Dance With the Demons
You don't get to see Ra's Al Ghul just by calling up for an appointment.
In fact, it's always uncertain at which of his many lairs in desolate
areas of the world the Demon's Head is. Each one is well-guarded,
and the guards have not only made their bones. They've made a whole
They are also armed with some of the deadliest weaponry known to man, much of it unknown to anyone outside of weapons research labs, and they are trained well to use it.
Thus, if one has reason to do business with Ra's Al Ghul, master of the Brotherhood of the Demon, one is advised to do it long-distance.
The detachment of guards at a remote area of Greenland were watchful, as they had to be. But they really didn't expect anything to worry about. A couple of idiots had wandered onto the property at times and either been escorted back or left in pieces, whichever the team leader had deemed most expedient. So far, the team leader had kept his head on his shoulders. That signified he had done his job well.
The day was cloudy and foggy, but they had radar and infra-red goggles. Aerial support patrolled the area under all but the worst weather conditions. It took a lot of money to maintain that kind of protection, but Ra's Al Ghul had that much and more to spare.
Carlos, late of Brazil, huffed and glanced at his partner, some twenty yards away. Both had long-barrelled weapons of a sort unknown to most soldiers. The air was a bit thick, but they both had gas masks. Still, he was damned if he didn't think some of this mist was singling him out.
Could it be some sort of attack? He reached for the communicator in his belt.
He didn't get that far before the mist hardened into calcium around him, cutting him off from air, pressing in on a nerve in his neck, and rendering him unconscious. The same thing happened to his partner, a few yards away.
Then the calcium coverings turned into mist again, and the men who had been within them dropped to their knees and then fell face-first into the snow. Flakes from above began to cover them.
Their falling did not go unnoticed. Other members of the contingent of twenty saw them. Some did manage to get a warning message into the compound beyond them. The rest weren't fast enough.
The two mists seemed to enlarge, become one, purl straight at them. The twenty men aimed their blasters, and a few got off energy bursts that seemed to pass through holes in the oncoming gases.
The gas masks were effective, but not against the sort of gas which was whipped against them this time. Within five seconds, the eighteen remaining guards were rendered unconsious, sitting, slumping, or lying flat in the snow.
This was observed, though not without difficulty, by a TV camera trained
on the area from an installation in a fairly tall tree nearby. That
was the last thing the camera noticed before a bolt of lightning struck
it and rendered it molten. There was, of course, no lightning bolt
to be found in the clouds which dispensed the snow.
There were several other cameras strategically placed about the site and each one of them, in turn, was blasted electrically to bits.
One soldier, still on his feet, caught sight of the blaster, visible only by the bolt he had thrown. The man he sought was clad in an all-white garment, including a hood which enclosed his head. The soldier was a credit to his outfit. He loosed a bolt of particle-beam energy at the electric warrior as soon as he saw him.
But the newcomer was adept, too. He threw himself backward and was flat on the ground by the time the soldier triggered his weapon. The searing beam passed over his midsection and pulverized a tree trunk some yards behind him. It fell with a crash.
The warrior in white lifted his hand as it was doing so and hit the soldier with an electric blast that stunned him. He fell, a bit more quietly than the tree.
By this time, the installation was on alert. Thirty more men poured forth from the installation not far away. The helicopter began a quick descent. From a silo-like building whose garage-style door had retracted into its interior, a snow tank emerged and began clanking forward. The men and the tank were ready to use their weapons, and the soldiers' eyegear would show their enemies clearly.
A voice rang out. "Halo, Geo, now!"
A slim, white-clad shape soared down from an unknown point in the sky. First, she passed by the helicopter. A very curious thing occurred.
Her body became surrounded by a lambent green halo.
She had several of these haloes, each of a different color, each of a different power. The power she manifested now was a stasis beam. She directed it outward from her hands, and it struck the chopper and froze it in the air. It hovered, motionless, defying gravity through her power, and then men within it found they could not even pull the triggers of their guns. They were paralyzed.
Another figure, clad in white like his fellows, ran out from a copse of trees, positioned himself below the helicopter and flung his own arms upward. The copter began to fall, more gently than it would have if its motive force had been suspended without Halo's beam. Within seconds, it was on the ground. The green aura about it faded, and the two men within shook off their paralysis. They considered training the chopper's armament on the man who faced them.
He smashed through the door of the copter, tore it off, yanked both of them out, disarmed them, and bent their guns in half. Then he grasped the tail of the craft, exerted his strength, and, in a single effort, snapped it off the helicopter.
The two men decided to stay put unless he came for them, and run if he did.
