The Viking Sagas tell of a Time before Time, when gods and giants fought for dominion. The gods won, but prophecy decreed the two sides would fight again in a cataclysmic war that would mean the end of all: Ragnarok.
To prepare for this great battle, each side assembled an army from the fallen warriors of the earth. Half of those killed in battle, the Valkrye took to Valhalla, Odin’s great hall, where they feasted on mead and boar’s meat, waited on by the Valkrye themselves, until the day came when they would fight for the gods at Ragnarok.
The remaining dead went to the underworld, dominion of Hel, the daughter of Loki. Hel guarded her army for the giants, but although their numbers were equal to the army of the gods, they could not match the terrible fierceness of Odin’s warriors…
By the time Selina and Lois made it back to the table, they were laughing and joking like long-time friends. Once the initial tension had broken, they laughed about it, the absolute ridiculousness of Clark’s “plan.” They had waited in the bathroom a few extra minutes—to “give Bruce time for a full-scale flogging,” Lois explained—before returning to the table.
As they approached, Lois noted the browbeaten look on her husband’s face with a small amount of satisfaction. From the look of concern he shot at her, she guessed Bruce had time to not only berate Clark’s own initiative but to address “sending Lois into the Kitty’s den” as well. Lois smiled sweetly at her husband’s confused stare—he obviously hadn’t expected her to return in one piece, much less laughing and joking.
The men stood politely as the ladies arrived and sat. Once back in their seats, both women’s demeanor abruptly changed and they each affixed Clark with an icy stare. Clark’s confusion turned quickly to concern, bordering on blind panic under the weight of the dual blast. Bruce hid the twitch-smile behind a sip of water.
Just as he was starting to question his own safety, Clark—who many considered to be the mightiest hero on the planet—was ‘rescued’ by a bright Italian voice.
“Now that the ladies have returned, it is time for dessert, no?” Giovanni asked as he materialized next to the table.
“Yes!” Clark chirped a little too eagerly.
Giovanni rambled off a list of desserts, each one seemingly more exquisite than the last. Knowing Miss Kyle’s particular fondness for their confectionery delights, Giovanni focused his attention squarely on her as he proudly announced d’Annunzio’s newest addition to the after-meal selection: a chocolate soufflé, filled with a Godiva chocolate/Grand Marnier mousse, served on fudge-raspberry reduction and sprinkled with fresh raspberries.
Selina and Lois both agreed on the soufflé. Bruce got his “just coffee.” Clark got apple pie. Actually, what he got was the “spiced apple-cinnamon tartlet with honey-cream sauce,” but it sounded close enough to “apple pie” for him.
Conversation before the desserts arrived was decidedly lighter, liberally peppered with barbs in Clark’s direction (“some people do think the whole world lives like TV sitcom families”) from both Lois and Selina. When the desserts arrived, Giovanni hovered politely around the table, waiting for appropriate—and quotable—responses to the new dessert. The ladies did not disappoint.
“Oh meow,” Selina breathed, closing her eyes dreamily, “It tingles… all the way down.”
“My god…” Lois moaned, placing a hand on Clark’s forearm. “Sorry, Honey, but I think you just dropped down a notch on my Favorite Things list…”
Clark stared at her in surprise, listening to the sounds she was emitting—sounds he’d never heard outside of the Kent bedroom. He coughed lightly and took a bite of his tartlet.
Satisfied with the positive responses, Giovanni thanked them all graciously and headed back to the kitchen to inform Roberto, the head Pastry Chef, that he had indeed crafted another Kyle-approved masterpiece.
“You know, Clark,” Selina quipped, “if she has any more of that, you could be…” She stopped suddenly as she realized he was no longer paying attention to her. His eyes had gone distant, glassy. His ears suddenly twitched… no, not twitched—perked. It was a surprisingly feline move from such an obvious dog-person. She stared at him strangely for a moment, then turned to Bruce to see if he knew what was happening… but Bruce had already done that shift-in-density thing. Selina instantly realized what was happening—they were both going into “work mode.”
