Batman and the Outsiders:

 Dance With the Demons

 Part 22

 by DarkMark

The Cobra crew were still aiming their guns when a wind of no less than 80 mph in velocity slammed into them like a solid wave and blew them physically across the Chambers Building's parking lot.  It didn't stop until each and every one of them was pinned against a wall of a building across the street.

They were wondering, mostly, what act of God had saved the Outsiders from certain execution.

Most of them had their weapons, but they weren't exactly in a position to use them.  The air burst was pinning them in such a fashion that the only thing they could do was shoot the ground or the sky.  Since there were no enemies currently in either location, the Cobramen decided that this would be a dumb thing, and refrained.

More than a few of them could see straight ahead at the master of the force that was holding them like moths caught in an air tunnel.  Actually, it was a mistress of the force, and she wore a pink and blue outfit with a blue eyemask.  She had blonde hair and looked about as threatening as a kumquat.

Her name was Windfall.

"Um, none of you move," she said, still stretching out her hands to keep the winds in place.  "Please.  I would really appreciate you all not moving at this time. Thank you."

"Is this bimbo for real?" asked one of the Cultists, approximately.

"Are these winds for real?" responded the one next to him.

"We've got to stop her.  She's keeping us from doing our jobs, for Naja-Naja's sake!", said a third.

But there seemed to be no agreement on how they were to stop her, either for Naja-Naja's sake or their own.  On the other hand, there was a possibility that the girl would run out of juice soon, so they decided to wait her out and call her insulting names in Indian.  She didn't know Indian, so that worked to their advantage.
 

Windfall was, in her earlier days, a member of the Masters of Disaster.  Since that time, she had seen the light and worked with the Outsiders.  Her elemental powers enabled her to manipulate air and wind, which came in handy often.  After the horrors of the Crisis, she had sought some time alone.

But, with the Outsiders' lives at stake, she didn't see how she could keep out of the action any longer.  And she was hoping one of the crew would wake up and take over.  She really didn't want to have to do this all night.

Of course, the cop sirens were getting extremely loud by now, so that meant the whole thing could be taken out of her hands soon.  There was only so long she could sustain that kind of air burst.

A voice came from an area around her ankles.  "Uhm...what's happenin'?"

The Creeper raised his tousled green head.  Windfall looked at him.  "Oh, uh, hi," she said.  "Can you give me a hand here?"

He shook his head to get the cobwebs out and only made himself sick.  "I'm...not really sure.  You one of the good guys?"

"Well, I am now," she said.  "I mean, I used to be a Mistress of Disaster.  But now I'm an Outsider, kind of.  My name's Windfall."

"Ah, good," said the Creeper.  "That's cop sirens I hear, right?"

"Yes," she said.  "They'll be here any minute and take these men off my hands.  I couldn't let them kill you all, I mean."

"Well, tell you what, Windy," the Creeper said, standing up with an effort.  "The cops and I have a misunderstanding right now, so I've got to lam, and I think the best thing would be for me to go help Bats.  Can you keep things running?"

"I suppose so," she said.  "But only if they come here quickly."

The Creeper stooped, found Black Lightning, and slapped him three times.  "Hey, BL.  Wake up."

"Hunh?"  The Ebon Bolt grabbed the Creeper and dragged him close by the red sheepskin before his eyes focused.  "Oh, Creep, it's you."

"Right.  ‘Oh, Creep, it's you.'  Jeez.  Like I'm supposed to be a swimsuit model or something?  You help this girl and the cops with the bad guys.  I'm going inside."

"Creeper?  Creeper!" called Black Lightning as the yellow-hued hero leaped off, reaching the back doors of the Chambers Building in four bounds and slipping within.  The black Outsider straightened up, rubbing the back of his head, and took in the scene.  "Windfall," he said.  "Didn't expect to see you here."

She nodded.  "But aren't you glad I came?"

"Oh, yeah.  But definitely."

The first of the cop cars came screeching up, and Harvey Bullock bounded out, clutching the top of his trademarked beaten-up fedora with one hand and holding his .38 with the other.  "All right, what's going on here?  Are these the perps?"

"Yes, officer," said Windfall.  "But don't..."

Bullock was already stepping in front of her, and, unfortunately, right into the airstream.  He was rolled head-over-heels no less than fourteen times before whumping up against the person of one of the Cobra Cultists on the opposite wall.  By that time, more cop cars had arrived and Windfall had shut off her air transmission.

The lieutenant was still holding his gun.  He jammed it against the nose of one of the masked Cultists, who was more effectively armed but knew not to argue with a gun against his face.

"You're under arrest, dirtbag," snapped Bullock.

 -B-

The men whom Batman was facing had no idea why the man in the cowl and cape hadn't been targeted by a fatal bullet yet in all his years of crime-fighting.  That was because, unlike a lot of their brethren, they hadn't seen him in action.

For one thing, he was just too blasted fast.  His sprint would put most college track stars to shame.  And that from a forty-year-old man.  Plus he knew how to run broken-field better than most pro football players.  Since his life, and not a few yards to a first down, depended on it, that was understandable.

But what they hadn't counted on was the fear factor.  To put it bluntly, seeing Batman coming at you full-steam was terrifying.  Some who only knew him from news stories or photos scoffed.  A man in a Halloween costume scaring the bejabbers out of hardened criminals, even murderers, while not carrying a gun?  It seemed the height of absurdity.

