Dawn came, its light falling muted and watery over the grounds of Wayne Manor. The Batmobile’s headlights cut through the morning fog as it slid soundlessly down the road and through the familiar waterfall entrance to the Cave, and disgorged its black-cloaked master. It had been a long night, but Batman didn’t have time to be weary.
Long years of living this nocturnal lifestyle had conditioned him to be as alert at this hour as he was in the midnight alleys of Gotham City. He strode across the cave floor with his cape drawn up about his hunkered shoulders, the very image of brooding conviction.
A cape, while originally of course simply an excellent way to keep rain off oneself before the advent of the umbrella, took on a new meaning in the theatre, where it was traditionally a piece of costume that also served a useful purpose as a prop. A flourish of the cape could conceal a surprise, or make a disappearance by simple stage trapdoor seem mysterious and magical. It is for this reason that it became symbolic of stage magicians and theatrical villains such as the Phantom of the Opera.
Dracula-the-literary-character first earned his famous cape in early stage performances; Bela Lugosi himself first made his acquaintance with Dracula on stage, long before there was a camera recording his performance. It formed yet another of the myriad of strange, ironic links between Batman and the deadly new enemy he found himself facing.
A flourish of the cape, to conceal movement, to embellish a simple disappearance. To make miraculous what was mundane. Batman used these same techniques against his enemies every night.
Smoke and mirrors.
There was still work to be done. He had destroyed multiple of Dracula’s lairs last night, but there were more. He had taken just enough to get the Count’s attention. Just enough to let him know that he had a pursuer on his tail just as dogged and unrelenting as Abraham Van Helsing. Just enough to let him know that his time in Gotham now had a limit. Given a few more nights at that rate of attrition, he would have nowhere left to sleep and recover his powers, and he would once again be forced to return to Transylvania and abandon his attempt at conquest.
It was Van Helsing’s plan, the plan that had defeated Dracula before, but was not Batman’s ultimate plan. He had taken from Dracula just enough to make the connection, make him impatient, and give Batman the window he needed.
Smoke and mirrors.
His night had been a success; but it had not come without a cost. Oracle had lost contact with Tim and Dick shortly after a call had confirmed the hospital was under attack. By the time Batman had the chance to divert his course he had found only flashing lights, police tape, and mass confusion as to what had happened there. No sign of his team or of their opponents. It did not bode well.
Selina had just arrived and changed out of costume; she met him in the Batcave, Alfred lingering to gift a tray of coffee before vanishing upstairs and leaving them to their war council.
He went first. “No contact from Robin or Nightwing. Batgirl is searching for them. She also mentioned that your mission was successful.”
Selina chuckled, though it was a humorless one given the absence of the Robins – “Thanks to Harley Quinn, Bride of Dracula. It would have been a long, uphill battle convincing them that Dracula was real if she hadn’t conveniently shown up and flashed her fangs at Two-Face.” Batman nodded. “Then the Rogues are now fully aware of him.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t’ mean they consider him any worse than you or would sign on to help. We like dealing with our own issues in the…” She stopped, seeing his deadpan expression, and returned it with one of her own. “Ah. They are going to sign on to help, they just don’t know it, right?”
He didn’t answer. But she knew the nigh-imperceptible twitch she thought she had seen below the cowl was not her imagination.
"Our enemy is a man of many skills."
Dracula slid the chesspiece across the ancient wooden board.
"He is the world's greatest detective, and one of the finest minds of this age, perhaps of any age. He is an excellent warrior, able to contend with the most powerful enemies despite - or perhaps, because of - his fundamental humanity. And he is a master of the technology that now rules this world of lights and electricity. But his greatest power is his determination. This is a man who will not be defeated; not while his heart beats with the iron will of a conqueror. He will not stop until he has found his foes, bested them, and restored order to his city. A thousand times a thousand times he will come again, relentless, until his enemies fear the merest mention of his name." Dracula smiled. "I am well familiar with this manner of man. Yet, how does one begin to fight such a one as this?"
