Dance With the Demons
Julia Remarque and Alfred and Daphne Pennyworth were stunned by what Selina Wayne had just told them. The old butler had to sit down. However old he was, he looked to have aged twice that, in his eyes.
"Oh, dear me," he said. "Oh, dear God. Oh, my dear mistress Selina."
Selina, in her hospital bed, reached out and took Alfred's hand with both of hers to reassure him. "Alfred. It's okay. There was no way you could have known."
"He's right, uncle Alfred," said Daphne, glad to have finally had the chance to talk to Bruce's wife. It was the first chance she and Julia had to do that since before the wedding. "You can't blame yourself for somebody wanting to hurt Selina."
"I can blame myself, child, for not being quick-witted enough to know in what location the mistress was most vulnerable," said Alfred, sorrowfully. "If not for an equally unknown agent, the Nocturna woman, the master would be coming home to...to...well, never mind that. I am unconscionably derelict in my duties. I am guilty of the most heinous oversight. Indeed--" He sighed greatly. "I am unworthy of being a Pennyworth."
"Oh, stop it," insisted Selina.
"Oh, granddad, shut up!" barked Julia. "Do you expect to be the Batman or something? Did you want to crawl on top of the elevator car with a machine gun and lie in wait? You're a butler, for heaven's sake! You're my grandfather! You're not the--"
"Julia, please," said Catwoman. Then, to Alfred, she said, "Listen to me. You have performed admirably, Alfred. I can't go on about everything right here--" She squeezed his hand, to signify remembrance of his stand against Kobra's men in the Batcave. "--But I don't think I've seen a man so gentlemanly, and so brave, as you, except for my husband. And that's going a long, long way."
"Mistress Selina, I should have known," Alfred insisted.
"I was in the Resistance," he said. "In World War II. I fought the Nazis undercover, in France. That is where I met Julia's grandmother. With her--" He hung his head. "With her, I failed as well."
Julia grasped her grandfather by the vest and made him face her. "Grandpere, if you insist on blaming yourself for everything to go wrong with all our lives, then blame yourself for Selina's poisoning, and Bruce's and Jason's lost parents, and the time I fell down and fractured my leg skating, and the lousy grades I got in college algebra. Why not condemn yourself for all of those things, too?"
"I couldn't have prevented those things," said Alfred. "This, I could have foreseen. I was--"
"Alfred, look at me," said Selina.
She looked to him like a teacher who has just had enough of the most boisterous prankster in her class.
"Would you like me to give you a taste of the old cat o' nine tails? I've still got one, you know."
"Mistress Selina, I--"
"Or maybe I should have you clean out Hecate's cage, while he's still in it. How's about that, Alfred?"
"Mistress Selina, don't be absurd."
"What? Me absurd? Well, that's fine, Alfred. If I'm being absurd, maybe I fit in just peachy-keen around here. Because you thinking that you can protect me from everything under the shining sun is the most absurd thing I've ever heard of!"
For a second, Alfred stared. Then he smiled, a bit wanly.
"Yes, well," he said, "one does try."
"One certainly does, Alfred," said Selina with a smile. "And nobody around here tries harder than you. Now you go warm up the van and leave me to the girls here, and the guardboys outside."
"With all due haste, Mistress," Alfred said, rising. "And from henceforth, know that your fate and person rely in no more reliable hands than those of Alfred Pennyworth."
Daphne shook her blonde head. "Truthfully, uncle, sometimes from the way you speak I think you've forgotten more Shakespeare than I ever learned. But I love it."
Alfred stepped outside, nodded briefly to the guards, and was stopped a few paces down the hall by Dr. Dundee. He was still in his white coat, and the message his eyes sent belied his smile. "Alfred," he said, "could I speak with you in private for a minute?"
"But of course, Doctor," replied Alfred, and walked with him a bit further down the hall. Once they were out of earshot of the room, Dundee placed a hand on Alfred's shoulder. "We always have to deal in cliches around here," he said. "The one I'll use this time is, ‘There's good news and bad news.' Unfortunately, it's the truth."