That is, until you faced the man himself.  There was a juggernaut quality to him.  The size, the musculature, the physical presence of him, the grim expression on his face, even in his smile, the fact that his special mask-lenses didn't let you see his eyes, and the relentless, unstoppable drive of the man when you went against him...  It was, more or less, like having one's feet inserted in concrete and then having to face a fast steamroller.

The Cobramen had guns.  The Cobramen had knives.  The Cobramen had other weapons, and martial arts training as well.  They knew how to use all of that to deadly intent, and all of them had, at one time or another.

But as the blue-black-and-grey thunderbolt meteored into them full-throttle, they found out what all the other hoods in Gotham had learned: it just wasn't enough.

The Batman's powerful body slammed sideways against the phalanx of Cultists, slamming them every-which-way in the hallway of the hotel.  Three went down, not kayoed but floored.  That was his intent.  It would give him time to deal with the other four.  Two had been slammed against the left-hand wall, near a room door.  One had his Uzi out, the other was trying to get his out of his belt.

A single powerful blow took care of both of them, cracking the jaw of one and leaving each of them totally unconscious.  The door beside them opened, slightly.  An old man looked out, in fear.  "What--", he began.

"Sorry," said Batman, placing his hand against the man's chest, shoving him back.  He snaked a hand behind the door, twisted the lock button, then got his hand in front of it again and pulled the door shut.  That had cost him two seconds.  Two of the other Cobras were levelling guns at him.

He leaped up, somersaulted in the air, came down hard on them with both feet.  The Cobras grunted, went down, and, thankfully, didn't accidentally fire.  He tore the guns away from their grasp, whirled, saw one of the fallen three getting up, and smashed him across the face with one of the weapons.  The man went down, bleeding from the nose.

Another Cobraman got up and lunged at him with a knife.  The slight discoloration on the tip of the blade indicated it had been envenomed.  The man didn't make more than three paces before his arm was grabbed, twisted, dislocated.  He screamed, dropping the knife.  Batman chopped him across the back of the neck.  It felt to the Cultist as though a concrete pillar had been dropped across his brainstem.  He wasn't even aware of hitting the floor.

Four remained.  They had been taught to fear the Batman.  But they feared Kobra more.  One of them threw two short daggers.  The masked manhunter dodged both, caught the hurler, smashed a knee into his gut, banged five knuckes into his jaw, and slung his insensible body into two of the others.  The one who remained standing had a finger on the trigger of his Uzi.  A grey-clad elbow contacted his jaw with an impact that seemed to be calculable in megatons.  He collapsed.

Batman pulled one of the two others up and slammed him hard against the wall.  "Is he in the penthouse?" he snapped.

"Is who?" the Cultist mumbled.

Batman's grip tightened near his throat.  "No time for that now. Tell me."

"Yes, yes, of course he is!" gasped the Cultist.   "But, O Man of the Bats, he will kill me for having told you this!"

"Only if he kills me first," Batman assured him.  He touched a nerve in the man's neck.  The Cultist slumped.

The remaining one of the seven whom Batman had faced had decided that not only great generals, but lowly foot soldiers, should know when the time came to retreat, and that time was now.  He went sprinting down the hallway.  Batman's back was to him, and he was still questioning the Cultist in his grasp when the other began his flight.

Without looking behind him, after letting the Cultist to the floor, Batman unsnapped a Batarang from his belt and let fly.

It struck the fleeing Cobraman in the back of his right leg and felled him.  He groaned and grasped his limb.  It had been numbed, and hurt so badly he couldn't make it up to flee in the time necessary.

Batman was by his side within seconds.  "Easy or hard?"

"What?"

The man in the cape dragged him to his feet in an instant and delivered a short punch to the face.  The Cobra Cultist joined his brethren in dreamland.

"You should've said ‘easy'", muttered the Batman.

While this was going on, Nightwing was facing the other eight Cobramen.  The young man in blue and black had reached behind his back and, from a hidden holster, produced two rods which, with a shake, telescoped to about two feet in length.

"Escrima sticks," he said.  "Just taken ‘em up recently.  You, gentlemen, are gonna help me perfect my technique."

With that, he leapt among them.  They were too close-quartered to use their Uzis (a problem with sending too many men against a single opponent), and, even though some sought to use their blades or garrotes, they found that the black-haired whirlwind in their midst was as hard to catch as a sirocco.  He seemed to have about as great a force, too.

Nightwing's weapons smashed against the nerve centers of two Cobramen's arms and caused them to drop their guns.  His foot lashed out in a kickboxing strike, smashing againt the face of another, and putting him out of the action.  A fourth came in, trying to puncture him with a deadly kris, but collected a knee against the jaw and a slam from a stick which finished the job on him.  Another swipe of the sticks nailed two more foemen, and a powerful kick apiece discombobulated them both.

It was insane, thought those who were still standing.  A single man, a callow youth compared to the Batman, was harvesting them like grain.  This had to be stopped.  Their honor, or what was left of it, had to be avenged.  Or at least salvaged.

