The rain beat down on the lonely pier, and one man stood alone and unmoving. His beard was full, and his long hair streamed back down his broad shoulders. The elements did not seem to affect him. Rain had little power over the king of the seven seas.
He scoffed at the old title. “King of naught! Rejected failure — half-breed cast off by two worlds is more accurate.” He was bitter, and he pitied himself. He had been altered by the Crisis on Infinite Earths and tragedy, but beneath it all, this sorry figure was Arthur Curry, Aquaman.
Years ago he had lost his son to a murdering foe called Black Manta. He had suffered marital strife ever since that crisis, as was natural. He had lost his intimate relationship with Queen Mera and now felt that she was a stranger to him. Her beauty was intact, but now she was hardened by loss and bitter in act and word. She had given him a stern ultimatum — return to their life in Poseidonis beneath the oceans, or she would depart this world entirely. And that was not an exaggerated threat.
She had come from an other-dimensional realm and had great powers over water there as well as here, but the shapely redhead did not love the life of a super-hero’s wife. She had sought Arthur’s love and total commitment to her life and world since the loss of their small son, and his work as a hero and with the Justice League had always been a sore spot in their relationship.
“That Manta was a surface evildoer,” she had cried. “If you had never ventured to combat such killers above the waves, then all would be well. You would still be a king, a husband, and a father!”
That had hurt him. Was it true? Did the world above even need a fish-man? Not with Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern around.
Now he had tried to listen to her. He had abruptly quit the new, Detroit-based Justice League of America just before the Crisis. (*) And three of the youthful heroes who had joined that team under his command had subsequently disappeared without a trace at the end of that Crisis. (*) Understandably, given his failures, he had been reluctant to even think of rejoining the re-formed team. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Storm Cloud,” Justice League of America #243 (October, 1985), The Suicide Squad: The Price of Redemption, Chapter 1: Formations, and Justice League of America: The Final Chapter.]
He felt guilty and had even given up his throne to loyal Vulko and now had nothing. The Crisis had wrecked much of New Venice and his life, too.
Arthur Curry once had a loyal partner in a young man named Garth, known as Aqualad, but even their relationship had suffered since Arthur had been forced to choose between the purple-eyed refugee and his own flesh and blood. Much had died with poor baby Arthur, Junior. Black Manta had a good deal to pay for in this life and beyond. (*) Garth had lost his lover Tula, alias Aquagirl, in the bloody Crisis and was adrift literally and emotionally now. (*) Perhaps, Aquaman thought, it was time for them all to renounce the surface world and its horrors for a dedication to a life ordered and serene beneath the ocean swells.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams,” Adventure Comics #452 (July-August, 1977) and “Death at the Dawn of Time,” Crisis on Infinite Earths #10 (January, 1986).]
A cry rang out down the pier, and Aquaman — no, Curry, as he thought of himself right now — turned to see a young man surrounded by thugs.
“Surface-world scum, preying upon the weak,” he said bitterly. “More moral decay everywhere I turn.”
It was odd how often lately he thought in terms of himself as one apart, not just by nature of his mixed ancestry, and not just because of his unique powers, but by deliberate choice. If he was not Arthur, king of Atlantis, and was unhappy of late as Aquaman, super-hero, then he could only be Curry, nothing else. Still, by any name and in any emotional state, this man was more. He was a hero. He saved lives. He performed under deadly crisis conditions. He made things right. And so he cursed under his breath and turned to restore the peace.
“Leave him alone,” he said coldly. “Stand away from him, you craven piranha!”
The storm raged, and the thugs turned to see this newcomer. He was in a long, dark coat, and he looked as if he was born to rule both men and the wild elements themselves. A thug, pulling a gun, quickly found himself slammed down to the straining boards of the old pier.
“Your crutch is as useless against me as your foul intent,” whispered the sullen Curry. “Surrender, or better yet — combat me, if you dare.”
He grabbed a second mugger and lifted him bodily off the ground. “Carrion filth!” he said. “I should let you take your chances in the sea! Try to impose your petty will upon Mother Ocean. Then, if she spares you, crawl back on shore.”
The thug trembled. This was no good-guy super-hero. This was a warrior — savage, relentless, dangerous. The last thug fled as Curry shook his friend with raw force.
“Thank you, sir! Perhaps… you could release him?” asked a musically voiced young man; it was the victim. He was handsome in a dandy way with long, flowing auburn locks and intelligent, quick eyes.
“Yes. Why not?” muttered Curry. “I would not advise you to take your strolls on this pier after dark,” he added. “I might not be here next time. Go home.”
“I see. Thank you,” he said. “I really didn’t intend to wander here, but I don’t know where home is. I have no memories before staggering from some conflict onto this pier.”
Curry frowned. Then something within spoke to him. The hero he was still lived. “Then come with me. I’ll help you.”
“What is your name?” asked Curry as he watched the man eat in a small, pier-side diner.
“Aaron? Yes. Aaron. That is all I recall,” he said. “That and this,” he said as he held forth a chart with marked locations across the ocean depths.
“An undersea treasure map,” said Curry. “You don’t have the look of a scavenger. More like a scholar.”
“I do love wisdom and the search for it,” said Aaron. “That I feel, but more than that all I know, all I feel, is that the secret to my life is hidden in this chart.”
