Dance With the Demons
Ten heroes were crowded into two Batplanes, soaring over the sea between America and India. There was some small talk and socializing aboard the craft, diffusing the natural tension. It would be the second time most of them had entered battle and risked their lives within the week. All of them knew that, if they survived, they'd probably have to do it again, as well.
Batman, Black Lightning, Katana, Halo, and Metamorpho were in Batplane I, which left Element Girl, Geo-Force, Looker, Plastic Man, and the Creeper in the second Batplane. Geo-Force piloted the second aircraft, and Looker sat in the co-pilot's seat. She had practically no airtime as a pilot, but she liked being close to Brion Markov.
Element Girl didn't need to be told that the two were lovers. That seemed nice.
"Lia?" she asked.
Looker turned her head towards the girl with the chalk-white face and green hair. "Yes, Rainie?"
"Um, we were supposed to be trading origin stories last night, but I ran on so long with mine that I didn't get to hear anyone else's. Is it okay if I ask about yours? And maybe Brion's?"
Geo-Force smiled. "I do not usually participate in hen parties. But if you wish to know about me, Urania, feel free to do so."
Looker punched his shoulder. "Hen parties, eh? What do you call those stag get-togethers you and the boys have, rooster rallies? Don't mind him, Rainie, he's a king. He's entitled to be dumb."
Element Girl sat cross-legged in the cockpit behind the two of them. "I'd heard you were a king, Brion, but I haven't picked up a lot else on you yet. Why don't you go first?"
The man in the green and yellow costume considered his words as he stared through the plane's windshield at the late morning sky.
"I am a prince of Markovia, the nation which bears the name of my family, the Markovs. Our land is located between France and Lichenstein, and, since its liberation from Germany at the end of World War II, has not seen war until the advent of Baron Bedlam. Before the time of his usurpation, my life was not unlike those of other royals, I suppose. My father, before he died, taught me and my brother Gregor the things he thought we should know when one of us would assume the throne. For the most part, our people are farmers and miners, though we have some industry. Am I boring you?"
"No," said Element Girl, quickly. "Please, go right ahead."
"Very well," said Brion. "My speech is a bit more formal than I would like it to be, but English, you understand, is a second language. Very well, then. I will also mention that I had a sister, Tara, who was lost to us until recently. Before recent times, I can assure you, neither of us would have dreamed of possessing great powers, or wearing a costume, or doing battle with similarly-powered beings. Fate is interesting, eh? Ofttimes grim, but always surprising. Again, please forgive my way of speaking.
"Well, then: I must let you know two things. First, that my brother Gregor and I have never been on the best of terms. Second, that a scientist came to us not long before my father's death, with a strange proposition. Her name was Dr. Helga Jace. She claimed that she had the power to infuse great abilities into a human body, giving one powers which stemmed from the very Earth itself. But she had made genetic analyses which indicated that only members of my family could receive the treatment without dying on the spot. And do not expect me to tell you the reason why, for I am no scientist.
"She convinced my father to let her test the process on one of our family, who was Tara. She did, indeed, receive the powers Dr. Jace had promised. Her abilities were mostly manifested as the power to affect rock and earth itself, manipulating those substances the way she wished. As I said, before long she was gone, a runaway to America. But I digress.
"Then came Baron Bedlam, the usurper. The man who brought war to our land anew, and that on the eve of my father's passing. The man who had been a Nazi collaborator during the Great War. His father had ruled the nation as regent, thanks to his sympathies with Hitler. When the Allies liberated our land, my father was restored to the throne, and the usurper was hung by a mob. Thankfully. Bedlam himself, who was called DeLamb, escaped.
"In the time between then and the invasion, he amassed a personal fortune and a mercenary army. Then he struck at us. He was counting on my father's illness to make it that much easier for him to triumph. After Markovia was conquered, he intended to use it as a base for further conquests. Hitler, I suspect, was his model. But, luckily, this did not come to pass."
Rainie was somewhat put off by Brion's storybook manner of speaking, but decided not to hold it against him, and didn't interrupt his story. Geo-Force continued.
"Dr. Jace approached me, and offered me the same treatment that Tara had undergone. My brother scoffed at it, but I knew it could lend us the power we needed to withstand Bedlam, for our armament was hardly a match for his own. I was bombarded by the same energies, but they manifested different powers in me...gravity control, lava blasts, resistance to harm. The last I found out after Bedlam's troops broke into Jace's laboratory. I resisted them with my new powers. They shot me. They buried me. Minutes after they left my gravesite, I broke free of it."
"They shot you and you didn't die?" marvelled Element Girl. "Didn't they even take time to check you out?"
