Dance With the Demons
Raven once again lay her hands on Selina Wayne and tried to draw the death from her body.
Her effort lasted less than a minute. Selina gasped, though none could quite tell if it was from pain. The Teen Titan's face twisted in pain, then dissipated the load into the ether. Her eyes, for a second, looked haggard.
Looking into them, Dick Grayson knew the truth: it had not been enough.
"I have done what I can," Raven said.
Starfire and Alfred Pennyworth were also within the Batcave. The gold-skinned girl stood near her husband, looking down at the woman in the cot with great concern. Alfred held her hand.
"I feel a little better," said Selina. "Thank you, uh, Miss Raven."
"Thank you very much, Raven," said Dick, struggling to keep sorrow out of his voice. "Selina, I'll be back in a moment."
"Sure, Dick, no problem," said the pale Catwoman. "Could you do me a favor?"
"Would you send Jason down? I'd like to talk to him."
"All--all right, Selina. I'll do that. Then Kory, Raven, and I have to get ready." He paused, then finally broke, bent down, and hugged her. Selina hugged back, enfeebled though she was.
"Go on," she whispered. "Bring my husband back."
"We will," he replied, softly. "Just be here for him when we get back."
There was nothing more to say, so Dick lay her gently back in the cot. Then, motioning Raven and Starfire to follow him, he walked to the stairs that led to the grandfather clock entrance to the Batcave.
When they were gone, Selina said to Alfred, "It's bad, isn't it? For Bruce, I mean."
He sat beside her bed on a camp chair. "I fear so, Mistress Selina. Against Kobra, one could only expect great difficulties. Still, the master has been incommunicado for days many times before. Every time, he has returned, triumphant."
Selina rubbed her hands against her stomach. "My hands are number, Alfred. I guess that means we're just about into the home stretch."
"Do not talk in such fashion, Mistress Selina." Alfred gripped her hand firmly. "The ability of the body to fight off affliction is directly linked to the determination of the mind to survive. You feel this, do you not?"
"Yes, I do. In a few days, I may not be able to. Alfred, do you believe in God?"
"Why, yes. Yes, I do. And I trust He will answer my prayers on your behalf, and on the Master's. But you must work with Him, Mistress Selina, and not give up hope." He paused. "Why did you ask me such a question?"
"Because I believe in Him, too," she said. "At times, I wasn't quite sure. I mean, my life hasn't been a real bed of roses. More like an alley cat's, getting chased down dark streets, wondering where my next meal ticket's coming from, hiding out from the dogs in the blue suits and badges, figuring that something's bound to come and run me over. Kinda like He wound me up and let me go, saying, ‘I've given you everything you need. It's up to you.' But...I wasn't sure such a God could exist. I mean, I wanted to. But I always prayed, Alfred. I prayed there'd be a way out of the blind alley. And now..."
"Now, there is a way. Even if it's only for a week or so, at the end of my life, He's let me have what I always wanted. A husband, the Batman, and a son. And friends, lots of friends. Like you, you old limey."
"Indeed," said Alfred, summoning up every erg of British reserve to keep his eyes from brimming over.
"And an end to the running. I haven't had to run very much for the past few years, but I've got what I wanted, even if it's only for this long. So, yeah, I do believe in God. Because He did answer my prayers."
There was a deliberate scuff of a tennis shoe on the cave floor.
Alfred and Selina looked in that direction.
Jason Todd stepped into the light.
"Maybe it wasn't just your prayers gettin' answered, Selina," said Jason, his hands in his pockets. "Maybe He was listenin' when somebody else was...ah, hell." He looked down, embarrassedly.
Selina said, "Maybe those prayers were about a mother, Jase?"
Jason ran to her as fast as he possibly could, saw that her arms were opened, and crushed her to him in a powerful embrace. Both of them were happy, for a long moment. Both of them, probably, were crying.
Alfred judged that a good thing, as it gave him time to shuffle off to a point behind the Batcave computer, more than a few yards distant. Once out of sight, he knelt on the cold limestone floor, and began his prayer, which was no more than a three-word mantra. But he hoped it would be enough.
"Save them both," he murmured. "Save them both."
"I have broken with my father," said Talia, "though he does not know it yet."
"Hooking up with Kobra's not much of an improvement," said Batman. He tried his strength against the bonds that held him in place, more to have something to do than in expectation of escape. "How did that come about?"
The beautiful daughter of Ra's Al Ghul tried to lean closer to the caped man. One of the guards held his weapon before her, pushing her back a bit. "Watch it," snapped Batman.
"I am under Naja-Naja's protection," she told the guard.
"So is this man," the Cultist replied. "And we are the protection. Keep your distance from him."