One of the Cultists came at Nightwing head-down like a football tackler.  In a flashy move, Nightwing transferred both sticks to one hand, leaped up, put his hands on the man's back, and leapfrogged over him.  He landed on his feet, dodged a couple of knife-throws by skill and luck, and slammed his feet into two faces, knocking both down and one out.  The other he fell on knees-first, unleashed two blows on, and rendered him hors de combat.

A garotte was looped about his neck from behind.

Before it could tighten, Nightwing's elbow slammed back into the man's groin.  Even with the shield the Cultist had in his uniform at that area, he grunted in pain from the impact.  Dick grabbed the strangler's wire with both hands and thrust his arms and body down powerfully, throwing the man overhead.  He whirled, grabbed his sticks from where they had fallen on the floor, and smashed them across the face of another attacker, bringing blood.  A blow to the stomach and another to the chin took care of that one.

The strangler was trying again, as Dick found when he turned.  "Don't you ever learn?" he said, with some disgust.  He jabbed the ends of the sticks into the man's gut, hard, then lifted him by crotch and shoulder, went to one knee, and smashed the Cultist across his outstretched leg.  The man saw white lights and went into grayness.

That left one still unaccounted for.  He had his Uzi out.  Nightwing was the only other in the area still standing.  It should have been a simple thing, really.  Just pull the trigger, turn flesh and blood and bone and internal organs into so much perforated waste spattering the walls.

"Do you really think you can?", said the masked man, with an unnerving smile.

The Cultist considered the men littering the carpet, looked at the cruel confidence in his opponent's eyes, and began to back away.  Then he turned and started to run.

He ran right into a wall.

The wall was colored grey and had a yellow oval with a bat inside it.

The Cobraman looked up at the face of Batman, who was wearing a smile not unlike that of Nightwing.  He started to say something.

Then he found his shoulder grasped, his body whirled around, and his eyes seeing the face of Nightwing just before his field of vision was filled momentarily by five great knuckles.  That was a sight he would carry to his dying day.

Luckily, this day he was only rendered senseless.

"Thanks for letting me," said Nightwing, holding the front of the man's shirt in one hand.

"Took you long enough," said Batman, smiling slightly.

"Hey, I had eight, you had seven.  Give me credit."

"We've still got a few floors to go," Batman said.  "Find a phone on this one, call the cops and the front desk, let ‘em know about the garbage."

He whirled and ran for the stairs.

"Batman," Nightwing called.

"Do it and catch up," Batman threw over his shoulder.

 -B-

Batgirl had been stalked and stalker before.  This night, the experience didn't seem reassuring.

She and her two friends from Earth-Two, the old Robin and the Huntress, were threading their way through the darkness and the trees in the wood near Wayne Manor.  Somewhere in this wood lie Starfire--hopefully unconscious, not dead.  Somewhere else lie Cobras, just as deadly as their namesakes, and more well-equipped to deal death.

Usually she didn't wear any kind of special lenses or glasses in her mask, unlike Batman and Robin.  This time she was sporting infra-red goggles, and needed them.  Her night vision was very good.  But when facing a group of killers such as the minions of Kobra, she judged that she needed all the advantages she could get.  The scenery stood out in visible relief, not quite as clearly as during daylight, but much better a view than she could get with her unaided eyes.

She was trying to remain in the trees as much as possible, knowing that a chance rustle could and would betray her position.  Luckily, Starfire was wearing a tracking device in her belt (Dick had insisted on it), and an indicator strapped to Batgirl's wrist showed the direction in which she could be found.  But she hadn't located her yet.

Nor had she found any of the Cobra Cultists.  That would normally be a blessing.  But their mission was twofold: to recover Starfire, and to disable the enemy strike force.  She hoped she could do the latter without having to kill.  Every fiber of her being rebelled against taking life.  Even that of men as evil as the Cobras.  She prayed silently that she would not have to do it.

She also prayed, just as fervently, that none of the enemy would do the same to her.

The moon was only at half status tonight.  She thanked God for that.  A full moon, well, it'd just be too revealing.  She exhaled, estimated the distance from her leafy perch to the next tree, and wondered whether to try to jump it or to use her lasso.

Then she saw the line of red light.

A laser, she thought.  A damnable laser sight.  It was from a Cobraman's weapon.  He was taking a chance, to be sure; the thing could even be seen by unaided eyes, much less infra-red goggles.  But he must have seen something he wanted to shoot at...

She hurled herself from the tree, hit ground, rolled.  A burst of gunfire had gone into the branches she had just vacated.

Batgirl saw the man, some yards distant, and knew that he had to have seen her as well.  Undoubtedly had to be wearing the same kind of infra-reds.  She reached for a batarang in her belt, caught it, threw it.

The man's gunburst caught the ‘rang and shattered it into uncounted flinders, but it didn't matter.  Batgirl was already in motion.

She had been a track star at one of Gotham's biggest high schools in years past and had set a record for sprinting that remained unbroken to this day.  But even she didn't think she had ever run this quickly.  However she did it, the Cobraman simply wasn't able to bring his Uzi into line with her before she arrowed headfirst into his gut.

There were voices she heard, in the distance.  None of them belonging to her friends, all of them speaking in Indian dialect, and none speaking for very long. They had been heard.  All of this flashed through her mind as she balled her fist and pounded down hard into the Cultist's face, smashing him, breaking his nose, battering him three times.

