Everything came closer: the tang of mortal meat… scraggly mouse-brown auras… tempting bits of human flesh and foible… and the echo. Oh, the echo! Reality’s cry of pain at a Demon’s entrance into the world.
He stretched his neck until vertebrae cracked… it was good to have substance again, to be able to do and be and act. He regarded the mortal closest to him. Unlike most of the washed out auras that populate a hospital—dying souls, injured souls, souls waiting anxiously for news—this was a darkly rich and earthy brown. Nothing faded with regret here, nothing faint or fluttery with uncertainty. This was a soul of substance. Claire. Claire whose piteous cries and broken body had snapped Jason’s last filament of will.
There were no foolish demons, but if such an abomination existed, it would be a fool indeed who ignored this quality of the female—this bounteous, infernal gift—to pass on her pain or death to cripple the male that holds her dear. It was a bounty no demon would ignore—but if only a fool would ignore it, it was a sillier ass still who thought that was all she had to offer.
Without turning to see the flesh, Etrigan considered the other aura present: a deep purple aspect that sparked with energy. Females had so much more to give besides the sight of their severed heads or ravaged bodies.
Sekh-met. Selina Moon-Daughter. If you hurt one she cared for, she would hurt you. And she would enjoy it. Unlike some who made vengeance tepid with pretense. He had tasted her once, linked with Jason for the Seeing when Bruce Wayne took his revenge on Zatanna. She was… savory. She didn’t watch with grim satisfaction, joyless that such a thing as justice was necessary in the world. Oh no, she opened herself up when Etrigan invited her, drinking in the other woman’s fear and shame. Together with Batman’s hate, which is what Etrigan had tuned in for, it was the best night he’d had since the Borgias.
He turned to her.
Alone at last, and such repast the night before us
Bitter, friendless, dead inside, I thought would
The verse was interrupted by a soft belch that sent a puff of dark, sulfurous smoke Selina’s way, then he continued:
But a nosh on goddess flesh and bone will aftertaste get rid of.
“Hi, Etrigan,” Selina said, ignoring an unpleasant pounding in her head since the demon appeared. “I’m the last person who could expect someone to ignore a door left unlocked, or maybe a door with a substandard lock is a better analogy. You’ve been expecting Jason to let you out since Claire was hurt, I take it?”
Etrigan grinned. She was stalling for time, the crafty minx, and he sensed… Ooh, clever kitty indeed… her thoughts had traveled to the lower floor of the hospital where a chapel was located. A non-denominational chapel consecrated with desperation and pantomime rather than faith... Nothing there but sport for a Prince of Hell, and dull sport with such a feast before him. He would trash it on his way out if he left that way, but it was not worth a detour if he left by the window.
Yea, I am freed with a string,
Now Cat, don’t be a hypocrite.
“If you know me half as well as you seem to think,” Selina said tersely, “then you would know I have a firm rule about team-ups suggested in rhyme.”
Etrigan laughed. She was unnerved that he could read her thoughts, but she hid it. Of course. And like a frightened child whistling in a graveyard, her witty little retort danced on the very aspects of the offer that made it tempting. That part was unconsciously done, of course, but he decided to punish the presumption all the same.
Selina reeled as a triple wave of memories washed over her. First there was Eddie, smirking when he caught up with her in Metropolis. “You looked good in green, ‘Lina.” Then the idiotic costume he alluded to, the forced team-up because she’d lost a bet. Tripping the guard with his cane (a-cross-stick) and having that ludicrously repainted tour bus (re-bus) for the getaway. He was so happy—a memory that vanished into the sight of him lying crumpled and battered on the greenhouse floor, pitifully clutching that phone.
The next wave was at the Iceberg, the night they’d made the bet. He noticed she’d started drinking martinis instead of Perrier, and he was polite enough not to mention that the new habit began when Bane broke Batman and the new idiot showed up in his place.