"If you answer my question, I will answer yours, Batman," said Talia. "Agreed?"
Grimly, but not without softness, the Batman smiled. "Always. What is your question?"
Talia, who wore a surprisingly demure lavender dress, the skirt ending at her knees, said, "I will answer your question first. My father and I share love, yet...I cannot abet him more. I came to fear his control of my life. I have broken with him before. Now, I hope, it is permanent."
"So you chose one of his chief competitors," observed Batman. "Because Kobra could protect you?"
Talia nodded. "No other man that I know could guard me from my father's retribution, save perhaps yourself. And you..." Talia sighed, then looked at him in sorrow. "You would not have me."
"Talia, I am sorry," said Batman. "Believe me when I say that, for it is true."
"I believe you. The Batman tells no lies."
"Your five minutes are almost up," said one of the guards.
She glared at the Cultist. Then she said to the Batman, "Do you love her as you did me?"
He regarded her with as much tenderness as he gave to any human being. In an instant, the parade of women to whom he had given a sliver of the possession he called Love came to him, and were as quickly gone. Her face was among them.
"No," he said. "And in a way, yes. She was a dark woman, as you are a dark woman. That attracted me to both of you. But she came into the light. That made my love for her complete. I am hers now, Talia, as she is mine. But I hope you will not forget what we had together, Talia. I will never forget."
Talia, in her own right a most lovely, strong, and dangerous woman, was not looking at him as she said, "As you say, Batman. As you say."
"The five minutes are up," said a guard.
She said nothing as the two Cultists advanced with the barrels of their weapons crossed to form a barrier between her and the Batman. But she moved well ahead of them, until the doorway was reached and shut behind her.
The Batman followed her with his eyes.
The guard nearest the door was in the process of activating the lock and wondering why in the devil it was taking him so long, after all his training. He turned, started to shout a warning to his comrades, and saw they had already dropped to the floor.
It seemed that he could do nothing better than follow their example, and he did.
Talia pushed the door inward. "You may stop holding your breath now, beloved. The gas is effective, but disperses quickly in the air."
Nonetheless, he did not inhale until she had unlocked the bond about his right wrist.
Katana was chained in a cell. That did not keep her from sitting, lotus-fashion, upon its concrete floor.
Nor did it keep her from talking to her sword.
It was kept in a display case near Kobra's meeting room and more than a few of the Cobra Cultists had admired it and commented on its craftsmanship. But none of them knew it was inhabited by a spirit.
The spirit was that of the man who had killed Katana's husband.
<Talk to me, Takeo Yamashiro,> she said, in her mind.
<Aie! To you I should speak, O witch who killed me?>, it replied.
<To me you must speak, O rat's-dropping who murdered my husband, who was your brother, and caused my children's death. And you must do what I say, by the sorceror's spell,> she asserted.
<I love you not, nor did I enjoy being transformed into wood recently,> sighed the sword. <Yet, you speak truly. I must obey you. Tell me what I must do.>
<Our minds together have some little power,> Katana said. <Can you perceive any of these Cultist swine nearby you?>
<The mind of one is very near. I think he is admiring me. His name is-->
<I care not for his name, Takeo Yamashiro. Reach out to him, with my hand guiding you--so. Is he ours, now?>
<I believe he is.>
<He must smash the case and grasp you.>
<A moment...there. He has done so. I believe his hand is cut. Something drips upon me.>
<As long as it does not stay his hand. Are there others nearby?>
<Yes. They see us. I see through his mind.>
<Dispose of them.>
<It is difficult, woman. He is not as swift as usual, under our control--ah! He has been shot by one.>
<Then he must destroy the shooter.>
<A moment--There. It is done. Now the other one. Life spurts from him.>
<Ignore that. The man must come to me, and use the sword to free me. He must kill the guards, take their keys, and free me.>
<This is not an easy thing to do, woman. Others may come upon the dead men.>
<So? Have him hurry. Where is he?>
<Not far. I am making him run. Also I am making him hold his wounded side to keep more blood from coming out. Aie! Another one. Luckily, we have slain him before he could strike.>
Katana said, <I hope we do not have to give you to another. The next might not be so easy to control. How far is he, now?>
<He is at the hallway of the cells, now. We are closest to him. But there are two guards running towards him. They fire. His chest appears to burst.>
<Have him slay them.>
<This is...not an easy...thing to do. His muscles are...failing...>
<One dies. The other...slashes with a kris...now his head separates from his neck. I am well made, I think.>
<Your current body is well-made, Takeo. Your soul is still that of a snake. Have the man pull the keys from the pocket of one of the guards.>
<Most...difficult. The body senses it is dying. It spills its heartsblood upon the two guardsmen. Its hands...can barely feel the keys.>
<I have heard the sounds of battle, Takeo. Use the man's hands to turn the key in the lock.>
<Lock is boobytrapped. A poisoned projectile has been shot into his chest, or what remains of it.>
<Are you turning the key?>
<I...believe so. There is so little of his mind to reach...>
She heard the scrabbling of the key in the lock. But she kept her will focused on the sword, its inhabitant, and its slave.
