Dance With the Demons
The heroes in the Whirly-Bats were spiraling closer to the glowing man whose skeleton was visible through his skin, like an X-ray photograph in 3D. He was still sitting atop the great support tower of the Gotham Narrows Bridge, glaring out at them, but doing nothing more.
Old Robin guessed that Dr. Phosphorus was waiting for them to make the first move. But he owed the scumbag one for burning the Hawkman of his world, during the Crisis.
He held a wrist radio close to his mouth. "Be careful, people," he said. "Engage."
With that, he bent his other wrist and held it in Phosphorus's general direction. Dick Grayson had to admit that his late mentor had been good at cooking up techno-gimcracks in his time, but the Batman of Earth-One, who had created this contraption, out-James Bonded him a bit.
The launcher on Old Robin's wrist, as did the ones on Batgirl's, Huntress's, Young Robin's, and Flamebird's wrists, shot forth a missle that expanded quickly in the open air into a Batarang. A Batarang that trailed a wire, still connected to the wrist-launcher on each of the heroes' arms.
Realizing what was going on, Dr. Phosphorus stood, raising his arms in defense. But the Batarangs, attracted by a heat-seeking mechanism in their outer edges, propelled by small airjets in their tips, soared towards him and around him. Their trailing wires began to wrap him up in constraining bonds.
"Damn you!" he howled.
"Turkey is trussed," Young Robin exulted into the wrist-radio. "Repeat, guys, turkey is definitely trussed and ready for table."
"Not yet, little brother," said Old Robin. "Back off a bit, people. Get those cables taut. Then wait for my signal."
The five Bat-Squad members touched a switch on the Whirly-Bats' control panel. The rotors reversed course, dipping but a second, then pulling backward. Phosphorus, entangled in their wiry grip, lifted off of the concrete platform for a few inches.
Flamebird, who had only recently rebooted her crime-fighting career, looked at the glowering skull of their enemy and couldn't repress a shudder. Best to get this bozo onto the bridge and into the insulated paddy wagon O'Hara had waiting for him.
Except that she felt a bit of slack in the cable.
Huntress, feeling the same, peered as closely as possible at their foe's body. Then she radioed the others: "Phosphorus looks like he's melting the wires. Repeat, he is melting the wires."
Young Robin fired a CO2 missle at him. It struck Phosphorus's body, split open, coated him with foam from the waist up. But only for a second. After that, it began to sputter and pop and evaporate away.
The man was increasing his heat and radiation power enough to burn through the blasted wires.
Worse, now that his arms were freed, he was cooling down his hands enough to reach out, grab a wire, and haul back. Old Robin pushed a control, putting himself in reverse. But he couldn't stop himself from being swung into the Huntress. Their eyes met, in an instant of fear.
But they were already pushing the stop button on their rotors, so that, when they collided, the Whirly-Bats didn't cut themselves--and their riders--to pieces.
Nonetheless, one of the Huntress's blades shattered, and Robin grabbed for her with one hand, catching her. Both of them were falling, and there was a damned long way to fall before they hit something.
He reactivated his Whirly-Bat. The rotors sprang to life, bearing their weight with difficulty. The mechanisms had been designed to carry one person, but could manage two. Not easily, though.
Young Robin's, Batgirl's, and Flamebird's lines were grabbed and tangled by the deadly villain, and the three of them were in danger of smashing into each other. Robin and Flamebird managed to unstrap their wrist-lines, but the two crashed into each other. Both leaped away from their tangled machines, avoiding injury, and towards Batgirl.
Dr. Phosphorus, of all the foes she had faced, terrified Batgirl the most. The touch of his hands was burning, searing poison. The look of his face was like the visage of Death itself. But she set that aside as much as she could and thrust herself forward. Robin grabbed her leg, Flamebird snagged her waist.
The Whirly-Bat sagged under the weight of three, and Phosphorus was hauling her in like a trout on a line.
There was nothing else to do but set the controls at max power, thrust them forward, and wrap her cape about her front, hopefully protecting herself, Robin, and Flamebird. The three of them went forth and downward, and she felt the burn through her treated cloak as her legs hit Dr. Phosphorus.