Halo, the Outsider girl, continued downward. The menacing tank was about to enter the field of battle. But her part was hardly finished. She plummeted through the sky to a point less than thirty feet above it, and, while she flew, the color of her halo changed.
It changed to orange.
The power of her orange halo pushed forth from her hands, and it was a beam of mighty force by the time it struck the tank. It hit it right where Batman had told her to hit it, on the side, at an angle which pushed the monster machine over on its side. The tank's motion was arrested, but it was not yet defanged.
Her halo changed to brightest red.
The heat beam which resulted was directed against the barrels of the tank's cannon and machine gun, which melted. Then she used it to sever a tread of the tank, and it unravelled on its driving wheels and piled up on the ground, uselessly.
The men inside obviously were thinking twice before daring to come out.
The thirty men were still active, still armed, and still looking for people to kill.
They were confronted by three new apparitions in white outfits.
One of the three, a woman, unzipped the covering which held her sun-goggles onto her face mask. She looked out at the men facing them, and her eyes glowed. They glowed a brilliant blue.
No less than ten of the men fell to their knees, dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads, and cries out in agony.
The second, another woman, had two blades, both swords, one much longer than the other. Those of the men who had knowledge of such things knew them for Japanese weapons. Katana, to be precise. They estimated their hand-held weapons would be enough to turn her into dogmeat.
They were very wrong.
The lady kiaiied and somersaulted into their midst with an incredible bound, lashing out with her swords in a terrible, cleaving circle. Those close enough to receive the slashes on their backs or sides screamed, and most of them ran outward from the circle of steel. The snow below them was quickly stained in red. Two were stupid enough, despite their wounds, to turn and train their weapons on her. They were not directly opposite each other, and their weapons' particle beams would not hit each other.
She easily ducked the crossing blasts, liberated a dagger from her boot, threw it at the leg of one gunman, whirled on the snow and slashed out with her longest blade at the shins of the other. It was impossible to tell which of the two screamed or bled first. She chopped through both their weapons with her blade.
They were lucky. So far, none of her attackers were dead.
That left one invader whose powers were not yet gauged. The men who remained saw him for what he was, a man, tall and powerful looking in his white snowsuit with all of his face and body concealed in it. But he had no gun, no blade, nor any other sort of visible weapon on his person. If he had to unzip the suit and withdraw something from it, that would give them plenty of time to turn him into a smoking spot on the ground.
So the twelve who faced him readied their weapons.
Before they could trigger them, he sprang forward an uncreditable distance and hit them like a whitewashed meteor.
Fists. Feet. Knees. Edges of hands. Even the head. That was what the men contacted, or, rather, what contacted them. Smash after smash after smash. None of the soldiers involved in the brawl could get a clear picture of what was going on. All of them knew martial arts, or they would not have gotten the positions they occupied. But none had seen a system such as the man they fought employed. It would have done credit to Bruce Lee, and it was beyond their expertise.
Even the other heroes stopped to watch their captain fight.
But they didn't have to watch that long. Before long, the human whirligig had finished his work. The soldiers of Ra's Al Ghul lay beaten, senseless, in a circle around his feet.
The gloves he wore were stained with red from broken noses and teeth, but not one of the men he fought were dead. The others could see him breathe, see his chest go up and down and the vapor come through the filter over his nose and mouth, but he did not seem to be breathing as heavily as any of them would after such an activity.
"Phase Two now, boss?" said Metamorpho.
"Let's crack this place," he agreed.
An amplified voice drew their attention.
"GOOD DAY, DETECTIVE," it said, and it came from a speaker affixed to the roof of the main building in the nearby compound. "THERE WILL BE NO FURTHER HOSTILITIES. PLEASE, ENTER MY HOME AS AN HONORED GUEST."
They all stiffened and swung their heads in the direction of the voice. Their leader remained calm.
He unzipped the hood of his snowsuit and showed all who were able to see it the cowled visage of the Batman.
"Stay together," he said. "And be very, very careful."
The Outsiders and Batman had a stormy history to look back on, from the beginning. The team had worked with him, and without him. But they had all learned from him, and they all regarded him, though not without disagreement, as their leader.
It had started not many years ago, when Lucius Fox of Wayne Enterprises found himself in the European nation of Markovia during a revolution. Batman had gone to the Justice League for help to get him out. But the United Nations had contacted the League beforehand, warned them that their intervention might escalate the conflict, and asked them not to intervene. Reluctantly, they had agreed, and told Batman as much.
He had resigned the group on the spot.
