Dance With the Demons
Pain and nausea were familiar friends.
They signified he was waking up after being knocked unconscious. The first half-dozen times this had happened to him, he had thrown up on awakening. He was convinced that such a show was undignified, and would certainly lessen the stature of the Batman in criminals' minds if they saw him puking up his guts. So he bent his will to it, the will which had turned an eight-year-old boy into the World's Greatest Detective. He found he was able to resist. He did so now.
Batman opened his eyes behind the blank lenses of his mask.
It was not surprising to find his limbs restrained, or to see the man in front of him.
The man was no stranger to Batman. He wore an orange costume of metallic cloth whose texture resembled a snake's scales, covering all of his body save his lower face. His eyes were protected by opaque red lenses. Gold bands encircled his calves, upper thighs, wrists, and upper biceps. A green sash-garment hung from one shoulder across half his chest, belted at the waist and hanging to knee-level; a gold triangle-symbol was fixed to it at the level of his diaphragm, similar to a smaller triangle on his forehead. From his shoulders flowed a green cape, at least as long as Batman's. In his right hand was a slim wooden staff with a jewelled head, and upon that staff writhed a deadly serpent which obediently made no attempt to bite the man, nor any of his lieutenants.
The skintight costume revealed a physique as powerful-seeming as that of the Batman, and he had actually defeated the hero in hand-to-hand combat on one occasion. Batman remembered him well.
"Naja-Naja, he awakens," said a Cobra Cultist standing on the platform beside the villain.
"So I see," said Kobra, drawing out the "s" sounds into a snakelike hiss. A snake writhed along his shoulders and down a wooden staff he held in one hand. "Once again, Batman, welcome to my nest. Do not fret. Your friends are alive, yet similarly bound. My mercenaries were worth every rupee I paid them."
Batman swallowed, tasting bile. "I'm gratified to hear that," he said. "Tell me something."
Kobra extended his staff towards Batman. The snake writhed down its length, darting its tongue at the masked hero. He made his face into stone. But he recognized the serpent as a poisonous species.
"Do not presume to make demands of me," said Kobra. "You are entirely within my power. Naga--so!"
The snake reared back, its jaws open, exposing the deadly twin fangs.
Batman stared past it, to Kobra, though it was impossible to banish the snake from his field of vision.
"I only wish the answer to one question," he said. "Since I am in your power, you would have nothing to lose by answering it."
"What would I gain?" asked Kobra. The snake still hovered, but did not strike.
"The knowledge of my distress, which I would carry to my death," said Batman. "That would make your victory a bit sweeter."
The snake awaited the command of its master. Batman mentally chanted a mantra, focusing his attention away from the writhing coil of death.
Finally, Kobra swept his arm back. One of the Cultists appeared with a wooden box, its lid open. The snake obediently slithered down the staff into the box, and the Cultist slammed the top shut and latched it. His speed proved that any appearance of fearlessness on his part towards the reptile was just a pose.
"Curiosity is a curse," hissed Kobra. "But, for this once, I will indulge in it. Very well, Batman. What question would you pose?"
Batman drew two breaths, bringing himself to calmness. "Were you behind the attempt on Selina Wayne's life?"
Kobra smiled, his masked face split in a mirthless grin. Then he threw back his head and laughed, and, as soon as they gauged his reaction, the Cultists round about him indulged in laughter, too, a bit too enthusiastically to be real. As Kobra's laughter slackened, so did theirs.
"Suppose I was," he said. "It would be a good deduction, given that I had two teams of operatives awaiting your arrival. If I had struck at Mrs. Wayne, that would simplify things, would it not? You would be assured that you had made the right choice in coming after me. True, it would be most distressing to you, knowing that Mrs. Wayne was fated to die, and you would have failed to save her, and that I would be responsible for both your deaths."
"Well?" grated Batman. "Did you, or didn't you?"