Noticing the sudden shift in the atmosphere at the table, Lois glanced up from her dessert and saw an all-too-familiar look on her husband’s face. He heard something—something nasty in the area that might require his attention. She glanced over to Bruce and was shocked at the incredible change in his demeanor. She knew that she was no longer looking at Bruce Wayne, Playboy Fop, but instead she was looking at Batman wrapped in a Bruce Wayne suit.
Miriam had lost sight of the mysterious green-skinned woman, but after the first moment of panic had passed, she realized that wouldn’t matter in the long run. If the Janus plaque was a warning, then the green woman would reveal her location soon enough. Anyone attuned to the astral plane would feel it if the lines of magick shifted from their normal patterns, and Miriam had always been sensitive to the location of such disturbances.
As it turned out, she needed no special sensitivity. All of Gotham could see the funnel of black clouds forming over the west half of Robinson Park.
Ivy had closed her eyes, repeating the chant as instructed, focusing all her will on those crucial words: To right the wrong done the goddess… To right the wrong done the goddess’s name…
She had become so focused on her incantations that she failed to notice the growing chill. The warmth of sunlight, so important to her plant-like serenity, had vanished from her skin. And the air was turning dank and sour. Ivy closed her eyes tighter and concentrated harder, blocking out the encroaching distractions… Right the wrong done the goddess… Right the wrong done the goddess… Right the wrong done the… oohulgh…
Her insides seized with a wave of nausea that broke all focus and her eyes popped open.
“Uh oh,” she breathed, seeing herself surrounded by a thick smoky fog.
Ivy screamed as a lightning bolt struck the center of her circle mere inches from her feet, knocking her back—the fog solidified above this point—solidified blacker and grimier and smellier—a disgusting stench of sulfur no plant could abide—but also into a shape—the shape of a disembodied head with two faces—the shape of the bust of Janus.
“Thank you, Green One, for your pains. Too long have I been absent from this mortal realm.”
Ivy recovered from the shock enough to regard the… whatever it was… with a wry expression.
“SILENCE!” the thing bellowed, “I gave you not leave to address me, mortal! Your summoning, unasked but welcome, brings power to mine fingers fit to tear the veil between worlds! For that, I give you leave to speak.”
“Now look, Bub,” Ivy poked the fog belligerently at it’s thickest point, “You’re not exactly what I ordered but you’re here to—” she found it impossible to continue as a hurricane wind swept through the park. The fog remained completely still, but leaves, twigs and dirt flew through the air, and trees bent low. Ivy found it difficult to breathe in the face of such gusts and impossible to speak.
“I am here to right the wrong done the goddess. Hel, my fair one, goddess of the Underworld, is wronged as any deity of any pantheon.”
These last words were punctuated by a fresh burst of lightning and shrill crash of thunder.
Clark’s eyes refocused and locked onto Bruce’s. There was a strange, intense moment of silence between the two of them. When they finally spoke, it was in low, discreet whispers—too low to possibly be heard outside of the table.
“Where?” Bruce asked.
Clark’s ear perked again. “About a mile, a mile and a half, north-northwest.”
Bruce thought for a moment, picturing the grid-lined map of Gotham he kept locked in his brain. His brow knotted lightly as he tried to place the location. “Dogs?”
To anyone else, it would have seemed an odd question, but Clark knew to trust the man’s instincts. He listened again, trying to pick out particular sounds amongst the chaos. “Yes, quite a few.”
Bruce nodded slowly. “Robinson Park,” he growled. His right arm flinched suddenly as searing pain sliced across his biceps. Already in “Bat Mode,” he ignored the pain for the time being, instead focusing his attention squarely on Clark. He knew that look on Clark’s face—he knew that what he was hearing wasn’t just a single person in trouble—this was something big.
Selina noticed the flinch and eyed him curiously. It seemed an odd reaction from him… then she noticed the vein throbbing in his neck—it was an intensity she’d never seen outside of the cave.