"Well, there was this one time," Harley thought about it for a moment. "We had this tank full of piranha – but Mistah J couldn’t get them to smile, see, so -"
"By playing his weaknesses." Ivy whispered, running her fingertips over the table, watching the Count with a mixture of seductive promise and derisive hatred. "By stripping away all the illusions he's built around himself. After all, I can green him and bend him to my will." She smiled. "I've done it more than once. Under all of that prowess and reputation, he's flesh and blood, fears and desires...it's the Bat, the symbol, which makes him so powerful. Without that, the only thing left of him is the man." She brushed her manicured nail against a now-pointed canine. "And I know how to handle a man."
"Well-spoken, my lady." Dracula replied. "And you are very close to the strategy we will need. However, a man such as this has very few weaknesses, and those he does have, he knows all too well. He guards them closely and with sleepless vigilance. It is there that he expects to be assailed, and he is prepared."
"A master strategist knows when to play his enemy's weakness, and when to play against his strength."
"What's that supposed ta mean, Mistah D?"
Dracula chuckled quietly, and leaned over the table, seeming for an odd moment to take the air of an amiable teacher explaining something to his class. "My friends, when facing a foe like this, it is not enough to cover one's tracks. This is where so many among your community have made their fatal errors. You cannot hide what you are doing from the Bat-man. He will search every available path until he finds you. He will solve the impossible riddle, he will infiltrate the impenetrable fortress, he will escape the inescapable trap. If he finds the slightest thread he will pull and pull at it until all of your plans are unravelled. He has fought all of you again and again, and he knows you. Everything about you. He knows you better than a man knows his wife, his brother, or his son. This is his strength, and this is where we must be more clever than he. We must give him what he wants - what he expects - a trail of breadcrumbs that leads simply to another trail of breadcrumbs. We must feed him and feed him until he wastes all of his great thought pursuing shadow after shadow and is too fattened from his mental gluttony, too exhausted to continue."
"As you said, my dear." Dracula inclined his head to Ivy, courteously. "He is but a man. Even you see only the myth, the invincible warrior of the night, even when it is proven to you that he breathes...he bleeds...as any other man. But he is a man. A man no matter how skilled or mysterious can be only in one place at one time. A man must eat, must have a place to sleep, and he too must have things that he loves and cherishes."
"Nobody knows who he is, Count." Ivy shook her head. "Nobody knows anything about him! That's always been our biggest problem."
"Truly? Do you truly know nothing of him?" The vampire watched the two of them shrewdly. "Have you thought about what you do know? He is intelligent, evidently highly-educated, and he has learned many techniques of battle from all over the world, so he is likely well-travelled. He appears with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of weapons, vehicles, devices...even in this age of technology, such things are not inexpensive. This man must have vast wealth and a wide network of connections in order to accrue such things. But none of these is the greatest clue to his identity. That clue lies in his heart.”
Gotham Rogues, by the nature of their varied insanities, are generally somewhat narcissistic, and Dracula could see from the blank expressions of the two that they were in new territory. Had they truly never thought to get into their enemy’s mind before?
“This man fights with courage and conviction.” The Count continued, “This is not a lonely or a desperate man. This is not a half-mad bandit operating from some squalid lair in the slums of Gotham. To fight for so long with no-one to support him would have broken him, but he is not alone. There are others who believe in his dream enough to fight side by side with him every night. No, a man of such power is never alone. This man is a prince, a voivode, and a prince must have a castle. Must have servants, vassals, lovers..." He slid the White Queen to take a pawn. "Perhaps even a princess."
“Pfff, everyone knows Bats has a thing going with Catty.” Harley threw in. “And she ain’t no princess!”
“Had.” Ivy amended. “Don’t forget, she’s living with Bruce Wayne now.”
Dracula flicked his eyes to Poison Ivy, suddenly very interested, but said nothing, letting her continue on her own steam.
Continue she did. “I can say that I understand her reasoning there. Wayne’s a rich, vacuous idiot. Handsome, but clearly an inferior specimen to Batman. Still, he lives in a huge manor out in the middle of nowhere with nobody but his butler and a couple of adopted orphans. And he’s stupid enough that she could slip anything past him. That’s an arrangement ideal for a thief, if there ever was one.”
Dracula rested his clasped hands to his lips, and stayed silent.
“Hey, Red, remember Hugo’s stupid theory that Bruce Wayne was Batman? HAHAHA! I can’t believe he tried to pitch that one to Twofers, Pengy an’ my Puddin’…”
“If only they’d taken that opportunity to aerate each other,” Ivy mourned “the Iceberg would be a more bearable watering hole.”
