as Dream. So it was done." He bowed his head then. "I must admit, had C'thulhu's Dream been active at the time, I would not have reached the same decision. But it was not, and I did. So when his Dream did arise, I no longer found myself impressed by its qualities. Instead… I am dismayed. This…" and he turned to regard the grand smoldering orb, "I no longer desire to be responsible for this. It is not welcome within me. I would be quit of it."
"Then destroy it!!"
Kultuq no longer cowered back. Instead he stood firm, and his own features were made terrifying from hate and rancor.
"You have the power, destroy it! There is no more dreamer to cause you concern. Send the slave to join its master! Do it now!"
Dream's eyes glowed, flared, and the immortal took a step back fearfully. But just as he thought he was about to be punished, the threat faded. And Dream spoke.
"This I cannot do. The Dream has already found another dreamer."
The Dream King fixed a look on Kultuq, and a horrible presentiment gripped him. "Never," he whispered. "I will not."
But Dream was sadly shaking his head. "No, Kultuq. Not you."
The traveler of history watched the white prince suspiciously. If not him, then who?
It came to him then, and his face went pale with horror. "Not…!"
"Yes." There was the sound of wings flapping as Dream spoke. "It has Raven."
There is no silence so absolute as that which occurs in dreams. When one finally notices it, there comes the realization that it is not so much a question of nothing moving. More like the possibility for sound had stopped. This was what Kultuq experienced. He looked over at the malignant swarming vessel with a focused intensity. When watched like this, the glutinous dance of colors began to take on some meaning. Of a sudden he came to believe that he was looking at history. C'thulhu's history. Planets and stars foreign to his own galaxy. Living things that defied his attempts to reconcile their forms with his own. At one point he found himself watching a group of degenerate humans leaping about a fire, all sinking their teeth and claws into the flesh of a man who would not die.
Kultuq wrenched his head away. At any other time, these memories would have been enough to unman him. They always had before, in spite of his best efforts. Now it was different. There was only one thing that filled his thoughts now.
They have Raven.
He noticed the prince of stories regarding him, and he returned the stare.
"Why bring me here?" he rasped.
Dream reached up and touched the emerald he wore about his throat. "So long as she is within the Dreaming, I can do nothing against the Dream. Raven is very close to submitting. To dreaming. She was taken in the moment before she was about to die. Her unfettered consciousness was able to communicate with the Nightmare. So it seized her for itself, having found someone other than C'thulhu whom it could recognize. When the Dream and its Dreamer were separated, it automatically returned to the Dreaming. With C'thulhu gone, and R'lyeh undone, it had only Raven to support it. The Dream brought her here before she could fade away. Now it sustains her. It works its need upon her, surrounding her with its potential. It seeks to make her understand it, so that they will share the same purpose. And when that happens, Raven will leave the Dreaming, and go back to Earth."
In the facets of the emerald's depths, Kultuq thought he could see the reflection of the demented Dream. Or maybe, he realized, it was growing inside the gem.
"Once back in the waking world, Raven will dream the Nightmare. By asserting her rightful place among the living, she will rid the Dream of its alien origins. It will belong there. When that happens, the Dream will call forth its old master from beyond. C'thulhu will emerge from the Void, and take up the position held by Raven. It will replace her. Consume her. After this there will be nothing that can stop C'thulhu. It will reside in your universe until the end. And then it will go further, together with its Nightmare and its worshippers, to find another place to draw life under its sway."
The star in his eye was a flickering nub. "That is its future. And mine."
The savagery in the word ran bone deep. Kultuq stood with spear and club drawn, ready to take on anything. "C'thulhu is no more. SHE saw to that! The girl born to doom the world chose instead to save the universe, and I will be dead before I let anyone take that victory away from her. You know!" He leveled his trembling spear at Dream. "You know what she thought of herself! Hopeless and afraid, convinced that her birth, her life, was a mistake. An error! But when she defeated the Dream, she finally, finally stopped believing that! I could feel it! She was so happy at the end. No more shame. I…"
There were tears coursing down his cheeks, and his heart pounded at a furious, unrelenting pace. Kultuq strode forward and glared directly into Dream's endless eyes.
"I won't let her be ashamed of herself anymore!"
His passion fell silent.
And Dream smiled.
"One thing has not changed. Humanity still has the power to amaze me."
The Lord of Nightmares clasped his hands together, and when he drew them apart a strand of samite uncoiled in profusion. One end of the enchanted fabric whipped out and wound neatly around Kultuq's wrist. The other dropped down, reaching far beyond its perceived length until it must surely touch the ground.
"To save Raven, you will need to venture into C'thulhu's Dream itself," the albino youth announced. "Once you locate the girl, you must separate her from the Nightmare, and bring her out of it. Only when Raven has passed through the Gates of Dream will she be safe." He pointed with one slender finger off into the distance. On the horizon there now stood two gleaming pillars wrought of something that swirled and shifted like clouds. Between them was a pair of doors. As Kultuq watched, the portals slowly swung open. "After you have the child, tug upon the line. It will draw you out of the Dream. Understand why and how it is you who has come to reach this place, dreamer. Only then will you prevail."
The fur-clad man looked at the wristband, then back at the globe of chaos. So it fell to him to end this madness. His only love was trapped in there. It was time to set her free. So resolved, Kultuq stepped towards his nemesis.
But on the edge of entering it, he recalled something, and turned to face the master of dreams.
"My lord, I must ask. Since my arrival here, I have felt as though someone, or something, has shadowed me. Was that you?"
Dream remained as he was; serene, imperturbable.
"Not I. But know that you do not walk alone in dreams, Kultuq."
A world that had unmade itself. At times it pressed closely around him, and he seemed to go nowhere. At others everything stretched away, though there was insufficient stasis to mark horizon or boundaries. It was a universe unto itself.
The Nightmare Dream of mad C'thulhu.
Kultuq neither moved his legs nor swung his arms. Traction had no meaning here, nor did motion. All about him was a viscous, impermanent dark matter. The incomprehensible and the unexplainable given form. Blackish-green tarnish teemed and bubbled. It pushed through his body like it was trying to divide him. There were moments when it seemed like he was going in every direction at once. At those times Kultuq would flounder about in irrational confusion, until eventually the episode passed. These came often here. Like something was trying to grab hold of him, but always, just barely, he would slip away. It wasn't a case of resistance on his part. He just didn't go where it was leading him. He wouldn't follow. So it forgot about him.
For a while.
No focal point. No landmarks. No sense of direction. This was not a land he traveled through. Kultuq didn't know what it was. Maybe, he thought to himself, it doesn't know either. The immortal wandered about aimlessly. He needed something, a glimpse, a presence to guide him forward. But the only thing that he could reasonably discern in this mental bomb zone was the cord about his arm, traveling back behind him, though its extent might be warped around itself.
Kultuq knew this fell display. The world, his world, had appeared much the same, if only for a day. Were it not for one girl's sacrifice, it might yet be so now.