The third was the night the boiler blew at the Wedgewood. That eerily detached voice on the OraCom ..::Catwoman, you’re going to want to proceed home. B is down.::.. Then a few minutes later. .::It’s his back.::.. Reliving Bane and Azrael the whole drive home. It was the L4 vertebrae, exacerbating the old injury. This time Ivy’s fault. “The only thing I couldn’t foresee was that damned flytrap getting around my belt the way it did, and those vines coiling around my leg in that exact way at that exact moment, so when the boiler blew…”
As if on cue, there was a cacophony of shattering glass and Selina was pulled from the memory to see Etrigan’s forked tail disappearing through the shattered window.
The Queen of the Night wasn’t exactly preoccupied with its plot. Once the audience was seated in the ballroom, it strove to overwhelm with abundance. Everywhere you looked, something was happening: aerialists, acrobats, belly dancers and cup jugglers flipping, flying, flinging—and in one case fornicating—within arm’s reach. For those who insisted in making sense of it, the Marchesa was evidently throwing this shindig for her daughter Pamina at that time when “the flower of her youth is blossoming into womanhood” (read: she met a boy and fell in love.) The plan seemed to be that, bingeing on wild debauchery and sexual misadventure, Pamina would transcend it and achieve the icy splendor of the Marchesa herself (read: dump the dud.)
The show was in no way confined to the stage, as the contortionist stepping onto Bruce’s table and, ehm, contorting would attest. The Fop should have radiated satisfaction, but… but there was a bullwhip in the room. Along with a stripper and a knife-throwing dominatrix that flitted in and out of his peripheral vision, the bullwhip artist from the preshow had returned and was doing something at a table in the northwest quadrant of the ballroom. The sense memory of a whip crack together with a sexy (and abnormally flexible) woman doing an… improbable (but undeniably provocative) thing with her thighs right in front of him had produced an instinctive lockdown. Bruce the playboy scowled as never before. The reflex was too ingrained: no matter how deliberately provocative this woman became, he would not betray the slightest hint of appreciation.
He covered as soon as he realized what he was doing and overcompensated with an approving nod and a leer, but the contortionist noticed the delay and so did Lili. The former played up to another couple at the table and to Lise. The latter looked at him sideways with a sad little pout, and then with a burst of party girl enthusiasm, she proposed a selfie. Bruce agreed, of course. He held the phone because his arm was longer, and posed with a hand on Lise’s shoulder and a hedonist’s decadent grin. Then she showed him the finished product and Bruce feigned interest for a second—when his head snapped around to see the ballroom behind him. He scanned the room… but he saw nothing except Pamina’s lover vowing to undergo some trial to win her.
He ignored Lili’s question and looked back at the picture on her phone. Poison Ivy.
Or… more of a Poison Ivy/Two-Face hybrid, actually.
It could be part of the show; not like they were sticking slavishly to the Mozart, and there was that “flower of her youth” bit when they introduced Pamina. Just the kind of thing an outfit like this would come up with to put a Gotham spin on things. But all Bruce’s instincts said otherwise.
“Excuse me, darlings, have to make a phone call,” he announced as he stood. “Markets will be open in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and I have to check something—Oh, how nice.” The last as a hunky performer finished an astonishing series of leaps onstage by leaping offstage to block his path. Bruce sidestepped as if evading a trained ninja and was crossing the ballroom before any of them could perform one of the maneuvers to pacify a fleeing or offended guest.
What colleagues called the density shift occurred within the next four strides, not because Bruce was incapable of projecting the playboy aura while functioning as Batman but because he did not want to be interfered with. If he wasn’t quite stalking around the perimeter like the Dark Knight hunting criminal prey, he at least conveyed a man closing a deal in Tokyo between now and dessert who needed a phone—a deal, incidentally, that involved more money than you’d see in your entire career, so you better stay out of his way.
Catwoman had a history of charging into situations without considering the consequences. It always worked out, one way or another. She got in over her head sometimes, but cats have a way of making it work, whatever “it” might be.