Harley pouted, but before she could say anything more, Dracula calmly planted his hands on the table and stood.
"There has been a minor change of plans." Dracula said, "Tonight, we shall be attending the Wayne Foundation..."
"....Halloween Charity Masquerade, sir, the one that Bruce Wayne is absolutely required to attend."
I love Alfred like a dignified-but-cuddly grandpa who spoils a girl with all her favorite treats whenever she stays over, but sometimes he has the absolute worst timing. We were in the cave, waiting for contact from Batgirl, and trying without much success to pretend we weren’t worried about Dick and Tim. Denial by mutual agreement used to be a lot easier when it was just… anyway, that’s when Alfred came like the messenger in a Greek tragedy, with the delightful news that we had to go to a party.
Batman hung his head, leaning over the Batcomputer, and you could just feel Psychobat clenching his fist until the knuckles cracked.
“Who was responsible for scheduling this, Alfred? You know Halloween is one of the dates that must be kept clear of any Bruce Wayne appearances or—”
“Yes, sir, I am well aware of those dates prone to Scarecrow and Joker activity for which you wish Bruce Wayne’s schedule to remain free of public appearances, leaving Batman free to act. Mr. Fox too is aware of your preferences, although he is, of course, unaware of the reason why. Mr. Fox and I share the same regrettable weakness, however, in that there is a limit to the number of rooms we can be in at one time. Mr. Fox was absent from Gotham, if you recall, to make the deal with Fukuda Technological Industries in Tokyo on your behalf, when the scheduling for the ball was arranged by the Foundation.”
Lifting his head, Batman turned with the scowl that always answered those bizarrely respectful scoldings.
“Alfred, there is a vampire lord loose in my city building an army of blood-drinking undead monsters out of innocent civilians and my most dangerous enemies. He’s unleashed a mind-altering contagion to help him do it, and in case the seriousness of all that had somehow escaped me, I’ve got Jason Blood and Ra’s al Ghul pushing themselves in to impress it on me. You know how important Foundation events are to me, but you can’t be seriously expecting me to put this mission on hold to attend one.”
“Yes!” I yelled. I hadn’t meant to bring it up just then, but Bruce had worked up such a head of steam, I guess I caught his excitement and blurted it out.
“Bruce, we have to go to the ball, you and me. It’s not putting off the mission, it’s getting it off the drawing board and onto the launch pad.”
“Think about it. Halloween. What happens if we go to the ball?”
Bruce is a smart man. I knew he saw the whole thing right there, cause-and-effect, all the dominoes falling, beginning, middle and end. I knew I didn’t have to explain the what, but I would have to sell him on the why. And he was about to give me a place to start, with one of those growling, non-negotiable, I’m-Batman declarations:
“Bruce, you’ve been chasing Dracula all over the city and he hasn’t shown his face once since he and Scarecrow messed with you at the lab. It’ll take time we don’t have to hunt down the rest of his dirt boxes, time he spends biting more people, right? This is a shortcut through all of that, why waste it? If everyone knows I’m going to be at that party—”
“I am not using you as bait for this monster!”
“Damn straight, I would never let you use me as bait. That’s why this is my plan, not yours. I’m using me as bait.”
His eyes went square, and I knew Bruce was starting to get the picture even if Psychobat hadn’t accepted the reality yet: He wasn’t going to win this one. He’s the stubborn man I know, and stubborn will get a sponge Eddie sent me from the Keys removed from his bathroom shower. But it won’t make Catwoman return a Picasso, and he was starting to see that’s the woman he was up against. I wasn’t going to back down.
“Look, dispensing with the false modesty that is just not becoming to cats, we know he wants Catwoman. Let’s stop dancing around it and start using it. He wants me, and Scarecrow wants to try something at Halloween. A grand masquerade ball hosted by Bruce Wayne, with me standing at your side dripping all that dangerous beauty that apparently makes undead hearts go pitter-pat, that is going to be a spot-on irresistible target for the pair of them. Yes?”
He scowled, but I let the pause hold as if I expected an answer, and then I went on as if I’d got one.
“Yes. So let’s work it! Look, for all Dracula knows, Catwoman is just Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend. I should have no idea he exists, let alone that he’s after me. And he has no idea who you are, so you can keep an eye on the party and me without either of them knowing Batman is even in the room.”