Robin and Flamebird sprawled on the concrete platform that was the top of the support pillar. Batgirl felt the release of their weight, tried to lift off again, and felt her arm yanked down forcefully. She managed to unlock the launcher from her wrist, but it was too late. She was going down. Maybe she could keep the rotors in action. Maybe she could, though it went against everything in her grain, chop the guy up with them...
Phosphorus was standing over Robin, and looking at her.
"Turn it off, woman," he shouted. "Turn it off, or I'll fry his face."
"Like hell," said Jason Todd. "Throw everything you've got at him, Batgirl."
Flamebird got up from her crouch, pulled a bolo from her sidebag, and saw the menacing move Phosphorus made towards the boy. He could lay his hand against the youngster's face in a second. A second after that, Robin would have no face.
Silently, Batgirl turned off her Whirly-Bat.
Old Robin was trying to maneuver his own Whirly-Bat closer, encumbered by the Huntress's weight. But Phosphorus saw that, too. "Keep back, or I'll do him," warned Phosphorus.
"What'll it get you?" retorted Old Robin. "I don't see wings on your back, pal. There's no way off of this thing except straight down. We're the only ones who can take you."
Phosphorus appeared to sneer, though it was hard to tell, with his face. "I could say that I'm waiting for a friend."
"There are police choppers all around," pointed out the Huntress. "You won't get anywhere."
"I will if I've got a hostage," said Phosphorus. "That's what the deal was. And Batbrat here should qualify nicely."
Robin looked up, uncertainly. Flameface was so close he could feel the heat from him. If there was anything in the utility belt that could take him out, Tim didn't know about it.
Flamebird said, "Nobody's going anywhere. If you make a move on him, Phosphorus, I'll take us both over the edge. When we hit the water, both of us will turn into seagull food."
"If you dare," said Phosphorus. "Cross me, and the boy will not survive. I promise you that, woman."
Batgirl stepped forward, taking a deep breath. Phosphorus's hand twitched. She stopped. She unbuckled her utility belt and threw it on the concrete.
"Take me, Phosphorus," she said. "I'll be your hostage."
"No," said the gleaming skeleton. "I know how these things work. An adult, they might sacrifice. A boy, now, that's another thing. The kid comes with me."
"I can't," Robin said. "I've got a big school day coming up tomorrow."
"Shut up, kid," said Flamebird, dully.
Old Robin debated his chances. The blasted Whirly-Bat could barely keep him and Huntress in the air. The platform was getting crowded as it was. Obviously, some other interested party was close enough at hand in a chopper, but where, he had no idea. He looked up, all around, guessing that one of the police copters was a fake. There would be no way of telling before it came to pick up Phosphorus, by his guess.
Then he saw something else. As soon as he did, he turned his gaze back towards Phosphorus.
To the Huntress, he murmured, "Don't look up. Keep looking at Glow Guy."
"What's going on?" asked Helena.
"Reinforcements," Old Robin answered.
Batgirl and Flamebird kept their distance. Dr. Phosphorus raised his hand. In response, one of the police choppers began moving towards them, slowly. The others did not fire on it. Both women glanced at each other. The cops could have brought it down, sure. But if they did, Phosphorus might kill Robin.
"What was this deal all about?" asked Batgirl. "Why did somebody go to all this trouble to put you up here and then take you off?"
Phosphorus looked at her. "To get you all here, instead of someplace else," he said. "I don't know much about that. Also, to get a hostage. When we meet next, there won't be a half-dozen police choppers in the sky."
That was when two great, furred feet slammed into Phosphorus's back from above him, and a batwinged shadow dropped over his sprawling body.
Phosphorus cursed as his face hit the hard concrete. He heard Batgirl's high heels as she ran over to grab Robin. He tried to make a grab for her ankle, but a furred hand grabbed his own. It burned at his touch, he could tell, but whoever was holding him was capable of taking it.
At first, he thought the bat-shadow had signified Batman, returning to his own beat. That would have been exquisite. He would have finished off Bats for free, before taking any hostages, and devil take the hindmost.