Looker smiled. "They were in a bit of a hurry, or so Brion's told me. Batman and the rest had arrived in Markovia by that time, and Bedlam's men were busy trying to cope with them."
Geo-Force said, "That they were. But I was amnesiac for a short time, thanks to the bullet which creased my skull. During that time, Bedlam used Jace's machine to give himself his own distinct powers, and my brother was shot by his troops. The sight of Bedlam restored my memory. I battled him, prevailed, and threw him to the Markovians outside our castle walls. I thought they had destroyed him, but he escaped, somehow. Dr. Jace said that the geo-force, from which I took my name, had left him, but it is possible he still retained enough power to save himself." Brion shrugged. "No matter. When I meet him again, we will settle accounts."
"Oh," said Element Girl. "So, um, that's when the team was formed?"
"Yes," said Geo-Force. "Batman himself said that none of us had anything to return to, and that he could help us learn the correct way to use our powers, or, in Halo's case, learn her identity, or to find some sort of purpose in our lives. That was when Halo, Katana, Lightning, Rex and I joined with him as the Outsiders. Such we have remained, to this day."
"You said something about your sister Tara," said Element Girl.
"I did," Geo confirmed, a tad more grimly. "I was fortunate enough to find her again, when we all combined forces with the Teen Titans to battle those known as the Fearsome Five. It was a reunion on the run, so to speak. But we did manage to speak with each other after the villains were vanquished, though she seemed a bit--distant. Then again, the changes Tara, or Terra, as she was called, had undergone were enough to disconcert anyone.
"That was the last time I saw her alive. Not long afterward, she perished fighting side-by-side with the Titans against the HIVE. I am given to believe her death was heroic. That pleases me." He paused. "But a death is still a death."
Element Girl elongated her purple hand out and touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Brion."
"Thank you, Urania," he said, still watching the skies ahead. "And that is my story. Now, Lia, what about yours?"
"Me?" Looker squinted at him. "Why pick me, for cryin' out loud? Just because we're, um, going together..."
The Creeper smiled more widely. "Hey, sounds like the best excuse I've heard in awhile. And I'm not playin' Secret Origins myself!"
Plastic Man elongated his head forward from the back seat and spoke to Looker face-to-face. "Go ahead, honey. Mine's kinda boring, anyway. At least to me."
Looker gave him her 200-kilowatt smile. "I doubt that. But let me try.
"Okay. Fade in on a gal working at Gotham Trust. Her name was Emily Briggs. Married, no children. Dressed in suits more conservative than Pat Buchanan. Short hair, black-rimmed eyeglasses, the works. Her hubby Greg loved her, but she didn't love herself. Not very much. Especially when it seemed as though...well, anyone with looks was the one to get the big promotions, the big money, the guys hanging off their every word. And what words they had weren't much better than what you'd get out of a talking Barbie when you pulled her ring.
"So. Out of nowhere one day, Emmy Briggs gets kidnapped by these two hulking hunks. The next thing she knows, she's taken by them, and I still hardly believe this myself, to an underground city. The people there are like a cross between the casts of Conan and Star Wars. They dumped me with these four six-foot Amazons who made me get out of my clothes and into this outfit I thought was positively repulsive." She gestured to her costume. "I mean, one side a pink silk wrap and the whole left leg bare, and this vest sort of thing with long sleeves and a collar, and a buccaneer boot on the left foot? Who died in fashion class?"
Element Girl giggled. Even Plastic Man cracked a smile. Lia went on.
"The Outsiders were working on a case that brought them down there, and we both met the ruler of the city, Prince Argon, a hunk and a half. He said I was their, quote, ‘Most honored guest', unquote, and kissed my hand. After we all had a banquet, he told me that I was to become their queen. Still with me so far? Good.
"I just wanted to go back to hubby and home. But he gave me this little history lesson instead, all about how some meteorite gave a king's kid super-powers some 4,000 years ago. They were psionics, mentalist powers. The kid, Loron, grew up to be a conqueror, but he overreached himself. He had to flee underground, along with his wife and some of his followers. That's how the underground city, Abyssia, got started. One of Loron's line was exposed to the meteorite in each generation, and gained the psi-powers.
"Okay. The long and short of it was that Ector, the king of a couple of generations back, wanted peace with the surface world. The rest of the kingdom wasn't hot on that idea. They'd been raised for centuries to get ready for the big brawl that would wipe the surface clean of people, and let them take over. Ector escaped, went to the surface world himself, adopted a new identity. Ector was--my grandfather.