“There’s a flaw in your logic, Kitten. You wouldn’t be the only one in danger. I would also be putting all of Bruce Wayne’s guests at risk. There is no way to guarantee everyone’s safety, and I absolutely will not risk that.”
It took me a minute to process everything he said after “Kitten”. I expected an objection, but I wasn’t ready for the endearment. I had thought all the objections would come from Psychobat, but Psychobat does not call me Kitten.
“Bruce, don’t take this the wrong way,” I said finally, “But your guests are kind of in danger no matter what. I mean, the party itself is a target whether we’re there or not. Those people are a hell of a lot safer with you there in the room, instead of wandering the city chasing shadows while Gotham’s wealthiest citizens are all in one place, dancing around, drinking easily-poisoned punch and wearing convenient fang-concealing masks.”
There was one of those leaden density shifts that had Alfred quietly coughing and withdrawing without a word. Batman said nothing either. I had him. There was just one more thing to say. Something he knew as well as everything that had been said so far, but he needed to hear it from someone else.
“And even if none of that were true,” I said quietly. “If there was no party or if was somehow possible to cancel it, they’d still be in danger just living in Gotham. The only way to end that is to end Dracula. If we can do it sooner rather than later...”
A growl. His hands vanished under the cape so I wouldn’t see his fists clench. I knew that under the cowl, his brows would be furrowed with angry, roiling thought. But thought was thought. Batman’s thoughts inevitably turned into action, and action was what we needed.
“I’m going after Batgirl, and I am going to find Robin and Nightwing. Before we act on this …. Plan.” He thrust a finger at me “I want to know what’s happened to my team. Understood? While I’m out, I want you and Alfred to procure these materials.” He whirled impressively on the Batcomputer and tapped out, with equally impressive typing speed, a list of what would have been befuddling technical jargon to anyone who wasn’t as intimately familiar as the both of us were with high-tech security systems.
Victory. But now was not the time for gloating.
“Sure thing, handsome,” I said neutrally as he passed me the list, already ticking off suppliers both legit and black-market in my head. He then stalked off to the Batmobile without another word. I watched him get in the car, fire it up and fly off.
Alone with the bats, I felt a sudden wave of dizziness hit me. The stress and long hours of this case must have been wearing on me as much as they were on Bruce. With my shoulders aching like I’d been swinging from rooftops all night in a lead cape, I felt I owed myself a nice hot bath and that new lavender shampoo. After making the calls for Bruce, I promised myself just that. Stretching, I gave Walapang a little glare as I dodged a falling glob of guano and made for the stairs.
Dracula had led Bruce and I on a frustrating chase. I admit it, I was curious. The Cat in me wanted to see him face to face, see what kind of man he really was and what we were up against. That was a small addendum to the plan I hadn’t told Bruce about. I was looking forward to meeting Dracula – so I could claw the hell out of him for screwing with Gotham, with my city, my Rogues, my Robins, and my Bruce.
Vlad the Impaler Junior needed an update in pain, and as serious as the situation was, I was starting to really look forward to giving him one.
Batgirl dropped over the edge of the balcony with a silence that a tabi-shod ninja would envy and readied her weaponry. Trailing the vampires across the city had been a pleasant challenge. The undead creatures moved supernaturally fast and quiet and left very little evidence of their passage, but she had followed what there was to the ancient church on the corner of Lang and Furst.
She sensed something was wrong as soon as she touched the balcony - a lingering heat in the tiles beneath her feet; a faint acrid smell in the air. Smoke, and where there’s smoke…
It was too risky to open the balcony doors in case of backdraft; but if there was any chance of Dracula or his offspring being inside she could not risk calling the fire department and possibly putting the firefighters on their menu.
It took her one minute and forty eight seconds to find another way in.
At first there was little sign of fire; no recent structural damage, just the forlorn faces of dust-caked saints watching her from where the quake had tossed them in pieces to the floor. She passed the nave, the rotted pews, and climbed toward the belltower, whose balcony she had first attempted.
It was in one of the upper chambers of the tower that she found the room. It may once have contained a spectacular stained-glass window, but most of the glass had been shattered by the quake and replaced with plain security glass by the initial, half-hearted attempts to repair the church. Moonlight crept visibly through the smoke-thickened air; here was where the fire had burned.