"RAVEN!" he shouted. Lunacy to try. But then, look where I am. It can't hurt. This was where his plans had failed him. Kultuq knew as much about dreams as any man. But it seemed that even the unconscious rules of the Dreaming did not operate here. He had tried everything he could think of. What was left but to shout her name, and hope she might hear him? Presuming she still could.
He knew what this Dream did to humans. He had seen the Deep Ones. When he did find Raven, she might no longer be recognizable. And she had already been in here for…
Three months. Alone in this place. While he had been idling on the beach, making meaningless gestures and content to wait, she had been suffering a lifetime of torture. You fool! You worthless, helpless fool!
"Raven! Where are you?! It's Kultuq! I'm here to save you. Show me where you are!"
He waited, in mingled dread and desperation. It was too late. She was already gone. This had won. The beast that had crouched over his future, the one he thought gone forever, had returned to steal away the only thing that had given him hope in all those centuries. Ruination. Misery. This was his greatest hate. He would have died to destroy it, to see it dead, never again hear its name! Curse you, curse you to hell! You monster!!
"C'THULHUUUU!!!" he screamed.
Had he imagined it? He waited, tensed, straining to determine if there was anything real to…
There! There it was again!
Stelnv yero YaYarmnlopbre vuk Sh'ho Ugranli.
The Nightmare's voice! He could hear it, its guttural tones like torture to his ears. And more! For of a certain those words were a path beneath his feet. Now Kultuq did move forward. Every word was a step, each unholy syllable a call to him. He had found a way! He began to race upon that litany road. And as he did, the song in the Dream began to grow louder.
Gun-shlurak ittomFtsviet Nummeo! C'thulhu Raven!
Her name! It said her name! To hear it spoken like this was a cold needle shoved into his heart. Leave her alone, he thought wildly. I'll smash you to bits if I must, you leave her be!
Something was happening.
He could no longer see anything around him.
But the song was deeper, louder.
There was something close. He could feel it. If he just…Torkam... reached out his hand… Nulmr… he would feel it…Omworqedm…!
He was holding something.
Real. Solid. FEEL! This was no dream-stuff! Kultuq pulled!
He fell forward.
All about was darkness. An empty landscape. Kultuq rested on his knees. His eyes weren't working, was that it? There was something in his hands. He stared where he knew they were for the longest time. Let me see, he pleaded. Just let me see. Please.
There it was. A sleeve. Cloth of blue. Cape.
Kultuq lifted his head, to find Raven lying before him.
Immediately he lunged forward and wrapped her in his arms. Warm body, soft fabric. The sensation of touch told him that this was no wisp or figment, but real, solid, living flesh. He held onto her and wept, relief wiping away all the grief and self-recrimination. Anxiously he reached out to her hood, suddenly afraid of what he might reveal. Fingers brushed the thick material. It fell back, and her face was laid bare.
Pure. Unaltered. Beautiful. Pale skin, lilac hair, tempting lips and eyes…
Her eyes. They were open. Lovely.
"Raven," Kultuq moaned her name.
She looked right through him. Like he didn't exist.
Ashy lips parted.
"Gone," came a slow breath.
Then her head sagged to one side.
He continued to hold her, cradling the love of his life, now become a limp rag-doll. Kultuq stared rapturously at her blank, empty features. Stop it, he told himself. Stop staring. Think about getting her out of here, twit. He glanced down at the ribbon of samite.
To find it had gone slack.
Kultuq gaped incredulously. He gave a tug on it. Nothing. As soon as he had come in here, it was cut off. What was this place?
Slowly the ancient wayfarer turned his eyes upon their surroundings. He had been mistaken before. This zone was not empty after all. At least, not completely. When he looked closely, he could see something that might be letters floating out there. Slowly they traveled round and around, more of them farther back. It started at a certain point beyond where they lay and spread out to surround them. Almost like they were in an inverted fish-bowl, he thought, with the water on the outside and those things swimming around in it. One of the words swam closer to them. It was in no language he had ever seen, but when Kultuq looked at it…
He heard it. In his mind.
"Zelt Af," Raven whispered back.
"No," Kultuq hissed, and interposed himself between them. Her eyes still held only vacant incomprehension. But he knew what this place was now. These words were the song of C'thulhu's Dream. This was something Raven had created with her magic in order to learn them, and she was gradually starting to make sense of it. All this time, she must have been fighting it, refusing its call. But the Dream was tireless. It just kept pushing steadily, wearing her down bit by bit. Eventually she would belong to it. Kultuq lifted Raven in his arms, setting her upright 'til she knelt face-to-face with him. He felt weirdly calm about all this.
"Raven, listen to my voice," he began softly. "This isn't your dream, remember? You told us that."
This garnered nothing. Not even a hint of a response from her. Was that so surprising? Words were meaningless against this. What was wrong with her? It was almost like she didn't feel any resentment towards this invasion of her soul.
Then it came to him.
Feelings. Emotions. Of course. Raven was blocking her emotions. The horror, fear, anger and sadness; everything he felt from being in this place was absent in her. This globe of song was her doing. She had shut herself off from her emotions after they had grown so enormous from the stress of her situation. It must have proven too much for Raven, unused as she was to feeling anything. She had cocooned herself in this emptiness.
And outside, the Dream of C'thulhu had begun its work. A silent chorus of temptation that promised an escape from all confusion and pain. Raven had stopped resisting the moment she no longer felt terrified by what the Dream showed her.
As if echoing his thoughts, she spoke again.
"I see." The words came out in a sleepy, toneless murmur.
"Don't do it! You are not this thing's dreamer!" He clutched her hands and brought them up to the pouch around his neck. I need to make her feel! "You're Raven! Do you remember Starfire? Beast Boy, Cyborg, Robin?! All your friends, they're right here just waiting for you! They all want you to come home."
Her slim fingers touched the leather. A slight shiver went through the mage's frame.
"You have to remember the Teen Titans! You fought this very same thing once before to save them. Do it again, now!"
Her eyes flickered about, searching for something. A corner of her mouth twisted.
"Robin, Cyborg, Starfire, Beast Boy," Kultuq repeated. "Your friends love you, Raven. And I love you most of all."
And then Raven slumped over again. She would have fallen if he hadn't caught her. For a long time Kultuq held the blue-wrapped body. Whispering words floated about the pair, calling for their souls.
It wasn't enough. Kultuq could have screamed in frustration. What am I supposed to do here, he asked the darkness? What's stronger than love? Anger, fear, hope, sheer instinct? Slap her, hurt her, do something to make this girl feel again! Anything. Because you can't leave her like this. If you can't bring her back…
You'll have to kill her.
The soundless chanting crawled all about this space, and the man who had outlived death closed his eyes against it. He drew Raven tenderly against his torso. Don't let that happen, he prayed. I love her. She has my heart. I can't be the one to end her life. That can't be the reason I'm here. Anyone could have done that, there has to be a purpose for my having come here!
What, then? Kultuq stroked her hair absently, humming an aimless tune to try and distract himself from the song of the Dream. He couldn't do it. As desperate as he knew this situation to be, he did not want to have to raise his hand against this precious, wonderful woman. So what can I do? What can I do that no one else could? I'm just Kultuq. I don't have special powers or any particularly great magic. How am I supposed to know what to do here? The only thing I'm good at is not dying.