"I didn't know about any of this until Argon told me. He was one of Ector's advisors, and so was his sister. Both of them took power in Ector's abscence, and split up the kingdom. They were at war with each other, and Argon wanted me to get the powers of Loron's line, so that I could tip the scale in his favor with psionics. On top of the powers, he told me that the meteorite would transform me physically. Make me beautiful."
"It did," said Rainie.
"Um, thanks," said Looker, blushing a bit. "It...it was like this. I'd been practically a poster girl for wallflowers all my life. Janis Ian used my life as a template when she wrote ‘At Seventeen.' Only in my case, it was at seventeen, eighteen, and all the years up through twenty-five. All the years before it, too. My mother...didn't like me being too pretty. She'd gotten--"
"Lia, it's all right," said Geo-Force. "You don't have to tell them every--"
"She'd gotten herself raped when she was in school," said Looker, in a rush. "My grandfather took care of the guy who did it. They never told me how, but I can guess, now. By the time Mom got married and had me...she made sure I was plain. Plainer even than normal. I...she...oh, God." Looker turned away, towards the side of the cockpit.
"Lia," said Geo, casting a look in her direction. He was about to place the plane on auto-pilot.
But Element Girl wrapped herself around Looker in a cocoon of her pliable limbs, not restraining, but hugging her, supportively. "Shhh, Lia, it's okay, it's okay."
"It wasn't," she sobbed. "I'm sorry. I was lonely. Even when I got married, even when I made love, oh, God, I'm sorry..."
The blue glow about her eyes was not dimmed by the tears.
The others were silent. Geo-Force was, from the look on his face, almost in physical pain.
Rainie Blackwell spoke. "They gave you the powers of the king's line?"
Mutely, Looker nodded.
"And it made you, uh, what you look like now?"
"Yes," Lia said, trying to get herself back under control.
The Creeper did something uncanny at that point.
He touched his palm in a certain way, and was transformed from the green-haired, yellow-costumed weirdster to the business-suited form of Jack Ryder. He fished in his pocket for a handkerchief and held it out to Looker. "Here, honey," he said.
Plastic Man looked at him, curiously. "You're Jack Ryder. Kinda expected that, but that's how you get out of your makeup and sheepskin and all?"
"Yeah, and here's how I get back into ‘em," Ryder said. He touched the palm-device again, and, in a shimmer, returned to the appearance of the Creeper. "Just don't go spreading this around. Outside of Bats, you're the only ones who know."
Looker, sniffling, said, "Why did you let us know?"
The Creeper shrugged. "I trust you. Besides, you needed a hanky."
"Great line, Creep," said Plas, cynically.
"Hey, wait'll you hear my Karloff dialogue," replied the green-haired man. "I reserve it for the baddies."
"Enough, boys," said Rainie, easing her grip on Looker somewhat. "So, Lia, I guess you and Batman and the bunch put things to rights down below, huh?"
Looker sighed. "Yes. I'm sorry for acting like such a soap-opera bawler, gang. Honestly. It's just that...well, I'm still Emily inside, lots of times, and I still remember what...ah, hell. Everything I say, it seems to be as trite as a B-movie script."
"Anything but that, darling," said Geo-Force, still at the pilot's seat.
"Argon tried to use me to make Halley's Comet hit the Earth, by psychokinesis. I don't think it would have destroyed the world, but you may have heard about that Siberian explosion in 1908. That was probably a comet hitting Earth, and maybe not as big a one as Halley's. I was brainwashed, made it change course, but I snapped out of it when Argon broke my wedding ring. That brought me back to normal...or whatever I was, then...and I helped Batman and the others take him down. I got the comet back on its normal course, too. We all came back to Gotham, and I met Greg, and gave him one hell of a Christmas present." She smiled, wistfully.
Element Girl looked at Geo-Force, and then back at Looker.
"You're wondering about Greg," said Looker.
"In short order, I got a lot of male attention, I became a model, he decided I...was not the woman he fell in love with...and we split up."
"I'm sorry," said Rainie.
Geo-Force cast a glance back at them.
"I'm not," he said.
Nobody knew what caused the big breakout in Arkham Asylum, followed shortly by the one in Gotham State Pen, but all were agreed that it couldn't have come at a worse time.
Most of the civilian crooks had been rounded up shortly afterward. The greater number of those who escaped were Batman's costumed enemies. That scared the hell out of the average Gothamite, because people like the Joker had a tendency to leave a few corpses behind before they got shoved back into stir again.
Croc, still recovering from his beating, hadn't taken advantage of it. Others like the aforementioned Joker, Two-Face, the Penguin, the Riddler, Killer Moth, the Cavalier, Black Mask, and Poison Ivy had. Along with them were a multitude of miscreants such as the Cluemaster, the Signalman, the Mad Hatter, and Hugo Strange. But, strangely enough, most in the latter category seemed to vanish from the streets of Gotham after their liberation. Were they in hiding elsewhere, or totally disappeared?
