The fiercest of the Viking warriors were the Berserkers. The Berserkers were no ordinary fighters. They became possessed of a savage rage, unable to distinguish friend from foe and blind to everything but their own mad fury. In the throes of “the berserk,” they became enormously strong and were magically immune to harm from any weapons.
By the time Superman arrived, Robinson Park was completely encased in a thick black fog. It clung to the sides as well as the top, giving the impression of an ebon brick. The yells Superman heard were all coming from inside it. So he blew three short, precise puffs of superbreath, hoping to clear it and alleviate the fears of those trapped within… But the fog did not disperse. It didn’t even move.
Superman flew to the east and blew again, testing the new angle. He flew to the north and blew yet again, harder. Still the solid mass of fog remained untouched. He focused his X-ray vision on it—and was so shocked by the result he “stumbled” momentarily in his hover. He couldn’t see through it. The “fog” was impenetrable to his vision… unaffected by his breath…
In his mind’s ear, he heard Batman’s voice when they had encountered similar phenomena in the League. He heard the voice, deeper than usual with contemptuous disgust, uttering a single word: Magic.
Superman was vulnerable to magic—and magical beings were often, like this fog, not vulnerable to him. He didn’t let that deter him, but flew determinedly into the dark miasma where the yells and cries were most intense.
Unlike human eyes, Superman’s vision needed no time to adjust to the darkness within the sooty cloud cover, but his mind did need those same seconds to process what his eyes were showing him. The people weren’t panicking; they were attacking each other. Dogwalkers were wielding their leashes like whips and garrotes, softball players swung their bats like clubs, and crew teams rammed with their oars. A mounted policeman rode through, slashing and pounding to the left and right with his billyclub. Superman charged to intercept him before he crushed the skull of a jogger fighting off the dogwalkers—
Superman was horrified when, lifting horse and man as one, he heard the sickening crack of contact between the heavy club and the jogger’s head. He turned mid-flight to see the damage, only to see instead the jogger—unharmed—cutting down the dogwalkers with his bare hands. The jogger charged in his direction, howling with inhuman rage at the policeman and horse Superman still held above his head. Superman hadn’t recovered from the shock when the jogger leapt—leapt! 12 feet at least!—and punched him in the jaw. Superman was thrown—actually thrown back—with the weight of the blow. He lost his grasp on his load, sending it plummeting into the park in a chaotic mass of man and horseflesh.
The policeman—who should have been crushed by the fall, threw the horse off of him like—like it was nothing—and within seconds the jogger and policeman were locked together, hands fastened on each other’s throats.
Despite the chaos, Superman heard one voice emerge distinctly from the pandemonium: “Superman. Southeast corner. Now.”
He was reluctant to leave the policeman and jogger—or any of these people—lest they hurt themselves. But they didn’t seem to be hurting each other (despite their best efforts). And he didn’t seem able to stop them anyway (despite his). It was better to heed Batman’s summons and see if he knew what was happening.
There are two kinds of women in the world: those who savor, and those who don’t. The ones who savor know how to enjoy a good time when it happens. We dig in the claws and ride a rush as hard and as long as we can.
If, for example, one was having an especially good night, getting into the Crenel penthouse in record time, getting into the safe in record time, and discovering that the old boy not only had the bearer bonds she expected, but that he also had a diamond bracelet all ready to give his mistress… Well, it’s only natural to keep a good thing going. To prowl a bit instead of going straight home—to prowl near the Moxton Building or Wayne Towers—his favorite haunts, hoping for a little scrap and scratch.
It only makes sense to women like me to feed the high.
And then there are those other gals. I don’t know if they feel guilty about having fun or if they take themselves too seriously—or maybe they’re just afraid they’ll get their hair mussed if they throw their head back and have a good time. Whatever it is, they’ll push back from the table at d’Annunzio’s, still flushed from some masterpiece of chocolate-raspberry bliss, and their first words uttered will involve “walking it off.”
Lois, to her credit, did not say “walk it off” after Giovanni’s magnificent soufflé. Instead, her eyes glanced at Bruce’s credit card, and then looked up at me. There was a curious glint in her eye, one I associate with phrases like ‘Riddle me this’ and ‘Let’s flip for it.’ One I associate with prowling on a good night, hoping to keep the thrill going with a little bat-action.
“Let’s go shopping,” she said.
