Dance With the Demons
Even at the speed they could command, it would still take some time for the two Batplanes to reach the region of the mountains in India for which they were bound. Batman shared one plane with King Faraday, Geo-Force, Looker, Plastic Man, and the Creeper. The other craft carried Metamorpho, Element Girl, Katana, Halo, and Black Lightning. Things would have been a bit cramped in Batman's plane, except for Plas's ability to compress himself into a much smaller shape. The Creeper found that a bit unnerving.
"Can't you stay normal till we get there?" groused the green-haired man.
Plastic Man, who had let Faraday have his seat and had now wrapped himself like a python about the bottom post of the Creeper's seat, shrugged his upper half. "There aren't enough chairs back here. It's either this, or one of us rides in the tail-section brig. Besides, Creep, it's what I do."
"Yep, it's what you do, all right," the Creeper said. "Along with changing yourself into lunchpails and mailboxes and streetlights and rugs and things. All of ‘em in red, with a big yellow stripe. You think crooks'd catch on."
"I generally don't give ‘em time to," said Plas. "Or I shape my face to look like somebody else. See?"
Within seconds, Plastic Man rearranged his facial features and pushed his shades onto the top of his head. Except for eye color and the lack of a white streak at his temples, his face was a dead ringer for Faraday's.
"Knock it off," said the spy. "One of me's all I want to deal with, right now."
"So be a critic," said Plas, and snapped his features back to normal. Before he pulled his shades down, King looked at him curiously, then leaned forward.
"Hey, I know you," said Faraday. "I mean, I know your face."
"Keep it to yourself, then," Plas instructed, pulling the rubber-framed shades over his eyes again. "A lot of people still don't know I'm Eel O'Brian. That's the way I'd like to keep it."
The man in the trenchcoat fumbled for another cigarette. "You got it, Plastic. But I never would'a guessed that you used a small-time gangster from the Fifties for your cover."
"Didn't use to be a cover," said Plastic Man. "That's enough, all right?"
"Okay, okay," Faraday replied. "Maintain your cool. Jeez." He lit the cigarette.
Looker wrinkled her nose. "Jeez yourself. Do you have to smoke all the time, Mr. Faraday?"
"Well, it gives my hands something to do," he said. "It makes me less nervous. Plus the way my life goes, I figure I'm not destined to die from lung cancer."
Geo-Force spoke up. "How long have you been a spy, Mr. Faraday?"
Faraday exhaled a long puff of smoke. "Over 25 years. I'm gettin' up there."
"If you have not died in the line of service during those 25 years, is it not more likely to assume that you will continue to live, until your blackened lungs give out on you?"
Silence for a moment. Then King Faraday broke it with a laugh. "Don't know whether to take that as a downer or a compliment, Geo. Don't worry, next time I'll try to make it just the Batman and me. He never complains."
"Well, we do," said Looker, emphatically.
Sighing, Faraday stubbed out the cigarette in a plate he'd brought from the galley. "Satisfied?"
Before she could answer, Batman's voice rang out from the intercom. "King, I'd like to see you up front. After him, I want to see Plastic Man and Geo in that order. Out."
Faraday got up from his seat and trundled into the narrow aisle. Passing by the Creeper, he asked, "Wonder why he didn't ask to see you?"
"He trusts me," said the Creeper, with a grin.
The American agent stepped briefly through a partition into the cockpit and took the copilot's seat beside Batman, but did not take the control yoke. "What's in the wind, Bats?" he asked.
"Just wondering, King. How'd you cross swords with Kobra?"
Faraday stretched his long legs out before him. "Not much to tell. Doing a routine followup on an agent's murder in Pakistan. Trail led to New Delhi. That's where I ran afoul of the Cobra Cult guy. We shot it out, I won. He told me some stuff before he checked out. I passed it along to you. End of story."
Batman looked at him. "Must've been some very heavy stuff for the Cultist to betray his oath of silence."
The spy nodded, soberly. "It is. Said the whole world could go up in smoke from it. So heavy that even he was afraid of what his boss might do with it."
"And the agent in Pakistan found out about it?"
"As far as I know," said Faraday. "At least, it makes sense. They strung me along to lure me into the guy I shot's trap. Only thing is, I know all about traps. All about ‘em."