The only way of knowing was to wait for them to strike, and the city already had its hands full with the malefactors who were known to be at large.
The explosions which freed the costumed crook brigade occurred when the Batplanes were already over the ocean, far from the United States. The police braced for the wave of robberies and murder to come.
But they were not alone.
Alfred Pennyworth was stopped from sending a call to Batman to tell him of the situation. Nightwing was the one who placed the hotline back on the receiver cradle. "No, Alfred," he explained. "Bruce and his friends have their hands full. He's been there enough for us all when we needed him. Now it's time we repaid the favor."
The old butler looked beyond the man who was once Robin. Behind Nightwing stood others in costume: young Robin, old Robin, and the Huntress. They looked resolute, and well aware of the weight on their shoulders, though the pair from Earth-Two had never faced many of the villains at large.
"Do you think you will be enough?" asked Alfred.
"We're meeting Batgirl at a rezendevous point," said Nightwing. "If I need to, I can call in Kory and the Titans. But I think we'll be enough."
"Better believe it," said Jason Todd, slapping a Batarang against his gloved palm.
"Don't worry about us, Alfred," said the Huntress. "Worry about the bad guys."
"I worry most about Mistress Selina," said Alfred. "There will be none to protect her, save I."
The older Robin said, "It'll have to do, Alfred. If your Bruce is anything like my Bruce, you know where our priorities have to lie."
"I do," sighed Alfred. "All too well."
Nightwing turned to the three others. "All right, Bat-Squad--to the cave!"
The four of them moved out, Jason giving a big war-whoop along the way. Before long, the Batmobile and two Batcycles would move out of the Batcave's hidden exit.
There was nothing else for Alfred to do except prepare Mistress Selina's soup.
That, and hope Ra's Al Ghul was as far away from Gotham as possible.
Batman kept as much visual contact with the second Batplane as he could through the clouds, and made certain that both planes tracked each other through various instruments. A computer screen kept each Batplane appraised of the other craft's condition, and each pilot could contact the other through a video terminal if necessary.
Black Lightning, Metamorpho, Halo, and Katana had gotten up a gin rummy game in the back. That was fine with him. Especially, he thought wryly, if Gaby kept winning as often as she did. When it came to poker, he could trounce everyone in the group but Katana. The woman had an incredible ability to bluff.
He was glad for his ability to compartmentalize. When he needed a clear head, which was most of the time, he could lock away his feelings of pain and concentrate on the matter at hand. At the point of combat, in which controlled fury was an asset, he could unlock the mental cabinet and let his anger and hurt flow forth. They were usually quite effective.
That was how it had been when Kathy Kane, the Batwoman, was murdered by the Sensei's minions some years back. It had been weeks between the action and its avenging, during which the Batman had to handle other cases and Bruce Wayne had to complete numerous acts of business. When the time came, the Sensei paid--possibly with his life, though Batman was not sure. Ra's and Talia had been involved in that case, as the Sensei's enemies.
Now he concentrated on what he knew of Kobra.
The saga had begun with Marie and Robert Burr's vacation in New Delhi, India, over 20 years ago. Their presence there had to be more than coincidence, as Marie was quite pregnant at the time. She gave birth to Siamese twin sons, who were safely separated after an operation that lasted almost an entire day. However, they were told that one child died, and were presented with the other, whom they named Jason.
Throughout his life, Jason experienced strange pains, pleasures, and other sensations which he could not understand. Not until he reached adulthood did he learn the truth: his brother was still alive, and still linked to him by an empathic bond. What hurt Jason, hurt his brother, and vice versa.
In the years between, the other Burr twin had been kidnapped by the Cobra Cult, straight off the operating table, and raised to become their chosen leader.
The Cult had been formed shortly after the British conquest of India, to oppose the occupying army and, hopefully, to drive it out. It took Mahatma Ghandi to accomplish that objective, but the Cobras managed an impressive underground effort nonetheless. Like the Mafia, the Triad, and other such societies, what began as idealism degenerated into criminality. In the modern era, they had collaborated with the scientifically advanced crime organizations such as OGRE and the International Crime Combine, and, most likely, the HIVE. They had become wealthy and powerful--and deadlier than ever.
The Burr brother had been born at the precise horoscopic moment to lead their band, in their reckoning, and the Cobra Cult was successful in making him into the very model of a modern super-criminal. His mastery of the various martial arts was on a plane with Batman's. His knowledge and command of science and technology was Luthor-like, though he couldn't quite match the latter's incredible intellect.