A crazy laugh burst from his throat. What a spectacularly useless talent!
Gradually the hysteria died down.
Was this the end?
Think about it first. What do you know for sure about Raven? You love her. She doesn't love you. She can't allow herself to love someone, because she's afraid of hurting them. That's what drives her to suppress her emotions. Raven hates the thought of hurting people. If she were here now, she would tell me to kill her rather than let others come to harm. She made me promise never to kill again. And killing … that's what scares her the most.
Think some more. I love her, and I want that she should live. I would die to achieve that, except I can't. I can bleed and feel pain until I lose my mind, but nothing can kill me. That's what makes me special. Long life. And pain. I can give the gift of death but never receive it. That's all I have to offer.
Everyone dies but me.
It was then that Kultuq knew.
He knew what he had to do, and why he was the only one who could.
He had to be the one to do it.
Kultuq propped Raven up again. Her head lolled forward, but her lover did nothing to stop it. He didn't want to see her eyes when he did this.
Gently Kultuq raised her hands to place them against his face. The feel of her skin touching his brought back memories of all the time they spent together. It made him smile.
"I love you, Raven. Please forgive me."
He moved her hands up, her thumbs coming to rest over his eyelids.
"This is all I can do to help you now."
Saying this, Kultuq took a deep breath…
And drove her thumbs into his eyes.
Centered. At peace. No pain here. She was close to grasping its meaning. Raven was certain of it. Finally she would comprehend the truth behind the song. It was in her mind, her ears rang with its promise. Almost there. The song. The song was… different.
A new meaning, perhaps? She paid more attention, focusing on this sound. It reminded her of something. But what? Had she heard this before? The more Raven listened, the more certain she became. It was familiar. This reasonable assurance made her more aware.
There was something touching her. Her hands, specifically, felt warm. Raven had quite forgotten she even had hands. Yes, warm, that was the feeling. And wet too. What were they doing?
Maybe she should look and see.
The song's mystery beckoned her more persuasively. So much yet to comprehend in it. But the sensation of something happening to her body without her knowledge was mildly distracting. And that sound was interfering with her concentration now. No sense to it. Just noise.
I will look, Raven decided. Once I learn, I can continue.
Her eyes came into focus on what was immediately in front of her. Blobs of color and movement. Smells too, she realized, and congratulated herself on that. The shapes were becoming clearer now. Something was in front of her. Its shifting coincided with the feeling in her hands. That must be what is touching me, Raven realized. It's hot, and slippery. Soft, but hard as well. Just what was this?
The sorceress frowned, and stared intently forward.
Of a sudden, she realized she was holding a man's face.
He was bleeding. And screaming. The noise was his screams. And her hands were covered in blood because…
I'm gouging out his eyes.
The man screamed, and screamed.
She felt her thumbs digging into his brain.
I'm killing him.
She heard something break, and Raven shrieked.
The instant he heard what he was waiting for, Kultuq wrenched her hands away.
Pain, like he hadn't felt in years. The color of it, and the blood. But then more came with it. Agony subsided, as Kultuq swiftly and effectively grew a new pair of eyes. He blinked back scarlet tears.
Raven lay screaming on her side before him, eyes wide, face twisted in horror. Her fingers were dripping with gore. There was a crashing coming from all around them, and Kultuq looked up to find the bowl breaking.
The song was now a hopeless tumult. He reached out and gripped Raven to him, both of them still crying. The darkness cracked even further.
Then they were back inside C'thulhu's Dream.
It was even more deranged, if possible. Kultuq didn't take the time to regard it. The band around his arm had grown taut again. He yanked it, and both he and Raven jerked viciously forward to come bursting instantly out into the light.
They dropped down, floating and falling to the snowy ground. Finally reaching it, Kultuq quickly looked at Raven.
Her eyes were shut. The screaming had stopped. She had lapsed into unconsciousness at some point. A mercy, he realized. Reaching into his satchel, he retrieved some cloth and used it to wipe Raven's hands clean of his own offal.
When he was done, Kultuq picked her up and began to move.
At first his pace was heated, driven by a desire to get as much distance between them and that thing as he could. Above the distant tree-line there loomed the Gate of Dreams. Their way out. Home. He had to make it! Kultuq realized then that he was bouncing Raven back and forth at this speed, and he slowed to a more steady pace. "You rest," her savior panted happily. "Shut your eyes and forget all that's happened here. You're safe with me, Raven."
Beneath his feet the ground quaked.
Kultuq stumbled and stopped. It happened again. The sky, forest, earth, everything wrenched about.
He turned and looked behind them.
Hanging high overhead, the Dream of C'thulhu sent out a pulse that swelled the fabric of the Dreaming. It looked like there was a hole torn in it from their escape. As the tremor passed, Raven gave a moan.
The Nightmare roared!
Out of the opening there erupted a rotten black and green torrent. Like pus and blood from a wound, the stuff spewed out in a waterfall, more than a globe that size could possibly contain. When it neared the ground, it seemed to encounter something. Instead of spilling across the plane, it took on a new shape, as if the flood was pouring into an invisible container prepared for it.
Kultuq needed to see no more. He turned and fled.
His stride was long, beyond consideration for anything but speed. Nothing could make him look back at what was transpiring, he had to reach the Gates! But they were so far away. He hadn't even approached the edge of the forest. No way he would make it before…
Kultuq looked down at the slender girl asleep in his arms.
Hurriedly he knelt and placed her as gently as possible in the snow. Stretched out along it, her body was still and peaceful. Like in a fairy tale. Kultuq reached up and yanked the leather bag from about his throat.
"Vrork!" The cry tore out of him with all his might. "Vrork! Come to me!"
The rotting raven dropped down before him. It cast its lone eye over the girl beside it. "This is what you came for?"
"You have to take her," Kultuq insisted.
His spirit animal cocked its head. "How am I supposed to do that? And what of your oath to me?"
"This is the last thing I will ever ask of you." The shaman looped the leather bag around Raven's throat. "Take her from this place, through the Gate of Dreams and back to where these people are. Do this," Kultuq ran a finger under his eyes, gathering some of his own spilled blood, "and by the blood I first called you with, I set you free from me. You are my spirit guide no more."
Vrork shook itself. "Agreed."
Kultuq stretched out his fingers, and the bird's beak darted forward, its dry shriveled tongue extending to catch one dark red drop. Immediately the raven was completely transformed; muscle gripping its bones, wings flapping strongly, its plumage gleaming black. Only the eye had not been restored. Then it hopped over to where Raven lay, and trailed its feathers over her sleeping form.
At this the girl was no longer there. Instead a small black pearl lay in the snow. Vrork thrust his empty socket forward. "Give it here."
His ward reached down and picked up the gem. Within it, he could see Raven, still slumbering softly away. He drank in the sight of her for a scant few precious seconds. Then he placed the pearl in the hollow of the raven's skull.
Vrork took off without another word. He beat furiously aloft, ascending into the sky. His flight was straight and true to the horizon. Kultuq watched them go.
