Dance With the Demons
The catmasked man had a metal boomerang in his gloved hand as he ran, and threw it before he reached the end of the staircase to the Batcave.
He had good aim, especially for a man of his age. The leading edge of the weapon was as sharp as the average razor, and left one of the Cobra Cultists with a bicep spurting blood. Despite his training, despite his devotion to the mission, despite his fear of what the team leader would do to him, he knelt, grabbed his spurting wound, and screamed.
That was fine by the King of the Cats.
Five assailants remained, and only three defenders stood between them and the crawling Selina Kyle. One was Alfred Pennyworth, who had never seen the Cat King before. Small wonder, since Karl Kyle had never been to this Earth before.
The second was that same King of the Cats, who was unleashing an electrified whip from around his waist and snapping it at the fivesome. Some of them drew back. The team leader didn't. He had a gas grenade in his hand.
The third defender was a woman in a familiar yellow-and-red costume, who held a small control device in her hand. The device caused the flying robot bat to double back and smash into the back of the grenade-holder's head, very hard. Even body armor couldn't protect him from the impact. He groaned, and fell forward.
"The grenade, Alfred!" yelled Batwoman.
The butler dropped his mercy-bullet Tommy gun without thinking, did a dive that would have credited a minor-league ballplayer, and cupped the falling grenade in his hands before it could hit the floor. The problem was, in so doing, Alfred hit the floor, back first, and was practically in the middle of the four remaining Cultists.
They had guns, and they were aiming at him.
The King of the Cats whickered his whip at the foemen and snapped it around the guns of two of them at once. He pushed a stud in the handle of his whip. The electric charge into its steel fibers was redoubled. The intruders' gloves had some protection for them, but not enough. They howled in pain and dropped their weapons.
Batwoman was hardly in her prime. But, for a woman past fifty, she never negelected her physicality. She proved it by cannonballing into the two badmen who still held armament, and knocking them down. She kicked their guns away, towards Alfred, who picked them up and held them ready, one in each hand. His fingers were still somewhat numb, but he managed to fit his forefingers around the triggers.
If a dead woman's ghost was going to defend him, the least he could do was return the compliment.
Karl Kyle raked his claws across the forearms of the two men he had disarmed. Their armor was lighter there for mobility, just enough for him to penetrate. On the ends of the metal claws he had attached to his fingers was a harmless but potent sedative. Within seconds, the two Cultists crumpled to their knees, then lay flat on their faces.
The two Cultists Batwoman tangled with had pushed her away and were on the point of attacking her. Before Alfred could trigger a burst at them with their own weapons, the lady crimefighter was back on her feet, dipping into the red shoulder bag she carried and flinging something at them. It was a dust that sent the two into a coughing fit.
She then extruded a blackjack from her bag and coshed the two men smartly over the head with it. Busting one's knuckles on a crook's jaw was fun, but she had to admit that, at her age, this was more effective. The Cultists went down.
But one of the others came up.
The team leader, behind them, feeling mightily sore from the impact of Batwoman's robot bat, rose again, whipped out a gun, and began to fire.
Behind him, the sound of scraping metal, and a woman's voice had rung out: "Hecate, now!"
A large black panther rocketed into him from behind, striking him down, sending his bullets awry.
The Cultist screamed. He could feel the beast's great claws digging into its back, hear it growl its predatory signal into his ear, feel its weight holding him to the tile-covered limestone of the Batcave's floor. He knew what the thing was without seeing it. Nonetheless, he started to turn his head.
"Don't turn your head," warned Selina Kyle. "Don't even move. I can only control him so much."
"My God," breathed the King of the Cats. "Selina, you're back. You're really, really back!"
"I hate to tell you this, but I never left," said Selina. "Uh, Batwoman, if that's who you really are, I want you to come over here and help me up. The rest of you, stay where you are. I mean that."