No instant-penance for the joys of the soufflé. On the contrary, while we’re still glowing, let’s feed the high. Let’s take the billionaire’s black AmEx and try on the new Escadas. “Let’s go shopping,” Lois said, and it’s just possible, in that one moment, every salesclerk at Saks had simultaneous orgasms.
We’ll never know for sure, because as soon as Lois and I stepped out the door of the restaurant, we saw the dark patch over Robinson Park.
“Guess we know where they went,” I remarked. I wasn’t bitter, but I was still smarting. I’d been left behind with the civilian and that was bad enough. And then the civilian had said it was because he needed it to be that way. I didn’t want to believe it; I still don’t. Bruce isn’t like that. He knows I don’t need to be protected like some weakling Girl Friday.
“C’mon,” Lois called, charging up the street towards the park. “Whatever that thing is, it’s news.”
“Um, hello!” I said, sprinting after her. “What happened to ‘they need to know you’re safe/best to let them do their thing?’”
“Not to the point where I don’t do my job,” Lois announced crisply, “Rushing to wherever he’s needed, that’s his job. Going after the story is mine. And that thing up there is a headline. Let’s go bag it.”
Definite echoes of “Riddle me this”… Definitely.
In the years since I’d become Catwoman, I thought I’d done it all in terms of Gotham extracurricular activities. But as Lois Lane led me towards Robinson Park with the same determined gait I’d once led her through my escape route from LexCorp, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this would be a new one: I was heading, at full speed, into my first Lucy sketch.
Superman streaked through the park toward the southeast corner. He flew a good twenty feet off the ground, trying to stay above the building chaos, but that didn’t stop several of the raging humans from attempting to leap at him. He managed to successfully dodge one especially persistent leaper who followed him for several hundred feet before crashing into a hotdog cart and immediately getting into a scuffle with the cart owner. Again, he felt that twinge of remorse as he looked down at the combatants. It seemed to go against everything he stood for to just let these two crazed people pound and claw at each other. But it still seemed that no physical damage was being dealt and he’d heard that tone in Batman’s voice. Superman took a deep breath, then continued on toward Batman’s location.
He landed in time to see Batman locked in a battle with a rampaging jogger. Just as he was about to intervene, he saw Batman’s hand shoot forward and a small cloud of green smoke enveloped the jogger’s head. The jogger flailed madly for several seconds, swiping at the cloud surrounding his head in rage, then dropped to the ground, unconscious.
“Neuro-toxin,” Batman explained, his eyes scanning the immediate area for any more approaching attackers. Superman noticed the green lenses covering Batman’s eyelets—obviously allowing him to see through the dense fog.
“Although they appear to be impervious to physical attacks,” Batman continued, focusing his attention on the downed jogger, “it looks like some things are still effective.” He held up a small green capsule. “This is the gas I use against Killer Croc. A man this size should have dropped instantly.”
“What is this? What’s going on?” Superman asked as he knelt down on the other side of the body that Batman was examining. He hoped that Batman had some kind of explanation for this bizarre set of circumstances.
“Working on it,” was his only reply. Batman quickly and methodically searched the body, looking for clues. Superman scanned as well, literally scanning him from the inside out.
“Batman, do you see that?” he asked, pointing to the man’s forehead. Batman focused on the area that the Man of Steel was pointing to, but saw nothing. He shook his head and Superman focused again, shifting his eyes through various light spectra.
“Infrared spectrum.” It sounded more like a question.
“Lenses. Infrared.” Batman barked lowly, and the lenses flicked lightly.
“What is that?” Superman asked once he realized that Batman could now see what he had. “It looks like… a rune?”
Batman traced a gloved finger over the strange symbol glowing in the unconscious man’s forehead. He recognized the rune—he’d seen it twice in the last 72 hours. Most recently, he’d seen it when reading through the book on Norse Mythology in his library. But before that, he’d seen it on the magic runestone he’d held just three nights before. It was the same magic or, at least, the same kind of magic that had turned him into a rampaging beast…
“Berserkers,” Batman growled. They both stood, their eyes still locked on the unconscious jogger. “Someone—or something—is turning these people into berserkers. Did you see anything…?”
“Only the crazed people,” Superman interrupted. “The berserkers.”
“We need to find the source. It has to be somewhere here in the par…”
Batman stopped as a scream suddenly pierced the fog. It was no howl of rage or roar of insanity, it was a shriek of the purest terror—a sound both heroes were all too familiar with.