But it had not been lit to burn down the church. It was far too localized for that.
After testing the air in the room to discern that the smoke was not enough to warrant wearing her gas mask, Cass entered and found six iron poles whose sharpened points nearly brushed the ceiling. Each was encrusted with charcoal and grime, and each was adorned with a reeking lump of something that Cassandra was quick to identify as a partial, charred skeleton.
Six bodies, all burned beyond recognition. Four had crumbled almost completely to ash and lay in piles on the floor; of the remaining two only one still held its shape enough to be recognizable as a former human being. There were no ropes or wires holding them to the poles; with an uncomfortable jolt Cass realized that the bodies had not been strapped to the poles, per se…
She did not have the physical repulsion to the thought that others may have, but it brought back unpleasant memories of her father. She fought them back down as she rounded the corpses, noting that the fire, while apparently posessing heat intense enough to warm the very stones of the balcony floor above this one, had spread no further than a tight ring around the poles, despite the close proximity of motheaten curtains and dusty wooden furniture to ignite.
While she was pondering what kind of flammable chemical would behave this way, she moved to the front of the least-defaced body, preparing to secure the teeth so that Batman could check the dental records and find out who this person was and why he or she had been ki-
Except the teeth, inexplicably, were just as brittle as the rest of the body, and as soon as she touched them the entire corpse collapsed into flakes of fine grey ash. But not before she had seen that the canines on the corpse, like the other, were elongated to a daggerlike point.
Dracula was killing his own kind.
It explained the unusual burn pattern, and the brittle nature of the corpses. They had been positioned facing east, in a chamber with windows that would catch the rays of sunrise.
According to the diary, as Batman had briefed his team, sunlight was not fatal to Dracula and his brood. But other strains of vampire did not share the specific powers of his bloodline. Batgirl realized with a jolt that these vampires must belong to a rival clan, which meant that unless he had lured them to the city from elsewhere, there must have been vampires in Gotham before Dracula arrived.
She commed it in to Batman.
::…it’s not possible. I would have known:::
:::I would have known:::
:::Sure. That not problem though. What Dracula doing?:::
::: Territorial. Like an old lion. He’s cleaning house to make way for his own bloodline to take over. Those vampires are probably the heads of rival bloodlines he’s kidnapped and brought here. Which means his plans extend beyond Gotham…:::
:::Stay where you are. I’m already on the way. We’ll rendevous and I’ll examine the remaining body myself. B. out.:::
Cass didn’t like the faint chastisement for having destroyed the evidence in his voice. She had followed procedure, how was she to have known? Sighing as she put down the com, Cassandra turned to the remaining corpse.
“This totally your fault. Jerk-face.”
However, in the silence that came with the absence of the com’s voice and her own, Cass felt a prickle at the nape of her neck. Something was wrong. Creeping toward the rear of the room, batarang ready, she saw two silhouettes crouched in the dark that she had somehow missed before, moving -
As her eyes adjusted, they widened in shock.
Tim, Tim and ….Selina. Twined in each other’s arms, kissing passionately. She backed away, blinking, and Tim raised his head, flushed cheeks glowing.
“Sorry, Cass. I guess I just needed someone who knows what she’s doing. You know, like a teacher…”
Selina joined him in a mocking chuckle. Pulling her Tim against that perfect, curvy body that she knew how to use as Cass never could. “Nothing personal, little girl, you just weren’t up to the job. It’s not where your talents are. You should stick to…”
“No-“ Cass blinked back tears, feeling every muscle in her body tense with rage and confusion.
“…what you’re good at.” Another voice. Her father’s. She whirled to find him bearing down on her, eyes hard. “What I raised you to do. You think Batman can teach you better than I could? He’s as big a coward as you are. What a waste of power…what a waste of effort…what a waste of a daughter.”
“NO!” She flung a vicious roundhouse kick to his head – he shouldn’t be here – Tim shouldn’t be here – not with Selina – she would never – he would never – something was horribly wrong. Her kick didn’t connect and she couldn’t think why. She just had to get away, had to get out -
She sprinted for the door, but it was already slamming, and locked the moment her weight struck it.