The man threw her off with his legs, reached for a kris, threw it at the sprawled woman.

Batgirl whipped to her feet as he threw, held her cape before her and to her side with both hands, caught the knife in its surface as it tore the tough fabric.  He was already trying to grab his gun from where it had fallen when she bowled him over.

His hand closed on it at the same time her high heeled boot stabbed down upon his arm, spiking it hard.  He cried out in pain, involuntarily.

The masked maiden grasped the gun and threw it away.  He grabbed her leg at the ankle, whipped up, and threw her to the ground.  She landed on her back.  As she did, she heard the voices again.  They had to be closing in on them.  Her attacker was leaping upon her, his right hand held up in position for a karate blow.

Her booted feet caught him hard in the chin, ratcheting his head back.  The double-kick had hit him full-force.  She flipped to her feet, grasped him by the shirtfront, pulled him downward, and smashed upward with a hard knee to the jaw.  From what she could tell, he was out of it, but she smashed a chop to the side of his neck as he fell just to make sure.

Another probing line of light.  She hugged the ground.  Batgirl glanced at the Uzi nearby, easily taken into hand, and wondered...

A second laser was visible.  They seemed to criss-cross briefly.  If they hadn't seen her already, they were confident enough that they would.  She began to edge away from the fallen Cultist's body.  Time enough, hopefully, to make the trees.

Except that one Cultist stepped into view and the light of his laser-sight shone directly on her forehead.  She thought she saw him smile.

Then he went forward as an object of considerable mass and speed struck him from behind, and the blast of gunfire spattered upward into the night and the leaves and branches, bringing some down.  Batgirl was up on her feet and charging, even before she could identify her helpmate.

Old Robin was standing behind the attacker, who was now on his hands and knees.  And for all his age, the masked man looked fully capable of separating the Cultist into his component pieces.  He kicked the man hard in the ass, putting him flat on the ground and making him yelp.  The man still held his Uzi firmly in one hand.

Before Batgirl could get there, the elder Dick Grayson's boot came up, then smashed down on the Cultist's wrist, breaking it.  His victim howled in pain.  Old Robin's hands went to the man's neck, worked their magic, and rendered the man unconscious.

Then Batgirl tackled Dick and sent him to the ground beside their foe just as a burst of powerful bullets went through the place their bodies had occupied, a few seconds ago.

They turned their heads quickly in the direction from which the shots had come.  The third Cobraite had turned his laser off.  It had made him harder to spot.  But he was close enough to turn them into spatters of gore, far enough away that they couldn't reach him with anything but weapons.  He was about to fire again.

A small arrow from a crossbow slammed straight through his hand.  He screamed, and the thought of firing any sort of gun was superseded by that of pulling the shaft out, binding his wound, and getting the hell out of there.

The Huntress, dropping from another tree, didn't intend to give him the chance.  The masked beauty's long leg lashed out, nailing him where it would have hurt most if his pierced hand hadn't been hurting him more.  Then she smashed him three times with powerful blows to the sides of his head, and finished with a punch on the jaw.  The Cobraman looked like a string-cut puppet.

"Guess we all turned up at the right time," said Robin, with a grin.

"Yeah, and the right place," said Batgirl.  "Thanks to those tracer units in our belts.  And thanks to both of you, too."

The Huntress said, "There isn't time for that, now.  We don't know how many other Cobras are in the wood.  And we still have to find Starfire."

A shot.

The threesome whirled to see another Cobra Cultist fall from a tree.  His Uzi hit ground only an instant before he did.  The Bat-Squad trio hustled toward the man, but all of them had guessed what a second's examination told them: dead.

"One shot," said Robin.  "Through the heart."

"Who did it?" asked the Huntress.  "They wouldn't kill their own.  Especially not when the guy had us flat-footed there."

There was a laugh in the darkness.  A great and powerful laugh, that came from a short distance but seemed to emanate without precise origin.  None of them had ever heard that kind of laugh before.  Not quite.

"The Joker!" opined the Huntress.

"No," said Batgirl, laying a hand on her forearm.  "No way.  I've heard the Joker laugh.  That's not him."

"Maybe that green-haired friend of yours?", offered Robin.

She shook her head.  "Not the Creeper.  He doesn't use a gun and doesn't kill.  And he doesn't laugh like that either."

"Then who?", asked Helena.

The laugh had died away.  Nobody seemed to have an answer.

Finally, Batgirl said, "Let's go find Kory."

The other two decided that was the best thing to do at the time, and the three of them set off.  At least, if there was another pair of eyes watching them, it might not be that of an enemy.

Somehow, that didn't seem to reassure them at all.

 -B-

Alfred cradled his gun and thought of times past as he looked through the window.  His vision was tinted by the infra-red goggles he wore.  He wondered how several battles with the Nazis in France would have gone, had these sort of things been available back then.  Of course, had they been in use, the Boche might have had them as well.

Master Bruce would have never let him use a gun, let alone the Uzi he had bought surreptitiously.  On the other hand, Master Bruce's sort of warfare was much different than the kind Alfred Pennyworth had waged forty years past.  He had been in occupied Paris and other parts of the country, fighting the Germans with the French underground.  It was there he had met and mated with the woman they called Mademoiselle Marie.  Only years later did he find that she had produced a daughter, who in turn produced Julia Remarque, who was enconsced with Alfred's niece Daphne in one of the safest places in the entire mansion.