They both started scanning the area quickly. The dense fog made it almost impossible to tell where the terrified scream was coming from. But they both knew what that scream meant: there was someone else in the park who wasn’t affected, who hadn’t been turned into a crazed warrior… and they were in trouble.
Batman suddenly looked back to Superman, his jaw tightening. He pulled a handful of small capsules out of his belt and handed them to Superman—more neuro-toxin. It might not help against the big bad—whatever it was—but he could at least keep the berserkers from getting in the way.
“Go!” Batman instructed. “Find the center of this mess. Find what’s doing this and stop it! I’ll take care of the bystanders…”
He hadn’t even gotten the last word out of his mouth and Superman was gone, streaking off the way he had come.
Once he’d gotten over the shock, Tim found he had no trouble subduing the fierce little gargoyle. Holding onto it was another matter. Built to fit on top of a computer screen, the thing was about the size of a large bullfrog—too small for Batcuffs, and too squirmy to tie up with Batline.
Every time Tim managed to grab onto the little menace, it bit him. The only way he could hold it at all, he discovered, was with one hand clutched around the throat and one grasping the head, pulling it back firmly so it couldn’t lunge and snap. That left the little monster’s legs free to claw up Tim’s wrist and forearm. Four times Tim managed to capture it this way, and four times it tore into his wrist until it broke free. Now it was loose in the cave again and he had no idea where, although he heard the occasional clank of Batarang against rock.
Tim abandoned his pursuit long enough to slip into the costume vault and change into Robin—the costume wouldn’t give him complete protection, but it was a vast improvement over his school clothes. He headed back into the main chamber, cautiously scanning above and to the sides… scanning… scanning… until at last, he saw it… lurking up there in the truss supporting a storage platform… It was in the same position, haunched over its front claws, as it had been as a desktop statue. It didn’t look nearly so cute now.
Robin eyed his adversary with the focused intensity of a rooftop combatant. The little beast wasn’t exactly threatening now that the element of surprise was spent: It couldn’t conceal itself well, its hostile intensions were clear, and its attacks were obvious and ineffective.
“Okay Jowls,” Robin announced, making an elaborate show readying a Batarang. If he was right, the gargoyle was fierce but stupid, and would react predictably to a taunt. “Playtime’s over. This ends. Now.”
When the reaction came, Robin took a step backward, his mouth dropped open in surprise. No rogue, street thug, or henchman had ever been quite this stupid: the gargoyle, thinking itself cunning, had stood and walked along its perch until it could conceal itself behind some truss. As soon as it imagined itself hidden, it turned in Robin’s direction. Robin could see its eyes clearly, glowing in the shadows, trained on him as it moved. Jowls walked in this way to the end of the support, then turned and paced back the way it came—still eyeing Robin with those obvious glowing eyes—until it reached the end of the “cover” of truss beams. It kept walking from there but with eyes forward, as if casually and unaware of Robin’s presence… until it reached the other end of the perch. Then it turned again and walked back—glaring at Robin just as before as soon as it imagined it couldn’t be seen.
Robin had let this idiotic performance continue for three full cycles when he saw Jowls stop in his pacing and curl his front claw. It pulled back and threw the Batarang it held from before. It threw its weapon poorly, like a baseball. Robin didn’t bother to dodge as the Batarang flew harmlessly past his legs and hit the floor behind him with a dull thud.
“Ouch,” Robin said with dry sarcasm. “Wounded to the quick, Jowls. Now if you’re done being clever—”
In a beautifully synchronized move, Robin swung his right arm outward as if pulling back to hurl his Batarang. Jowls ran to his right, and Robin pivoted, tossing a palmed object from his left hand to intercept Jowls at the edge of the platform. The thing flashed a blinding light for a split second, then exploded into a snarl of aerodynamic netting. Within seconds, the dazed monster was hopelessly tangled in a web of netting and truss, and Robin was able to collect his prisoner without fuss.
Batman focused his attention on the high-pitched shrieks, trying to locate the source. Undeniably female… and they were getting closer.
There! Batman caught the vaguest of shadows moving through the fog off to his left. He took off, running as fast as he could after the indistinct figure. After only a few seconds, he had closed the distance between himself and the wailing woman and he now understood the reason for her terrified shrieks. Behind the running woman, now only a few steps away, was a snarling, enraged man wielding a concrete birdbath like a giant club.