David Cain was laughing at her, his laughter mingling with Tim’s and Selina’s. Her eyes stung as she saw Batman join them, standing beside Cain, laughing with him. He didn’t need to say a word to express why he was there – her training at his hands had been a trick, a lie, a dupe planned by her father to build up her hopes, just to break her last will to resist -
Cass shook her head hard and squeezed her eyes shut, fighting it, focusing on her training to bring her breath and heartbeat under control. Only then did her sharp hearing picked up an almost inaudible hiss. Looking down, she saw faint wisps of vapour crawling up through the wide cracks in the stone floor. Not smoke.
Gas. Odorless and almost invisible.
She would need a fireaxe to break through the thick, aged wood and the space was too close for a grenade. Cursing, she reached to slip on her breather, fully aware that it was already too late, and spun a batarang through the illusory Batman, but it simply rebounded off the ‘replacement’ window.
Plexiglass. Not from the quake repairs, either. She was trapped.
Something collided with her back and she whirled, striking on instinct, connecting with something but feeling it spring away in the dark. From the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of a gruesome, stitched-burlap mask and wisps of decaying straw protruding from a tattered wide-brim hat.
The fear in her turned to fury. She’d make that scrawny bastard pay. She chased him as he floated away, flying, even as the room elongated like a shot from a Hitchcock film. She couldn’t seem to catch him. He disappeared into the darkness near the ceiling, and she felt air at her back, dodging as Scarecrow reappeared behind her, swinging a sickle at her, laughing hideously. With a harsh cry Cassandra struck, so hard she tore his head clean off and hurled it to the floor.
But it didn’t stop him. Another laughing Scarecrow sprang up to her left, and she plunged her foot through his thin chest with frightening ease. He split to pieces, and Cassandra paused, breathing heavily, staring at the sundered remains.
Dummies stuffed with straw. Swinging from the ceiling supports on hangman’s ropes.
She could see a small recording device protruding from the ‘neck’ of the one she had decapitated, Scarecrow’s laughter echoing out of it. Then, it spoke.
:::Hush little baby, don’t say a word…mama’s gonna bury your mockingbird…:::
Cassandra ignored it – all of it – turning back to the door, collecting her thoughts. Maybe if she planted a smaller detonator at the hinges…she just had to cross the dark expanse of the room. It was less than fifty feet, but the darkness seethed with unseen terrors and her limbs were so tensed and coiled, she couldn’t move. The distance seemed insurmountable.
She closed her eyes for a moment, steeled herself and pushed forward. Ignore the vision of her father, his skin melting away into a laughing skull. Ignore the dismembered Scarecrow-dolls, screaming on the floor, with dead birds squeezing out of their mask-sockets like ugly tears.
Not real. Not real. Not real. Ignore the fake Tim and Selina, merging into a two-headed monster. Ignore the wisps of fear gas rising from the floor, coalescing into four pale men with grinning, razor smiles-
The first one clotheslined her as she attempted to walk past him, hurling her against the wall with a jolt of very real pain. It drew her focus sharply to the new figures, now advancing on her with teeth bared like angry, rabid dogs.
No, she thought, don’t ignore those.
Cassandra narrowed her eyes and flipped to her feet. Her hands fumbled for the com but she couldn’t find it even though she knew where it should be. Seizing control of her mind-altered state as best she could, Cass finally found the com and shouted ::B, BACKUP NOW!:: Just as the first vampire snarled and lunged at her, and she was forced to dodge slashing talons protruding from once-human fingers.
She flattened against the wall, ducked under another swipe and kicked the vampire in the ribs. It fell back from the impact but registered no pain, and immediately came back after her even as the second one circled and lunged from the right.
Clumsy but fast, frighteningly fast, and while she could see four in front of her, there were more that only appeared in the corners of her eyes, disappearing when she looked for them. It was the fear gas, no question. She had to find a moment – had to get away – to inject herself with Batman’s cure – but the vampires were all over her. Talons slashed her shoulder. She caught one’s arm and hurled it over herself.
Judo worked; no matter how strong they were, they seemed to weigh less than a normal person. If she’d been lucid she might’ve put that down to a living human body being 75% water and most of that blood. She pinned the vampire she had thrown and viciously dislocated its shoulder.
No scream of pain. Nothing.
Flashing fangs, hateful, snarling faces. No pain. She fell back as they came at her. Too fast, right there every time she dodged. No pain. No feelings. No humanity. The toxin, the unnatural aura of the undead creatures and the primal, animal panic of being trapped by them wore away at Batman’s training, at her inhibitions, at everything she had fought so hard to learn...