He was also a ruthless killer, and none could speculate how much blood was on his hands, directly or indirectly.
He wore a costume of orange and green and used various weapons and commanded the Cobra Cult's hordes. He seemed to know all the Justice Leaguers' secret identities, though he did not reveal them to the world or even the criminal fraternity, preferring to use them as an advantage of his own. When he went up against individual super-heroes, Kobra had been thwarted, but never really defeated.
That included Batman, and the Outsiders as well.
When Kobra began his open command of the Cult, his existence became known to his brother, who fought him. The serpentine savant knew well that their empathic bond was a threat to his continued existence, but harming Jason Burr would bring similar harm to Kobra himself. Thus, in his battles with Jason Burr, Kobra was very, very careful.
Until the day that he captured Burr's girlfriend, used the Lazarus Pit of Ra's Al Ghul to turn her into a living zombie, and had her lure Burr into a trap. Batman had become involved in the case by chance, got captured along with Burr, and learned Kobra's secrets from him. The Gotham hero had freed them both from a trap that would have immersed them in the Pit, and almost managed to save them both.
Kobra had fashioned a "neural neutralizer" which blocked the linkage between himself and Jason Burr. Thus, he was able to have Jason killed. This happened when the enslaved girl plunged a large knife into Burr's back, full in the sight of Batman. Enraged, the Dark Knight had attacked Kobra, but the master villain had escaped. Batman swore vengeance, even if he had to bring the entire Justice League in to gain it.
Thus far, that had been an empty vow. Batman had encountered Kobra several times since then, once in the company of Aquaman and Green Lantern, the other times with the Outsiders. So had Superman. Their foe remained at large, his organization still unbroken.
Just like Ra's Al Ghul.
Well, it was time to do something about Kobra once and for all. If he was behind the attempt on Selina's life, so much the better. If not, he was going down nonetheless. Then Batman would continue the search until he found the party responsible.
Whatever the case, only one of them would walk away from this encounter.
He only hoped that none of the team had to perish in the onslaught as well.
Batman chanced a look back at his four allies, and wondered if it had been like this for soldiers on their way to storm Normandy. But it hardly mattered. The task was theirs, and they would perform it.
A slight tone and a blinking light signified that someone was trying to get through to him on the Hotline. That signified Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, or the JLA. He punched a button on the communications panel. "Yes?"
It was Gordon. "Batman, are you anywhere in town? We've got a situation here."
"I'm out of bounds, Jim. How big?"
Gordon gave an audible sigh. "Jailbreak. A lot of your old waltzing partners are out. The Joker, Two-Face, all that lot. Thankfully, Croc is still laid up."
Batman paused a long moment. "I'm on a mission, Jim. I can't abort. Can you call in the Justice League?"
"We may not need them," said Gordon. "Batgirl just left. She said she's hooking up with four of your friends. She told me there's two Robins and Nightwing, but that has to be wrong. Who the hell is this Huntress? Can't be the one married to Sportsmaster."
"It isn't," said Batman, relaxing only a bit. "I'll tell you about them when I get back. Put in a call to the League and have them on standby, if they can. But for right now...I think Gotham's in pretty good hands right now."
"I hope so, old friend," said Gordon. "Best of luck."
"You, too," said Batman. "So long, Jim." He flipped the phone switch to the off position.
In the compartment behind, Black Lightning looked up. "Who was that, Bats?"
"Just Commissioner Gordon, Jeff," the cowled man replied. "Just letting me know about things back home."
Katana and Black Lightning looked at each other, knowingly.
"We're going to be busy when we get back," she said.
In a New Delhi hotel room, King Faraday finished his briefing to the group which stood or sat before him. An unlit cigarette was in his hand, one of the local brands which he had found quite flavorful.
"I play Judas goat on this one," Faraday explained. "You guys keep us in sight, but keep out of sight. When I lead them into the objective position, you strike. If he makes me out before we get there, I'll give the signal. You hit ‘em then, and radio Kobra's boys to come running. He wants Batman captured. The others he'd prefer captured, but I don't think he's that fussy."
"Can we bust up the Bat some before we bring him in?" asked one of the group.
Faraday shrugged. "Your call. Just remember the boss wants the real pleasures left to him." He placed the cigarette in his mouth. "That's all. Any questions?"
Nobody said anything. He took his lighter out, snapped it once, twice, three times. No soap. Fuel had run low.
One of the group let a stream of fire pass from her finger to the end of Faraday's cigarette. That did the trick.
The American grinned. Guess super-powers were good for something, after all.