"Fly," he whispered. "Don't stop."
The immortal turned back about.
In the valley behind him, something titanic arose.
Its lines were sharp and jagged, the downpour seeming to have crystallized into a more stable form. A single point stuck into the ground, and the rest grew up from there, thin, but growing long and high to finish in a hook that curved backwards. It reminded him of a plow blade.
Kultuq picked up his club and spear, ineffectual he knew, but still reassuring. Towards the front of the Dream, something was hanging off a protruding edge. A green teardrop. When he looked closely, he discerned what was inside of this swaying seed pod. A form, curled up on itself as though asleep, crouching like a fetus waiting to be born.
Then the Nightmare moved forward.
As it did, earth and sky split open at its tips. The Dreaming pulled away from its touch, the sides of the landscape peeled back to reveal the anarchy of formless dream-stuff that lay beneath it. Kultuq watched this horror's approach. It's just a dream, he told himself. And he was a dreamer. He was not helpless, he knew how to affect his dreams.
So Kultuq made himself large. As big as that thing. No, bigger! He was a titan in his own right now, the mountains mere rocks at his feet, forest a grove of splinters.
And still the Dream reared high above him. It bore down on his last stand.
The warrior flung his spear, and saw it rebound off its target without affect. He raised his club in readiness. And then, he grinned.
"They're going to sing songs about her. Raven, the girl who saved the world! It's a great feeling… when people sing songs about you."
The towering disaster swept towards him. He stood his ground, and glared fixedly into the great green eye. This was his nightmare. The greatest dream that had ever been, bearing an entity that had come to surpass his fear of death. Too big, too much there for anyone to even try to understand. Your only recourse was to fear them.
"You saved her."
The Nightmare was almost upon him, and the ageless man was forced to smile up at it.
"If not for you, she would have died. For that, I thank you. But by my life, I swear, you will not TOUCH HER AGAIN!!!"
Kultuq the Undying screamed and charged, swinging his stick with all his strength.
He collided with the enemy.
The raven continued to fly towards the door to the waking world.
The Dream of C'thulhu followed, gaining ground with every moment.
It left behind it the broken, dying body of Vandal Savage.
Everything was fading into the snow, blending with brightness and light. His time had come at last. There was regret, and memories, and the fading sense of self. I am called Kultuq, he thought. Remember me.
The light became golden.
-You must live-
And he was restored, completely healed.
For a moment Kultuq lay there disbelieving.
Then off in the distance, he saw C'thulhu's Nightmare had overtaken Vrork. It bent down to consume the furiously striving spirit-bird.
NO! I won't let you! This is a dream. My dream!
And Kultuq knew. Sometimes in dreams, when things don't go the way you know they should, you have the option to start over, and try again. So that's what he did. Kultuq picked himself up. And went back.
The Dream once again stood before him, and he hefted his spear and threw. Before it could even connect he had turned his head. Had he been right to assume…?
YES! Vrork was just as far away now as he had been a moment past. Since Raven was with him, her own status as a dreamer prevented her from being drawn back with his dream. They could make it! He just had to keep returning! The monster moved against him, leaving formlessness in its wake. He shifted his last weapon, feeling eager and keenly aware. The blade bore down, and he lifted his club and swung.
Again it crushed him. Once more, Kultuq watched the horror chase down its prey.
Dazzling diamond light restored him, and he pulled them both back to that same point.
Vrork was even farther along than before, and Kultuq flung his spear. But this time when he did, he felt a stab of pain in his stomach.
With it came the certainty that someone was there with him.
"Who's there?" he coughed hoarsely.
The Nightmare approached, and he could not take his eyes off of it. "What are you?"
"Whose?" he spit, and charged.
Kultuq threw himself into battle time and time again, repeating the same dream. But even as he fought, he questioned.
"Where did you come from?"
The stream of light surrounded him, and he was repaired.
-Long ago, in a place that no longer exists, life first came to be on a world that orbited twin suns. That life flourished. In time it learned much about its home, and all this was observed by a moon that floated beside its celestial partner-
Kultuq got up and attacked once more. Fell, and rose anew. The Nightmare did not have its dreamer, so it could not oppose his dreaming will. But at the same time, he could not defeat it. The two of them were locked in seeming stalemate. And yet, with every death he avoided…
-This moon watched over its planet's children. It heard their dreams and songs. In doing so, it came to have a dream of its own. The moon hoped that one day, some of those wondrous life-forms would walk across its own surface, so that it might feel the touch of life. It waited patiently for its dream to come true. Until…-
Whenever he rose now, Kultuq felt himself weaker than before. His muscles trembled and ached, and new pain came that did not go away as it always had. With mounting horror, he realized that he could not keep doing this forever. Possibly not even much longer.
-One day the voices from the planet changed to screams. The twin suns grew vast, then shrank in upon themselves. And finally they exploded-
He could no longer lift his spear to throw. So Kultuq bulled forward swinging both arms wildly. Vrork was halfway home now. Fly, bird, fly!
-The planet was destroyed, with all its beautiful dreamers. The moon saw this before it too died, reduced to bits of rock that were thrust outwards to trail in the wake of the destroying force. To one of those traveling stones there clung the lost and unfulfilled dream-
"Come and get me," Kultuq rasped and spit up blood. So it did.
-Over time, as it mourned its futility, the dream changed. It gained a new purpose. To touch life. Any life. The first that it could find. Whatever being first came to it, the dream was now determined to protect it. To keep it from dying as all the others had. I was now a dream of immortality. I followed the trail of life, but came always too late. Then at last, the meteorite found itself over a world that teemed with life, and I guided it down to be with them-
Can't feel my hands anymore, blood running in my eyes. Kultuq lowered his head and stumbled forward.
-Soon a dreamer approached me. In his thoughts, he yearned only to live. I rejoiced, and as the man slept beside the meteor, I answered his wish and became your dream. I am the dream of life that has protected you always, Kultuq, and always will. So now…-
His body fell onto the snow, and blood spattered the pristine surface.
-I must ask you to stop-
Kultuq came back from the brink of death, to find he could no longer move.
But still, though the agony wracked him almost more than he could bear, he reached back and forced their return again, just before C'thulhu's Dream could reach Raven.
As soon as he did it, Kultuq sank face-first to the earth.
-You must stop- the golden dream pleaded with him. –It is killing me as surely as it is you. I cannot let you die, but I cannot face it again. Please, for your own sake, just stay down-
"No," the caveman groaned, tried to rise, and failed. Far away, Vrork was tantalizingly close to the exit.
But the Nightmare was about to consume him.
"NOOO!" Kultuq roared, and wrenched them back.
His body stretched across the plain. The Dream passed over him, ripping apart the world. He watched it go. There was nothing left in him to give.
Something glowing moved into his field of vision.
The dream of immortality now bore the outline of a man, but inside it was all light. Only dim now, a weak hazy ember compared to the brilliance of before.
"Finally we meet," Kultuq murmured with a smile. "Will you die first, or do I? How does it work?"