Kobra paused, then said, "I think that I shall not tell you, Batman. Your consternation over not knowing whether or not I am culpable will be just as satisfying as if you thought I was the murderer, and that you would be unable to punish me. Or to save--Mrs. Wayne."
Batman had expected him to say "your wife", rather than "Mrs. Wayne." The pause before the words indicated that Kobra knew he did, as well. Kobra was toying with him, true. At the same time, he was apparently protecting Batman's secret identity from his underlings. A strange sense of honor, to be sure. Nonetheless, the hero was grudgingly grateful.
"It would seem," said Batman, testing the strength of his bonds--he was spreadeagled in an upright position by metallic devices on his hands and feet against a metal backboard, with a metal band around his neck--"that you are the one. The presence of King Faraday on the plane. The preparedness for the Outsiders, before we landed. You anticipated us."
"Little is proven by that, my friend," said Kobra. "I know of your visit to Ra's Al Ghul, oh, yes. To think that you would investigate him before me, as if I were second bite to the Arab's lead, is more than a bit insulting. Still, you do count him as a more personal foe than myself, so I suppose it was inevitable. However, I knew that if you were checking on old enemies of my caliber, very soon you would come my way. So I prepared myself--quite well."
"Agreed," said Batman. "But that would not explain Faraday."
"Ah, yes, Faraday," said Kobra. He nodded to one of the nearby Cultists. The robed one threw his mask back onto the back of his head.
King Faraday's face was displayed. He showed little emotion.
"He was investigating me," explained Kobra. "With my waters taken from the Lazarus Pit, I turned him. I knew I could use him as a Judas goat against you, when our paths came near crossing again."
"Didn't work," said Batman, flexing his fingers within the metal restraint. "I saw through his story like it was written on glass."
Kobra beamed. "But I kept hidden from him the knowledge of the Fearsome Five, which enabled me to trump your soldiers. I expected something of the sort from you. You are not an amateur."
"Glad to have your authorization," grumbled the Dark Knight. "So. What's your regulation Evil Plan this time around?"
"I always have more than a few in operation. But you are astute. I do have a plan of sorts. It should uphold my reputation in your eyes." He motioned to another aide. "Show him."
The masked Cultist produced a box about the size of a small but square suitcase. He opened its front, revealing a video screen. After the power source was activated, an image formed on the screen. Its shape was familiar to Batman.
"A nuclear accelerator," said Batman. "An atomic tunnel. What's so special about that?"
Kobra said, "If it were only that, nothing. But. Do you recall the fear some scientists expressed recently that an accelerator powerful enough might open a doorway between universes, possibly creating a phenomenon not unlike a black hole on Earth?"
Batman grimaced. "And that thing is supposed to do it?"
"Not only supposed to, friend Batman. It will do it. Our mockup tests have indicated a slight, controlled ‘burn' test of the apparatus would be enough to devastate a small nation. Of course, it could be made more localized than that, to destroy no more than a city block. But it could also be made large enough to destroy the entire Earth, in a matter / antimatter reaction."
"What is supposed to stop the Justice League from finding and destroying it once you announce your plans for world conquest? Assuming, of course, that is your plan."
Kobra sighed and tapped his staff on the ground. "Of course, Batman. The ultimate goal of all of us in our small sphere...myself, Ra's, Luthor, some of the others I can hardly call ‘competitors'. It's always been a race to see who would get it first. But, you see, the men with the proper resources always have a jump on the ones who do it from scratch. Ra's and I have always had resources to spare."
"Those, too." Kobra took his cane in both hands. "The Justice League will be lured to Markovia, very soon. I thought it fitting, for obvious reasons. The device has already been placed there, one of two in my possession. Once the League is in position, the device will be activated. Poof. No more Justice League, no more Markovia."
Batman controlled himself. Then he said casually, "There are other heroes besides the Justice League."