That was the theory. Occasionally Selina thought she should test it under less volatile conditions.
It cost precious seconds shedding the overcoat and more donning the gloves before following Etrigan out the window. Both were necessary to grip and maneuver safely on the whip. The mask wasn’t, and she couldn’t afford more time fussing with it. So it was a spectacularly fit and agile Selina Kyle the pigeons saw leaving the Eighth Floor of Gotham General Hospital. She stopped at the intersection to remedy the situation, safely above the traffic cameras on the third story roof of a Duane Reed. Seconds no longer mattered, since Etrigan had a head start. All she could do was follow the sound of car horns and squealing brakes, and the trail of smashed windshields and car hoods he apparently punched for fun.
At 33rd Street, she closed the distance enough to see him stopped in the center of the street and… sniffing. He’d turned right and sniff, turn left and sniff… It looked disconcertingly like a wildcat stalking prey. Then he took off and she had to hustle to keep up.
At 35th Street she heard him before she saw him:
“Yo Dawg, Yo Gotham, Fo shizzle
Possibly the sole upside to living in a city with Joker is being able to hear nonsense like that and not dismiss the very real threat.
“Cry Havok, and let loose the puppy.
“Etty, so how are we doing?” Catwoman said, landing on the roof of a Lexus SUV that actually might warrant a good roasting with hellfire, but not with the driver still inside. “Kinda giving me mixed messages, you know. Worse than Dark and Broody, you are. First you ask me along, then you leave me behind,” she said, hopping down and then turning to the driver. “You should go,” she advised.
Etrigan’s eyes flicked from the yuppie to Catwoman and back again. They gleamed with mischief as if he had a wickedly amusing idea, but then he shook his head with a snort, dismissing it as something better occurred to him.
Back to hospital you should go,
He reached out, held her chin, and gazed piercingly into her eyes with the claw on his thumb just cutting into the flesh under her chin—just where hers once did when she had Batman pinned on an alley floor and teased about removing his mask.
By dawn you’ll see it my way, that’s easy to deduce.
He broke off into pealing laughter that sprayed sulfurous smoke in her face, and then as he turned, he shot a line of flame along the road and into the front tires of the SUV.
Though the ballroom was alive with color, movement, and every conceivable distraction, the collective bustle of Queen for the Night was no match for Batman. He divided the room into six pie pieces, and within each, selected a vantage point. From that point, he quickly assessed and eliminated, assessed and eliminated, until each source of activity was cleared, and then moved on to the next wedge. It took almost eight minutes to complete his circuit of the ballroom, after which he slipped out the door and once again faced the butterfly wall with its psychedelic pattern of moth and butterfly wings representing metamorphosis.
The wholesale kidnapping of audience members for private encounters was down to a fraction of what went on during the preshow, but it was still going on. Bruce passed another patron pinned to the wall for a thorough sniffing as Lise had been. He hurried past, ignoring the pair as Batman did when he spotted some hooker with a john under the Piedmont Street bridge. He checked the magician’s office, the room with dripping candle wax walls, the faux elevator bay, and then—smack! As he opened a door, it was flung out of his hand and his waist grabbed and pulled inside—not by one of those overly friendly attendants this time but by the familiar coil of vine.
“Ivy,” he breathed, unnerved by the feel of the thing through fabric rather than body armor. He got no farther when his back was slammed against the wall and a gag of leafy fronds pressed into his face.
“A dark debutante ball they call this thing,” the icy voice of a self-proclaimed goddess intoned. “Fitting, don’t you think?”
It was one of those lucky moments where being out of costume wasn’t an issue because Batman’s look of dumbfounded shock was identical to Bruce Wayne’s. Poison Ivy, or at least the woman who started off Pamela Isley and became Poison Ivy, stood before him, half pink and half a dark leaf-veined green. She was divided straight down the center by a wide—and possibly widening—dark patch that was almost black. It throbbed like a vein in the center of her forehead, and as she stretched out her arms, in her sternum. Bruce succeeded in keeping the keen scientific assessment out of his eyes, but he failed utterly at concealing the horror.