Curry brooded over the chart, which displayed an Atlantean language. This was no ordinary map. Glyphs built within it indicated magic in its creation. What does this chart portray? mused Curry. A treasure? Cities? Ruins of old Atlantis? Any of the above could be true. How did this man come to carry it with no memory, and yet a path still led him unerringly to me when even I had no fixed purpose in my night’s wandering?
“Come,” he said. “Now that you have eaten, I’ll solve this riddle for you.”
Aaron smiled. “You will? But why? You’ve been so kind.”
Curry smiled slightly. “That’s what I do.”
A stylish and ornate Atlantean vessel carried Curry, Aaron, and two others through the black ocean depths toward the cities beneath the seas.
“Nice ride,” said Garth with a hint of his old spirit, which he had developed while among the bantering Teen Titans of his youth.
Curry nodded. The ship was his by birthright, and he had claimed it for this mission, even if he had relinquished other royal trappings.
The woman who sat apart from them was Mera, princess of the other realm and his estranged wife. Her company was chilling and rending to his heart now, but at least she had agreed to join them. Hope springs eternal, eh? he brooded.
Aaron watched them all, especially the icy Mera. What sorrows had come to this family, and how this noble man was sorely tried by all he had faced. Yet he still fought to help one in need. That was the stuff of legends and of heroes.
Beneath the ocean depths, Curry, Garth, Mera, and Aaron journeyed to the first spot marked on the amnesiac man’s magic chart.
“This spot is on a significant site from Atlantean history,” said Curry. “It was a corner of one of the fabled Zodiac Gates of ancient Atlantis.”
Aaron nodded. “During the glory days of the City of the Golden Gates!”
“How did you know that?” asked Garth.
“That phrase seemed to come to me as naturally as does the need to locate whatever awaits me at these charted spots,” replied Aaron.
Mera snorted in disdain. “I find this whole quest to be a fool’s errand, but then that was always the way with Arthur. Risking life and limb, and family, for the sake of adventure — a boy who never grew up.”
Aaron stared at the redheaded woman intently. “I feel as if I have known you before,” he said.
Mera’s eyes blazed. “I am the queen of Atlantis, now and evermore. Let not my mate’s feckless abandonment of our heritage delude you about that. No male may suffer my wrath gladly, and no one dares gaze upon my form unchallenged!”
Curry frowned. “Mera, you have jumped to wrongful conclusions again. Aaron means no harm. And must I remind you that your queenship was entirely due to the saving of my realm and the laws governing said kingdom. Without me, you would never have even had citizenship there, so do not presume upon my temper too severely.” Mera flounced off to the back of the ship.
Garth winced. Mera has been an ice-maiden for so long that even Aquaman’s snapped. He won’t let her talk to him like this anymore. That could be a good thing.
“I need to journey within that ruin,” said Aaron. “Perhaps you can aid me thusly.”
Odd language for a treasure hunter, mused Garth.
“Take the tablet in the cabinet,” said Curry. “It confers limited water-breathing ability for surface dwellers.” They filed out of the ship, leaving Mera to pout within.
“Something about this place speaks to me,” said Aaron as they made their way inside the ornate splendor that had fallen into ruins.
“Things were certainly made to last in those times,” offered Garth. “I suspect magic is behind their preservation.”
Curry abruptly stopped. “I detect something moving toward us in the distance. This place could have guards, or what you’d call squatters on the surface world.”
They saw armored figures approach from the ruins. “By Deedra’s Chain! Skeleton warriors!” cried Aaron as they closed in, and Curry’s keen eyes recognized the animated corpses.
“Get back behind me. I’ll wage this war!” he ordered.
Garth pulled Aaron to the side. “He means it, pal. Let’s just allow the man to do his thing.” Aaron nodded and complied.
The skeletal warriors closed in on the group, and Curry charged them. This was the time to release his fury. The pain of loss, the pain of rejection, and the guilt he felt over all his failures, real and imagined, exploded into action.
He slammed into the first corpse, sending bones shattering through the current. He saw a sword descend toward his skull and noticed in surprise that Aaron had stopped it and disarmed the user. “I found this blade here,” he explained. “The movement came back to me as if from a dream of lore.” He whirled and ducked, defending himself skillfully.
Garth watched and thought, Aaron is a swordmaster! This guy has his secrets, all right.
Curry was less surprised, for he had begun to guess just who Aaron might possibly be, and although the answer involved magic or time travel, he had seen both often enough. He refused to duck the blades aimed for his body. He merely surged forward like a wave personified and crushed one corpse after another in his wake. Curry fought through the skeletons and watched as Aaron uncovered a gemstone of crystal.
“This is what we came for; I sense that much,” he said as he sheathed the sword he had claimed.
“Excellent! You are a fine swordsman,” said Curry, But then, that’s what your legends said, too, he inwardly added.
They returned to the ship, where Mera lounged on a divan. “You returned? How nice. I would hate to see this fine adventure end with your death,” she said in a mocking tone. “The surface world must be in dire need of your powers. What would Superman and Hawkman do without the mighty Aquaman?”
Curry turned white and stalked off. “Set the course, Garth. I suspect the next marking is also over a former Zodiac Gate.”
Aaron gazed into the crystal, and visions of battles flashed through his mind. A huge native warrior and an oriental swordswoman, along with a shape-changing blonde girl fought at someone’s side — his side? — against aliens, wizards, and a weird creature with madness in his eyes.
The journey went quietly, while Mera combed her long hair silently and Curry scowled out the portal.