Batman nodded. "Big schemes draw lots of players. On both sides."
"I've noticed they do," Faraday agreed.
"King, I can't think of another agent I'd rather have by my side at this moment," said Batman. "I want you to know that."
"Pleasure's all mine, Bats." Faraday stuck out his hand and the Batman shook it. "But you seem to draw a lot of players, yourself. Every month, I hear about at least three new capers you've been into. You're like a magnet."
Batman looked out the window.
"I keep busy," he said, not looking at Faraday. "Every week or two, it seems they conjure up a new demon. And he always picks me for the dance. All right, King, that's all. Go back and send up Plas, if you please."
"Will do," said Faraday. "And, Bats?"
"I hope your friend Catwoman makes it. I really mean that."
"Thank you, King. Very much. Now, go get Plas."
"So that's how I got the powers, and that's what I owe to Batman," said Black Lightning, finishing up. "That good enough for you, Rainie?"
"Very good, indeed," said Element Girl, sitting sideways in her plane seat. She looked back at the other two women. "That only leaves you two. Kinda fitting, since you seem to be pretty close."
"Oh, yes," said Katana, quietly. "We are that."
Halo smiled widely. "Tatsu's one of the nicest persons I've ever met. When you really get to know her, that is. She's not just totally Samurai, y'know--"
"Gabrielle. I am totally Samurai." Katana was not smiling. "And I always will be."
Halo stuffed a knuckle in her mouth, trying to form an apology. Element Girl decided that a save was in order.
"So why don't you tell me how you got to be that way?", she said.
The Japanese woman in the red mask turned to Element Girl and, after a pause, began.
"My tale begins almost thirty years in the past," said Katana, folding her hands in her lap. "I was born to a banker and his wife in the city of Tokyo. My childhood was uneventful, though I was adept at some disciplines of the martial arts."
"She almost made the national championships in freestyle karate," enthused Halo. "She told me so."
The blonde subsided.
"As I was saying, I was purposed to become a good housewife, once a man had been found for me to marry. In my twenty-first year, there were two who vied for my hand. Both were brothers, of the Yamashiro family. One was Maseo, the other Takeo. I saw the stability and, yes, the virtue in Maseo, and chose him. Takeo was spying upon us the day I made my choice. He came between us angrily, and attacked his brother. But Maseo defeated him in combat, and sent Takeo away. Not long after that, I was given to Maseo in marriage. Takeo did not take this well. He ended up in the arms of the Yakuza, was given their dragon tattoo, and became one of their most prized assassins within a short time. My parents, alas, died in an automotive accident not a year after our wedding."
Element Girl stretched out her hand to try and lay it on Tatsu's arm, in sympathy. Katana looked up at her, and Rainie drew back her hand.
"Unto us, Maseo and myself, were delivered two children, whose names were Yuki and Reiko. They were the pride of our lives. I had a job in my father's bank, in currency exchange. My husband was an electronics technician. For three years, we did well."
Another pause, and Rainie and Halo knew well enough not to fill it in with words. So did Jeff Pierce, who had heard the story before.
"Then Takeo entered our lives again, and took three of them with him...or, perhaps, only two. In the time intervening, Takeo had nursed his grudge against his brother, both for finding favor in my eyes, and because he himself had been disowned by the clan Yamashiro for becoming a criminal. But he also had a taste for antique swords. The favorite of his collection was a great blade forged 600 years ago by the smith Muramasa, who was said to be mad. Some of his swords were said to be cursed. In the case of one of them, I can verify the fact."
Rainie's eyes met with Halo's for an instant, but neither said a thing.
"This sword was sold to Takeo by one General Karnz, a weapons dealer whose merchandise was often not acquired without blood. It is said that the sword called out to Takeo, and he paid a dear price for it. With his money, and, perhaps, with his soul. For days after acquiring it, Takeo did nothing but polish the Muramasa sword. At one point, he reportedly polished it with his own blood. That was seven days after he bought it.