“Overcome by my beauty, I see,” she said sarcastically. “Now don’t yell or try anything stupid. Goddess is no longer patient.”
The pressure of the leaves against his mouth eased, tentatively, though the vines around his waist, arms and legs held him as tightly as ever. When he didn’t cry out, the leaf-gag withdrew completely.
“What happened?” he asked.
At first, the glare that answered him was coldly regal, then it softened. She opened her mouth to answer, but then, clearly, a new thought hit. Not only did her expression change, but the vines holding him shifted their grip.
“You first. Why are you here with sun-bleached trollops?” Ivy asked.
“Uh, just… old friends,” Bruce began, testing the vines ever so gently with the subtlest turn of his forearm. “Came to town for a last bit of fun. Saying goodbye. Selina’s fine with it.”
“Oh? Rich really are different,” she said in an offhand aside to nobody. Bruce went on testing, tensing the muscles in his calf against the vines and noting how they relaxed during Ivy’s comment and reasserted themselves when she gave him her full attention again.
“As for what happened…” She exhaled a long breath that was more purposeful than a sigh. “You did. You asked me to that polo thing. Couple glasses of wine, little too much sun, had a nap when I got home and woke up like this.”
Bruce didn’t react outwardly, but he mentally added the two factors present that day that she omitted: there was an incident with the horses stampeding. Ivy was definitely still there when it happened, and that would certainly have produced a surge of adrenaline for an extended time. There was also magic present, though she had no way of knowing about it, magic that had affected her according to Jason Blood. He would have to consult Jason before returning to the greenhouse, since the specter of magic introduced a whole new category of evidence that Batman had little chance of recognizing on his own. That, of course, would have to wait until this situation was contained…
The bartender who had been so accommodating before the show had just entered with one of the large drinks topped with rosemary. He knelt before Ivy and offered it up like a sacrifice.
“Well, the pheromones still work,” Bruce noted wryly.
“Hm?” Ivy said, sipping the cocktail.
It was the first thing he’d noticed when the leaf-gag withdrew from his face. The air in the room was… gummier than before. Either the effect of several dozen people wandering throughout the preshow dissipating and interacting with the incense, or else it had something to do with her.
“So, you’re using this event to ‘debut’ the new Poison Ivy?” he asked.
“It seemed fitting,” she said, fluffing the leaves that formed a border at the top of her bustier and coaxing a bud to open with her fingertip the way Selina might tickle under a cat’s chin.
“I don’t see how,” Bruce said as the bud opened into a vibrant pink-orange bloom. Ivy looked up sharply at the challenge and, again as if they were linked, the vines tightened. “Night and plants don’t really go together,” he explained. “Catwoman has proclaimed herself the queen of the night on occasion, but…”
“Oh please,” she said with an eye roll that seemed more high school mean girl than Gotham Rogue—and the pressure from the vines eased once again, the one around his left arm loosening so much that it nearly dropped off. “Much as I and my babies prefer sunlight, there are some nocturnal blooms. Besides I was really thinking more of the meal to come at intermission. That’s what I’m waiting for. Tell him, slave.”
The bartender recited the menu: sucking pigs served whole on spits, smoked ribs with marrowbones, and lobster.
“A feast of flesh,” Ivy cried triumphantly. “Vegans can suck it, the sick murdering bastards. The sooner we get collars around their necks, the better. My first thought was to begin with them, but no. We’ll execute a few, as examples, but the rest will be put to work in the fields to atone for their misdeeds.”
“Bad idea,” Bruce said, not as Batman might challenge her, but with the firm-but-respectful tone he’d use with an employee who proposed an unworkable plan. He was ready for the reaction this time, and as the vines tightened, he pulled to the right, using that vine’s strength as well as his own against others. He was betting Ivy would be too focused on the turn in the conversation to notice anything else.