Batman leapt into action, springing forward and slamming into the berserker at full speed. The birdbath tumbled harmlessly away as the two bodies slid across the grass, entangled in one another. Batman was up in an instant, pulling a gas pellet from his belt. As soon as the berserker got to its feet, it was met with an open palm slapping violently against its face, the small capsule smashing open and filling the air around his head with thick green vapor.
Batman leapt back a few feet and dropped into a defensive crouch. He knew he’d never beat the rampaging beast in single hand-to-hand combat, but it was much easier to simply dodge such an erratic fighter. The berserker ran out of the gas cloud, swinging wildly. Batman avoided the swinging arms with ease, keeping a safe distance from the snarling madman. Within a few seconds, the ferocity dwindled and the man collapsed.
Batman turned to check on the berserker’s original target. She wasn’t screaming anymore. Instead, she was staring dumbfounded at the scene before her. As Batman approached through the fog, the woman’s features becoming clearer as he neared her.
His lips curled into a sneer with recognition. “Ivy!”
“B-Batman?” Poison Ivy balked. “What are you… when… wha…”
She looked frightened, terrified, but there was more to it than that. There was something else mixed in with that horrified gaze—Panic? Confusion? He wasn’t sure, but it was entirely possible that she really was just an innocent victim here. She lived in the park, after all, so it was plausible that she heard the disturbance and came out of her lair only to run into a throng of rampaging humanity…
Whatever the case, it was obvious that it would take some time to get information out of her. She was babbling incoherently, her eyes now fixed on her downed assailant with a glassy-eyed stare.
“I didn’t… It’s not… My babies… screaming… those people…”
Batman took a step forward, his voice a commanding boom. “Ivy. What happened?”
She instantly returned her attention to Batman. “It wasn’t… I… this… wasn’t supposed to happen… I was just… spell… not this… my babies…”
Batman shot forward, grabbing Ivy by the shoulders and growling. “What did you do?”
Startled, but no more coherent, Ivy immediately went on the defensive. “I didn’t! I… it wasn’t supposed to… bun-lady said… the clearing… that stupid video… I couldn’t control…”
Batman shook her viciously, realizing that Ivy was much more than just an innocent bystander in all of this. “WHAT DID YOU DO?!”
“It’s not my fault!!” Ivy wailed, taking great offense to being handled and talked to in this manner. “I was merely trying to… that stupid video… and all those stupid men…” Her eyes locked viciously onto his, realizing that this arrogant, violent, meddling man was exactly the kind of man that had pushed her into this whole thing in the first place. “Men like you! Making a mockery out of me! Making me some… getting some cheap thrill off of… YOU made me do this! This is all your fault!!”
Ivy suddenly pushed back, flailing her arms wildly at Batman. He held her firmly in place… when searing pain shot up the back of his right shin as a new gash appeared, another scar returning. The reemergence of the wound caused his leg to jerk violently and set him off balance, sending them both tumbling to the ground.
Realizing that they were suddenly on the ground and that she, quite literally, had the upper hand, Ivy snapped. In her mind, everything that had ever gone wrong, everything bad that had ever happened to her was a result of this man on the ground beneath her. And now she had him beat—pinned to the ground, under her control. It all made sense now—the whole Roxy thing had been a fluke! She didn’t need some summoned creature! She didn’t need Selina and her ridiculous training! She was Poison Ivy, The Goddess of the Green and NO man could ever hold her down…
She raised her fist high in the air, preparing to strike a nasty blow against Batman, against ALL men… the power of a million unrecognized paybacks clenched in her fist… the strength of all of nature condensed into one punch…
Batman’s hand suddenly shot up and two fingers prodded dangerously hard into Ivy’s underarm, striking a cluster of nerves and rendering her arm instantly useless. As her now completely harmless fist dropped like a stone to her side, Batman used the shift in her center of gravity to spin her off of him. He was instantly back on his feet and grabbing to pull her up. She began shrieking again, the culmination of all of the pain, fear, anger and frustration she’d been through in the last few hours flying out of her in a piercing cry. Her one good arm swatted at him harmlessly until another quick nerve strike rendered her completely unconscious.
As much as he wanted to leave her lying there on the ground, he knew that any berserker who stumbled across her prone form would surely rip her to shreds. With a grunt, he hefted her body up under his arm and headed toward the nearest park exit, hoping that the chaos had not extended beyond the boundary of the fog.