"So there are, dear friend. Supergirl, who for some reason did not attend your wedding. Several Green Lanterns. The Teen Titans, the Doom Patrol, the Challengers of the Unknown, and probably a host of single operators or even teams I can't be bothered to remember at this point. We have plans for dealing with them. The main thing is: once we have shown our hand, so to speak, by leaving a huge smoking crater where once was a European nation, do you think the heroes or armies of your world will come in charging? I could destroy the Earth about them in a minute."
"If you beat Flash or Superman or Supergirl or the Lanterns to the button, that is."
Kobra shrugged. "I believe we have, as you might say, covered the bases. But, Batman. Are there not other things you wish to ask me?"
"Such as, how long will I let you live? And do I have the antidote to the poison ravaging Mrs. Wayne?"
Batman's face became a visible thing of hardness. Even Kobra was given pause. But the black-masked hero did not speak for a few seconds.
"My guess is, I'll go shortly after you show me the destruction of Markovia. I'm assuming the rest of my team, or at least Geo-Force, will be spared until then. Am I right?"
"Admirably so," nodded Kobra. "The World's Greatest Detective, indeed."
"As for the other, I'll just bet you do. And I'll just bet I take it from your body, alive or dead."
Kobra smiled, stepped a bit closer to Batman, until he was within reaching distance.
Then he struck him a great blow across the face with the staff, bringing blood.
"I'll just bet you won't," muttered Kobra.
Then he turned on his heel and began walking away. "Faraday, come with me," he ordered. "I don't want you getting any too near our guest."
The spy looked crestfallen. "But, boss, you know I'm loyal to you. I brought him here to you, for cryin' out loud."
"I know only one thing in this matter: the Batman's capabilities. Rivalled only by my own. They quite outdo yours, Faraday, and if I could turn you, he could possibly turn you back. However."
He paused and grinned and gave King Faraday a look that, for all the danger the spy had faced in his fairly long life, chilled him to the bone.
"The demonstration of your loyalty so far is why I haven't killed you yet."
The other Cultists shot brief glances at each other behind Kobra's back as several of them followed their chieftain and Faraday out. Five men were still left behind with Batman. One of them spoke to him. "We will supply water and food at your request, and feed it to you. There will also be a container provided for your elimination needs."
"Thank you," said Batman, through bloodied lips. He suppressed a smile.
He'd gotten Kobra to admit he had the antidote. As good as an outright admission that he had been Selina's poisoner. Rage does things to a man, makes him bypass his guards against recklessness, if not tightly controlled. Batman had manipulated more than one of his foes thus, many times.
Now, all he had to do was get out of this restraint, clobber the guards, nab Kobra in his lair, force the antidote from him, get back to Gotham in time to save Selina's life, and stop this nuclear whatsit from destroying Brion's kingdom and the Justice League with it.
He looked up. "How about some water?"
Markovia was presently ruled by King Gregor Markov, the brother of Geo-Force, and it was getting pulled rapidly into the last fifth of the 20th Century, like it or not. Gregor and Brion were both futurists, and both knew the necessities of making modern technology's and science's benefits available to the populance of their kingdom.
That was why Gregor had willingly given permission to a consortium who wished to test a new nuclear power device in Markovia. If successful, it would provide cheap energy for most of the country, and all of the capital city. Their price was just to be allowed to market the device from Markovia, as a base. Nuclear power has its detractors all over the world, but Gregor's and Brian's position was much like France's, though not as extreme and careless as the French were with selling their nuclear material. Markovia had some power resources, most notably coal. But nuclear energy was a better alternative, if they could avoid a Chernobyl.
So the question had come up, and Dr. Helga Jace had been called in to inspect the plans and the construction of the great tunnel-generator. She seemed to find nothing wrong with the plans. Even though she felt the building of the generator went on too quickly, Dr. Jace found no real structural flaws in it.
A test of a small prototype was done, and it lit the palace grounds and a third of the city. Champagne corks popped in the palace, and King Gregor had shaken the hand of the Agan Consortium's representative. He was a white-haired, tall man named Art Lyte, and he joked that his business was "the art of light".