“How so?” she asked, though it was clear she meant “You dare!”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Pammy,” Bruce said, deliberately choosing the words and inflection Selina might use, “But most people in Gotham don’t consider a rogue dropping in to be good news. They see it as an attack. You’ll be seen as attacking this event; that’s not the way to go if you approve of it.”
The left side of her lip and nose twisted in disgust, but once again it was civilian disgust—and adolescent disgust at that. Batman added the observation to the still-forming hypothesis: there was something in Poison Ivy’s rivalry with Catwoman that was hardwired to her pre-criminal persona. One of those things that, apart from this one instance, was unique to her early life. It wasn’t much to go on, but tapping into it seemed to tap into “Pamela” somehow and reduce Ivy’s… power.
Bruce tensed. Something was… happening… to his chest… the scar tissue felt… wrong…
“You may be right. They’ll get it wrong. They always do, it seems,” the last was said with a weary and defeated sigh. “Gaia knows how long it will take, straightening out the mess. Repeating it over and over for the stubborn, stupid morons who just never understand.”
The weariness was becoming more frustrated as she spoke. Not quite angry, not yet, but Batman knew Ivy well enough that he could see where it was heading. He knew the best move was to change the subject, but the feeling in his chest—and also now his back—was an unsettling distraction. He was not in costume. He not only had to handle her, he had to handle her as Bruce Wayne, and… squirming… the way sweat sometimes puddled under the armor, except it didn’t really feel wet, he wasn’t warm and he wasn’t perspiring…
“They’re so STUPID, Bruce. I mean… vegetarians! Even the ones that are supposed to be on our side, get it ALL WRONG-WRONG-WRONG! And the others that—that are ALWAYS as WRONG as CAN BE. Gaia, they’re so committed to it, so intense about it, how is it even possible for SO MANY to be so… so WRONG!? So totally, consistently WRONG about so damn much…”
She was breathing harder. Though her tone swung wildly from near-weeping with despair to spikes of murderous fury, her head kept tipping back and she’d breathe in through her mouth. She wasn’t gasping exactly, but she was definitely trying for more air. And that dark strip down her center was becoming darker, and a bit wider.
Bruce fought down a gag reflex. He didn’t trust himself. He knew that damn feeling, whatever it was in his back and chest, was distracting him. He couldn’t be sure that whatever he came up with to say would be appropriate to Bruce Wayne-who-wasn’t-Batman. He couldn’t risk it.
“I don’t know who’s worse anymore,” she said wearily. “The gullible ones who are just too damn stupid to know the world is dying because they’ve swallowed a sales pitch from the bastards who are killing it? The collaborators who do actually seem to get it that killing the planet is bad but still go along in a hundred little ways with creeps who are doing it? Are any of them really better than the sickos holding the bloody knife? Are they, Bruce?” She looked at him pitifully, then with a roar her head tipped back again and she snarled, “ARGH, JUST KILL THEM ALL, THE FESTERING SCUM, AND LET GAIA SORT THEM OUT!”
She gasped, chest heaving.
“Ivy, you’re in trouble,” he wanted to say, but before the thought could be translated into words, the move was looking more erotic than labored. Head tipped back, mouth open… Pheromones, he thought in panic. “Ivy” he tried again, but this time, his tongue was too dry to cooperate. His mouth coated with… something. Something sweet, leafy, jungle-musky…
He picked a spot on the wall behind her and focused, slowed his breathing, centered on the One Point. He thought of the alley. The smell of popcorn, gunpowder and blood. He was pretty sure she wasn’t doing it intentionally. Nothing in her manner in the seconds before it hit was anything like previous greenings. If she didn’t know it was happening, he could beat it. She wouldn’t be giving any orders, he could just… block it out.