"On the eighth day, he dressed as a Ninja, invaded our home, and sought to steal me from my husband's arms. He struck me down with the flat of the blade, and, in so doing, stumbled against a brazier and overturned it. The house...caught fire. Yuki and Reiko were drawn by the noise and the smell of smoke. They entered our bedchamber, crying out in fear. My husband, struggling with his brother, turned his head towards them. I was still pained from Takeo's blow, but I arose. I arose in time to see Takeo wrench free of Maseo, and bury the Muramasa blade deep in my husband's body."
They waited for Katana to speak again. They waited for almost thirty seconds.
"I was able to strike out at Takeo, with kicks and shuriken. I was able to drive him away, in pain. By striking the underside of his sword arm, I caused him to drop his beloved weapon, which I recovered. I knelt beside my husband's body. I...knelt there a long time. Too long. The house was...burning up around us. Wooden beams fell over, blazing, onto the bodies of...Yuki...and Reiko. I heard them call for Maseo and me. Then I heard nothing from them. And I cried out to them, I cried out that I was coming to save them...
"And another voice told me no. It told me they were already gone. It was Maseo's voice.
"It came from the sword."
"The sword?" exclaimed Rainie. "You mean, your..."
"Ssshhh, Rainie," said Halo, with a slashing motion of her hand. Element Girl became quiet again.
"Maseo's spirit was taken within the sword," said Katana. "He talked to me, within my mind. He told me that my children were already dead, and that his brother had escaped. He told me to run, before I, too, died in the burning wreckage.
"So I ran. And, from a distance, I looked upon our burning house. My view was obscured by tears. I shed many that night, for I knew I would have no opportunity to shed anymore until I found Takeo Yamashiro.
"That was the night Tatsu Yamashiro died, for all intents and purposes, and that Katana was born.
"I had the examples of the men and women in our history who would disguise themselves while undertaking missions of vengeance. I knew of the Ninja, and studied their ways. But I also knew of heroes. Some of our land, such as Sunburst and the Rising Sun. Others in our former foe and current ally-land, America, such as, yes, the Batman. Tatsu Yamashiro would never be able to take the vengeance my family required. I designed the costume you see me wear today. I took my husband-possessed blade, and learned how to wield it and the other weaponry I carry. I became a ronin, a masterless samurai. I took my name from my blade, as tribute to the husband I carried in my scabbard. That is why I am called by the name of Katana.
"I made the Yakuza fear my name, as would others whom I faced and fought. I learned from them the trail Takeo had followed, and followed up those who had aided him, as well. One of these was General Karnz, the man who had sold him my husband-sword. I went to Markovia to deal with him. And I dealt with him."
Element Girl found, once again, that even in her current state of being, a chill could run down her spine.
"That was the place in which I first met Gabrielle, who is Halo, and the Batman, whom I call friend and, in a way, my liege-lord. Now I am no longer ronin, but samurai, since I have found one whom I may serve. He, too, knows the paths of vengeance, and of justice. From him, I have learned much. From me, he has earned loyalty."
After a few more seconds, Element Girl said, "What about Takeo?"
Katana looked up at her, matter-of-factly. "We encountered him again, in the company of Yakuza, American criminals, and four warriors summoned and controlled by the power of the sword. One of these warriors was my husband's spirit. I faced him in battle, but would not hurt him. His spirit would be freed of this plane, freed from imprisonment or servitude, if I slew him with my blade. He saw that I cared for Gabrielle. He threatened her. I slew him. I freed him."
"Oh, God," breathed Rainie.
"Mere seconds later, Takeo appeared and brandished a gun at me. I slew him. His spirit now occupies the blade."
Katana unsheathed the sword, lay it across her knees, and regarded it. Element Girl peered at it, trying to discern anything within the light reflecting from its polished surface. But, for all she could see of it, it was only a sword.
"If my will means anything in the great design, it will be pent there forever," said Katana.
Finally, the Japanese Outsider resheathed the sword. A collective sigh of released breath came from the other three. Katana was finished talking.
Urania looked at Halo. "Um, you next?"
Halo looked back at Rainie.
"Maybe later," she told her.
"Wondered when you'd be turning up," said Nightwing.
Two-Face smiled with the more human half of his face. "I won't work with the Joker any more closely than this. Personally, I'm glad you beat him. But he did convince me that forming a backup team was a good idea. I knew you'd be able to beat him."