As if any place was safe in it, now.

He had killed before, yes.  Killed many of the damned Boche, and had not the least regret about it.  Enough men and women had fallen on his side.  Children, even.  One could not witness that and feel that the enemy should be repaid in kind.

Yet, he had managed to survive, and went back to England a hero, and took to the stage again as a second-string Shakespearean actor.  But when his father died, Alfred acquiesced to his sire's last wish: that he serve the Waynes as a butler, as his father had before the war broke out.  So he had chucked the footlights, packed a derby and umbrella, and come to the States to be a major domo to some playboy and his ward.

Fortunately, that had turned out not to be the case.  On one night, he heard a voice coming from the grandfather clock in the library, asking for help.  The clock proved to be mounted on a secret door, which opened onto a flight of stairs, which led to a Batcave below.  There he saw a sight he would never forget: Master Bruce, wounded, and unmasked, in his Batman costume, with master Dick, dressed as Robin, supporting him.

The shock had worn off within seconds.  Alfred knew what to do with battle wounds.  Within the hour, Master Bruce was bandaged and abed, smiling at Alfred and glad that he could share his secret with another man at last.  And Alfred, for his part, surged with pride, glad to be under command to a warrior again.  In effect, batman to the Batman.

He smiled a bit, even now.

The lights were out in the outer rooms of the house.  A mike was at his throat, an earplug in his ear.  The other warriors left to him were at other points, waiting and observing.  Flamebird, Robin, the Cat King, and the Batwoman from the other Earth.  The latter two were as old as himself.  Robin was a teenager.  Flamebird, the former Bat-Girl, hadn't seen action between the time of her leaving the Teen Titans and her recent stints with the Bat-Squad, though she acquitted herself well in the latter instance.

Lines from the Bard came to him.  Those about "Once more into the breach."  Those which went, "And damned be him who cries, ‘Hold, enough'."

But what he was thinking of most was Mistress Selina, dying in a room within the manor, and of Masters Bruce and Dick, together again after some time apart, gone to battle Kobra--and time.

He was sitting in a darkened room to the side of a window, well in the shadows, with a mechanism beside him.  He was waiting.

The window shattered and a grenade pumping gas fell in.

Alfred gave thanks for nose filters, ducked under the window, and pitched it back outside.  He raised the Uzi above the level of the windowsill.  Shots went overhead.  He answered them with his own, then ducked back and rolled to safety.  His aged body protested, and he knew he could not fight as he had in decades past.

The green light on one face of the machine indicated that the motion detectors on the south side had been tripped.  No big mystery.

"They're attacking," he said into his mike.

"Roger that," said Jason.

The confounded boy sounded as if he'd aged to 21 within a week.  As perhaps he had.

 -B-

Batman had already charged up several flights of stairs by the time Nightwing got to a phone and called up the cops.  Some, he learned from the desk sergeant, were already on the scene, tending to the Outsiders and putting cuffs on the Cobramen.  "Lieutenant Bullock's there, too," the sarge reported.

"Yeah, well, get some guys upstairs," rapped Nightwing.  "We've got a lot of wilted Cobras around here, and I don't want ‘em waking up and threatening hostages.  We've got work to do."

"Can you stay with them till our men arrive?" asked the cop.

Nightwing debated it.  Bruce needed him, needed him like hell.  But there were still innocent people on this floor, and wherever the Cobras could get to.  He looked at the scattered squad of Cobra Cultists lying on the floor of the hall.  One seemed to be stirring.

"How fast can they get here?" he asked, walking over to the Cultist.

"Don't know, but I'd expect ‘em in about five minutes, fifteen tops," said the desk sergeant.

The masked man's boot came up, and crashed down on the Cobraman's head.  The victim subsided.

"I'll give you five," said Nightwing.  "They'd better be here by then."

 -B-
 

Batman was conscious of everything as he mounted the stairs.  One step which gave too much, one crevice between head and body of step, one out-of-place bit with the railing, telltale shadows, sounds, smells that might portend attack around the next bend, or from above, or even behind...these all had to be taken into consideration.  But he had done this so often, trained himself as to what to notice, that it was almost an automatic function.

Like a bullet train, he was driving himself towards Kobra.

He was conscious of being somewhat fatigued.  He was aware of the fact that, in their last battle, Kobra had beaten him.  He knew how many hours he had been on his feet, how much fighting he had done, how much stress he had been under for the entire week.

All points in Kobra's favor.

None of that mattered a damn to him right now.  The only thing that mattered was getting to Kobra, beating him, getting the antidote, and getting it back to Selina in time.

(what if it isn't in time)

(SHUT UP!)

And if it really wasn't in time?  What could he do to Kobra then?  Would he abandon his oath against killing?  Could he really live with the laughter of the man who killed his wife in his ears?

Best not to worry about that now.  Just concentrate on the task ahead.  On doing the job.

He promised himself to take great pleasure in it, and took another flight of stairs up the well.

 -B-

Selina Kyle Wayne had been trying to sort out her dreams for some hours now, and was about to give up on the effort.  It seemed too much for her.  Everything seemed too much, now, in the red and black velvet without substance that made up her current world.