Then Dr. Jace had found new documentation of the project, though she had to employ a safecracker to do it secretly. What she found, when she understood it, caused her to quake in fear. She tried to put through a call to King Gregor immediately, from her laboratory.
The phone didn't work and a creak of the door, which had been locked, told her that she was not alone anymore.
Art Lyte and his assistant, a nondescript black-haired girl in a conservative suit, stepped in and closed the door behind them. Lyte was smiling.
"We observed your work on our company safe, Dr. Jace," said Lyte, softly. "Given that, you could hardly expect us not to do similar work with your telephone."
What Dr. Jace tried to do was grab something to throw at them, to run at them and possibly bowl them over so she could get out, and to scream for help.
What happened instead was Art Lyte raising a small penlight and triggering it, sending a beam of solid light at her which hit her hard and knocked her unconscious, sprawling behind her desk.
He said to the woman beside him, "Go ahead and do her."
The black-haired woman stepped over to the fallen Jace, stooped on one knee to examine her, and then did a curious and horrifying thing.
First, her body altered in appearance from a fairly attractive young woman to a vaguely female shape that appeared to be molded of brownish, irregular clay.
Then the shape reformed itself into the very image of Dr. Helga Jace. She took the glasses from the fallen woman, tried them on, squinted. "Can't see very well through these," she complained.
Lyte pulled a pair from his coat pocket. "Try these. Just plain glass, but I doubt anyone will notice. I've made many a lens in my time."
She replaced Jace's glasses with the pair Lyte gave her. "These are fine," she reported.
"Well, then, a little light-refraction should enable us to take the real doctor to the car without too much trouble," murmured Lyte. "Just don't make it too obvious we're supporting an invisible person."
And Dr. Light and the fourth Clayface bent to their current task.
In separate cells, the rest of the Outsiders awoke, one by one. They were bound in much the same fashion as Batman, except for a few of them who required special attention. Black Lightning had special apparati on his hands and feet that channelled his electric bolts into a device that supplied extra power to Kobra's facility. Try as he might, he could not burn it out. He exhausted himself trying.
Some of that power was also supplied to Metamorpho's cell, to keep the elemental hero in a state of electrically-induced coma. He was shackled and housed in a bubble of plexiglass and metal. Element Girl was in a similar bubble, but, given the status of her body as shattered and gathered-up fragments, there was no need for shackles.
Looker was kept in a state of anesthesia, with a metal mask covering her eyes. Halo was hooked into a device similar to Black Lightning's, but on a biofeedback basis; whenever she attempted to use her powers, she was shocked into unconsciousness. Plastic Man was kept frozen by refrigerator coils. Katana was merely kept in a room without her sword.
As for the Creeper, he was bound like Batman, and that was the end of it.
Geo-Force, however, awakened in a much different sort of device. In structure, it was similar to that which restrained most of the Outsiders, but his hands and feet were encircled by four global nimbi of rainbow energy. He looked at them, tried to break free, summoned the power of the Earth to help break his bonds.
It didn't work.
"Psimon designed those for me," said Kobra, stepping into the cell. "Rather effective, wouldn't you think?"
The prince of Markovia stared at his captor, and the three women with him, in unconcealed contempt. "Kobra, and his whores," said Geo-Force. "I should expect no less."
The orange-costumed man strode forward, his face set in a scowl. Inwardly, Brion was pleased. He had made a palpable hit. "You will watch your tongue, dear prince," said Kobra in a deadly tone. "Two of the ladies are my concubines, true. Never ‘whores'. As for the other, she is my business associate."
"I can imagine," said Prince Brion. "I can imagine what kind of ‘business.'"
Then he cried out in pain as Kobra's staff struck one of the globes.
As the white wall of anguish receded from his mind, he heard Kobra saying, "They do more than withstand your powers, as you can see."
Sweat dampened Brion's skin and the fabric of his mask. "Why. Have you. Come here?"
"To show you something," said Kobra. "Eve, if you will."