The man of dual jeopardies carried two Uzis, and both were trained on Nightwing. Dick didn't feel like attempting a maneuver. Not just yet...
Plus, of course, there was the fact that Black Mask, the King of Crime, the Spook, and Deadshot were carrying similar weaponry. Each of them could take out all the heroes...Nightwing, the old and young Robins, the Huntress, and Batgirl...just about any time they wanted to. Along with all of the hostages.
They could even wrap it up by offing the Joker and his boys, for dessert.
"Time to finish this operation," said Black Mask, whose face was permanently dyed black. "But, Two-Face, I adjure you and the rest: shoot for the body. Not the head. I wish to collect their masks when we are done."
"Always some nut with an collection obsession," snapped Deadshot, behind his all-covering headmask. "I'm just damn glad you didn't bring along the Mad Hatter, too."
"The Mad Hatter?" asked Huntress, trying to distract their attention. "You have one here, too?"
The Spook, enshrouded in green robes, nudged the King of Crime with his elbows. "What does she mean by ‘One here, too'? And who is she, anyway? And who's that old guy in a Robin suit?"
The King of Crime, who had been far-famed years ago for defeating Batman and getting away with it before Batman tracked him down and made sure he didn't, shrugged. "Hell if I know. Maybe they're married and the kid's their son."
Batgirl placed her hands on her hips, seemingly in exasperation, but really to get them closer to her utility bag. "Really, the lack of informedness in you so-called ‘super-criminals' is no less than appalling. Haven't you ever heard of Earths One and Two? Well, it just so happens that old Robin and the Huntress, here, are from..."
Then she had to drop to one knee, as Deadshot let off a stream of bullets that went where her head had been and spattered the wall some feet behind her. "SHUT UP!" he roared.
"Indeed," said the King, levelling his gun. "Let us make an end to these Bat-stand-ins, for once and for all. A proper appetizer to the Big Bat himself. Ready...aim..."
"Wait!" Two-Face pushed the Crime King's gun hand down. "This thing must be done properly. It wouldn't do to kill them in anything but the most proper and well-planned way."
"Says who?" snapped the King.
Two-Face caressed the middle of the King's ear with the business end of his Uzi, gently. "Says me," he said, out of the greenish-gray half of his mouth.
The King sighed. "Ah, well, then. Protocol."
"The time is getting late," said the Spook. "Already the police are within the building. Do what you want, Two-Face, but make it quick."
The heroes gave sidewise glances to each other, waiting for an instant's respite.
Two-Face put one gun in his pocket and used his right hand to caress his chin...first one side, then the other. "Now, how should this be played? We have two Robins, they could easily be knocked off first. Of course, there are two women, a pair of queens, one might say...that's an interesting motif."
"This man is sick," whispered the Spook to Black Mask.
"I heard that," said Two-Face. "Of course, there are two adult male crimefighters, which gives us another pairing. But...no, I have it! Yes, it's simply two divine in inspiration."
Everyone, good guys and bad guys alike, waited for the denouement.
"Batgirl here declared that two of these costumed catamounts are from a world called, if I remember correctly, and I think I do...Earth-Two." The grin that lit both sides of his face was terrible to behold.
Batgirl looked at the Huntress, who looked back. "Uh-oh," said Barbara, unable to think of anything more pithy.
"Kismet," said Black Mask. "Go ahead and do them, Face, and leave us the sloppy seconds."
Harvey Dent turned on the Mask with an expression that said, You just don't understand.
"The two from Earth-Two are an irresistable target," allowed Two-Face. "But there is a ceremony one must follow. If the right side comes up, the two of them are toast. If not, well, we'll make another choice and flip for that."
"We haven't got time!" raged Deadshot. "Get out of the way and let me do these idiots!"
This time, both the Black Mask and the King of Crime turned on Deadshot. "Don't you recall who has seniority on this team, Prince Popgun?" sneered the crowned crook.
"Two-Face has a style which bids fair to rival my own," confirmed the Mask. "It takes little time to flip a coin. You're out of order, Deadshot."
The gunslinging gangster swore, with great feeling. "I knew it was a mistake to come on this gig. I just knew it. If I'd only patched up things with the Penguin..."