But the guy on his back was squeezing his wrist hard enough to darn near break the bones, and he yelped in pain. He turned his head to see who it was.
No--what it was.
The thing that was looking down at him had the head, the great ears, the eyes, the snout, the fanged mouth of nothing less than a human bat.
His red eyes showed great anger, and not a little pain.
Phosphorus turned on more heat, and he could see the thing wince. Whoever, whatever he was, Phosphorus just wanted away from him. Far away. As fast as possible.
But the thing flapped those great wings under his arms, even while holding him. In a voice that sounded like something from a horror movie, it spoke to him.
"I owe Batman a lot of favors," it said. "Here's for one of them."
It picked Phosphorus up, held him aloft for all of a second, long enough for the villain to start a scream, and then slammed him down with terrible force against the concrete. Then its hairy foot stamped against Phosphorus's skull, and consciousness for the villain was a thing of the past.
With that, Man-Bat sat down, careful to hold his burned hands and foot away from contacting anything.
"Man-Bat," said Robin, in Batgirl's grasp. "Are you--"
"I'll live, son," said the horrific hero. "But I think I'll need some of whatever you treated Batman with, when he fought this jerk. Just be glad it was me, not you."
Batgirl said, cautiously, "We've been friends before, Man-Bat. Are you still a friend?"
"You know this guy?" said Flamebird.
"Yeah," answered Batgirl. "What about it, Man-Bat?"
Grimacing a little, Man-Bat said, "I'm on your side, Batgirl. Sometimes--I know--the bat-gland serum went sour. Made me crazy. This time, I've fixed things up. I don't turn--into Man-Bat--very often, but--when I do--I'm safe. Ow!"
Batgirl picked up her utility belt, broke open a section, and took some pills from it. She handed them to Man-Bat. "Here, take these. What you did was very brave, Man-Bat."
"What are these?" he said, holding the pellets in one hairy paw.
"They're for pain, and they'll knock you out," Batgirl said. "If you're lucky. I keep ‘em for accident victims. You qualify."
"You might need me," he said.
"We need you out of pain," Batgirl said, kneeling beside the bat-faced being and putting her arm about his shoulder. "Trust me, okay?"
Man-Bat gulped the pills. He looked at Robin. "Sorry I tried to put the snatch on you that time, son," he said.
Robin smiled. "Hey. After today, you're forgiven."
The thrup thrup thrup of the Whirly-Bat bearing Old Robin and Huntress came closer. Man-Bat caught sight of them. "You've got to, fill me in, on your new members," he said.
Flamebird was approaching them cautiously. "Maybe we ought to wait till you wake up. Are you sure this guy's on our side, Batgirl?"
By the time the two in the Whirly-Bat landed, Man-Bat was asleep. Young Robin looked up and saw two cop-choppers moving closer. Neither of them was the phony one, which had stopped its advance when Man-Bat was detected. It was trying to get away now, but a couple of other police copters were moving in on it.
All of them heard an amplified voice. "This is the Gotham Police Department. We will escort you to a landing field. Make no threatening moves, or we will be forced to--"
That was all before the enemy chopper went up in a short but effective burst of flame. The explosion wasn't enough to reach the police craft, but it did render the phony helicopter a ball of flame. It dropped from the skies, causing a great number of screams from those watching from the bridge or just off it, but it barely came near enough to the structure to splash it when it went down. It sank to the bottom, still ablaze with thermitic heat, and would stay such for several hours. There would be few clues left to be retrieved from it when it could finally be recovered.
That, presumably, was how Kobra had wanted it.
Batgirl carefully began to wrap Phosphorus up in her cape. "I think we can lift him in this," she said, glancing up at the two choppers approaching with lowered ladders.
Selina Kyle was glad that hospital elevators were roomier in Gotham. Even so, it was a bit cramped when you stuffed one with herself on a guerney, two orderlies, and a couple of police guards to boot.
There was something she didn't like about it, though. An enclosed place, cut off from everyone for only a few seconds. Only a few people in there. It'd be just the place to pull something, if somebody wanted to do it. And God knew that she knew enough people who could do it.