-It makes no difference- the dream shook its head. -I am all that keeps you alive, and you are the very basis of my being. Apart we are lost. You must stop this. You must live-
Kultuq wearily closed his eyes with a sigh. But immediately they snapped back open.
"Do something." He struggled, but nothing more came. His blood continued to leak out of him. He was helpless. "Go and save her. I command it."
-Please, you cannot…-
"Not without her! Do you hear me? I won't live another second without Raven. I want her alive more than I want myself. She has to live!"
-I am your dream. I exist only for you-
"I release you!" Kultuq spit. The Dream of C'thulhu was closing in, just a few more moments and it would drag her back into itself. "Go and be her dream! Just save her!"
-But what can I do?-
"Do something!" the dying man wretched and hacked up his life. "You're my dream, aren't you?! DON'T LET HER DIE!!!"
He sobbed and buried his face in the snow. Tears mixed in and melted the dream ice from their presence.
The dream of life gazed down at him.
-You must live- it whispered.
Then it turned away.
Before the Gate of Dreams, a Nightmare opened its maw to retake its dreamer.
The Dream paused.
Slowly, it twisted about, its target momentarily forgotten. Vrork flew on.
-Hunzamblet Awkths. Svk tlambkeb I'a! I'a!-
Kultuq lay listening in absolute shock. The dream, his dream, was intoning the worship of C'thulhu. But where had it learned that song, he wanted to ask?
His curiosity dissipated when the giant Dream came to loom over them both.
The dream of life continued to sing and sway, and the monster studied them closely, like bugs that were trying to communicate with it. Briefly Kultuq wondered just what his dream was telling it. He shifted his head, feeling bone crack and groan. His eyes sought out the horizon.
A tiny black speck was on the verge of reaching a shining portal.
Over his head, the Nightmare of C'thulhu gave a rumbling noise. The green proto-C'thulhu dipped down to sway nebulously above their heads.
When its light touched them, the dream of life stuttered to a halt.
Instantly the Dream reared up. It howled. Talons burst out from its sides, and the hideous conglomeration came swooping down.
Kultuq's eyes were open. He saw death's approach but did not care.
Two ravens had just passed out of dreams.
His life faded, and he closed his eyes with a satisfied smile.
The Dream fell upon him.
Vrork emerged between the peaks of the Crimean Mountains, as vast as a roc and fast as lightning. He sped across the surface of the Earth, passing over the breadth of an entire continent and above the warm ocean. The place that called to him was close now. Drawing abreast of a teeming city on the coast, he reached an island with a tower.
The dream-raven passed through it, and then on to a place that waited just for him. Freedom, he sang. So sweet.
Beast Boy counted the pops. About two seconds in between them now, at any moment the bag's contents would start to burn. Quickly he wrenched open the microwave door and snatched out the bag.
"Hot, hot, hot," he breathed. Point away from face, open top, pour and enjoy. The hungry teen deposited the bag's contents in the bowl, pausing only to pop a few kernels of buttered popcorn in his mouth before sauntering into the living area. Almost time for his favorite show, Who's The Dumbest?, and nothing was going to make him miss it. Fortunately, there wasn't anything going down today. Time to do some serious vegging out.
Beast Boy hopped over the back of the couch without spilling a kernel, flicking on the TV as he did. He placed the bowl on the sofa's armrest, intending to stretch out along its length. Raven was already laying there, so instead he settled for propping his feet on the coffee table. The show was just coming on now.
"All right, folks, it's time to ask yourself… 'Who's The Dumbest?'"
The popcorn bowl went flying.
Beast Boy bolted upright. His heart was beating so loud he couldn't hear the television; tried to speak, but nothing came out. Instead he depressed the signal on his belt buckle. Several times, just to be sure, and so hard he thought he might break it. Then he just stood and stared.
A few minutes later Cyborg and Starfire entered the room, followed closely by Robin.
"You OK, BB?" his best friend called as they came over.
"Is there something on the television you wish for us to watch?" Starfire glided a few feet off the floor.
He looked at them like they were insane, opening and closing his mouth.
"Beast Boy?" Robin was growing concerned now. Was this a gag?
Finally the team prankster raised his finger and pointed at the couch.
They all trooped curiously over to join him.
Starfire hit the ground like a rock, and Robin reeled. Cyborg stared with all of his senses and sensors. Within his brain, the scene before him was frozen; Raven, curled up in her cloak, eyes closed and seemingly asleep. Silence reigned.
Beast Boy found his voice at last. "Is she breathing?" he whispered.
It was Robin who moved in to check. He removed a glove and touched two fingers to the side of her neck. "She's alive." His words were thick with relief. "Let's get her to the infirmary."
Cyborg tried to move but found that his legs wouldn't obey the command. Starfire sprang up and brushed Robin aside to lift the form of their slumbering teammate in her arms. Then the alien princess floated swiftly out of the room, whispering in her own native language to Raven. The other Titans trailed closely behind her. They did not speak. The television remained unwatched.
It wasn't a dream. That's what they all had to keep telling each other.
When Cyborg reported that there was nothing wrong with Raven, they all started crying.
Standing about her sickbed, the reunited team gazed down at their friend and wept. Robin and Starfire hugged one another fiercely. Cyborg put an arm around Beast Boy's shoulder, who gripped his hand in reassurance as the relief and suppressed grief flowed out of him. They had lived with their sorrow for so long now; a pain so intense it seemed odd to find it could be dispelled this quickly. Just by the sight of one person's breast rising and falling slowly. That was all it took.
As far as their tests could tell, the sorceress was suffering from exhaustion, nothing more. It didn't appear to be a coma, but there was still no way of telling when she would wake. After a brief bedside deliberation, Robin outlined a plan. They would each take two hour shifts. That would give them all a decent night's rest, and someone would always be at Raven's side.
The first hour was a shared session, by unanimous decision. They didn't speak at all during that time. A bit of crying, but not as bad as before. The sound of the heart monitor was a steady reassurance.
An hour went by swifter than ever, it seemed. At last it came time for three of them to depart.
Beast Boy had the first shift. He sat by the bed and gazed at her face. For nearly three months there had been only pictures to remind him, and precious few of those since Raven was not inclined to pose for photographers. Starfire had removed her outfit and replaced it with a hospital gown. Her bare arms now rested on top of the sheet, and Beast Boy realized he couldn't recall ever having seen Raven out of uniform. He had thought he never would.
After half an hour, he finally decided that he would talk to her. But what to say?
"Hi Raven." He kept his voice soft, just in case. "It's Beast Boy. Well, actually," and he leaned in a little closer, "My real name's Garfield. Like the cat. Garfield Logan. I never told you before because, well, I thought you'd make fun of me, or that you just didn't care. That wasn't an insult! I mean…"
He felt tears coming then, and when the trembling took hold of him Garfield could no longer speak. His nose was leaking, and his face was burning, and he honestly didn't think he had cried this hard in his life. Not even when he learned that his parents were gone. His stomach hurt.
A few minutes later, it had subsided.
"I wanted you to come back so much," he sobbed, and sniffed. "You're magic, right? When I was a kid, I believed in magic. I even tried to do it myself. But it didn't work, and I stopped believing. Even after I became a shape-shifter, and saw all these amazing things, I never thought that any of it was magic. Until I met you."