Despite all the comedic banter, despite all the childish rivalry, Nightwing and his band were well aware of one thing: the armament Two-Face's group carried could still open them all up like tomato cans, and 15 innocent people were still endangered as well.
Gotham crooks might seem crazy. But they were usually deadlier than rattlesnakes. The craziness didn't help alleviate that condition.
With a show of ceremony, Harvey Dent placed his hand in the pocket of the worn and threadbare half of his suit.
From it, he withdrew a two-headed silver dollar.
There had been a Two-Face on the Huntress's and old Robin's Earth, as well. They did not have to be told what the scarred side and the good side of the coin stood for.
Death and life.
Two-Face rested the coin, good side up, on the thumb of his clenched fist. Expertly, he flipped it.
The silver dollar whirled upward, the twin faces on it flashing in reflected light from the overhead bulbs.
And with all eyes on it, Nightwing pressed a button on his belt and hollered, "Wally, NOW!"
The dollar never hit the floor. It simply seemed to vanish.
Human eyes were too slow to catch the sight of Wally West, the newest Flash, snatching it from the air with his crimson glove.
But Two-Face did suddenly feel two guns yanked from his hands, and looked down to see himself disarmed.
Within instants, so did all the others, save for Deadshot, whose wrist-guns were strapped firmly to his arms. The masked gunman had terrific reflexes and sent a twin-burst of lead towards the heroes.
Old Robin, young Robin, Nightwing, Huntress, and Batgirl had already ducked and scattered to separate parts of the room.
The iced-in windows were smashed open in several directions by a sonic burst, a gorilla's paw, a heat blast, a wedge of crystal, a rush of dark energy, and plain old Amazonian muscle.
Cyborg, Starfire, Kole, Jericho, Wonder Girl, Raven, a blonde girl in a red and green costume, and a green gorilla who was better known, in human form, as Changeling streamed through the windows. The Flash slowed down long enough to make himself visible, and smashed Deadshot a blow that took him out of the fight, and consciousness.
"Titans, together!", yelled Nightwing.
"You don't have to tell us, Batboy," said Cyborg, ratcheting back the Spook's head with a steel-fisted uppercut.
"Oh, dear," said the King, leaping in the air as Starfire blasted a fireburst at his feet. "Oh, my." He wanted to find a place to run to, but there didn't seem to be any at the moment.
"Oh, nuts," said Wonder Girl, and slugged him in the labonza. The King doubled up, unable to breathe. Jericho silently chopped him across the neck and sent him down.
Black Mask found his arms bound to his sides by a band of crystal formed by the newest Titan, the girl called Kole. His feet were similarly confined, but the gorilla-Changeling picked him up by the ankles, crystal and all, upended him, and bonked his head against the floor repeatedly.
"I think that's known as overkill," warned Kole.
"Don't knock it," said Gar Logan.
Of all people, the Joker was beginning to come to groggy life among the fallen first team of villains. He shook his head, looked at the carnage, and realized that Harvey the Idiot Dunce Dent had blown a perfect plan again.
On the other hand, it was a great opportunity to get the hell out of there and plan for a comeback. This time, using regular crooks. No more funny suits to work with. With all those ego hassles, it was worse than using a rock group.
He began to crawl away and found himself blocked by a woman's legs.
Raven looked down at him. "Going somewhere?"
"So are you," he said, and reached for a trigger that would send a Joker-dart full of venom into her body.
Raven was quicker.
The Joker's eyes went wide as something seemed to come out of her body--or perhaps it was her body, elongated and distorted somehow, into an inky-black, impenetrable shape.
It seemed to be the shape of a big bird.
It reached out to him, enveloped him.
And for awhile, there was no Joker to be seen on the field of battle.
Two-Face, for his part, was not unprepared for reverses. His hands flew to the back of his suit and pulled out two small grenades concealed there. They would be set by just the correct thumb-pressure on the buttons which protruded from their tops. He could fling them far enough away to kill some of the heroes, some of the proles, and probably some of the Joker's group as well. Not that the last effect was undesirable. In the resulting chaos, he could probably make a getaway.