I knew we were in trouble as soon as we reached Robinson Park South, the street lined with hotels on the southernmost edge of the park, where the hansom cabs queue up in between the regular taxi stands. The traffic was at a standstill and people were standing along the sidewalks, all staring up at the mass of black encasing the park.
Gothamites don’t stop and gawk as a rule. Yeah, sure, that was Robert DeNiro coming out of Nobu, so what; actors gotta eat too.
But there they were, lined up around the park: gawking. It was a lucky break as far as Lois was concerned, dozens of eyewitnesses ready to utter pithy word-pictures for her readers. She went fluttering through the crowd asking what everyone had seen. Most of them missed the thing forming. They arrived late, as we had, and only noticed once the traffic ground to a halt.
After a few minutes’ fruitless searching, I thought about the hotels—the doormen would have been standing out front the whole time. I told Lois and pointed her to the front of the Plaza. The doorman was an older man, Asian, whose nametag read “Ken.” Lois melted him with a skeptical glance at the unlikely nametag and asked what his name really was that the hotel assumed tourists couldn’t pronounce. It was Cu Ba, and soon Cu Ba was telling her all that had happened since the first clouds darkened over Robinson Park.
I knew I should stay out of it. Lois was doing her job, and she knew how to question a witness. But after the part with the clouds, Cu Ba’s story shifted focus. Nobody had come out of the park since the strangeness began, and only two figures went in: Batman and Superman. The latter was quite a novelty in Gotham, and Cu Ba pointed excitedly to the sky where he had appeared, where he had flown, and where he had entered the park. Batman, he added dismissively, came in from that way—but he didn’t look right.
I knew I should stay out of it, but I wanted to know what that meant. I cut off Lois’s next question. “What do you mean he ‘didn’t look right?’” I asked.
“Swing,” he said, motioning with an index finger towards the far end of the street, “like they show on TV, on rope from up that way. But land very bad, double over.” And here Cu Ba moved both hands to his left side and bobbed slightly. “Then he stood up and run into park. Not look right.”
I looked towards that corner of the park. Not that there was anything to see except cabbies and tourists gawking at a big black wall of fog.
Lois put her hand on my shoulder. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she said.
I hate this. I HATE IT. This isn’t me. This isn’t what I do. I don’t stay behind and fret about him like some goddamn civilian.
But something was wrong at the restaurant… and before. Something had been wrong with him since the runestone.
I had already decided to go in when the fog swelled outward, right where I was looking, and Batman came running out—with an armful of green I recognized in a blink as… Poison Ivy?
No longer just a floating double-head, but now in his full fifteen-foot, winged, demonic form, Janus surveyed the battlefield before him. Hundreds of his newly created berserkers battled endlessly in front of him, clawing, pounding, biting and hammering at each other for lack of any other targets. He smiled wide, baring rows of sharp, pointed teeth, content that this was the perfect beginning of the army he desired. And it was just the beginning, he knew. He would amass an army of berserker warriors so massive as to shake the very fields of Valhalla itself. His beloved Hel would have her revenge.
An odd green mist suddenly sprayed across the battlefield, carried on a powerful wind that rivaled the gale that Janus had summoned when he arrived. The mist coated the battling berserkers, and within seconds, they began collapsing on the field.
“What?!” Janus howled in surprise.
Superman spit the crushed capsule shells from his mouth and floated in the air over the battlefield, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Release whatever hold you have over these innocent people and return to your own plane of existence. This invasion ends NOW!”
Janus sneered at the brightly-clad speck of humanity and howled in rage. “Insignificant WORM! You dare to deny the will of Janus the…”
He never got to finish the proclamation as Superman suddenly swooped in and planted a powerful uppercut on the demon’s chin, sending him hurling backward. Superman followed the sailing form, landing on the ground mere feet from where the demon finally came to rest.
“Oh, I dare,” he replied, arms back in their folded position. “Time for you to leave now.”
Janus suddenly leapt to his feet and swatted Superman away with the back of his hand. “I think not, mortal!” the demon howled. “These warriors now belong to me!”
Superman sailed backward through the air from the force of the blow. He was able to quickly stop his momentum and fly straight back toward the demon, slamming into its chest with both fists and knocking it back again. In mid-flight, Janus brought a clubbing hand down across Superman’s back, slamming him into the ground below. Janus kept himself aloft with his own powerful wings, then landed directly in front of the prone hero.
“Impressive power,” the demon chided, “but not even close to mine. I will crush you like a…”
Superman was suddenly up on his feet again, his hands latching onto the demon’s shoulders. Janus instinctively latched his talons onto Superman’s shoulders as well, and they were locked together in a powerful stance, wrestling for supremacy.