The door swung open, a bit.
<Throw the keys to me.>
She saw a hand, red-gloved and dripping, twitch into view beside the edge of the door. It held a ring of keys on one finger.
Just before the hand dropped, it flicked the keys a little further in her direction.
Quickly, Katana rose from her lotus crouch, found that the chains, which would not reach as far as the door, would reach just far enough for her to grasp the keys, and selected one with an expert eye. A second later, she was free.
She sprang to the door, threw it open, saw what was left of her pawn and the two guards he had killed. The floor about them, and many parts of the walls, were spattered or coated with redness.
Deftly, Katana stepped on the sections of flooring that had the least blood upon them. It would not do to leave a footprint trail, if one could avoid it. She picked her sword by its hilt from the cold hand of the man who had wielded it, and wiped its blade clean on a section of his left pants leg.
<I was wondering if his soul would replace mine,> said the sword to Katana.
<You hope for too much,> she replied.
Katana rushed to another cell door. More guards would be on their way. The others, if they were held in this section, had to be quickly freed.
The door at the end of the hallway swung open and the Batman and a woman emerged. They both gaped at the sight of her and the three corpses at her feet.
She bowed to the Batman. "This was necessary. Shall we free the others, my lord?"
Wordlessly, Batman nodded.
Then they got to work.
Plastic Man was damned if he was going to funk out on his first mission as an Outsider, even if the freezing coils in his cell made him stiff as a board.
That was on the surface. Coldsnap had taken advantage of his weaknesses to extremes of heat or cold. His flexibility was rendered inert by freezing, or made to flow like water by high temperatures.
But below the surface, Plas was manipulating his body. Warming it by thrumming his internal organs, as much as he could, as much as he dared. It was not unlike rubbing one's hands together to keep them warm on a winter's day. His guts, and the parts of his body below the surface of his skin, were building heat, becoming more and more flexible. He thought of himself now as a human baked Alaska.
The problem, and Plas was quite conscious of it, was what would happen to his skin once he dared attempt to stretch it. It was still stiff, still frosty. Most likely, it would tear. If it tore badly...well, one could imagine what might happen.
But the Batman was his friend. The man in the cape (and Metamorpho, as well) had aided Plas during that terrible, godawful love affair he had carried on with Ruby Ryder, the beautiful tycoon whose only love was for money, and who frequently stooped to criminal means to get more of it. When all had given up on Plas, the Batman had not. A recommendation from him had helped Plastic Man regain his job with the FBI as a liason agent. Even Woozy Winks, his sidekick, had reunited with him for a string of cases.
Now, the Batman needed him. And the Catwoman's life depended on their success.
He would show them the value of their friendship.
Tentatively, he rolled the skin of his left fist.
It cracked. It bled.
He stretched it further.
It bled more, the droplets freezing as they hit the floor.
It hurt like fire and he did not dare think of it no he didn't dare touch it with his mind he was Plastic Man and he could stretch so he would damned well S-T-R-E-T-C-H...
His numbed and cracked fingers touched one of the freezing coils.
With a motion, he tore it free of its mooring. It broke, spewing freon gas. He did not breathe for as long as it spewed.
One of the Cobra Cultists who had heard the melee outside Katana's cell, which was on a side of the block other than Plastic Man's, had been coming on the run when he heard the spewing of the refrigeration tube from the cell he passed. He stopped, turned around, threw open the slit that permitted one to gaze inside, through bars.
A bloody but very firm hand shot out on something that looked like a snake in a red sleeve and bashed him in the face. All it took was one punch.
The hand groped about on the fallen body for keys, found them, and went about fitting them in the lock.
Plastic Man was still too stiff to flow through the door slit like baking dough. But that, he knew, would change.
The Creeper's hand with the control device on it was free enough to allow him to change into Jack Ryder, even though he was chained. So he did. But nobody was suckered by his claim that the Creeper had taken off and left Ryder in his place. After awhile, he changed back to his yellow-skinned and green-haired persona, and sulked.
A Cultist was looking in at him through the door slit, and grinning. The Creeper sat in his chains and glowered. "Mortal wretch," he began, "provoke not the wrath of the Creeper, for his powers are beyond human ken--"
The guy at the door suddenly fell forward, with his face against the bars, then slid downward. Another masked Cultist was visible, through the slit.