He heard her inhale and his eyes longed to look at her again. To see her head tilt back, her chest heave with breath—No!
Yes… because looking would confirm she wasn’t aware of what she was doing.
Unless she was, in which case he’d be lost.
Think… Think… his mind ran. Think of the alley…or…no, think of the funeral. The flowers at the funeral.
Bruce let his eyes return to Ivy, confident that he wouldn’t find anything about her remotely attractive, particularly that repulsive little rosebud on her... What the hell was she saying?
“…reveal myself as planned, and let those who would misconstrue my message do so. Let them mark themselves for death along with the other heretics.”
Even for Poison Ivy—even for tonight’s Poison Ivy—it was insane.
“The multitude of wrong ideas and the sheer number of the fools who accept them will be the key to thinning the ranks of humanity.”
She inhaled through her nose now, just as deeply but with more dignity, more satisfied and regal, and her lips curled into a smile.
“Besides, your little friends make it imperative that I act tonight.”
“Please leave them out of this,” Bruce said, straining to be as forceful as possible while keeping the bat-gravel from his voice.
Meanwhile, Ivy snapped her fingers and the bartender again held out her drink. She took it and sipped, then played with the rosemary garnish which… moved. Bruce strained to focus on it. He knew his senses were a little scrambled from the pheromones, but he was pretty sure the rosemary garnish moved and, at the same moment, that eerie feeling on his chest and back squiggled again.
“Can’t do that, Bruce, they’re twins. Can’t ignore it,” she said, and drank. “You’ll notice he’s not here, by the way.”
“You were expecting Two-Face to be here tonight? Because of the twins?”
“No, just the opposite. I’ve got a point to make there.”
As when Selina’s name was mentioned, the vines loosened their grip at the mention of Two-Face. Bruce started to slide his arm free, when…
…Ivy’s control asserted itself, and everything from the vines to the honey-jungle smell to the squiggling in his scars seemed to thicken.
The coating in his mouth was now sticky more than dry, with a tang of vinegar that matched the hint of apple in the pheromones. His vision swam.
"I shall have tribunals, Bruce. At first I thought I would thin your ranks at random; it’s Nature’s Way. But it is not to be my way. No, I will have my devotees gather those who espouse the wrong ideas—All those who espouse any of the wrong ideas. And I shall punish. And I shall purge.”
As a rule, Catwoman liked yuppies. They were educated status seekers with taste whose self-image was tied up with their stuff. As a result, they locked it down very well. Their luxuries were more relatable to the average thief, compared to, say, Bruce Wayne’s twin Picassos or Marjorie Meriwether Post’s vintage Cartier, and there was parity between the loot and the level of security protecting it. To the average (or above-average) thief, the security around Dr. Wheeler’s Harold Altman watercolor and his wife’s David Yurman jewelry was challenging but negotiable, and it communicated how valuable these items were. But the bump up to Bruce Wayne’s Picassos at the penthouse or the Van Geissen emeralds at the manor was in no way worth the insane bump in incomprehensible security—which left the really good stuff for Catwoman and the dozen or so others, worldwide, on her level.
So yuppies like the one Etrigan nearly murdered were considered a desirable part of the working cat burglar’s ecosystem, and Selina would have preferred not to see the one in front of her go up with his Lexus—at least that was her preference going in. But then the idiot started trying to steamroll over her to get back to his driver’s seat, pawing at his keys and ranting about driving it away from the fire. When she tried to point out that was insane—because his front tire was ON FIRE and the flames would be driving away with him—he said “Look, lady, I know you’ve got a real grudge against the rich. But that is an $86,000 LX that I bought with money I worked for to celebrate paying off my student loan. So if you’ll just put the angry young—HEY!”
The final squawk was because Catwoman had dug her claws into his sleeve as he ranted, dragged him across the street, and finally smacked him in the side of the head.