She was conscious vaguely of heat and stench.  Perhaps that was her body talking to her, as much as it could incur into her dream.  Evidently she had not been rescued yet.  Or perhaps (she sighed, and did not want to admit it) she was beyond rescue.

No.  No no nonono...

Bruce...would come through for her.  But who was Bruce?  Somebody in a mask.  Face morphing into a bat...scary...  She wanted to shiver, but knew this was beyond her.  Everything seemed beyond her.

The faces of her father, of Jason, of Dick, of Helena, of Alfred, of her sister, they all wavered around as if called up one last time by dying memory cells.  Was her heart still beating?  Were her lungs still breathing?  Impossible to tell, at this point.

Dream.  Not quite nightmare, more illusion, delusion, red jungle now, with cats of all sorts waiting on her, seeming to be on all sides of her, before her, behind her, looking on friendly, cocking their heads, angling their ears, wondering when she would cross over...

Ah, it would be so nice to cross over. But what if those fangs were bared at her in a snarl, once she did?  One of the cats, a small ocelot, seemed to snarl at her.  The others looked at it as if it had committed a great faux pas, and it subsided.

Well, now.  This was not such a bad welcoming committee.  But she wanted to be with Bruce

(who was Bruce?)

and her new boy and try to be something she'd never quite managed to be

(what had she managed to be?  Something with cats, yes, had to be)

and there was someone nearby her who seemed vaguely human and that was probably out of place, but then again, so was she, and the cats didn't seem to mind her any more than they did Selina.

The strange part about it was that the other person was fairly well defined.  A woman.  She wore a black top and short skirt, plus flat-heeled shoes.   That was more sensible, though Selina knew she had an image to present, and tried to wear high-heeled boots as the Catwoman

(that was what she had been, then, no wonder there were cats)

even though the damned things were so hard to run in she'd chucked them for flat heels.

The woman was pale and had kind of frizzy hair but looked very pretty, a bit short, kind of like Poison Ivy although nobody was quite as short as Ivy (laugh).  She seemed a bit cordial, which was nice.  She was sitting on a stone seat that looked a bit Grecian in style.

"Hello, Selina," she said in a surprisingly audible voice.

"Hello," she said.  "Who are you?"

The woman fidgeted a bit with her hands.  "Well, I may be your guide.  You're not quite here yet, but I like to be on time, so I've gotten a little early on you.  Come on and sit down."

Selina, who appeared to be dressed in a white gown of sorts, walked over (on what surface, she didn't know) and sat beside the woman, though the latter shrank a bit from her.  "Are you afraid of me?" asked Selina.

The woman shook her head.  "No.  I'm not afraid of anybody, really.  It's just that we mustn't touch just yet."

"Oh," said Selina.  "All right.  Are the cats comfortable with us being here?"

Her new acquaintance nodded.  "They don't worry.  This is just part of your inner landscape, Selina.  You loved cats, and they love you.  We can stay here, or somewhere else, if you want to conjure it."

"No," said Selina.  "I like being with the cats."  She reached out her hand, tentatively stroked the head of one fine black panther, just like Hecate.  It purred, growlingly, and nudged her side with its nose.

"So what do we do?"  Selina asked.

"Depends," said the woman.  "Do you play cards?"

"Sure.  Hearts all right?"

"Perfect," said the woman, and a deck of cards appeared in her right hand.  Selina could have sworn that it had been up her sleeve, except the woman's top didn't have any sleeves.  The lady began to deal.

"Just one thing," said the woman.  "Don't touch my hands, just pick up the cards after they lay.  Okay?"

"Fine by me," said Selina.

The other started shuffling the deck.  "I always talk better over a hand or two, anyway.  Your sister sends her regards."

"Oh, really?" Selina smiled.  "That's good.  When will I get to see her?"

"Pretty soon, probably," said the black-haired girl, as she started slapping down pasteboards on the stone seat.

 -B-
 

Robin of Earth-Two parted the bushes and looked at the fallen Starfire on the ground.  Still unconscious, but breathing.  He could see that from where he was.  Good sign, possibly one of the best so far this night.  Putting his wrist-mike to his hand, he spoke: "Come on.  Carefully."

The two others, Batgirl and Huntress, emerged from nearby points in the wood.  The three of them approached the girl from Tamaran, who was sprawled on her face.   Robin examined her leg, saw a nasty burn on the side of it, which had even seared away part of her boot.  He rummaged in his utility belt, found a tube of burn ointment, squirted some on his glove and gingerly began to apply it to the seared area.  The alien girl's leg began to quiver.

"Don't," said Helena.  "You might be hurting her."

"No, he's doing right," said Barbara.  "As much as she's going to hurt, we need her awake and with us."

Batgirl knelt at Starfire's head and turned her over.  Her eyes were closed, but her breathing was regular.  She put her hand in the girl's mouth to see that nothing was in danger of being swallowed, and Starfire quivered harder.  Quickly, she pulled her fingers out, but slapped her hand back down on the golden girl's mouth again to keep her from crying out in pain if she awoke.

"We don't need to give our position away any more than we have already," she explained to the Huntress.

That was when approximately when three tasers hit them and filled their world with blue-white flashes of electrical pain.