"Oh, shaddap," said that Cultist, in a familiar voice.
There was the noise of keys in the lock. "These things are boobytrapped, unless you know the right way to spring ‘em," the Cultist continued. The door swung inward on heavy hinges that could withstand a bomb blast. The masked and robed man stepped into the room and tried other keys until he found the ones that unlocked the Creeper's hand- and leg-cuffs.
The Creeper rubbed his wrists. "At first I thought you were on our side. Then you're on Kobra's side. Now you get me loose. What's the deal?"
"A new deal," said the Cultist, and pulled his hood up to expose his face. "Looker set up a thing in my mind that helped me get back on track. I think I've shaken off the effects of that damn pit. I think the others are busting out. You ready?"
"Sure, Faraday," said the Creeper. "But put that hood back on. You're probably better off if the Culties don't know it's you."
The American agent remasked himself. "You've gotta help get the others loose, Creepo. Batman'll brief you. If he doesn't, I'll say it. The world's at stake."
The Creeper grinned from ear to ear.
"For my first outing with this glee club, I wouldn't take anything less."
Metamorpho's consciousness was negated by the electrical devices which kept him in a coma. Element Girl was in pieces, unable to reassemble herself without an electrical charge to bridge the gap between her shattered body parts.
Fortunately for them, Black Lightning had been freed by Batman, Katana, and Talia. The three of them had found the escaped Creeper and had started making the rounds of the cells, taking out whatever Cultists were unlucky enough to appear on the scene. Jeff Pierce looked tired, as well he might. His electrical energies had been sapped to keep Rex Mason comatose.
However, once out of the power-sapping shackles, Jeff was no longer there to empower the devices. So, within a few moments, Metamorpho awoke.
Batman, Talia, and Katana were before him.
"Holy blue blazes," Rex managed to say.
The caped hero lay his gloved hand on Metamorpho's purple shoulder. "Think you're up to helping us fight, and free the rest, Rex?"
Mason sat up, looked behind him at the plastic and metal skullcap which had been clamped about his head until seconds ago. "Uh, sure, Bats. Just give me a scorecard. Where's Urania?"
The heroes heard a familiar crackle of power and shattering glass.
"I sent Jeff to get her out of that contraption they placed her in," said Batman. "Sounds like he succeeded."
There was another crackle. "Jeff's charging her up," said Metamorpho, with a grin. "She'll be all back together in a minute."
"Come on," said Batman, pulling the Element Man to his feet. "Kobra's got to be monitoring this situation by now. We'll be up to our ankles in super-villains within minutes."
Metamorpho formed his hand into a giant spiked maul. "Bring ‘em on," he said. "But what about her?"
He was looking at Talia.
"She's with me," said Batman, simply.
Metamorpho shrugged. "Whatever you say," he answered, and got up from the slab on which he had been lying. He joined the others as they went to the next cell.
But he noticed that Katana was taking care to keep herself between Talia and the Batman.
He didn't blame her one bit.
Kobra turned from the videoscreen. Well, such a thing was expected. If one yielded to the temptation to keep Batman and his band alive once captured, one always ran the risk that the damnable ones would work themselves free, no matter what bonds were placed on them.
He could, of course, release death-gas through that section of the compound. That would kill his men as well, but they accepted the risk. However, Metamorpho and his bitch-counterpart would survive it, and they were formidable foes indeed. Also, Batman had escaped traps even deadlier than that in his career.
There was nothing else to be done about it.
New-Wave and Shimmer were in the room with him. "Destroy them," he said. "A bonus will be paid, of course, to the survivors."
"I'm not hot on the idea," said Shimmer. "First, they aren't our regular enemies. We're just doing a mercenary deal here. Second, I know how these things go. First we win, then they escape, then we lose. I want to pull out."
"Nobody's pulling out yet," snapped New-Wave. "I want those fools dead worse than Kobra does."
He eyed New-Wave unkindly and, despite her reserve of powers, she found herself drawing back.
"My men will aid you," he said. "They must not reach the outer world to reveal my plans. Whatever else occurs, leave not a man of them alive."
"Including the Batman?", asked Shimmer.
Kobra chanced a look at the viewscreen. The Batman was quite visible on it. The one foe who could, physically and mentally, give him decent competiton, save for Ra's Al Ghul. Also, Talia was at his side, and there would be hell to pay once she was killed.
But if there was an alternative, even he could not see it. He had to extricate himself, in case the Outsiders did somehow triumph. He had to be free, to actuate the plan.
"Even the Batman," he said, finally. "Go."