Somehow one got behind her and iron-strong arms wrapped around her body. She could see its gleaming fangs bared and its jaws open wide right behind her ear. Another one came in from the front, going for her throat like a starving wolf.
They’re dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. DEAD THINGS! DIE!
Panic rose. Instinct overruled reason. Training that had been hammered into her in her formative years took command and she slipped her arms free enough to grab the vampire in front of her by the shirt and tug it forward, slamming its forehead into the head of the vampire behind her. As both reeled back, she reversed the batarang in her hand.
What happened next was a blur. A white-hot, screaming fury overtook her and she was dimly aware of her body performing motions she had not used since her early years.
It was so fast. So easy. She barely had time to feel the batarang's point pierce the first vampire's chest before she was thrusting it into the second. As the first went down a surge of overwhelming relief shot through her - overwhelming freedom. She swung and stabbed and struck with lethal, vicious speed and berserker abandon, at every ghost in the corner of her eyes -
A vast black shadow swept up in front of her and she stabbed furiously at it; it countered her, darting back, dancing around her. Taunting her. With a wild shriek she pursued it. She was vaguely conscious of a sound it was making, pounding loudly in her ears. Crescent kick, right hook, block, elbow strike - it matched her patterns move for move. Again that sound! She had to kill it, cut it down, make it go awa-
"DIE DIE DIE DEAD THING DIE!" It caught her wrist and knocked the batarang away; deprived of her weapon, she kicked it hard in the chest; as its other hand caught her foot she twisted and roundhoused it in the face. But it wasn't down long; as she turned to run it was in front of her, fighting her again -
She had to kill it, had to kill it, had to get awa-
The haze cleared suddenly from her head. Her eyes focused on the silhouette before her; the familiar, pointed ears of the cowl. The familiar strength in the arm blocking hers.
Batman faced her, breathing hard. "Cass. Calm down. I'm here. It's okay."
She blinked in confusion, for a moment completely unable to process where she was or what she was doing. Then she saw the light from the open doorway behind him; the door lay on the floor, its hinges blown. The gas was clearing.
She looked down and around herself.
Four rapidly-decomposing vampires, strewn about her, limbs twisted and broken. A bloody batarang on the floor. The look in Bruce's eyes told the rest.
She collapsed against Bruce's shoulder, sobbing. He wrapped her up in the cape, awkwardly stroking her hair. She felt the sting of the needle as he injected fear-gas antitoxin in her upper arm, and led her out of the room.
He paused at the Batmobile, watching her climb in. There must've been something in her expression that warranted it.
But she knew it wasn't.
“Don’t you dare blame her for this, Bruce.”
It was spoken softly and without any trace of her usual sass, but it surprised me anyway. I turned from Cassandra, asleep in the Batcave’s medical wing, to Selina beside me. She was giving me a serious, warning look.
“She’s dangerous.” I meant no malice toward Cass. I wasn’t angry with her. But what had happened was far beyond serious. It jeopardized – everything. Why couldn’t Selina see that? “Cain’s training was embedded further into her psyche than I could have imagined. With her skills, if this happened again…if she turned those capabilities on living people -”
“Bruce, she’s a teenaged girl. She was locked in a room with four undead monsters trying to kill her, armed only with a batarang and poisoned by hallucinogenic fear gas. And she won. You should be proud of her.”
“She didn’t win, Selina, she killed them.”
“Then you should damn well be glad they died and she lived.”
It hit me like a sucker-punch to the stomach.
It was a low blow and she knew it. She knew deep down I wasn’t thinking about my code against killing. I was feeling enormous relief that Cassandra was lying here safely recovering. Even as I was troubled by what she had done, I was fighting off terror at what might have…
I couldn’t lie to myself. I was thinking about Jason Todd and Stephanie Brown.
“If it had been anyone else, you know it wouldn’t have ended this way. We got lucky, Bruce.”
I still didn’t reply, but I knew she was right. If it had been Dick or Tim in the same situation, their chances of survival would have been slim. They are both excellent and well-trained crimefighters, but the capacity to survive hand to hand combat with four meta-level opponents at once, in that situation, required abilities as lethal as Cassandra Cain’s. She had lived because she had killed, and I would never be able to forget it.