Clark hadn’t noticed Bruce’s flinch; he was too intent on focusing on the noises. Aside from the obvious panicked screams and barking dogs, there was something else… a lot of something else…
The two men traded intense glances again, both reaching the same conclusion. Lunch was about to be cut short. Bruce picked up his napkin and wiped the corners of his mouth, then dropped it onto the table, discretely pressing a small button on his watch in the same motion.
“Sorry, ladies,” Clark apologized as they both stood. Selina marveled at how quickly Clark had shifted back into the bright, happy reporter. “We have to step out for a bit…”
Clark leaned down and kissed his wife’s cheek, not wanting to interrupt her obvious enjoyment of the culinary delight. Selina stood with them, her attention focused squarely on Bruce. She stepped in between Bruce and the path to the door, regarding him with a concerned look. She knew there was something wrong with him but…
He stepped forward and kissed her gently. It was oddly natural, comfortable—especially considering he was obviously still in his focused Bat Mode. Her hand slid up inside his sport coat, gently caressing his side. When he pulled away, confusion mixed with the concern on her face. What had gotten into him?
“I’ll be fine,” he assured her with a low growl.
“I didn’t ask, Stud,” she replied, practically on instinct. He felt his lip twitch slightly in spite of himself. Bruce stepped around her and he and Clark strolled purposefully toward the exit as Selina returned to her seat.
As they neared the front door, Bruce rubbed his upper arm where the strange pain had struck. The pain was gone—vanishing as quickly as it had appeared—but now his arm felt strange. His skin felt… tight and it itched lightly. He’d check on it when he changed into the suit.
Bruce suddenly lurched to the left and careened into Clark as a sharp, stabbing pain shot through his left thigh, just above the knee. The pain was excruciating; it felt like something tearing through his leg from front to back, taking skin, muscle tissue and blood with it. It felt like a bullet wound.
Clark was able to grab him quickly and help get him back upright. He glanced in surprise and confusion that the normally sure-footed Bruce had somehow just inexplicably lost his balance. There was the briefest flash of pain across Bruce’s face, then he straightened himself and continued toward the door, ignoring the curious stares of the patrons around them.
“Sorry,” Bruce muttered, almost incoherently as they stepped out into the daylight. Clark was about to ask his friend what was going on when they both noticed the dark, menacing clouds moving quickly across the sky, swirling and coalescing around a central point about a mile away.
Finding the source of the catastrophe would be easier than they expected.
Clark moved as if he was about to take off then and there, then stopped and turned to look at Bruce.
“You need me to zip you to the manor or something?” Clark asked quietly as they stared up at the sky.
“No need,” Bruce replied, as a large, black Rolls Royce pulled up in front of the restaurant. Bruce knew Alfred was waiting a few blocks away and would have come as soon as he received the signal from Bruce’s watch, but even so the timing was impeccable. Bruce stepped up to the rear door of the car and opened it, motioning for Clark to get in.
As soon as they were in, Bruce called up to Alfred in the front seat. “Two blocks, then turn right into the alleyway behind the old Holcom Theater.” During the short trip to the alley, Clark’s eyes never left the window and the ominous clouds forming overhead.
Once they were safely parked behind the theater, Bruce opened a hidden compartment under the back seat and pulled out a spare Batsuit. He heard Clark’s door open and glanced up to see Cla— no, Superman, already changed into his costume, standing beside the open door, and glancing up toward the blackened sky.
Superman leaned his head back in the door. “Do you need…?”
“Go!” Bruce cut him off. “I’ll catch up.”
Superman nodded once and was gone, streaking up out of the alley.
Bruce quickly began to change into his costume. He glanced over at his bare arm and noticed… a scar?! Right where the pain had sliced across his biceps was a perfectly formed, thin scar. He shook his head lightly and continued suiting up.
“Once I’m gone, head back to the restaurant and wait for Selina and Lois,” he instructed Alfred. The butler glanced up into the rearview mirror and nodded.
Suddenly, Bruce rocked violently back against the seat, his arms splaying out wide. A huge gash suddenly opened across his abdomen like he was being gutted by a giant invisible knife. He clenched his teeth, growling against the pain. Alfred spun around in his seat to see what was happening. They both watched in horror as the wound across Bruce’s stomach started to close back in on itself, the skin bunching up and closing the hole… leaving a perfectly formed scar.