The butler steeled himself. "And, sir?"
"The bad news is that...well, let's start with the good news. We've bought her enough time so that when her husband comes back with the antidote, she'll be alive to take it."
Alfred looked haggard. "And...one would assume...the bad news is always what it has been, sir."
Dundee nodded, unsmilingly. "That it is. I'll speak to Mrs. Wayne, now. Could you help me get your relatives out of the room?"
The gentleman's gentleman stood up straight, put his grief in a steel box, and locked it. "With all due alacrity, sir. With all due alacrity."
The whole thing was souring. Faced with that, even in the face of a Kobra reprisal, the Masters of Disaster and the Fearsome Five had one well-used option: get the hell out of there.
Thus, they had gotten to Kobra's hangar, tried to persuade some of the Kobra men of their need for transportation, and, when that failed, had Mammoth heave one Cultist into the rafters while Shimmer turned the weapons of five others into helium gas.
New-Wave had coldly addressed the others. "We haven't killed anybody yet. If you want us to start, get in our way."
One of the younger Cultists had started forward, gun in hand. His squad leader stopped him with an arm across his chest. "No, my son," he said. "These mercenaries are not our true targets. Our real foes lie within. If we neglect them because of these, how much greater will Naja-Naja's wrath be upon our heads?"
"Glad you've decided to see the light of reason," said Psimon. "That way, I won't have to boil the blood out of any of you."
The Cobra Cultists stood by while New-Wave, Heatstroke, Shakedown, Syonide, and Coldsnap boarded one aircraft, and Psimon, Shimmer, Mammoth, Gizmo, and Jinx entered the other. New-Wave, the last to board her craft, turned to Jinx, who was on the steps of the Fearsome Five's plane.
"Maybe we can do this again sometime," she said.
"Perhaps," said the Indian villainess. "If it is against the Titans."
Then both got in, the hatches closed, the engines fired up, and both planes took off. The hidden hatch on the side of the mountain was already open to allow them to leave.
The Cultist who had wanted to attack them stood watching their departure. "Totally unreliable," he said, disgustedly.
"I agree," said his superior. "Impossible to buy good help these days. Come."
The Titans' aircraft had just breached the horizon in time to see the two planes taking off. It wasn't hard to identify them as Kobra craft.
"Well," said Nightwing. "Kory. Raven. Find out who's on board. Can you match their speed?"
"We can try, Dick," said Starfire.
"And we shall," said the cloaked girl who was seeming stranger every day.
Both of them hurried to the escape hatch in the back section, where Starfire threw a lever that opened a bomb-bay door in the floor. Air screamed by below. Without a word, both of them leapt into it, were flung headlong into the slipstream, and managed to take control of themselves with their flight powers seconds afterwards.
The Kobra planes were swift indeed, but hadn't quite built up to full speed yet. Raven was in her soulform, a black, glowing, birdlike shape. Starfire left a trail of reddish heat behind her as she strove to reach the lead plane.
She couldn't quite be certain, but she was close enough to look at the cockpit window and see what appeared to be a familiar face. Shimmer, with that wild hairdo of hers, piloting the plane. Starfire pulled up, soaring above the level of the craft, and turned on a throat-mike.
"I think it's the Fearsome Five on board, Nightwing," she said. "Want to engage?"
"Let me give ‘em a warning," Dick's radioed voice said through her earpiece. "If our friends are on board, I want to know."
Cyborg, Changeling, Kole, Kid Flash, and Speedy sat silent and tense as their leader switched to a common broadcast band for planes. "Attention, Fearsome Five. Attention, Fearsome Five. This is Nightwing of the New Titans. Repeat, this is your old friend Nightwing. Either land, or get ready to come down the hard way. Over."
"Man, I sure hope you been readin' enough Smilin' Jack," muttered Cyborg.