“Idiot,” she began firmly but without anger, as if was a proper name, “Whatever safety school diploma mill humored you by handing you a degree, they left out a few things. One: people process trauma differently. And that’s why I’m making allowances. Two: Educated people. Do not read. The Gotham Post. If they do—for laughs—they do not believe. The crap they see there. They laugh. They fold it up. They toss it in the trash can. And then they shower. Three: Fire bad.
“Your Lexus. Was set on fire. By a demon. A fire- and smoke-breathing demon. Not regular fire. Hellfire. It doesn’t go out with simple water. But it will, most likely—”
She was cut off and closed her eyes as if summoning patience when the SUV exploded, the timing of the blast and the metallic tinkle of a hubcap rolling past them hinting that God has a sense of humor.
“—act like regular fire when it hits the gas tank,” she concluded.
She didn’t expect the yuppie to respond to such epic condescension, she just did it to vent. By now he should have burst into hysterics for his totaled car or into angry recriminations against her. Instead he stood there with his mouth hanging open and his index finger raised limply, as if waiting politely for the chance to speak. His expression had none of the vacancy that might mean shock had finally set in. Instead there was a forced calm that looked oddly familiar—with slow-building dread, Selina realized it was the look new groundskeepers had at the Catitat. The ones who knew “Don’t show fear” as an old wives tale, but had no idea how to actually go about it.
“Behind you,” he said without moving his mouth, but twittering the tip of his index finger in an odd way.
Selina turned slowly, the dread building, unsure what would be worse: the monstrosity from her first encounter with Jason Blood or something new.
She swallowed when she saw the Hellhound—black as a panther and nearly as large, eyes glowing, teeth bared. “Oh look, it’s the devil you know,” she murmured without satisfaction, and then, without turning to the yuppie, she said “RUN!”
The first act ended with a highly choreographed dinner service in which leather-clad “butlers” carried whole roasted piglets on spits to eight lucky tables, brought giant birdcages filled with lobsters to others, and platters heaped with huge racks of beef ribs to the rest. Guests were encouraged to barter and steal from the other tables, and to generally conduct themselves as one might at an ancient pagan ritual. Gluttony, they were reminded, is no sin according to the Queen.
“BUT THERE ARE OTHER SINS!” a royal voice rang out from behind the stage. It wasn’t a scripted line, but only a few in a position to know that reacted. A few of the cast and staff looked around, perplexed, but most of the servers unsheathed knives from the platters of food they’d brought and stood at attention, one at each table, like a eunuch standing guard in a seraglio.
Poison Ivy stepped onto the stage, looking infinitely more regal than the Marchesa had. She was followed, a step behind on each side, by the bartender and Bruce, who were in turn followed by a phalanx of animated greenery. Like the performers had done earlier, the flora left the stage to mingle with the audience. Ivy tolerated the first few cries until her babies got into place. Once each table had at least one plant to assist the servers in keeping order, she clapped her hands for silence.
“Congratulations,” she pronounced grandly. “Tonight, you are judged the least objectionable humans in Gotham. You are privileged to see the new Poison Ivy and to take word of the demonstrations you will witness out to the world. This is the dawn of a New World Or… What is that smell?!”
“Sulfur,” Bruce said.
Ivy turned, surprised that he wasn’t as passive as a fully-greened drone ought to be, and saw too that his eyes lacked the euphoric lack of focus. Rather than remark on it, she followed them.
“Oh,” she squeaked like Harley when she saw it. There was a… muscular figure standing in the main door through which the audience had come. Even with the theatrical lighting in the room, she could clearly make out a cape and pronged points coming from its head. When the thing stepped forward, the cape would be seen to be cobalt blue; the points, horns. Its skin was the color of a yellow bruise, its eyes at once black and glowing red, like lava. Smoke wafted from between its fanged lips as they creased into a wicked smile.
Upon my horns, a goddess green? I never thought to
He pointed a clawed finger at her with an up-and-down motion to indicate the split around her chest, and went on stalking to the stage.