The problem, as he found out a second later, was that the blonde girl with the red mask and the red-and-yellow skintight suit had one arm in a judo hold, and she flipped him like a poker chip.
Flash caught one of the grenades and Changeling, transformed into a cheetah, caught the second in his mouth. Neither had been triggered.
Two-Face found himself dumped on his ass in front of Nightwing. The one-time Robin wasn't feeling very charitable.
Before Harvey Dent could think of an appropriate insult, the head of the New Titans had hauled him up by his lapels, bashed him on the good side of his jaw with a left, and bashed him on the bad side with a right.
Two-Face went down. He didn't even take a two-count.
Massaging his knuckles, Dick Grayson said, "Just couldn't resist using the old one-two...Face."
Old Robin said, "Looks like the puns don't get any better on this Earth than mine." He clapped his counterpart on the shoulder. "Well done, brother."
"You, too, brother," said Nightwing, and clasped his hand.
Young Robin, Jason Todd, looked up at them. "Gee," he said. "I know I'm just starting out here, but..."
Both Dick Graysons put one hand apiece on Jason's shoulders and grasped one of his hands with their other mitts. "Just like we did, kid," said Nightwing.
"And you did really fine," said Old Robin. "Take it from Robin Number One."
"Gosh," said Jason. It seemed profound enough, so he said it again.
The girl in red and yellow had gone to check on Batgirl and Huntress. "Hi," she said, smiling. "We've never met, Batgirl, but I couldn't pass up the chance to help the Titans on this one when I got wind of it."
Batgirl's eyes widened in recognition. "You're...why, you're Bat-Girl! Oh, good grief." She laughed. "Honey, we've never met, but I hope you don't mind me appropriating the name. I knew you had it first."
The Huntress was registering shock. The blonde heroine noticed it, and asked, "Something wrong, Miss..."
"Uh, the Huntress. I'm the Huntress. From Earth-Two." She stuck out a hand, gingerly. "Pleased to meet you, uh, Bat-Girl?"
Shaking Helena's hand and smiling, she said, "I don't call myself that anymore. After all, this Batgirl's been using it well enough as it is. I talked to Nightwing on the phone some time back after he changed his name and kinda had a skull-session with him about what I should call myself, if I ever came out of retirement. He said he'd taken the Nightwing name from a guy in Kandor, that little bottle city of Superman's. Turned out that Nightwing had a partner named Flamebird. Neither one of them's on Earth right now, so, since they were kind of a Batman and Robin copy, I thought, ‘Hey, why not?' So now...I've got a new costume, and I call myself Flamebird."
"That's very nice," said the Huntress, still holding her hand. "That's very, very nice. Well, I'm the, uh, daughter of the Batman and Catwoman of my Earth. I'm pleased to meet you. Very pleased."
Flamebird raised her eyebrows. "Something wrong, honey? Did you get hurt in the fight?"
"No, no, everything's fine," the Huntress said. "I'm just fine. Come on, let's get these hostages up and out of here."
Batgirl and Flamebird both exchanged glances of mutual confusion.
Then they went to help the Huntress.
In the cockpit of the Batplane, Batman spoke into the intercom mike. "Geo, will you come take the pilot's seat for a moment, please? Nature calls."
He heard the Creeper laughing. Well, what the hell.
Geo-Force entered the cockpit area. "You are indisposed, friend Batman? We are only an hour away from our destination."
"Won't take that long, I promise," said Batman. He stood up, having put the plane on autopilot, and let Brion take the pilot's seat. Without a word, he passed through the doors into the seating area of the plane.
The Creeper had thought about making a bathroom wisecrack at Batman's expense, then, seeing him, withdrew the offer. Plastic Man had turned his face into Richard Nixon's and was doing a Dwight Frye routine for Looker, who was screeching with laughter. He passed all of them by, without speaking.
King Faraday looked at him idly from his place in the last seat, waved with one hand, and went back to looking out the window.
Batman barrelled into him like a land shark.
The trenchcoated spy found himself jammed against the window and seat, his arms pinned to the wall by the Dark Knight, who wasn't looking very happy at all.
The other heroes turned their heads towards the two in amazement.
"I've got some questions," said the Batman, holding back great anger. "You'd better give me the best answers you've ever given in your life."