A voice, familiar to them all, came to them over the dashboard speaker. "All right, Nightwing, this is Shimmer. Let me give you a piece of advice. My crew is in one plane, the Masters of Disaster are in the other. We're not looking for a fight here, but we can damned well give you one if you want it. However. Batman and his boys aren't with us, they're back in that mountain, fighting about enough Cobra Cultists to make a cast call for The Ten Commandments. You can waste your time with us, or you can wave bye-bye and go help your big buddies. Assuming there's enough left of them to help. Which is it gonna be?"
Kole said, "A bluff. It could be a bluff, Dick."
"Don't think so," said Speedy. "If they're clearing out, it probably means that Bats and his boys have gotten loose and are kickin' serious backside."
A message came from Raven. "The Masters of Disaster appear to be on the second plane, Dick, but no one else. Should I engage?"
Nightwing paused a moment, then said, "No, come on back," on Raven's wavelength.
"Is that certain?"
"It's certain," he confirmed.
Shimmer's voice returned. "Well? What is it, Batboy?"
Nightwing switched back to her frequency. "All right, puffball-head.
For now, we'll let you go.
But if I find out you've been giving me disinformation, we'll crawl up your backs so fast you won't have time to feel it before we're there. Clear? Over."
"Acknowledged, Little Bat. See you next time. Out."
Nightwing said, "Come on back, Kory," and then gritted his teeth as he watched the two planes pass them and vanish over the horizon.
Changeling took the form of a goat. "Hope they haven't made us all one of what I am," he said.
"Just as long as you're not in the shape of a jackass," said Speedy, tiredly.
Dick Grayson ignored them both and slackened speed, making for the landing field near the mountain.
Within that mountain, Batman had just explained his escape plan to the Outsiders. "It's risky, but it's our best chance of getting out of here without further killing," he said. "On either side."
Katana had wiped the blood off her blade with some paper which she carried in her costume and said nothing. Black Lightning glanced in her direction.
Metamorpho said, "I'm ready to get out of here, too, Bats. Let's give it a try. Ready, Rainie?"
The green-haired Element Girl nodded. "As ready as I can be. Let's go for it, Rex."
"Halo, Geo, Looker," said Batman, "prepare yourselves."
"I'll secure the perimeter against cockroaches, sir," cracked the Creeper.
Plastic Man looked at him and made a face. The Creeper grinned and considered jumping on his shoulders, but this wasn't the time or place for that.
The Element People grasped each other, body to body, and transformed themselves. Looker, watching them, had to admit that it took her breath away to see such a magical feat. Both Rex and Rainie could transform themselves into any shape, any element contained by the human body.
Right now, their intertwined forms became carbon, then altered to a very hard form of it. The lights which still functioned gleamed off their diamond forms. Their bodies elongated, spiked, grew a spiraling thread.
The two of them had become a large diamond drill.
Talia barely concealed her awe of their transformation. "By the crescent," she breathed. "To know such wonders are to be found in this world. Like something out of the Arabian Nights."
Batman said, "We work with miracles daily. Looker, start now."
The redheaded beauty exerted her mental strength and formed an invisible support-web that kept the ceiling in place. She felt confident she could hold it. She just hoped they'd have enough time.
"Geo, do it," said Batman.
The king of Markovia pointed both hands above him, towards the ceiling. He seemed to be exercising great force, if his expression was any key. His hands, close together, began to part.
And with them parted the ceiling, with a great and powerful cracking.
"Halo," barked Batman.
"Aye aye, sir," she responded, and exerted one of her halo-powers on the drill that was Rex and Rainie. It rose towards the ceiling, its sharp bit pointed into the crack that Geo-Force had formed, and began to spin.
It drilled through the next level and kept going.
"Under it," said Batman. "All of us. Looker, second phase."
Batman, Black Lightning, Katana, the Creeper, King Faraday, Plastic Man, and Talia gathered under the hole that the drill had made, Looker's mental powers forming a force field over them, around them, under them. Talia reached out and touched the field, to assure herself it was there. Katana's eyes did not leave her.
"Lift us," said Batman.
Pushing her force field up from the floor, Looker began to make them all rise, in a mentally-powered elevator. She gathered speed as the Metapeoples' drill, sped by Halo, cut further and faster.