The man who was holding his bleeding arm had already passed out, so there wasn't much disagreement from him. Alfred and the Cat King stood pat. The great black panther called Hecate stayed obediently on the Cultist's back, obedient to his mistress, but wondering when--or if--he'd be allowed a mouthful of this trembling bit of prey.
Batwoman walked quickly over to the empty cage from which Selina had released her pet. "I can't tell you how strange it is to see you here," said the masked woman. "I mean, on my world, you're dead."
Selina took her hand and allowed Batwoman to pull her to a standing position. She had a golden collar and leash in her other hand. "Well, I hate to tell you this, but over here, so are you. Help me over there, honey. I'm still pretty weak. And thanks."
Batwoman supported Selina across the Batcave floor as the latter stumblingly walked over to the great cat and his prisoner. "Hecate," said Selina. "At ease."
The panther did not resist as his mistress put the collar on him and drew him away from the Cobra Cultist. Selina Kyle turned to Batwoman. "Give me that thing you were using earlier," she said.
"The Flying Bat or this?" Batwoman held up her blackjack.
"That," said Selina, indicating the sap. Batwoman handed it over.
The Cultist, his body-armored back showing the deep tears Hecate's claws had made in it, craned his neck back, nervously.
Selina Kyle swung the blackjack down and conked him smartly on the head. The Cultist went down. Just to make sure he was out, she bashed him a couple more times. He was still breathing. Selina was grateful for that, at least; her no-murder policy remained unmarred.
But the task had wearied her. She had to sit down on the Cultist's body. Batwoman stooped to grasp her. "No, I'm all right," sighed Selina. "Alfred, go get some red meat from the freezer. Hecate won't go back in his cage until we give him some. It's that, or one of them."
"With all due haste, Mistress Selina," murmured Alfred, smiling and rubbing the circulation back into his hands. "Um, Mistress Batwoman. I take it from your earlier remarks that you and your friend hail from that other Earth? The one the Huntress calls home?"
Batwoman smiled. "Right, Alfred. We're both from Earth-Two. I'm sorry to scare you like this, since I've heard that--well, you know. The Batwoman on this Earth is dead. But I just heard about Selina a few days ago, when I finally got a chance to talk to D--Robin on the phone. I got hold of Karl here and we decided to offer our services, too. After all, we're family. Kind of."
"Karl," said Selina Kyle. "Earth-Two. That doesn't mean you're...no, it just can't be."
Karl looked at the Cultists, decided they were unconscious enough for him to risk it, and took off his mask. "I know you've never seen me before, Selina. But, my God, you look exactly like my sister when she was younger. My name is Karl Kyle. I'm your...well, that is, I'm..."
"You're the brother of the other Catwoman," said Selina, stroking Hecate's head as the big cat purred. "I wondered when I'd get a chance to meet you. Wait till we take care of my cat here, and we'll talk. Go get the meat, Alfred."
"With all due haste, madam," said Alfred, ascending the Batcave stairs.
There was no time to think of a battle plan. Nightwing and his cronies simply chose their targets on the fly and piled into them.
Admittedly, the Joker and his crew were adequate to the challenge. True, the older Robin and the Huntress were unfamiliar to them. But that mattered little. Mr. Freeze opened the fight with a blast of ice in Nightwing's face. Dick rolled, smashed his head on the floor, and broke the block before it hardened. Nonetheless, he came up gasping. His hand was on a Batarang from his belt as Molech grabbed his ankle and lifted him. From the strength in the giant's grasp, Nightwing knew he was in a dangerous position.
Young Robin caromed off Molech's knees from the back as Batgirl looped a lasso about the villain's neck and pulled. That, combined with a heart-punch from the upside-down Nightwing, got Molech to release him. But their huge foe was roaring, grabbing the batrope and pulling Batgirl closer. Wisely, she let go.