Raven lay unmoving, her face pale and peaceful. Of a sudden, Garfield bent over and laid his head beside hers. He closed his eyes and breathed in, shuddering at the sensation of the girl's fresh scent. It actually made him feel tired, and when he realized this he pulled himself back up. No going to sleep. What if she woke up? Raven needed him to be strong now. To keep himself awake, he started talking again.
"I met a girl. Her name's Ojryu, and she's a princess. Can you believe it? I'll introduce you both after you wake up. Oh, and I bought you some new books, and a couple of CDs, maybe on my next shift I'll play them for you, and, I beat the Secret Ultra-Boss in Mighty Mighty Singing Prince, and, I've been sleeping great, and, there's a movie coming out where…"
He noticed that he was smiling, and couldn't stop. This continued until the end of his shift.
A full day passed.
Cyborg checked the heart monitor again. Looking good. He paced about the room, every few moments glancing at the only other occupant. Whenever he turned around, he hoped to see her eyes upon him. But she hadn't moved since they brought her in, and he was starting to grow worried again. What if there was something wrong with her and he had missed it? What if she was getting worse by the minute?
No. Not gonna happen. She had come back to them. The world could be unfair, but not this much, he hoped. Raven wouldn't do that to them. He knew how strong she was.
"I knew you weren't dead," he spoke suddenly. Maybe he should explain that. "What I mean is, I knew you were gone, but really, that just meant I didn't know where you were. And there's a lot about you I don't know. Where you're from, who your family is, why you are the way you are. It was just another blank spot. It didn't mean you were dead. I thought to myself, 'Just give it time. She'll be back.'"
He crossed to her bedside, knelt, and took one of Raven's hands in his. "Thank you. Thank you for coming back. For saving us when we needed you the most. You see this world around us? It's here because of you. So please," and he pressed her smooth fingers to his cheek. "Wake up. Open your eyes and look around. Please wake up so we can tell you…"
Cyborg brushed his metal hand tenderly over her hair.
"How much we all love you."
Did she stir just then? He played back the sequence from his memory, but still, he couldn't tell.
Yet it was enough to get him through the day.
Starfire lay in the bed next to Raven, staring up at the ceiling. The warrior-maiden had finally decided to tell her friend about Robin, and had found herself hard-pressed to stop. There was a chance that the unemotional enchantress might find such a topic annoying, even in sleep, but if so, she had given no outward sign. That was not terribly reassuring. But Starfire always chased away her concerns by the simple, undeniable fact that her mysterious friend was back.
"Beast Boy cried himself to sleep for a week," she whispered softly. "And did you hear? Cyborg defeated the 'blankety-blank dishwasher' device! No more dishwashing duty! Everyone has been asking about you, all the other Titans, and even some villains expressed interest as to where you might be. Robin chose not to tell anyone."
She turned her head to view the composed features of her teammate.
"He grieved for you. We all did, but I believe Robin more than anyone. He felt that he had failed you in the end. Not that he admitted as much to me, but it was obvious. He is terribly unforgiving towards himself, and I do not know why."
Starfire curled up into a ball and closed her eyes. "There is nothing more to be aggrieved of. You are home and safe. The worst is all behind us now."
She was feeling drowsy, in spite of having gotten some sleep.
"When you are ready to wake, Raven, we will be here for you."
Robin called Cyborg to watch Raven, and then carried Starfire off to bed. The Boy Wonder took up his vigil then. It had been thirty-seven hours since her return, and she still showed no signs of waking. He was not unaware of the reality of their situation. Soon they would have to start an intravenous drip, just to keep her from growing any weaker. If she didn't wake soon, he would call in a specialist. Or a hundred, if need be, and magic-users, shamans, scientists, anyone he could think of to try and help her. But for the time being, he still just hoped. A pot of freshly-brewed herbal tea lent a sweet savor to the air. Just in case.
He talked to her. Also just in case.
"Aqualad is coming by tomorrow. He's really looking forward to seeing you again. I heard that the Kraken's Coils erected a statue in your honor. They think of you as their savior. And a lot of artists up top made songs and art about you, even if they didn't know it was you."
He got up and trekked slowly about the darkened chamber. No lights to disturb her rest. She was just resting. Please let it be only that.
"I know what I am, Raven." Robin's voice was serious. "I try so hard to be perfect, and never make a mistake. But even when I do, I always work to fix it. Life treated me really bad once."
He drew to a stop and gazed down on his silent audience. "I lost my family. If someone hadn't been there to look out for me, I don't know what I might have become. Sometimes I think it must have been the same with you. Something bad happened early on in your life, and it left you in a lot of pain. But we were both saved."
There was the beep of machines, and the sound of his own heartbeat. Raven's lips were slightly parted. Robin stared at them.
And then he was bending down over her, his face moving to within an inch of the girl's gray mouth. The next words were so soft they were almost inaudible. But they were said.
"I love you."
Closer now, almost touching, lips, only a slip away, from...
And Robin drew back. "It's Vandal Savage who's in love with you. The way I'm in love with Starfire. I only figured that out after you were gone. Some detective, huh?"
Cut it out. Self pity doesn't apply here. Just be honest. "When I see him again, I'll thank him. I know he's the one who rescued you. That leather bag we found around your neck was his. As far as I'm concerned, that makes the slate clean between us."
Wearily the leader of the Titans returned to his seat and lowered himself into it. "We're going to keep fighting, and trying to save lives. And yeah, maybe sometimes I won't be able to save everybody. But I hope there'll be someone else there who will. Maybe that's you, Raven. I really hope so."
When Robin looked up, Raven was watching him.
She woke up, he thought.
"Raven." It came out as little more than a croak.
She blinked. Then closed her eyes and turned her head. Robin kept perfectly still.
"Is this a dream?"
Her voice. Weak, and raspy. But real.
"No." The tears were sliding out beneath his mask. "It's not a dream. You're home."
Deep violet orbs opened again, and looked about the lightless room. She coughed. "My throat hurts."
Quickly Robin reached out for the teapot and poured her a cup. Offering it to Raven, he couldn't help but marvel at the sight of her raising her slim, elegant fingers. They shook slightly, and Robin found that his own hands were trembling as well. She sat up, and together they eased the cup slowly to her lips.
Raven took a brief sip, swallowed, and grimaced slightly, but when Robin would have taken the cup away she held it back, and determinedly drank some more. When she was finished, the sorceress collapsed back onto her pillow.
"It is," she murmured. "It's real. This is good."
Her hands stroked the sheet that covered her. Looking up to find her friend leaning anxiously over her, Raven smiled, and reached out to touch his face gently. "You look terrible," she uttered faintly.
Robin gasped out a sob, clutching her fingers. "You look wonderful!"
The petite mage took a deep breath, and held it. For several seconds. Just when Robin thought something might be wrong, she let it out and looked back to him.
"Can I have some more tea?"
He hastily refilled her cup. Taking it from him, Raven blew on it, then shot a glance around the room. "Why is it so dark in here?"