On the second level, some perplexed Cobra Cultists saw them and tried to shoot at them. The bullets didn't penetrate the force field.
"See y'all later," waved Black Lightning, as they continued through the ceiling.
Looker had to stop supporting the ceiling of the level they had come through. She let it go. The floor beneath the Cultists began to creak. They looked at each other, uneasily.
Then the floor buckled, and the host of them fell through with appropriate shrieks.
Commissioner Gordon made sure Dr. Phosphorus was in his specially-insulated cell before he went to Gotham General, which, not coincidentally, was where the Bat-Squad had taken Man-Bat. On the way there, he learned that Anton Knight was in custody for attempting a strike on Selina Wayne. He was about to tell them to get the guards responsible for it and chew their asses out until he learned that one of them had recently gotten out of surgery for a knife wound to the throat.
So the Commish had himself drven to General, flashed his authorization at the appropriate points, and found he had gotten there too late to see Selina Wayne, who was being driven back to Wayne Manor under heavy guard. However, Man-Bat was still there, as were Batgirl and Flamebird. The rest of the Squad had taken their leave.
He entered the room and saw the hairy, grotesque form of Man-Bat with bandages on his hands and foot, lying in bed, in a hospital johnny. The two women looked up at him. "Good evening, Commissioner," said Batgirl, saying "Hello, Daddy" with her eyes.
"Hi, Commish," said Man-Bat, with what Gordon hoped was a smile.
"Commissioner," said Flamebird, stepping forward to shake his hand. "It's been a long time."
Gingerly, Gordon shook it. "You've got the advantage on me, Miss. I don't recognize the costume, but..."
"I used to be Bat-Girl," explained Flamebird. "The old Bat-Girl."
"Oh," said Gordon. "Well. It's good to see you again, Miss, eh..."
"Flamebird," said Batgirl. "That's what she calls herself now, sir."
"Well, then. Miss Flamebird. Congratulations to you and the rest of the, eh, Bat-Squad?, on the operation today. Except for that helicopter, it was quite satisfactory."
"Wouldn't have been if not for Manny here," said Batgirl, nodding to the hairy hero.
"Yes, I know," said Gordon, stepping over and gingerly holding out his hand to Man-Bat, knowing the thing could pulp it if he squeezed too hard. "My congratulations, sir."
Man-Bat took the hand in his good mitt and shook it. "Pleasure was all mine, Commish. I'm glad I can make up for some of the off-periods I've had in my life, lately."
"We've had some problems before in the past," said Gordon, carefully. "You can be a very dangerous...man...at times. I would like assurances that such will not be the case, if you intend to keep using this...form of yours."
"Commissioner," said Man-Bat, "all I can say is that I've stabilized the formula, that it's not going to drive me around the bend anymore, and that I'm going to try and reestablish myself as a working-stiff hero. And all I'd like to ask of you is the opportunity to try."
Gordon rubbed the back of his neck. "I have to report to others. I'm not the mayor or the District Attorney. It isn't mine alone to say."
Batgirl stepped in. "Commissioner. If we make Man-Bat a member of our Bat-Squad, that'll mean the rest of us will be around to keep him on an even keel, in case that bat-formula of his freaks again. I've worked with Manny before, several times. He's a good man to have on our side, believe me."
Flamebird said, "He really saved our bacon up there. Batgirl was going to become a hostage in Robin's place."
Gordon hoped he controlled his expression. "Well. Would this mean he would have to learn your true identities?"
"Only among those who chose to share it with him," said Batgirl, emphatically. Which meant, No, I won't tell him I'm your daughter unless you say it's okay.
The phone light lit up. Since the staff was keeping extra security precautions on this room, that meant it had to be important. "Excuse me," said Man-Bat, and reached out with one hirsute, long-fingered hand for the receiver. He pressed down the lighted button with his fingernail, not his finger.
"Yes? Okay? Put them on." He took the receiver away from his mouth. "Commissioner, it's my...one of my family. I'd like some privacy, if it's all right."
"Quite all right," said Gordon. "I'd like to speak to Batgirl in private a moment."