Old Robin ducked under a slash of the Cat-Man's claws, rammed an elbow hard into his foe's yellow-shirted gut, and was pleased to hear the grunt of pain from him. The Huntress roped Poison Ivy's gun hand, sending her thorn blast awry, and knocked her head over heels with an uppercut. But the smaller woman bounded to her feet again and dove at Helena, bearing her to the floor and trying for a scratch with her poisoned nails.
The Joker and the Scarecrow stood above the fray for the moment. The twin pillars of Mirth and Fear were sizing up the battle and, apparently, awaiting the best point in which to strike. Jason Todd saw them and, rashly, decided the issue for them. He came at them on the run, a hand in a pouch of his utility belt.
He threw a flash-bomb at the same time the Scarecrow threw a fear-gas pellet.
The Joker had seen the act and had fought the Bat-crowd enough to recognize their equipment at a glance. Thus, he had shielded his eyes with his arm. The Scarecrow, only a little slower than his compatriot, was unable to avoid the flash. He was able to grab several more glass balls from his costume, each, like the one just dropped, containing a potent psychochemical that reacted with the brain's fear centers.
The younger Robin punched up hard and true, slamming hard into Jonathan Crane's concealed jaw, and put the bad man out for the count.
That was when he began to fear.
Before his eyes, like an LSD flashback, there flickered the images of his greatest terrors. Of his parents being torn apart by Killer Croc. Of dropping to his death from a high trapeze. Of having parts of his body threatened by a razor-sharp scalpel. Of seeing Batman gunned down before his very eyes.
He struggled to clamp nose filters from his utility belt into his nostrils, but they were only partially effective.
The Joker grinned, as he almost always did, and stepped forward, taking the boy by the throat.
Nightwing, who had been grappling with Mr. Freeze, vaulted over and wrenched the young Robin away from the Joker's grasp, not without effort. Robin of Earth-Two, fighting Cat-Man, freed a hand and bounced the hard edge of a Batarang off of the Joker's ribcage. Batgirl, who was flipping over Molech's back, could render no aid, and the Huntress was still struggling with Poison Ivy, who was stronger than she looked.
Jason shut his eyes, crouched, fought the nightterrors that assailed him. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done, like trying to scream in a nightmare in which your voice is reduced to the merest squeak.
Old Robin's voice came to him. "Fight it off, kid. We need you!"
They did. He knew that. He may have been just a boy, but the others depended on him now, as part of a team. Part of the Bat-Squad. This was what Bruce had trained him for, as he had trained Nightwing, and this was what he must not fail at.
Moreover, he didn't want to look bad in front of Old Robin.
He shivered, but the terror-images were still burning in the back of his brain. Irrelevant. What mattered was the Joker, free again and pointing a gun at him. The guy must figure him to be the weakest link.
He was about to learn different.
With a cry of rage, Jason flipped himself over and over again, in an acrobatic maneuver that both Dick Graysons caught and silently approved, and smashed into the Joker, sending the harlequin's shot awry. It bounced off a marble block on the wall and came near hitting one of the trussed-up hostages on the other side of the room.
The Joker, snarling, was about to unleash a venom-weapon. There was no time for finesse.
Jason Todd brought his knee up as hard as he could into the Joker's crotch.
The stream of conscious thought that went through the Joker's mind damned himself for not attending to defense, and for underestimating the Bat-brat. But most of him was on automatic now, and the best he could do was double up, grab his crotch with his free hand, and finally utter a groan some seconds after the fact.
Old Robin and Nightwing tore themselves away from their respective foes and, dodging blasts from Mr. Freeze's gun, hurtled towards the Joker. Laying one hand apiece on the purple-suited mountebank's shoulders, they dragged him upright. Then they slammed fists into him, and weren't holding anything back.
The Joker's last conscious thought was of how embarrassing it was to be beaten by three Robins. Then he pitched backwards.
Batgirl was having a tough time of it with Molech. She had taken a glancing hit from him, unable to dodge in time, and the whole side of her face was numbed where he had struck it. Instead of ducking away, she had bored in, leaping at his gut with both hands extended for a punishing finger-strike. She struck at his throat with the side of her hand and at his groin with her knee, both moves guaranteed to put away the toughest normal man.