The woman named Eve, a gorgeous, black-haired beauty who wore naught but a skimpy green bikini and sandals, opened a box containing a viewscreen of the same sort as the one Kobra had shown to Batman. Geo-Force had met her before, and knew her as Kobra's henchwoman as well as his mistress. The other two women weren't speaking. One looked like a zombie. The other looked as though she dared not speak.
Kobra gave Geo-Force much the same show and briefing as he had to the Batman. Unlike his mentor, Brion did not bother concealing his hatred. He surged uselessly against his bonds, cursed the mastermind, and swore to thwart his plan to destroy Markovia and the JLA. He also promised to kill Kobra once he was out of his bondage.
Kobra remained unmoved.
"The Batman has been making similar promises about me ever since he saw my brother, Jason Burr, killed by this lady, at my command." He gestured with an open palm towards the zombie-woman, a lovely strawberry-blonde girl in a short purple dress and a curious tiara. "You can see how effective his promises have been. I remain alive, Miss McNeil remains one of my brides."
Brion wondered if he saw a flare of jealousy in Eve's eyes, or if it was just a trick of the light.
"At any rate, I couldn't neglect giving you the same preview of what I have in store for your homeland," said Kobra. "It may well be for the good, in the long run. Nukes are dangerous."
"Not half as dangerous as I will be, to you," said Geo-Force, gutterally.
Kobra stepped closer to Geo-Force, almost daring him to spit in his face.
"I could have Psimon torture or kill you at my pleasure," he said. "Or I could do it myself. And I am quite imaginative. But there is no need, at present. The sight of your country's elimination will be torture enough. The deathstroke afterward will be a mercy. Unlike this."
With that, he kicked the globe at Geo-Force's left ankle. The hero shut his eyes, arched his back, and cried out against the pain.
The third woman finally spoke up. "Kobra, please," she said. "There is no need."
He whirled to face her, no mercy in his bearing. "There is always need to discipline such as him. And anyone else I choose. My followers worship me as a god's incarnation. It is well not to provoke the wrath of a god, is it not?"
After a moment, she said, "Yes, Naja-Naja. Of course. Please excuse my outburst."
"For the moment," he said. "Remember: you came to me, not I to you. Now let us depart. I believe our friend would be left alone to deal with his pain...physical and otherwise."
The door slammed shut behind the departing foursome and all that was left to be heard was the sound of Geo-Force's labored breathing.
In their room at Wayne Manor, Dick Grayson and Koriand'r lay together with only the sheets for covering and only the moon peering in through the window.
The girl from another world spread and unspread her fingers on Dick's naked chest. "Will it always be like this, do you think, beloved? Always fitting our marriage between the things we must do as heroes?"
"Damned if I know, Kory," said Dick. "It's...always been this way for me. Since the day my folks got killed and I met the Batman...it's always been like this."
She sighed and moved her head a bit on his shoulder. "I should not be selfish. What we face is nothing compared to what Selina must deal with. She is still dying, Dick."
"I know it. God help her, I know every bit of it." He gently dislodged her, sitting up in bed, running his hands over his face, feeling his sweat and stubble. "Her face turning a bit more red every day, her vital signs... Dammit, it was so much simpler when she was just a crook and we just had to catch her."
"No. I have to admit that. Even then, Bruce had a thing for her, and she for him. It's just that they wouldn't acknowledge it. Then she reformed, we accepted her as a partner, and now..." Kory massaged his back, but Dick kept his face in his hands. "Dammit, Kory, I can't let her die. She means so much to Bruce. She's meaning so much to Jason, now. He's starting to see her as his new mother. What'll it do to him if his mother dies on him, again?"
"What will it do to you, Dick?" she said, softly.
"I won't like it, I can tell you. I've come to appreciate her, too. If I let her die, without trying to do something about it--it's like I've failed Bruce, too. I know I should be past that feeling, but I'm not."
"I understand, Dick."