Her eyes searched the faces of the four men in the elevator car with her. The two guards looked legit. But the orderlies...something about them. The body language of one of the guys. Too wary, too tense.
She was weak as hell, but she was going to try to jump off the guerney and roll onto the floor.
At that point, the orderly that looked the most disorderly to her had struck.
He reached a hand casually into his collar, pulled out a knife, and threw it at one of the guards. It lodged in his throat. The man's hands wrapped about it as he gasped and bled.
Simultaneously, he smashed a blow into the throat of the orderly across the guerney from him, as Selina gasped in shock. She began to roll over, but the effort...it was more than she bargained on. Still, she had to do it...if it would do any good whatever...
The other guard, the last man standing, had his piece out and aimed, but the attacker came in under his arm and slammed upward with his shoulder, just as he let fire. It went into the wall of the car, thankfully contacting nothing important. A blow to the stomach doubled him up. A chop across the neck rendered him unconscious.
The man hit the emergency stop button and halted them between floors. Then he turned towards Selina with deadly intent. "Do you know who I am, Mrs. Wayne?"
"I--" She gasped. "Oh, god. Your voice, it sounds familiar. Which one are you? Not one I'd know right offhand." She made ready to go into a defensive posture, which she knew wouldn't halt him for more than a second.
He drew a second blade from the sheath around his neck, under his shirt. "We've met before. Once, they called me the Thief of Night. Now, they call me..."
The doors on the roof of the car opened and a slim, female figure in a nurse's uniform fell upon him, knocking him across Selina's body. His hand still gripped the knife, but it was held beyond her. She struggled for breath.
The Night-Slayer roared with rage and struggled to arise, which struggle he was bound to win. But the fish-pale woman on his back jabbed a hypodermic into the side of his neck and slid the plunger home. He was able to straighten up, with the chalk-skinned lady still wound around him. He said, "Noc," and then fell backward.
Selina raised up on one elbow, astonished. "Nocturna," she breathed. "Nocturna."
The mistress of night, who had once been almost everything Catwoman was to Batman, favored her with a glance. "Good afternoon, Selina," she said. She went to the controls and started the elevator moving up again. "They may be able to save the guard if they get him to the operating room. That's on the third floor. That's where we're going."
"Why did you," said Selina, one hand at the collar of her nightgown. "How did you?"
Nocturna regarded her, briefly. "I had heard Anton was seen in Gotham again. With the Batman out of town, and in your present condition, it was a safe bet as to what target he would choose. When you were put in the elevator, I made sure that I was on top of it."
For answer, Nocturna unbuttoned part of her nurse's uniform and bared her chest to Selina. The latter took note of the knife scars, indicating deep punctures, which had now healed over.
"When the night was wounded, in our last encounter, Anton wounded the night. You saw that. I drifted away in my balloon, on the force of the red skies' winds. I managed to find treatment. I barely survived. But I knew the day would come when the night would strike back at its slayer. Perhaps Anton has not suffered his final blows yet."
Selina said, "I'm grateful."
"You should be." Nocturna paused. "Jason."
"Jason needs a mother," said Nocturna. "Someday...perhaps the path between us will be cleared. Until then, you must be his mother. Be a good mother to him, Selina. That is what I ask."
"I will," she replied. "Believe it."
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. The space beyond was filled with cops, holding drawn guns, with Alfred and an astonished Dr. Dundee, and with even a few hospital staff. Everybody had been wondering what was going on with the elevator, and everyone had managed to make it to the right floor.
Nocturna took command. "This guard has been hurt," she said. "Get him to the operating room. Stat. This man over here is responsible. I gave him a sedative. Get him under wraps. Mrs. Wayne is fine, but the other two guys could take some attention."
"Good Lord," said Dundee, gaping at the scene. "Who are you, nurse? I'm not sure I've seen you before."
Alfred's and Nocturna's eyes met in recognition.
"I will vouch for the young lady," said the butler.
"So will I," said Selina. "And how. Move it, that guy on the floor won't last much longer."
"If you'll help with Mrs. Wayne," said Nocturna, "I think we could put this guerney to better use."