Batman had taken only Black Lightning with him, a hero with whom he had worked before--there were few heroes alive whom he hadn't teamed with, at one time or another--and found that several others in the heroic community were in Markovia at the time, including Halo, Katana, and Geo-Force, who had never been seen before that time. Together, they halted the revolution, overthrew the usurper Baron Bedlam, and put the rightful king of Markovia back on the throne.
By the end of that adventure, Batman knew he had a new team. It was ironic, considering Robin had just started leading a group of new Teen Titans, whose activities came to take up most of his time. Metamorpho had remarked that the six of them were "a buncha outsiders." Geo-Force proposed it as a team name, and Halo exclaimed, in her little-girl way, "I like it! What do you think, Batman?"
He had smiled and said, "I've heard worse."
So it began. At the beginning, there was only the six of them. Black Lightning, alias Jefferson Pierce, an African-American schoolteacher with the power to throw bolts of electricity from his body. Metamorpho, a biochemical "freak" changed by an Egyptian artifact and given power to manifest himself as the pure elements of the human body, in whatever shape he chose. Halo, the merger of an other-being called an Aurikle and the body of a just-dead murderess, whose aura-powers were as formidable as her personality was juvenile. Geo-Force, brother of Markovia's king regent, whose powers of strength, gravity, and lava blasts derived from the Earth itself. Katana, a Japanese swordswoman and martial artist, by far the deadliest of the group.
Later they picked up Looker, a formerly plain-looking girl turned beautiful and given psionic powers through a comet fragment. Just recently, Metamorpho had found his former partner, Element Girl, living alone on a pension from the CIA and withdrawing from the world, afraid to face it alone. He drew her out and insisted she try a stint with the Outsiders. She hadn't seen combat yet, but Batman had to admit she performed well with helping save Selina and in the battle just fought. The woman deserved a chance, and he was going to give it to her.
But facing Ra's Al Ghul was one hell of a baptism of fire.
In a way, he would have liked to face the Brotherhood of the Demon alone. But even when he first went against Ra's, he had chosen allies. This time, his allies had super-powers. He had to admit that they had performed excellently against their foemen.
He also felt that Ra's had been holding back.
Now the eight of them were within the mansion of the main compound, most of which was below ground, all of which was defended to the teeth. The heroes had shed their snowsuits and were carrying them. The interior of the building was well-heated, almost uncomfortably so, and Batman estimated that Ra's would at least hear why he had come. There was enough honor between them, he felt, for that. Not that he saw Ra's's honor as much more than thin ice.
The guards within were more vigilant than those who were on the strike force, and they lined the walls of the headquarters mansion. "Keep an eye on them," he advised the others.
Metamorpho took the advice literally, elongating his eyes out a good six feet and stretching them behind him in an effort to weird out the sentries. It almost worked. "Cut it out, Rex," said Batman.
The Element Man popped his eyeballs back to their normal position and shape. "Bats, I sure hope married life loosens you up the way it did me."
"Oh, Rex," said Element Girl. "Don't start another fight, please."
They walked on black marble, past hanging tapestries of Middle Eastern origin and various other works of art, most of which, Batman judged, hid weaponry.
Black Lightning said, "I've gotta leave a place that looks like this and go back to teaching at an inner-city P.S. later on this week. But y'know something? That crummy nightmare in brick smells a lot better than this place, just the same."
Katana said, "Soft, Lightning. We must be near the presence of the Demon's Head."
Halo looked at her friend. "Geez, Katana, doesn't it have a body to go along with it? I mean, you know."
Geo-Force and Looker gave each other a sideways look and separately tried to keep from laughing in the midst of a den of death-dealers.
They passed through a final passageway and saw a room whose opulence put the rest of the dwelling to shame. On a level above the main floor, a fairly large library reposed, connected to the lower level by a wrought iron staircase.
On the main floor, beyond an ornate fountain in the middle of the room, stood a long table under illumination which was sufficient to limn the features of the man who sat there, but not much more.
The man who sat there regarded them all with a mien that would have made a champion gambler seem a fidget. He sat there in his brown robe, dark brown pants, and black boots and glowered at them, confidently, but not without an unmistakable note of charisma.
The top of his head was bald and he seemed to have no eyebrows. His eyes were well set within his head, under a formidable brow, and he did not seem to blink. He had a strangely-shaped short beard at the sides of his face and his chest and arms were slim but powerfully muscled. He looked to be as tall as Batman if he stood.
More than one of the Outsiders, for at least a moment, wondered whether or not Ra's Al Ghul could be the Batman's opposite number.
"Again, Detective, welcome," said Ra's. "Come. Sit at my table, counsel with me, and tell me your reason for coming."