"Maybe so, maybe not. I don't know what's going on in India, but I can't do much good in Gotham. Kory?"
"Tomorrow, we're calling the Titans together again. We're going to India, no matter what Bruce has said. He might be in trouble. Even with all the help he's got. If he is, or even if we're just in time to get in on the fight, we're going to backstop him. What do you think of that? Am I crazy?"
"No. Dedicated to a fault, but not crazy. I think it is a good decision."
"Thanks," said Dick, with a sigh.
"What of Gotham? Will it be safe in your abscence?"
"Should be. The Bat-Squad's available to help out Gordon. Even the Earth-Two bunch are staying for the duration. We can leave it in their hands."
"As you say, Dick," said Kory. "But tonight is for us, alone. And you will be left in my hands. Among other things."
"Oh," said Dick, as Kory shifted position with only the moon to witness, and thick walls to absorb any sound the two of them might make.
Below, in the Wayne kitchen, a slightly frowsy Betty Kane stepped in for a nightgown conference with two other women. Both of the others were also in nightgowns. Helena Wayne and the strange, older Kathy Kane of Earth-Two looked up at her.
"Well, I hope somebody saved me some of the cake," said Betty, attempting a wisecrack. She decided she'd never match Dick in that department.
Kathy cast her eyes down towards the floor. "I called you down here because I wanted to apologize for not speaking very much to you at the gathering tonight."
"Oh, come on," said Betty. "You don't need to apologize." She sat on a stool beside the breakfast counter where Helena and Kathy were also seated. "Look, I was shocked as hell when I came into the drawing room and saw you there, too. I mean, you're older than my Kathy, but...well...you're alive. And that's what counts. I'm glad to see you. Really glad."
Helena sighed. "We know, dear. We were glad to find out about you, too. But...well, tell her, Kathy."
"Tell me what?" asked Betty, beginning to sense what the answer would be.
Kathy looked at Betty with a great sadness. "There was a Betty Kane on my Earth, too. She found out who I was, just like you did with your Kathy. She made herself a Bat-Girl costume. She horned in on the case I was working with Bruce and Dick, against King Cobra. Just like you." She paused, bit her lip, unable or unwilling to continue, or to look at Betty.
"What happened?" said Betty, in a voice smaller than she would have liked.
Helena held Kathy's shoulders as she finished the story for her. "On our Earth, King Cobra broke jail a few months later. He tracked down our Bat-Girl. And he shot her. And she...she died."
"Oh, my God," breathed Betty. She moved to take Kathy in her arms. "Kathy, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so damnably sorry."
Kathy looked up. There were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling. "Don't be, dear. Every time...every time we come to your Earth, or...you go to ours...it's true, we're visiting ghosts. But sometimes...ghosts can be awfully good to see."
Kathy Kane hugged her counterpart niece very tightly, and Betty embraced her. But she shot a questioning look at Helena. It wasn't hard to guess what she wanted to know.
"King Cobra died, not long after that. Tripped and fell into his own snake pit," said Helena. "At least, that's what Dad told me. Since he was the only one there...I guess he'd be the one to know."
Batman had been left with only two guards, as time had passed and it grew near the time of sleeping. But two other guards stood outside his door, and he now heard them arguing with a woman outside.
He recognized the voice. He just wondered if the guards inside had seen his surprise.
The woman won the argument. "Five minutes," said the guard. "No more."
"I will tell Naja-Naja of your efficiency," the woman said.
There was a clicking of tumblers as a lock was opened. The two guards checked their weapons instantly, and stood between the entering woman and the shackled Batman. "No further," said one of them.
She stepped past them. One of them grabbed her arm. She gave him a look, and he withdrew his hand. But they kept their weapons at the ready.
The lady stepped as close as she dared to the prisoner. When she was within three feet of him, she stopped.
"Hello, Batman," she said, tenderly. "It pains me with intensity to see you in such circumstance."
He took a breath before replying.
"Hello, Talia," he said. "Nice to see you, too."