Bruce let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, panting lightly as he stared down at the scar. This was it—payback. Nature was collecting its debt, balancing out the healing he had received from the magic rune. And he knew that somewhere, Mother Nature was laughing.
“What on Earth?!” Alfred gasped from the front seat, staring at the freshly formed scar.
“Magic,” Batman spat in disgust.
Tim would have liked to check in with Alfred before he went into the Batcave. He would have liked to double check that it was empty. He would have liked absolute confirmation that Bruce and Selina were out for the day… But since he was technically cutting class, he knew he would have to risk it. Talking to Alfred would just stir up all kinds of questions, and all he really needed was to pick up the books he’d left behind.
He heard a strange sound as he ducked in through the Batmobile entrance. At first, he thought it was some kind of generator hum. It wouldn’t be the first weird echo that popped up when Bruce installed something in the wrong place, then disappeared again when he moved it. So Tim wasn’t surprised that it got louder as he approached the main chamber—he did notice it was getting higher and squeakier—then he forgot about the noise completely when all the bats flew at him.
“Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap,” he blurted, shielding his eyes with one arm and waving screeching black blurs away from his head with the other. He worked his way through the cyclone of bats—which he finally realized were not coming at him directly but were freaking out every which way.
He finally reached the main chamber, curious what could have happened to upset all the bats, but happy that at least he wasn’t being personally attacked—when something small, gray, and fierce flew at his face, clamped onto his throat and hissed an awful spray of fetid stench into his nostrils. Tim struggled to pull tiny but strong claws out of his neck.
“JOWLS!” he gulped, when he saw what it was.
The thing cackled another awful spray of stink at him and hopped away like a monkey. It raced around the cave, swiping at a wounded bat as it went, and settling finally back on the workstation where Tim had left him. He picked up a batarang and pounded it fiercely into the desk, then took off for the costume vault. Tim chased after it—only to be forced back by a stab of white pain slicing through his arm.
“AAAAAAAARGH!” Tim screamed as he fell backwards.
He looked at the arm and saw a Bat-grapnel sticking out. He didn’t have time to register the thought when Jowls was on top of him again, growling and hissing with that stinking breath, and pounding at him with some kind of club.
Not a club, Tim realized vaguely, a grapnel launcher.
Back at the restaurant, both women had returned to their desserts, each eating silently. It occurred to Lois first that they were quiet for the same reason, preoccupied by the same thoughts.
“Sometimes I hate it, you know,” she said without preamble. “I’ve never told anyone that. I hate it sometimes, having to share him with the rest of the world.”
Selina looked up but said nothing at first. She was somewhat shocked at the naked honesty of the statement—and at its coming from a woman she barely knew. Then the full weight of the situation hit her. What was said in the powder room was so much piffle, and Selina had dismissed it as such. But this was the reality: Superman’s wife opening up to her candidly as the only other woman who might understand. It was just there, sitting on the table between them like so much chocolate soufflé, automatic mutual acknowledgement that they were… in the same boat.
“The sudden exits,” Selina began hesitantly, like one speaking a foreign language, one learned from books but never spoken out loud.
“Oh, those you get used to,” Lois chimed in with a quickness Selina found alarming. “Well, not completely, but it gets easier over time.”
“No,” she insisted. “Maybe you get used to it; I don’t. Every time it happens, I get whiffs of ‘the bimbos.’ It’s what he did to all those women over the years that were just… fop cover.”
Lois raised an eyebrow and Selina realized the associations she’d been making were unfair. If a boy scout like Superman did it to his own wife…
“Look,” Lois said, finishing her last bite of soufflé, “You get to that point where you realize that no matter how capable you are at taking care of yourself, there’s always that issue of him wanting to protect you if you’re there. No matter what we do, they have to have that sense of security that you’re safe… and you realize that it’s best to just let him go and do his thing.”