"If you'll come with me," said Catwoman, "I think we can."
Dundee, figuring something known only to men in masks and capes was happening, helped move Selina off the guerney and onto the cold floor for a bit, while several others were loading up the stricken guard onto the cart. He rushed alongside the cart on the way to the operating room. The wound looked bad, but with enough blood and a little help from God, the doctor figured he could pull him through.
If only he could say the same for Mrs. Wayne.
Within Kobra's mountain, the battle between Outsiders, Fearsome Five, Masters of Disaster, and Cobra Cultists still raged. Batman hated it.
Too much blood had been spilled. Some by the hands of his own men. Killing disgusted him. But, as embattled as they were, with the stakes what they were, he could hardly bring himself to tell Katana to lower her weapon.
His hands were tiring, though it was barely perceptible. There were so many left to fight, even the ones without powers. Too many. Before long, the fight would have to be carried by the powered ones on his side. How long before their own hands tired?
But he would not settle for defeat. For Selina, for the world at large, he had to prevail. Even though, right now, he had no clear idea of how to do so except to keep battling on.
The answer came from one of his own men. It was an answer he would not have chosen.
Geo-Force, showing the strain of the battle, threw off two of his foemen and shouted to his allies, "Get back! Back behind me!"
"Geo, what are you going to--" started Halo, blasting away at a scampering Syonide.
"Get back!" repeated Geo-Force, and held his hands before him.
The Cultists tried opening up on him with their Uzi-like weapons, but Metamorpho and Element Girl hurled themselves into the space between, changed into metal shielding, and repelled the bullets.
Geo-Force exerted his powers, and the Earth answered.
The flooring beneath them shuddered, quaked, cracked. The strain of its parting was audible. Faces on both sides paled.
The ground and floor above it began to tear apart, forming a small ravine between the warring forces. The ceiling and walls of the chamber felt its effect. The Batman looked up, wary of the mountain above collapsing on them.
"Rex, Rainie, prop it up!" he ordered. The metamorphic pair switched from shielding to splay their metallic forms out in the shape of an interlocking skeleton pressed between roof and flooring, holding the Outsiders and a few of their foes pent in a protective cage.
Geo-Force was not yet done.
The floor beneath them continued to crack, and the crack reached deep into the Earth itself. From it, Brion Markov summoned the molten rock that undergirds its cooled and hardened crust.
That was when Kobra's legions learned that some things are more to be feared than their master's retribution.
The superheated rock, controlled by Geo-Force, burst up and splattered upon them, leaving some of them time enough to scream, but not many.
The super-villains, sharpened enough to changing conditions by their battles against heroes, were first to run, shielded somewhat by Coldsnap's power. They managed to smash their way through the fleeing Cobraites, several steps ahead of the volcanic fury.
Somehow, Geo-Force was keeping the carnage away from his side, though the Outsiders felt a bit of its heat. Batman looked on, his face as grim and unmoving as basalt.
Finally, he said, "Stop it, Brion."
Brion made no move to stop.
"I said--" Batman began.
"I know what you said, friend Batman," said Geo-Force. "I know what you said."
After a few minutes, he let the lava flow subside. Steam rose from the crack in the floor. Geo-Force brought his hands together, and the great gap came together, at least up to forty feet below them.
The Outsiders looked beyond it. A mass of newly-cooled grey stone overlay the floor of the chamber beyond. There was no evidence of the men whose bodies had been consumed by it. A shapeless gravestone, bearing no names.
"Good god," said King Faraday, breaking the silence.
The Creeper and Plastic Man looked at each other, and both knew that this was not what they had signed up for.
Katana turned to Batman, and said, simply, "It is a war."
Slowly, the masked manhunter nodded his head. "One I never wish to make again."
Talia looked at him with sympathy. He did not seem to notice.
"Rex, Rainie, I have another job for you, if you're up to it," announced Batman. "Halo, Looker, we'll need you, too."
Metamorpho and Element Girl, judging the ceiling was safe from collapse, reformed into their humanoid selves. They joined the two women at Batman's side.
"We're going to bust out of here," said Batman, "and pray it isn't too late."