Superman was dwarfed by Janus’s huge size, but he still pressed upward against the demon’s shoulders, shoving with all of his might. Even as Janus’s powerful talons dug into his skin, he held his ground, undaunted.
“Release… *ugh*… these… people!” Superman demanded, his corded muscles straining against the weight of the demon’s powerful arms.
“Oh, I’ll release them, speck,” Janus replied, a menacing smile spreading across his face in spite of the struggle. “I have to. Only by releasing them from this mortal coil will they enter my beloved Hel’s domain and become the army she so richly deserves!”
Superman’s eyes widened in realization—he was going to kill them all! A renewed sense of urgency filled his body and he pressed harder against his foe, actually shoving the giant back a few feet.
A low rumble emanated from Janus’s chest that sounded like a growl but soon shifted into laughter. The demon glanced menacingly back over his own shoulder. The ground began to tremble beneath their feet as thirty large figures suddenly appeared through the fog behind Janus’s back, charging toward them. None of them matched Janus in size, but they had a similar shape—large winged creatures with gaping maws and taloned hands. And each one made completely of stone.
To his horror, Superman quickly realized that the stone monstrosities weren’t headed toward him, but were bearing down on the mass of unconscious berserkers behind him. They weren’t there to help Janus in this fight, they were there to slaughter the innocents. With an amazing burst of power, Superman actually lifted Janus off of his feet and slammed him to the ground.
He knew it wouldn’t keep Janus down for long, but it broke the stalemate hold long enough for him to get away and go after the gargoyles before they could begin their gruesome task.
One thing about Batman, he can size up a situation in seconds. When he burst out of that fog on the edge of the park, the first thing he did was scan the crowd. He saw us—and even with those lenses in, I could read the thought from the way he turned his head—he didn’t know what we were doing there. And then he saw Lois’s hands: pen, pad, tape recorder… ah. Grunt. I couldn’t hear it from this distance, but I’m sure it was there. Grunt. That’s his way.
We went up to him. I looked at the bundle he carried and stated the obvious: “You have an armful of garden slut,” I noted, pointing to Poison Ivy.
“Lenses disengage,” he growled. I love that tone. When he doesn’t want to acknowledge the teasing.
Then something weird happened. His whole side spasmed and dumped the armful of unconscious garden slut onto the sidewalk.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I blurted, bending down to check how her head hit the concrete. “Ivy’s not exactly my favorite person, y’know, but come on.”
“I’m fine,” he said mechanically. It’s what he’d said at the restaurant. It’s what he’d said on the roof last night. I would have asked what he meant by it, but just then I saw these little cards that had spilled out from Ivy’s graceless tumble.
“The Curiosity Shop,” I read. “16th and Lexington. 15% off.”
“Go,” Batman ordered. “Take Lois, see what they know. It’s about Berserkers. And maybe gargoyles.”
“For real or just sending us out of harm’s way?”
“Um, guys,” Lois interrupted. We turned and she was pointing down Fifth Avenue. Despite all that was happening, it still took a minute to process what I was seeing. It’s like that when something is so completely wrong. You’re so sure your eyes must be lying to you, it takes a minute to really see what you’re seeing.
“Speak of the devil,” I murmured.
It was a gargoyle—the kind I see every night—same size, shape, texture—except it was walking up Fifth Avenue towards the park. It didn’t actually speak, but you could still hear it. Somehow you could hear its words in your head.
˜˜Six thousand was my right,˜˜ it said, ˜˜Six thousand will be mine. First shall be thou, Dark Mortal, first of six thousand pledged but never yielded.˜˜
“Selina,” a far more familiar voice graveled in my ear, “Go. Now. Berserkers and gargoyles. Now.”
Superman managed to stop about half of the charging gargoyles on his first swooping pass. Though magically enchanted, they were still simply made of stone. He blasted through the rank of charging beasts, shattering many of them with a single punch. He quickly went to work on the others, demolishing them with great punches or high-intensity blasts of his heat vision. Dust and debris littered the ground beneath him as he landed, scanning the mass of unconscious, but unharmed human bodies.
In the distance, he heard Janus’s menacing laughter, as the ground began to shake again. Another pack of gargoyles charged across the field.