Selina felt the blood draining from her face. It was a cage, that’s what Lois was describing; it was the cage Selina had been terrified of stepping into since… since…
Xanadu. When they got back from that
weekend at Xanadu, the weekend she’d left with Batman and come back with
Bruce Wayne. Her head was reeling the whole flight back. Instead
of parting where they’d met up at the little executive airstrip near
Bristol, he’d turned to her with that dangerously handsome unmasked face and
said “Why not come out to the house?” Just like that. Come out
to the house, like it wasn’t the richest mansion in the country, like it was
simply his home. She agreed, and then she met Alfred, and then Bruce
showed her around the manor. Then he opened the cabinet of the
grandfather clock and set the hands to 10:47, revealing the passage to the
cave. He’d held out his hand… She took it without a word and followed…
And somewhere in that one moment, underneath the wonder of seeing the
Batcave, beneath the thrill discovering the man, inside the euphoria of
being in love, that terror was born: the cage. Lured inside by
such tempting bait: He was bringing her—she was walking into—his most
private sanctuary. He was bringing her to his most special place…
“They have to have that sense of security that you’re safe” …and the door
slams shut behind you. “They have to have that sense of security…”
that you’re safe? or that you’re
theirs. That you’re owned.
“That’s just what I was afraid of,” Lois said crisply. Selina shook herself back to the present and looked across the table. Lois was looking at a small leather portfolio set between them with the word d’Annunzio’s embossed in gold leaf. “They stuck us with the check,” she announced.
Selina smiled knowingly—she and Lois were not quite that alike after all. She reached into her lap and produced Bruce’s wallet like a conjurer’s trick.
Goddesses do not panic. They may not enjoy having hellish smoke-beings appear in their midst, invulnerable to their plant-minions, oblivious to their pheromones, and choking off all life-giving sunlight…
They may be driven half-mad by the screams if the trees they’re so connected to are stripped of their leaves by gale-force winds… if the shrubbery is ripped from their soil by sharp gusts wreaking of hellfire… if all the flowers and grass withering for lack of sun and air wail with one voice as a great mass of dying nature…
They may even run, blinded though they are by the fog and chaos, to get away, anywhere away, from the shrieking, darkness, evil, churning madly, everywhere, deadly to flowers, deadly to grass, deadly to trees… running madly, screaming like the dying flowers, wailing like the dying grass, shrieking like the dying trees until they find themselves cowering, cold, tight and tighter, and screaming still under something, anything, large and strong enough, for protection, and quiet, anything to get away from the awful clamoring of all that dying green!
But they do not panic.
Batman landed roughly on the roof of the Gotham Banking & Trust building, ducking into a roll to slow his inertia. Not the most graceful of landings, but considering that halfway through his swing his left arm had suddenly broken—causing him to jerk erratically and change trajectory—forcing him to overcorrect and overshoot the edge of the roof by a good six feet—leading to this awkward landing…
As soon as he stood, he felt his left humerus
snapping back into place, resetting itself, and his whole upper arm
throbbed. The scars and wounds were still returning, the time in
between each re-appearance getting shorter and shorter as he got closer and
closer to Robinson Park. Wounds that originally took months to heal
were resurfacing and re-healing themselves in a matter of seconds. It
was a… bizarre sensation.
He grunted away the pain, forcing himself to continue
on. That was one of the strange things he’d long ago discovered about
wearing the suit—just being wrapped in the cape and cowl seemed to boost his
tolerance for pain… though today was certainly testing that theory.
He knew he shouldn’t be out in the field like this.
Batman’s effectiveness as a fighter came from his ability to control and
trust his body—something that he couldn’t guarantee considering what was
happening. But he also knew that Superman was out there, battling
whatever magical evil had been unleashed upon Gotham, and Batman would be
damned if he was going to let his friend stand alone. Especially
considering Clark’s susceptibility to magical damage…
Batman grunted in determination as he reloaded the
grapnel launcher. From here, it was an easy path to the park—swing
from the gargoyle on the corner of Grupnel Tower’s roof, around the Parkside
Apartments and over the Eastern Gate of the park.
He pointed the grapnel launcher toward Grupnel Tower…
The gargoyle was gone.
To be continued…