"We can use the bathroom for that," she said. "If it's all right."
"I'll be outside," said Flamebird, and stepped out the door.
Gordon and Batgirl went inside the small rest room and shut the door. He was first to speak. "I know all about facing danger, Barbara. But it isn't easy to hear that Dr. Phosphorus almost had you in his hands."
Batgirl leaned against a wall. "No easier than when Mom and I had to wait for you to get back from a crime scene, Dad. It runs in the family."
"Maybe it's run a bit too deep," said Gordon. "I don't think I could take the sight of having to identify you on a slab in the morgue someday."
Batgirl met his gaze evenly. "I knew the risks when I put on this suit, Dad. I'm not taking it off yet. Especially not when Batman is out of town."
"You know who he is, don't you?"
"I'm not going to answer that question. Ever."
"Do you know where he is?"
"All I know is that he's out there looking for a cure for Mrs. Wayne. And when he finds one, he'll be back."
Gordon scratched his shoulder blade. "All the recent occurrences, spokes of a very big wheel, I'm sure. I take it that Batman and his group are striking at the hub of that wheel?"
"They're trying to, yes. I guess we'll know when they get back."
"Barbara," he said. "You've grown up to be one of the most beautiful women I've ever known. Outside of my wife, there's no other woman I care for more. Isn't it time..."
She shook her masked head. "No. Sorry, Dad. Not as long as there's a job out there, one that I can see to. Now, I hate to say it, but I've got to go. Work tomorrow, and a date with Jason afterward, if nothing comes up."
"If nothing comes up," repeated Gordon. "Do you think that's likely?"
"Given the way things have gone lately, no," said Batgirl. "But we can hope for it. Good night, Dad."
Jim Gordon took his costumed daughter in his arms, kissed her cheek, and hugged her fiercely in the confined space. She hugged him back.
Then both of them left the bathroom and said goodbye to Man-Bat, and went their separate ways.
The Titans' aircraft made a safe landing on the field and its occupants piled out rapidly. There were some signs that a plane or planes had landed there recently before theirs. Nobody had to guess whose it was.
"Signal still coming in?" asked Wally West.
Nightwing checked the device he held in his hand. "Muted, but
still sending," he said. "Kobra's probably got blocking devices in
that mountain, but Hawkman helped him design this beeper. I don't
think there's anything on Earth that can block it."
Changeling shifted his form to that of a green tiger. "So, Wing, when do we get to invite some of those Cobras to dinner?"
"Pretty quick," confirmed Dick Grayson. "Got to find a way in there. But be cautious. This is a cult that goes back over a hundred years, and they're not unlike the Thugs. The Cobras are more likely to sleep well after a good killing. So..."
They heard a noise, which carried even over the short distance between them and the mountain.
Part of the great hill was opening up, about three-quarters of the way up. Rocks were cascading down its side from that point. The sound of a dull buzz could be heard. The young heroes waited and watched.
Within seconds, a gleaming drill protruded from the side of the mountain.
"Well," said Cyborg, as he started forward, "guess that solves the problem of how we get in."
Hal Jordan was less than happy. In the time since the wedding of Batman, the entirety of the JLA had not managed to make headway on finding who was responsible for the poisoning of Catwoman. He'd heard of the attacks on her since then, which made him curse himself for not just taking her to the JLA Satellite against her will. At least she'd be safe there.
Though, if Kobra was involved, as some reports indicated he might be, even that might not be safe.
In two days, he was going to be married to Carol Ferris. There was too blasted much to do, at work, with the Corps members on Earth, with the wedding preps, and, yes, with the League.
On top of that, the State Department had forwarded a request for the League to show up at a ceremony in Markovia having to do with some new atom-smasher or something along that line. The message specifically insisted on the League's presence. It had come from Dr. Helen Jace.
If it hadn't been her, Hal would have blown the entire thing off. But he knew she was associated with the Outsiders. And the Outsiders weren't available at the moment.
Guess he'd have to bite the bullet and join the JLA there tomorrow.
It'd only be for a few hours, and what the hell.
It wasn't going to kill him.