“It was deliberate.” I finally found the gravel spilling out, walking away from Cass and sitting at the computer, analyzing the trap. “From the moment she entered that room she was in the gauntlet. There would be no time to use her gadgets or nonlethal techniques once they attacked. The only way to survive was to kill those vampires. They used the fear gas to ‘encourage’ her to do just that.”
The trap combined Scarecrow’s fear-toxin tricks and deathtrap experience with a chess-master psychological strategy I was beginning to attribute to Dracula. They had clearly worked together to design a trap with two possible outcomes – either the victim would be killed by the four vampires, or they would cross the line I refused to cross.
I knew from Selina’s expression that she knew why that sent a cold crawl into my spine.
That trap had been meant for me.
Into the awkward silence came a bleeping Oracom.
::::B, it’s ‘Wing:::
Relief flooded into me and I seized the com at my belt. In that moment, I knew what it felt like to be a father. I felt the overwhelming need to see Dick with my own eyes, to know he was safe, and the desire to tell him so.
“Nightwing, report.” Graveled out instead.
Sometimes, I hate Batman more than anyone will ever know.
::::I’m safe, I’m with Jason Blood.::: But something in his voice had the hairs at the back of my neck prickling. I went dead silent, listening as he continued, his words hurried and jumbled.
I’m safe, he had said.
::::He turned into ...yeah…something mean and yellow and did some kind of magic pulse that drove the vamps off. But it fried my Oracom. Just fixed it now. I’m sorry.:::
“What’s your status now?”
Dick faded into static. I growled at the com. “Nightwing, what is your current status?”
::::Ivy…when they retreated…she grabbed…there were vines everywhere, I couldn’t get there in-::::
The lead heartbeat between those words and the next caught in my throat.
:::B, they’ve got Tim.:::
The white noise from the damaged com and the squeal of my fingers crushing the one in my hand were the only sounds. Selina’s face was pale and expressionless in the corner of my eye.
:::I don’t...know where they took him. Jason and I chased them but we lost the trail. They just vanished. Even with his magic we couldn’t…they could be anywhere, B.:::
I slipped off the cowl and ran my hands over my face. I knew what I had to do.
“Stay with Blood and follow his orders.” I could barely believe I was saying it, but I had to admit that by Jason Blood’s side was the safest place to be right now. “Keep me informed as to your position and status.”
::::B, I’m -:::
“NO ARGUMENT.” It came out with a ferocity that jolted me even as I said it. It squashed the ‘my own man’ retort I knew would be on Dick’s lips. Had he picked up on my voice cracking the way I knew Selina had?
“No argument, Dick.” We used codenames on the com. We always used codenames on the com. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself this time, no matter the risk. I had to let him know I was speaking to him not as Batman, but as – “Please. Just trust me and stay with Jason. He will need your help. This…this is something I-“
A glimpse of the other face in the room forced me to amend that, “-something Selina and I have to do ourselves.”
:::Roger::: he said quietly, and hung up the com.
Her hand came to my shoulder. “We’d better get ready for the ball.”
Closing my eyes, I nodded once. She slid her arms around me from behind and held me tightly. We knew each other’s thoughts without speaking them.
There was no going back from here.
Gotham celebrated it in muted fashion. No gaudy parades and trick-or-treat here; not in Gotham city, not in a city where wearing a costume carried entirely different and entirely more dangerous connotations. Oh, they'd done it for a while; Gotham used to have a Halloween gala like any other big American city, a parade ending in a concert in Riverside Park.
All those teeming thousands in their home-made or shop-bought monsters and devils and witches, so few of them aware that from where he had stood, they had so quaintly echoed the wild Bacchanalian rites of old...
The partygoers had already done half of his work for him, dressing up like that. Scarecrow had simply hijacked the suppliers of fog machines for the concert's visual effects, and very soon those laughable costumes had produced a very different reaction in the crowd.
It had been a Halloween scream to make those old-time Maenads chortle. Gotham didn't have Halloween parades anymore.
Jonathan Crane ruminated on this as he stood on the bridge over Gotham harbour, waiting for his sign.
A flock of black bats swept westward overhead; he knew they were not the Gotham variety. Nor were they the hated Caped Crusader's pets.
Crane smiled. His time had finally come.
…to be continued…