Batman strode forward at a pace that outdid that of the other Outsiders. His right hand went to a pouch within his belt and withdrew something from it. Ra's's eyes didn't miss the movement.
Within another second Batman was standing beside Ra's. He took what was in his hand and slammed it into the table, point first. It stuck.
The poison dart.
"That thing was in my wife's neck a few hours ago," said Batman. "It damned near killed her. The poison is a sort that the Brotherhood has used before."
"So I see," said Ra's, gingerly sending a hand forth to touch it.
"The make of the dart is a kind which your assassins have used before."
"Among others," Ra's observed, about to pluck it from the table to study.
A blue-gloved hand reached out and grabbed him by the front of his robe, near the neck, and hauled him to his feet. From behind or between the shelves of books in the library above, eight men appeared, each with a weapon, all of them trained on Batman. "Guards, no!", called Ra's, raising his hand. They lowered their weapons. The Outsiders watched them, on alert.
Batman took no notice.
"You lowest piece of gutter-slime attempting a masquerade as a desert tribal chieftain, did you attempt murder on my wife?" His breathing, despite his attempt to control it, came hard. His grip was so hard that he might have lifted Ra's off the ground, if he raised his arm.
But the master of the assassins was not so easily impressed. "Detective," he said, "you forget your manners."
With a pressure of his fingers on Batman's hand, and a bit of cunning leverage, he pried the hand away and stepped back one pace, smoothing his robe a bit. "I have some knowledge of what befell you yesterday. Otherwise, your abuse of my hospitality would not go unnoticed. You have changed since our first meeting, Detective, and not for the better."
Katana started forward. Without looking back, Batman said, "Stop." She stopped.
Ra's regarded her. "A female samurai," he pronounced. "Loyal. Deadly. A fitting ally for yourself, Detective. Such a one as I might choose. She will undoubtedly serve you better than the boy who wore red and yellow."
The Japanese woman said nothing. Her stare was as intent as Ra's's.
"Someone almost killed my wife only minutes after we exchanged vows," said Batman, his voice colder than it had been, his stance more businesslike. "We barely managed to save her."
"And how is she now?"
"She's recovering. I had hoped, despite the appearance of the dart, that it wasn't one of your men."
Ra's stepped a bit closer. "It could not be because you feared toface me."
"Not a bit," said Batman. "I had hoped that you would be more honorable than that."
"Then why are you here?" Ra's smiled, slightly. "I should ask. If the dart is one of my own, whom else would you go to first?"
"We have enough power to bring this entire installation crumbling around your ankles," said Batman.
"I have power enough to destroy you all where you stand," said Ra's. "Weapons which are attuned to my voice or physical positioning, a deadman control which would kill you all if I was slain. Your soldiers are powerful, Detective, but here they are more than outclassed."
Black Lightning shifted position. "Any time you wanna find out, bubba."
"Lightning, please," said Batman. To Ra's he said, "Convince me that you're not a suspect in this matter."
Ra's raised both his hands in a dismissive gesture. "Why in the name of heaven above and hell below would I have attempted to murder your wife, Detective? Tell me."
"I've put you in jail before," said Batman.
"And I escaped, did I not?"
"I've wrecked many of your crazy schemes in the past."
"And I have hatched many, many more, including some you do not suspect the existence of," answered Ra's. "What then?"
Batman played his trump. "You tried to marry me off to your daughter Talia. You still think the marriage is valid, because you performed the ceremony. But now I have married another woman."
For the first time since they had seen him, Ra's looked grim.
"Yes," he said. "There is that."
Ra's sat back down in a chair which he had pulled out to allow him to face Batman as he sat. Then he spoke again.
"That was an act of inhospitality. You refused the daughter of my loins. You rejected the opportunity to mix bloodlines with my family. You refused to sire a new generation for me. Indeed, you do not even regard my child Talia as your wife. To Westerners, this would mean nothing. You would call it an expression of your free will. To such as myself, it is a grave and demeaning insult. Do not think I have forgotten, Detective."
"Dig that hole a little deeper, Ra's," said Batman, evenly, "and I'll put you in it."
"I think not," said Ra's. "True, I could have done such a thing, for that reason. Yet, I did not. Why? Because, above all, Detective, I am a very, very practical man.
"To begin with, there is the concept of justice. Your wife stood against me, once and only once. It is true, you gave me a death in that adventure. A quite painful death. But it was not permanent. Thus far, my deaths have been but trifles. One renewal in the Lazarus Pit and I am reborn. Her discomfiting of me was substantial, but not as great as your own.