The masked Titan reached for a light switch. When he flicked it on, they both winced. Her tea finished, the sorceress handed it back to her attendant. Her face now had a trace of confusion in it.
"Have I been away?"
"Nearly three months."
Raven shivered. The shaking grew worse, and she covered her face with her hands. The bed began to glow and rattle, the windows cracked, black lightning flickered.
Robin's arms came around her shoulders. They held one another for a time, taking comfort from their shared presence. And the feelings passed.
"I'm sorry," the boy whispered tearfully. "I'm so sorry I couldn't save you, Raven."
Raven pulled away. At the expression on her face, Robin shrank back.
She looked pissed.
"Is that what you've been telling yourself? For three months? I ought to slap you for being so stupid!"
For a moment it looked like she would. But instead, Raven just sighed.
"I guess you can't help yourself. You're as bad as Beast Boy. So instead I'm going to say… Thank you. For wanting to protect me."
When he realized that he was not in immediate danger of being slapped silly, Robin grinned and seated himself on the bed beside her. "I'm glad to see you haven't changed."
Raven ducked her head. "I suppose not." She picked absently at the fabric of her gown. "Though I usually sleep in the nude."
The spellbinder flicked her eyes up at him. Robin's mouth was so wide she could have counted all of his teeth.
"I'm kidding, Boy Wonder."
His jaw came back up. "Oh."
"Right then." Raven drew her knees up. Resting her head on them, she gave him a meaningful stare. "So can you call the others in here?"
It took him two tries to find his communicator. Less than a minute after he pressed it, the room was filled with shouts and screams, hugs and tears, crying and laughter and the sounds of over two dozen different green animals.
This was home.
Three days later, after she was certain there was nothing wrong with her, Raven told them that she was leaving.
"What?!" Cyborg gaped.
"Why?!" Starfire wailed.
"Savage," Robin nodded.
Raven inclined her head in agreement. "He saved me. And he's still out there somewhere. Lost. I have to find him."
"But," Beast Boy's face was in a pitiful state, "You just got back. How can you leave already?"
"It could be dangerous to go so soon." That was Aqualad now. But Raven had made up her mind.
"The longer I wait, the colder the trail gets. Last time I took too long to help a friend, and lost her forever." The girl from Azerath glanced down at her hands. "I won't make the same mistake twice."
They all followed her to the main doors. Pleading. Questioning. She answered them patiently. Everything was made ready. She was determined to go.
"Then we're all going too," Cyborg decided, and crossed his arms decisively.
Raven had reached the doors, and now they crowded around her. Maybe I should have just left a note, the introvert thought glumly.
"I can't take any of you with me. I'm not even sure where I'm going. Savage could be anywhere by now."
The prince of Atlantis raised an eyebrow. "That doesn't sound any more comforting, Raven."
Starfire bounced up and down in agitation. "But this is so sudden! If you only stay, we could try and find out more! We could ask Lilq/emo to help you! Or we could…"
Robin reached out and took his lover's hand. "Star." She looked down at him beseechingly, imploringly. But he stayed firm. "She has to."'
They grew quiet then. Suddenly Beast Boy stepped forward and hugged Raven. He dutifully ignored the expression that crossed her face. "Don't stay away long. Let us know that you're all right," he whispered into her ear.
Raven pursed her lips. Wrinkled her brow. And with a desultory sigh, she hugged him back. "I promise."
Cyborg moved in, followed by the rest, until much to the goth Titan's dismay, she found herself in a group hug. She let it go on for as long as she could stand.
"You can stop anytime."
They did. Raven looked carefully at all her friends. It was amazing just how many she had. When had it become possible for so many people to care about her? This was so much harder than when she had left Azerath. But it needed to be done.
"I'll keep in touch," she promised. "I'm not just going to disappear."
"You better not," Cyborg warned. "Everybody's got email nowadays, Dark Girl."
The tiny sorceress pulled up her hood. She gave them all a slight smile.
Then, pushing open the Tower's doors, she stepped out into the light.
Raven took a few steps and stopped.
The early morning surf was a low, soft rush. Seabirds called, and the sun had just barely risen above the horizon.
Someone was walking up the road from the beach. His shirt and clothes were dripping wet, and he wasn't wearing any shoes. There was brine in his hair and beard. When he saw her, he raised his arms and waved in great sweeping strokes.
Vandal Savage stood there grinning.
"I just couldn't wait for the boat!" he called.
Raven was dumbstruck.
The girl moved a pace forward. Then another step.
She began to walk.
Her heart was pounding harder.
She began to run.
Her eyes were filling with tears.
She began to sprint.
Raven tore down the hill, as fast as her legs could take her, arms pumping, lungs gasping. The cowl fell down off her head. A few feet from where the man stood she leapt into the air and flew to him with outstretched arms. The impact spun him round and around, but he kept his footing.
Ebony magic flared up around them, gouging open the rocks and whipping the waves into a violent churning frenzy. The Titans clutched one another as they felt the whole island rattling beneath them. Just when it seemed like their home would be tossed into the sky… it all stopped.
Raven and Kultuq stood together in an acre of devastation. The mystic's arms were wrapped tightly around his neck. Eyes shut, teeth clenched, she clung fiercely to her paramour, oblivious to all else.
She was feeling something.
For his part, Kultuq's embrace was gentle. The look on his face was totally at peace. His large hand stroked the hair of the woman he loved. Most of his clothes had been torn to shreds, and he could feel an unprecedented amount of her body pressed into his skin. It was so very good to be alive, he reflected. Her cheek brushed over his, her eyes came into view. She looked lost. And lovely.
Then Raven darted in and kissed him, her full lips crushing against his mouth, and Kultuq felt the ache and elation of love in all its intensity.
She pulled away and rested her face against his neck, and he heard her low, throaty voice for the first time in what seemed like ages.
It made him smile.
"So are you."
Raven dug her fingers into his hair, gripping him with an unbelievable strength for such a small frame. She gasped in her breaths. "You… came back to me."
Kultuq winced at the pain. "Are you still going to send me away?"
Raven laughed. Then sobbed.
"I'm sorry, Kultuq. I lied to you about that, I guess."
He knelt down, setting her feet back on the ground. The sorceress wiped at her eyes blindly, looking unintentionally gorgeous as she did so.
"All is forgiven," Kultuq smiled.
And from the ruined pocket of his vest, he withdrew a blue rose.
Raven gazed at it in wonder, and her tears came to a halt. She reached out and plucked the crumpled blossom from his hand, then brought it to her face. It smelled divine.
"May I stay with you, Raven, my love?" the immortal asked in formal tones.
In response, she took his hand in hers.
"Come and meet my friends, Kultuq."
The Dream of C'thulhu swept down upon them.
Kultuq opened his eyes carefully. He glanced up.
The Nightmare was still there, filling the whole of his vision. Between him and it, there stood Dream.
The King of All Dreaming stared into the nascent C'thulhu's orb.
"There is no longer a place for you here. You are no one's dream now." He reached up and grasped the emerald on its chain.
"Begone to your master."