Reminds me of my Hella, though you bloom where she has rot.
It’s really not appealing. I’m so sorry, Ivy Deadly.
Be consoled, you won’t cry long. This tryst that
“Hagen,” she sneered as the vines that had scattered around the ballroom scrambled together to form a unified creature. Twice as large as the pseudo-tree at the greenhouse but lacking the shrub ‘trunk’ those vines had for structure, this monster remained a vine, albeit a humungous one.
Oh, Baby, Etrigan said, a delighted snarl on his lips as he felt the surge of hate that almost made up for the Gaia-thing. Call me, mayb-eech.
The delight did not last as the massive coil of plant-life slammed into him like a derailed train. The blow first drove him to the ground and then, splintering the stage into fragments, into the foundation beneath it. Bruce grabbed Ivy’s arm and spun her around to face him.
“Let your drones go!” he ordered, trying to force the idea through her psychotic gleam of triumph. The bartender, though he’d temporarily lost his footing when the stage gave way, ran to her aid, and Bruce blocked him with a swift and brutal backhand that returned to the Ivy grab in under a second. “Listen to me!” he said, looking into her eyes and willing her to focus, “the vines moved away from the tables. Everyone can get out if you just release the men with the knives.”
It didn’t work. She did process “Everyone can get out” which together with the proximity of the violent bartender block, the shock of a greened drone speaking to her in a less-than-adoring manner, the chaotic screaming echoing all around the room, and the growing pressure in her chest, all she could think was “NO! No-no-no-no-no.”
Bruce convulsed, the forgotten sensation in his scar tissue returned with a vengeance. Except now it wasn’t squirming; it was burrowing. No longer confined to his chest and back but burning around his sides and down his arms to the wrists. The sound of his scream blotted out similar cries from all over the room. While everyone except Ivy writhed and flailed as their clothes turned on them, Etrigan—sandwiched between the super-vine and the cracked foundation beneath him—smiled at the sweet music of pain and chaos.
He bared his teeth, eyes burning malevolently, and clawed at the vine. Finding the effort unsatisfying, he sunk his teeth into it as well—and howled. The ballroom and the labyrinth of antechambers beyond vibrated with the infernal howl as a viscous white sap seeped from the torn, fleshy vine into his mouth and onto his talons. It burned with earth-life, the hated Gaia taste filling his mouth. Life! Searing, stinging, stinking life.
His stomach heaved, and his left eye streamed with tears and shut from the sting. Spitting and hissing, the demon tried to rid his mouth of the sap as the vine squeezed in closer, pinning his arms—which also had the hideous, hated stuff on them. The vine was huge now, and taking pleasure in his predicament—or more likely, its mistress was—crushing him slowly against the cracked concrete beneath him. Whatever its source, the pleasure stank worse than the earth-life and Etrigan was out of patience. He struggled, though leverage was against him, and spat to get the ghastly, itchy sap from his maw.
When the last of it was gone, he closed his other eye and, with a thought of mother hellfire, he began to burn. Flame sprung from his body at all points, searing through the skin of the vine. More thick white sap was released, and though it burned unsatisfactorily, it smelled much better superheated in infernal flames.
Etrigan breathed in with satisfaction, the smell of an unworthy enemy marinating in its own roasted gore.
He sat up, hissing and spitting incoherent curses, and crawled out of the pit that had once been the Diamond Horseshoe stage. There were plenty of bodies lying around and a satisfying amount of groaning, but he didn’t stop to enjoy it. It was nothing compared to other battlefields he had strode across, and on those occasions, he wasn’t still snarling at the pain from noxious sap. He dug his claws into the floor and tore up splinters with each step as he stalked away, vowing revenge on the tree witch.
To be continued...
Author’s Note: Etrigan’s battle with Gaia-life owes a great deal to the roleplay of Lady Dien who also penned the Wicked Verse Jason and Etrigan stories in the Cat-Tales Universe.