But Molech was not a normal man, and, though he showed a slight bit of pain, hardly paused in his assault. One of his great hands grasped her cape. Before she could unclasp it from her neck, Molech's other hand was at her throat.
She gasped, raked at his eyes with one hand, to no effect. The giant's gaze showed some small satisfaction. He might not be killing Batman, but Batgirl was a sufficient appetizer.
With only a little more pressure, he would snap her neck.
Batgirl's vision was becoming tinged with red. Her last attempt to breathe had come three seconds ago. Her numbed hands fumbled at her belt. So hard to think...where was the right compartment? Dammit, where?
She went through four of them, feeling the bones in her neck grind, before she got to the right one. It was a weapon she reserved for the greatest emergencies.
Summoning all her strength, Batgirl raised her hand and smashed a glass ampule of acid against Molech's face.
The monster howled in pain. His face was cut along the cheekbone, and the acid ate into it there and elsewhere, bubbling up and burning flesh. The grasp of his mighty hand loosened, almost involuntarily.
Batgirl was able to draw in a great breath, bring her feet up against Molech's chest, draw in her knees, and thrust away from him. Her neck sprang free from his fingers. She rubbed the places where he had grasped it.
Unfortunately, her cape was still in his left hand. And, raging like a bull speared by a picador, his right hand, the size of a small suitcase, was balled and poised to hammer down upon her skull. There was no doubt that he could crush it, with a blow.
The Huntress, struggling to keep Ivy's deadly nails away from her skin, noted Batgirl's plight from her position on the floor. Abruptly, she brought her head up in a blow against Ivy's forehead, hurting and surprising her foe.
Then she brought her own knees up and propelled Ivy off of her, in an arc that brought the plant-mistress against Molech's back.
She hit him nails-first.
Molech started, his fist seemingly paralyzed. He was much more than a mere bruiser, an intelligent man fully capable of masterminding his own criminal schemes. But Batgirl saw a look of incomprehension on his face, as if something had occurred for which he finally had no referent.
Then, in short order, he bent double and fell sideways.
Poison Ivy had little time to reflect on what she had done. The Huntress grabbed her by the shoulder, turned her around, and walloped her smartly on the jaw. She joined her compatriot on the floor.
Batgirl, still gasping in air, got to her feet. "Thanks, sister."
"We've still got a couple to go," warned the Huntress.
Both of them turned to the place in the room from which new sounds of combat were coming. Both Robins were dodging iceblasts from Freeze's cold-ray, while Nightwing was sparring with Cat-Man. The Feline Felon sported a couple of bruises on his face, but Nightwing's costume was slashed along the right side of his ribs and some blood was visible in the gashes.
"Let's go help," said Batgirl.
Both of them sprinted in that direction.
On the fly, the Huntress snapped open the big yellow pouch at the side of her belt and grabbed her mini-crossbow from inside it. When she was a mere ten feet from Mr. Freeze, she dropped to one knee and held it in front of her, a small arrow already nocked to it.
Freeze, no slouch at reflexes himself, swung in her direction and aimed his cold-gun.
Helena Wayne was a tad faster.
The small arrow from her crossbow flew to its mark, and severed the feeder tube connecting Freeze's gun to the freon tanks he carried on his back. A noxious cloud spurted from the severed end of the tube. Crying out, Freeze grabbed it and pinched it off.
That was more than enough time for both Robins and the Huntress to reach him, lay into him, and send him sprawling senseless.
Cat-Man, no mean acrobat, had whipped away from Batgirl and Robin and pressed a certain area of his belt. Then he grasped for something in a different part of it, but its contents remained unopened. Batgirl tackled him, driving her head into his stomach, just as Nightwing slammed a Sunday punch into the side of his jaw. The Man With Nine Lives went down and didn't come up.