The “Curiosity Shop” was locked up when we got there. I wasn’t about to let that stop me, and I wasn’t going to waste time explaining to Lois. It took less than a minute to open the door. Another to bypass the alarm. I headed for the counter, certain I would find some clue to where the shop owner lived. I got as far as this little nameplate: Miriam Nash, Venus in Scorpio, when all of a sudden, a kind of white numbness hit me.
I heard Lois utter a sort of “uuohh” noise, but when I turned to see… I found I couldn’t turn at all.
I was… frozen.
This was not good.
I couldn’t quite think straight…
to work out…
…But I’m pretty sure I was only standing like that for a minute when the woman came. I couldn’t see where she came from, but she was suddenly there. Shortish, gray hair, glasses, like a funky librarian. Presumably “Miriam Nash—Venus in Scorpio.” She took the little card from my hand and looked at it, then up at me.
“Arcquix conquiescete,” she said. I felt my legs flush warm suddenly.
“You can move now,” she told us, just as Lois started spurting a lot of questions I didn’t bother listening to. “A kind of magical burglar alarm. I expect you’re here about the green woman?” she went on, indicating the card.
“Yes,” I nodded. “Poison Ivy. She’s… I don’t know what the hell she’s done but—”
“Hell is exactly what she’s done. And your timing is rather unfortunate, ladies. I was on my way there, to the scheol fissure, when your tripping my alarm brought me back here.”
“Look, Miriam,” I said, “under other circumstances, I’m on board with the crisp matter-of-fact attitude towards breaking and entering. But in this case, we broke in TO GET A HOLD OF YOU. We’ve got… there are… people that we care about are trapped in that park right now. And all hell is breaking loose in there. What did you call it, a fissure?”
“Yes, a scheol fissure, a tear between our world and the world of the dead. Your friend with the green skin opened it, or… No, not quite. She…” Miriam trailed off and seemed to listen, then she looked up at me. She looked exactly like a funky librarian that just found the out of print reference you wanted. “She awakened something—Janus, most likely—and channeled power into him until he opened the fissure.”
“How do we close it?” I asked.
“Closing a door that never should have opened is simple if you can find out why it was opened in the first place. The difficulty will be sending back what has already come through it.”
Lois stepped up, in full reporter mode. “Hang on, we know ‘Who’: Janus. When and Where are covered. So let’s go back and hit ‘What’ before we tackle the Whys. What exactly is a scheol fissure and what is coming through it?”
“It’s an opening between worlds,” Miriam said, “Janus is also called Bifrons. By that name, he is a lord of the underworld, commanding legions of dark beings. Any of them would heed his call. I don’t know, I can’t sense what is coming through the fissure, but it’s a good bet that he opened it for the purpose of letting it into our world. If you can find out what it is, you’ll probably learn the whys.”
“It’s that,” I said, pointing to a corner of gargoyle statues. “Except big. It—one of them, at least—looked just like that one.”
Miriam went to the table and picked up the statue. “This one?” she asked.
“This is Blostiban, Guardian of the Fifth Circle—and an aspect of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld. This is what Bifrons called forth?”
“That’s what we saw, yes.”
“Your green friend’s name isn’t Hel or Blostiban, is it?” Miriam asked skeptically.
She sighed—a rather perturbed sigh often heard in conjunction with Pammy, one way or another. “That makes no sense,” Miriam said at last. “But the spell I gave her is to right a wrong. And Hel was certainly wronged.”
“How?” Lois asked.
“And does it have anything to do with Berserkers?” I added.
Miriam took us into a back room and dug out one of those books you only see in horror movies—or Jason Blood’s library. It was large, the size of a small table top, covered in thick dark leather that was carved and embossed with symbols. She turned the strangely thick pages—vellum, maybe, or heavy paper coated with some kind of lacquer.
While she read, a little cat, a beautiful Korat with luminous green eyes and a coat just about Whiskers’s shade of blue-gray, leapt down from the bookcase and landed in our midst.
“Greymalkin, NO,” Miriam wailed, trying to collect the cat while it swatted her sleeve and played with the pages.
“Maybe you should—” Lois started to say.
“I had the same thought,” I told her quietly. Under other circumstances it would be fun to watch, this sorceress flummoxed by her own cat. But we were pressed for time. I picked up Greymalkin and settled in a corner chair. I spent the next ten minutes telling the little darling how beautiful she was and letting her chew my handbag.
When Miriam was ready, she waved us back to her place at the table.