Batgirl tried to resist screaming, tried to resist jerking like a puppet on speed, tried to get her fingers to obey long enough to snatch a batarang from her belt, tried to concentrate on helping Robin and Huntress, who were doing the St. Vitus Dance worse perhaps than she was, tried to pump her anger at seeing the Cobra crew melting out of the darkness in spots even her infra-red goggles hadn't picked out, but...nothing...seemed...to...be...working...except...her...pain...receptors...

She heard what sounded like Dick and Helena's screams, too.  That wasn't surprising.

But the whoosh of sound just afterward and the screams of agony that didn't come from her friends were.

The blue-fire pain faded, dropping down to agonizing, then to hurtful, then to almost tolerable, and her cries seemed to be tapering off to whimpering, so that was probably all right.  Her vision was clearing enough to see old Robin and the Huntress moaning, the tasers no longer contacting their bodies, the wiring from them melted.

There was a source of light, and it came from several fires.  Four were from screaming Cobramen.  The fifth and sixth were the hands of Koryand'r, who had raised herself to a sitting position and was still holding burning energy in her mitts.  It lit her face from below and made her look almost fearsome.  Her expression was that of a satisfied fury.

The Cobras were rolling on the ground, still howling in pain, putting out the fires as best they could.  But they were burned only slightly less well than Kory herself had been, earlier.  She sent another starbolt at the grass near them.  It burst.  They managed to pick themselves up and flee.

"Go!" she yelled.

"Kory," gasped Batgirl.  "You're...you saved us."

The fury from Tamaran smiled at Barbara.  "You saved me.  But...I...am in pain."  She winced, gritting her fine teeth.

Robin and the Huntress were rising to a semi-standing position, trying to shake off the effects of the electrical shock.  "Kory," said the Huntress.  "We must get you back to the mansion.  Can you...fly?"

"I cannot," said the princess of Tamaran.  "My leg...is burned too badly.  But if you will help me up...we may walk our way back.  And fight our way back...if need be."

Robin helped her up on her right side, and even in the moonlight, to Batgirl he looked all of his fifty-plus years.  Helena came up on Kory's left side to support her there.  Starfire held her injured left leg with the knee bent, careful not to brush it too much against the Huntress.

"I'll go point," sighed Batgirl.

The four of them began the journey back to the manor.  Looking in that direction, Batgirl saw that the lights were out.

Whatever was going down there, they would probably be too late to affect.

 -B-

The Outsiders had, for the most part, been revived by Gotham's Finest, and Metamorpho and Element Girl had transformed parts of their bodies into acid to dissolve Plastic Man from his polymer prison.  Nobody seemed to have much of any idea what was happening inside, except that both Batman and Nightwing had gone in and Kobra was supposed to be inside.

Black Lightning used his wrist-radio to call up Dick.  "What's up, Wing?" he asked.  "We're coming in, but brief us.  Briefly."

The voice of Nightwing came back.  "I'm on my way, but a long way behind Batman.  He must be almost at the top.  Kobra's probably in the penthouse.  Go there, but...proceed with caution."

"Received and noted," said Jeff.  He turned to the others.  "Morph, Rainie.  Get into gas-form and get up to the penthouse.  Halo, Looker: think you can do a lift-'em-up number on the rest of us?"

"Sure.  As always," said Looker, whose eyes began to glow again.

Katana held up her hand.  "Hold, Looker.  Talia and Faraday are not with us.  Leave me.  I must find them."

"Gosh, Katana, don't you think Batman needs us worst now?", said Halo, confusedly.

The she-samurai looked back at her charge, grimly.  "I must find the woman.  You must be enough."

"We've got no time to argue," snapped Black Lightning.  "Looker, lift us!"

Harvey Bullock, standing near him, said, "Don't you want police escort, for cripes' sake?"

"No time," said Jeff.

His feet were already off the ground, as Looker and Halo levitated themselves and their comrades, except for Katana.

The red-masked woman was already sprinting into the building.  Bullock gestured with his cigar to two cops standing by.  "Muldoon, Tracy.  You just gonna stand there?  Get after her!  You, you, you, and you, follow them.  Now!"

But by the time the bluecoats were inside the door, Katana was nowhere to be found.

Which made things simpler for her, as far as she was concerned.

 -B-

More than a few windows had been shattered in stately Wayne Manor.  Gunfire had damaged several rooms within.  Alfred had returned the fire, and so had Karl Kyle.  Batwoman and Flamebird had been content thus far with throwing gas-bombs at the enemy, though they suspected they might be using nose-filters as well.

The cops knew the mansion had been breached, but Gordon and company were still too far off at this moment to be of any help.  Assuming, that was, that they could find the Cobramen in the dark.

This wasn't a fight against Gotham criminals. This was flat-out war, and Alfred's team were the only real counterforces.

Batwoman felt the stiffness of her joints as she crouched by a window, and sighed.  Unlike the JSA members, she'd had no staving off of her aging process.   Here she was now, an old woman, expected to shoot people to death if they got inside the house, on a world not her own.  It made as much sense as Hell.

She chanced a communication by wrist radio with Karl.  "What are you doing?"

"Just a minute, love," said Karl.  "Ah.  There!"