Nightwing held out his hand and helped Batgirl to her feet. She smiled at him, and he smiled back. "Not a bad showing, all things considered."
He replied, "Best call the lobby and tell Chief O'Hara he can come up now. We'd better get Molech to the paramedics. He might make it through."
Batgirl put a hand to her throat. "That's a good reason for not getting him there. All right, I'll make the call. You guys tend to the hostages."
The door to the hallway flew open.
The noise caused all five of them to look in that direction. The hostages were a lot closer to the hall door than Nightwing and company were, and, in short order, several other figures quickly filed in.
Two-Face. The Spook. Killer Moth. Deadshot. Black Mask. The King of Crime.
All of them were armed with what appeared to be Uzis or something of that ilk, save for Deadshot, who carried his own weaponry on his wrists.
Two-Face, who carried both his guns with authority and swagger, half-smiled, half-impassively looked at the quintet of heroes. "Don't worry about the hostages," he said. "I just couldn't resist the chance to lead the second team."
"King Faraday's been around even longer than I have in this business," said Batman to his team, one gloved hand on the agent's shoulder. "During the Cold War, he was recruited by American intelligence for some quite dangerous assignments. They warned him before he took it that even if he broke under torture, the government wouldn't even acknowledge his existence. We've worked together against Two-Face and Ra's Al Ghul, in the past. His code-name used to be ‘I-Spy', and I don't think he'll be too embarrassed if I say that he lived up to it."
Faraday kept smoking his cigarette. Black Lightning leaned against a wall of their hotel room and said, "There's something I've always wanted to ask you, then. What was Bill Cosby really like?"
"Not that I-Spy, Lightning," said Metamorpho.
The trenchcoated man shrugged. "Long as you don't ask me about my tennis game. Anyway, here's what I've got, and it isn't much. As far as Kobra's old hangout, forget it. After Wonder Woman busted up his last caper there, it was gutted and demolished by the government. He's in some new digs now, and I've got a lead on where he's at. A mountain retreat, kind of like what Ra's used to have."
"Ra's still has more than one of them," murmured Batman. "Go on, King."
"The Cult guy I got to killed himself before I could get much more out of him," said Faraday. "All I know is that Kobra's supposed to have been poking around with some cosmawhatever science lately. Gonna be doing one of those world-threatening numbers pretty soon, I guess. Kind of stuff that brightens up you heroes' dull existences."
Katana said, "So why are you still alive, Mr. Faraday?"
He turned to her and stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray. "It isn't like Kobra's covering his tracks too well on this one. My guess is that he wants you all to know about it. A come-and-get-me kind of thing. After all--" King looked at the heroes before continuing. "You haven't done too well against him so far, from what I understand."
Halo jumped up. "Now, just a minute! That isn't fair, Mr. Trenchcoat. We've beaten him every time we went against him."
The Creeper said, "Speak for yourself, babe. Plas and I never met the guy."
Geo-Force grasped Halo's wrist, lightly. "We may have stopped Kobra's plans, but not Kobra himself. Mr. Faraday speaks the truth in that regard, Halo. This time, we must bring our foe down, whatever the cost."
"Careful how you use those words, Geo," said Plastic Man. "Sometimes, the cost can be pretty high. In lives."
Batman said, "Enough of that. One important question, King: we're also trying to learn who attempted to murder Selina Kyle, the former Catwoman, at her wedding to Bruce Wayne a few days ago. Ra's has denied doing it. Do you have any information that might connect Kobra in any way to that action? I know it's a long shot, but he's capable of it."
Faraday looked at his old friend. "He's capable of anything. I haven't heard of the Catwoman thing till you told me just now, Bats. But you're Numero Uno on his enemies list. So if he wanted to get your attention, I guess hitting the woman you used to love might be a way of doing it."
The group was silent for a moment.
Then Batman said, "All right, then. Tomorrow, we'll hit him."