“The Sagas of Norse mythology say that the gods and the giants were destined to fight a great war called Ragnarok. To prepare for the great battle, they made a bargain: the Valkrye would bring half of all the dead warriors to Odin. They became the army of the gods. The other half they left for Hel, to fight on the side of the giants. But Odin cheated. Not all Viking warriors were the same. There were some called Berserkers that were stronger, fiercer, possessed of an inhuman rage, incredible strength, unimaginable violence, and—”
“And they were magical,” I whispered, thinking of what happened to Bruce. “They could draw on magic, as long as it served the killing?”
“Some legends say yes, they were magically immune from weapons… The Berserkers were Odin’s special property. His name actually comes from the German words for ‘rage’ and ‘possessed.’ So Odin took all the Berserkers. And that’s how he cheated. The two armies were equal in number, but whenever a Berserker fell, he was brought to Odin. It would be like having a ‘fair fight’ between the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
“So… righting the wrong?” Lois asked.
“Bifrons wants to give Hel the Berserkers she should have had to fight at Ragnarok.”
I felt my blood run cold. Bruce had been a Berserker. Six thousand was my right… Pledged but never yielded… First shall be thou, Dark… Mortal.
“If this Hel is goddess of the underworld,” I started to speak my thought. “If she’s a goddess of the underworld, then to give her the Berserkers he’s making, Bifrons will have to—to make them dead?”
“Yes. And since they are immune to weapons and the fiercest attacks, that’s why he would have opened the fissure to bring forth demons that could kill them. Even a Berserker will die if you twist its head off.”
“HOW DO WE—” I stopped. I was shouting and Greymalkin had squirmed at my volume. Her back legs tore deep into my arm as she jumped down. I took a breath and began again more calmly. “How do we stop them? How do we send them back? And—and then how do we close that damned door?”
Batman rolled right, dodging the huge stony arm swinging in his direction. Thankfully, most of the bystanders had scattered when the gargoyle had come stomping up the street, so now it was just him and the animated statue, battling it out amongst the abandoned cars on Fifth Avenue.
He cursed himself for not packing any explosives in this spare suit’s utility belt. Though huge and menacing, the gargoyle was still only stone. A well-placed concussion grenade would have ended this fight ten minutes ago, though he wasn’t doing too badly with just batarangs and strategic kicks.
One of the gargoyle’s “knees” was almost completely crumbled and the huge thing stumbled slightly anytime it shifted its massive weight to that side. There were large chunks of stone missing from various parts of its body and it was missing the tip of one ear. And, Batman noted, it had several claw/puncture marks on the side of its head and a worn groove that circled its neck, though those were not from this fight. No, those were a result of countless grappling hooks and lines that had latched onto its neck night after night as it had sat on its perch on the roof of the Grupnel Towers.
Spying those scratch marks again as he came out of the roll, Batman came up with a plan. He could use a grapnel line to grab the rampaging statue and pull it over without having to risk another close assault. He pulled the grapnel gun from his belt, aimed it and fired.
Though the gargoyle face never actually moved or showed any expression other than the one it had been carved with, Batman could immediately sense a shift in the thing’s demeanor—even before the strange voice invaded his mind again.
˜˜NO! No more swinging!! No more ropes!!˜˜
The thing clutched at the grapnel in its neck and yanked it out, then pulled the silk batline so hard that it wrenched the gun from Batman’s hand. The thing charged him fast, its mental voice howling in Batman’s mind.
Batman easily leapt clear of the charging gargoyle and landed on the hood of a nearby car. The charge had brought it close enough for another close assault. Batman crouched lightly, waiting for just the right moment to spring toward his foe with a perfectly aimed kick that would take that crumbled knee out once and for all.
If he had been given the time to study the strange phenomenon of his scars returning, if he hadn’t jumped immediately into this bizarre case that forced him to handle the reemergence of his old wounds in the field, he would have noticed a few things. First, that the scars had been returning in the reverse order in which he had received them. Second, that with each passing moment, the speed with which they were returning was increasing exponentially. Given that information, he could have calculated—or at least estimated—when certain scars would return.
If given the chance, he could have seen what was coming.
He could have traced the “road map” of his scars backward and determined that his body had just reached that horrible night—the night that he had battled another huge monstrosity and lost.
The night he’d fought Bane.
White hot pain stabbed through his lower back like an iron spike. His knees buckled as he lost all feeling below the waist and he collapsed onto the hood of the car.
To be continued…