There was a WHOOMP! of flame and noise in the night, some distance from the mansion.  Men might have been yelling, but it was hard to tell.

"What'd you do?" she cried.

"Just borrowed your Flying Bat and had Alfred help rig up a little adaptation," came Karl's voice.  "Small fiberoptic camera on top.  Infra-red lens.  Little incendiary bomb underneath.  Servos to drop it.  I saw a nest of Cobras, and I think I've got ‘em."

"You killed them," said Batwoman, without emotion.

"Kathy," said the Cat King.  "They want to kill us."

"That's not what the family stands for!"

"Well, if we don't do it, very shortly there isn't going to be any family to stand.  And that includes you, me, and Selina."

"You used my Flying Bat.  You didn't ask me."

"I knew what you'd say."

"Damn!"  She clicked off the wrist-radio and wondered why in the hell she'd ever gotten mixed up in this escapade, knowing even as she asked it the reason why.  She just wished that the cost of protecting Selina, and helping Bruce, hadn't been blood.

She barely had time to hear the object falling through the window before the blinding flash of light erupted.

Kathy Kane cried out.  A flash-grenade.  Even with her goggles on, it blinded her.  She staggered back against the wall, felt of a door, opened it, went inside, slammed and locked it behind her.  The Batwoman felt for a wall, reeled down it, knocked something to the floor that fell with a bang, and kept going.

She had to keep going till she found safety, till her vision cleared, or both.

Till then, she was blind as a bat.

 -B-

Jason Todd, in his Robin outfit, was the only one in the room with Selina and Dr. Dundee.  The old doctor was tense, having heard the explosive sounds from near and farther away.  But his professionalism was unhindered.  He administered another injection of stimulant to Selina, doubting it would do more than make her twitch.

He was losing the battle.  Even if Green Lantern and all his friends returned, he doubted he could bring Selina Wayne back from the gates of death.

But he still had to try.  Hell, hadn't the docs who worked over JFK done as much, even when that gaping wound in his head told them as clear as day that the only thing his body had left was mechanical function?  And that only for a few minutes?  They had to do something, everything they could, just to prove to themselves and to the world afterward that they had.  That no effort had been spared.

With Selina, though, it was more personal.  She might have been the one to brighten the Batman's grim world with love, bear him a blood son, maybe even get the idiot to retire and raise a family.  God knew, he was trying hard with Jason, but there was no way to be a proper father to the boy by day while taking him out as Robin by night.

Although it seemed to have worked well enough in the case of young Grayson.

Now, Dundee was a combat surgeon.  Even though he'd never seen action before, even if this war was undeclared, it was as deadly as any jungle fighting in ‘Nam or South America.  Well, if that be the case, he would attend to his patient.  And he would see her through, or see her to her rest with as much ease as possible.

Jason said something he didn't catch.  "What?", asked Dundee.

"I'm going out there," said Robin.  He had a sling weapon from the utility belt already in his hand.

"Don't be a fool," said Dundee.  "You're too young, Jason.  The Batman would want you by Selina's side."

"Maybe he shoulda been there instead," said Jason, opening the door.  "I've got the defense systems on, Doc.  This is the family's last stand.  I'm standing with ‘em."

"Jason!"

But the boy was gone, and the door locked behind him.

Dundee sighed and turned back to Selina.

He didn't know which of them was sweating the most.

 -B-

There had been a guard on the floor below the penthouse, and they weren't even worth mentioning.  Now they were decorating the carpet.  A steel door stood between the Batman and the final level.  He felt for the tools in his utility belt.

"Batman."

A voice.  The voice of Kobra.

"I congratulate you on your sterling effort.  Truly, your wife would be pleased.  However, I have a final trump your side cannot counter: a force-field which I have activated.  It encases this entire floor, above it, below it, and on all sides.  Your allies cannot penetrate it.  Nor can you.  But there is a way in."

"What is it?" said the Batman, softly.

Kobra's voice issued from the hidden speakers again.  "We have always known it would come down to this.  The final battle, the Ragnarok.  If I am your Midgard Serpent, and you are my Thor, then we must fight.  However, no one has yet prophecied which of us will be slain, and which be slayer."

"What do you want?"  Batman's voice was icier than even he would have believed.

"I will lift the underside of the field and open the door for three seconds.  You will be admitted.  We will battle.  If you win, you may have the antidote for your wife's condition.  But even I cannot tell whether or not it will be effective, at this stage--"

Batman had already thrown himself at the door.  Kobra heard the bonging sound he made against it.

"Very well," said the over-villain.  Batman heard the servos controlling the door locks moving.  An instant later, he had thrown the door open and had bolted through.

The servos closed the door and locked it behind him, and an audible hum indicated that the force-field was in place again.

The room was large, palatial, even more gaudy than what Bruce Wayne could have provided for himself.  But the Batman's attention was less on the decor than on the other three people in it, at the other end of the penthouse.

One was the half-naked Eve, regarding him with the deadly calm and gaze of--the metaphor was unavoidable--a snake.

The second was Melissa MacNeil, clad in a purple dress, looking mesmerized as she sat in a chair.

And the third was already in his costume of gold and green, looking as physically powerful as any foe of comparable size Batman had ever met.

"Welcome," said Kobra.  "Now, let us begin."

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