"No, her death would add but little to my power, and no profit. If I wished redress for my many hurts at your hands, then have no doubt, Detective: I would kill you. Someday, perhaps I shall. Perhaps not. Be that as it may, if I wished to use her against you, why would I kill her?"
"To anger me," said Batman. "To make me reckless when I came against you."
"Detective, Detective," sighed Ra's. "Yours is one of the finest strategically analytical minds I have ever encountered, but you are not using it. Why would I want you to come after me? Were I to desire your life, I would simply activate a group of my men from anywhere in the globe, and send them against you. You might triumph over one or many, but eventually one would kill you. This is a certainty, Detective. That scenario would be much more pleasing, because then I would face no danger from you--not that I shrink from danger, mind you, but I shrink even less from imprudence. Even if you defeated my men, even if you came after me, you would be driven by self-preservation, not by vengeance. Is this not so?"
Batman did not answer.
"Now, as to the matter of your wife. If I wished to use her against you, Detective, I can assure you of this: I would kidnap her. Oh, yes, I would. I would make certain that she was alive and that you knew it, but that you also knew that I had power over her. And thus I would have power over you. But I would not kill her. Not unless it presented great advantage to me, or unless all else was lost and it was the last stroke I could play. I promise you, Detective, I am far away from my last stroke."
"You may be closer than you think."
"Death follows close behind us all, Detective. But in most cases, I am the one who pushes its hand. No. I am not lying to you. I had nothing to do with the attempt on your wife's life. Now, if someday your wife should be taken by brigands, there is the possiblity, and no more than that, that I may be behind it. That will be if I need your help, and you refuse a polite request. Should you perform that request, she will be freed unharmed. This would be done, certainly."
Batman said, "I'm not buying into all of that, Ra's. I remember a time when the Joker murdered an entire family and almost convinced me it was somebody else trying to pin the rap on him. But for the moment, let's say you really weren't behind it. Then who?"
Ra's retorted, "Any number of individuals. The League of Assassins. The Cobra Cult. Perhaps the remnants of the Council still exist. At times, we all dipped from the same well. I cannot tell. I am sorry."
"Could it be one of your men, gone renegade? A loose cannon?"
Ra's tented his hands. "I would think not. My ranks are more disciplined than that. However, I will give you this, Detective. If one of my men is involved in this matter, I will send you his head in a box, and a note of apology. This, I promise."
Batman said, "No, just turn him over to me. If and when you find him."
"It will be so."
Ra's got up from the chair. "Detective, our audience is ended. There is work to which I must attend. Should you need information which I may provide, call upon me. I will not commit myself unconditionally. But I may be of aid."
Batman pulled the dart up from the table and stashed it within his belt again. "Until I crack this case, Ra's, you're still a suspect. But the fact that you're still conscious, and still in your rat's nest, means that I'm not yet convinced. You win--for now."
The Outsiders breathed a little easier. But they still kept an eye on the guards above.
"Until our next meeting, Detective," he said, "farewell."
The Batman showed Ra's his back and walked out. The Outsiders followed, and formed a ring about him. Halo leaned in closer to him. "Do you think he really had something to do with it, Batman?"
"Don't know, Halo," said Batman, briefly making sure the guards along the walls were still standing down. "We've just started our work. I didn't expect to break the case this soon."
Geo-Force said, "Friend Batman, whence does our path lead now?"
"Back to Gotham for the moment," Batman replied. "Where we will take every crook in Gotham from the Joker to the lowest pickpocket, grab him right where it hurts, and squeeze till we get some answers."
"Uh, Batman, could I not do any of the squeezing, please?" begged Halo. "I mean, I'm not that kind of girl."
"Hush, Halo," advised Katana.
The eight of them walked on.
A reporter at one of the Gotham news stations made a call to Wayne Manor and was told by the butler there that Mrs. Wayne was recouping fairly well from her ordeal. But no, details weren't being released to the press yet, and no, Mrs. Wayne wouldn't be taking any interviews just now, even over the phone. The man thanked Alfred and left his number, should he reconsider. Then he hung up.
The reporter sighed, stretched his legs, looked at the pile of paper on his desk, and decided the hell with it.
Bats was a friend. He'd helped out on more than one occasion, and Wayne was one of his friends. The Catwoman was as close to an item as Batman ever seemed to get, before she went and got married to Mr. Moneybags.
Maybe he could do Bats a left-hand favor.
At any rate, it was time to shake some of the cobwebs loose and hit the town.
Jack Ryder went into the men's room, opened a window, twisted a dial on his wrist, and left the room. But not through the door.
The sound of a loud cackle was heard through the window, and gradually died away in the night.