The Dream of C'thulhu made no move. As Kultuq watched blearily from face down in the snow, the teardrop housing the image of C'thulhu lost all color, becoming transparent. In contrast, the Nightmare grew darker. Hues and striations gradually faded, until only a great inky shadow loomed over them all. Or less than that. It was…
The edges of the Dreaming around it began to move in. It was as though a hole had been cut out of the landscape, and now it was closing up. Repairing itself.
In just a few moments, the Nightmare Dream of C'thulhu was gone.
Dream turned back to where the glowing dream crouched protectively over Kultuq. "There is no more that needs to be done here," he declared softly. "For your services, I offer you both the hospitality of my castle, until you are fully recovered."
Kultuq coughed weakly. "Raven."
"She is safe at home."
Of a sudden the battered caveman found himself lying in the base of a richly appointed sleigh. Dream took a seat beside him. The king gestured. At the front of the sled a team of reindeer fashioned from ice surged forth, and then they were moving swiftly across the plains. Looking about, Kultuq began to see movement all around them. A procession was flanking their journey. Nightmares, he realized. Daydreams. Ghosts and fantasies. They all emerged from hiding to bow as their prince drove by. Dream acknowledged them all with a benevolent wave of his hand.
His passenger felt himself going to sleep. He couldn't help it. Before he did, the words of the Dream King reached out to soothe him.
"Dream now. There is nothing left to fear."
"I stayed in the Palace of Dreams until I felt immortal again, at which point His Majesty returned me to Earth. The rest of the trip back to you I made myself."
"That's quite a story." Raven sipped her drink.
"I'll say." Lilq/emo floated in a dark blue orb. "Riveting stuff, actually. I know some people who could turn it into a fabulous blockbuster. Make you all famous throughout the dimensions. You want I should call them?"
"No thanks." Kultuq leaned back in his seat and dug his toes into the pale pink sand. "You've done more than enough."
"Glad to be of service," the travel agent replied. Above them what looked like the aurora borealis played over a bright, sunny field of orange neon stars, while a polished metallic ocean hugged the shore. "I had a feeling you would like it here. And it's pretty deserted, too. Lately the clients are clamoring for more exciting venues, not too many interested in rest and relaxation."
"Give me R&R over Armageddon any day," Beast Boy sighed, and flipped down his shades. Ojryu snuggled up against him on their blanket, settling for a playful dig to the ribs to let him know she agreed.
Patty Hastings looked up from the menu. "I for one am glad it's not crowded. I don't think I could bear to wear this bathing suit in front of a bunch of strangers." She tucked in her shirt and adjusted the brim of her big floppy sunhat.
"You should cover up less," Cyborg advised her from his position neck-deep in sand. "Could use a little more sun, I say."
She responded by rapping him on the head with her sandal. "Liar! You just want me to flash a lot of skin."
"What's the big deal?" the mech-tech grinned. "I'm not wearing anything under this sand."
A glowing black pitcher of drinks suddenly hovered over him.
"You'll be wearing this next if you're not careful."
Robin broke off a kiss with Starfire at that. "Before you do, Raven, do you think we could get a refill?"
"Be sure to leave some for Aqualad when he comes back in." The princess of Tameran gestured to the distant form of the prince of tides swimming lazily on the surface of the sparkling silver ocean.
"I'll ask the staff to keep the drinks coming," Lilq/emo promised. A ripple passed through his sphere. "Hold on there, I'm getting some info on a new site that just opened up. Would it be all right if I left you to your devices?"
Beast Boy waved lazily. "No problem, dude."
"We'll ring when we're ready to head back home," Kultuq smiled. Their agent blinked in acknowledgment and slid out of the dimension.
The undying man took off his sunglasses and glanced around the beach. "However could we leave all this?" he mused.
Lounging back in her seat, eyes hidden behind reflective shades, Raven followed his gaze and shrugged. "It's okay."
He cast her a sharp glance, and the sorceress flashed a smirk. "Still working on 'happy.' Give me more than a day, why don't you?"
"How would you like sand in your swimsuit?"
"I'm wearing a swimsuit?" Raven's smile grew wider. "It's so small I couldn't tell."
Kultuq groaned. "You're evil, do you know that?"
"You love it," she shot back, and the immortal laughed.
"I suppose I do."
Kultuq looked up to find Robin standing beside his chair. The young hero's voice was now lacking any playful quality. "I need to tell you something."
Everyone grew quiet. Raven lifted her eyewear speculatively to watch.
The two warriors studied one another. Then Robin extended his hand.
"Thank you for saving Raven, Vandal Savage."
The former supervillain raised an eyebrow. He reached up and clasped the boy's grip. "You're welcome." The handshake parted. "And please call me Kultuq. Vandal Savage is a stupid name."
Raven jerked up beside him, and her lover turned to grin at her. "Just don't spread it around. It's personal. You understand, right Robin?"
He nodded and went back to join Starfire. Raven reached out and placed her hand over that of the man she knew loved her more than anything.
"Thank you too," the mage reborn whispered. "For loving me that much."
He leaned towards her, and the two of them shared a kiss. They drew apart a bit, and Kultuq murmured, "You make me glad to have lived so long, Raven."
"Well, in that case," she leaned back and toyed with her drink, "Would you consider shaving the beard? It itches."
Kultuq choked, and guffawed. He threw himself back in his chair and howled with laughter.
The girl closed her eyes, listening to his warm spirits.
That feels good, Raven thought.
The raven flew down to land on its master's shoulder. "They're doing all right," it croaked.
Perched on a windowsill, Dream looked up from the book he was reading and nodded. His familiar scanned the tome curiously. "What are you reading about, kid?"
The embodiment of all hopes reached up and stroked the bird's feathers. "Dreams, my friend. Of dreams that are sinful and myriad. Introductions and choices. Stirring and rising. Secrets and answers. Enjoyable, fearsome, and getaways. Of dreams that are returned."
The raven shook its head, confused, and flew off to leave its lord to his thoughts.
Dream stared out the window of his palace at the night sky. He thought about the tales that had ended. Of a dream so huge that it became a Nightmare. About destiny.
The prince of stories pondered. Could anyone really have foreseen how all this would end? He found himself amazed by it. How two lonely beings could meet and love, brought together by one tiny dream that had saved them all. A dream born ages past on a nameless moon, orbiting a far-flung planet whose only intelligent inhabitants had chosen to die. Using their knowledge of reality, they had caused their twin suns to supernova, destroying the solar system and erasing their entire species' future. They had done this out of hope. The desperate, futile hope that their sacrifice might spare the rest of the universe from sharing their fate.
The fate of enslavement to an insane horror.
An alien god-beast.
One that had descended on their world first from its neighboring star.
Clinging to a lump of space-debris, that insignificant dream had trailed in the monster's wake, searching for some life to dream it, always arriving too late to find any. Until at last its course had brought it to Earth, where the Dream it followed had been forced to remain overlong by another dream. There it found the strength to resist its ancient nemesis. For love.
That's what this story comes down to, Dream reflected. Love.
With that he closed the book and sent it on to the Library of Dreams.