Chapter 7: Dance of Death
The first attack came almost as soon as they emerged from the supply closet, the back wall of which concealed the entrance to the cave. They found themselves walking through a narrow corridor, with cinderblock walls and hard stone floors. Double doors with chicken-wire windows were spaced at ten-foot intervals along the way.
"Safety precaution," Batman said, as they approached the second set of portals. "In theory, they can lock the doors via remote control and trap a patient within one section of cor—" He broke off abruptly. The twin slabs of metal resisted his push. He shoved harder. They didn't yield. "Back the way we came!" He barked.
Nightwing obeyed, his partner flush on his heels. The set of doors that they had just come through were barred as well.
Cursing, Batman fumbled in his belt for a lump of white clay. "Get back," he said.
Nightwing didn't have to be told twice. The C-4 tore the doors off their hinges and the two raced through the gaping hole. They were out. A whoosh of cool air from a vent behind him skimmed the top of his head. A cloud of dust, likely a remnant of the blast, surrounded him, the particles tingling on his exposed face. One trap down, one million to go. He coughed. His tongue felt like it was suddenly too heavy for his mouth. His heart rate quickened as the corridor seemed to spin. The Thorazine had made him feel like this. Had Batman and Doctor Mid-Nite made a miscalculation with that injection…?
A breathing mask settled firmly over his face as an arm wrapped about his shoulders, pushing him forward.
"Are you alright?" Batman demanded harshly, his voice muffled by a mask of his own.
Nightwing nodded automatically. The dizziness was beginning to fade. He blinked as Batman held up another needle.
"Atropine," Batman said curtly. "There were monkshood particles coming in through the vent over the doors. I recognized the symptoms. This should neutralize them." He shook his head. "By confining us in a small part of the corridor, she all but ensured that it wouldn't take long to succumb to the toxin's effects."
"She?" Nightwing's eyebrows drew together in confusion. An instant later he realized who Batman meant. "Ivy."
Batman closed the anti-toxin kit and replaced it in one of the pouches of his utility belt. "Most toxins that are absorbed through the skin are pesticides or industrial poisons. Monkshood is one of the few that is plant-based." He placed two empty syringes in a small container for later disposal and turned again to face his companion. "You'd better head back downstairs."
"No," Nightwing insisted. "I'm coming with you. Just like we agreed."
"Don't you understand? This is only the beginning. They're going to keep coming after us with deadlier attacks. I won't be able to protect you."
"I know. I'm not asking you to. Batman, I wouldn't be fighting to stick with you if I didn't think I could handle myself. We decided—"
"We were wrong!" Batman turned away and then spun back. "I almost watched you die… how many times over the years? No more. I'm not going to witness anything like that tonight. Go back."
Nightwing's thoughts reeled. Batman never, to his recollection, spoke this way in the field. It was rare enough for him to disclose that much emotion outside the costume. Something was definitely spooking him. Spooking… That's got to be it! Wait. But then why aren't I…? An instant later, the answer came to him. He shook his head. "Can't do that, Batman."
The other man took an angry step forward. Nightwing held up a warning hand as he continued. "Until Scarecrow's fear gas wears off, you definitely need someone watching your back."
Batman shot him an incredulous look.
The younger man grinned. "Remember what you said about using some of the fear toxin antidote in that first injection you gave me? Guess it has another advantage. I don't suppose you could take—"
"I have been," Batman said, annoyed. "Every time Crane escapes. Every time I have reason to come here. I inoculate myself with the antidote as a precautionary measure."
Batman let out a long breath. "After all this time, it seems that I've built up an immunity to the general serum." At Nightwing's questioning glance, he elaborated. "Crane varies his recipes. Without knowing the exact composition of his current version, it's impossible to determine the most effective counter measure. What I've been using until now fights the most common elements of his toxins. That… evidently… is no longer sufficient." He looked like he could have kicked himself.
"Can you manage?" Dick asked seriously.
Batman nodded. "Now that I know what I'm dealing with." He placed a hand on Nightwing's shoulder. "Are you sure that you can?"
Well… actually, the idea of charging over two hundred inmates when neither of us is operating at one hundred per cent capacity doesn't fill me with as much confidence as I'd like… but… He grinned. "You know it."
If the other man suspected Nightwing's actual thoughts, he gave no sign. Instead he squared his shoulders, drew another breath, and said, "Let's go."
"It's a rental," Black Canary said in response to Jason's whistle. "Not exactly a Ferrari, but—" She broke off.
The younger man had already ensconced himself in the front passenger seat of the candy apple red Ford Mustang. He raised an eyebrow at Roy. "What're you waiting for?" He demanded. "Back seat's all yours." He flashed Dinah a cocky smile. "Maybe when all this is over, you and me can go for a bit of… private action."
Dinah's answering grin was even broader. "If you clear it with my husband, first. He'll probably give you a…" She glanced at Roy. "A one hundred sixty-five-yard head start?"
"One seventy-nine," Roy corrected. "He'll have the arrow nocked and ready at the one sixty-five mark, though. Up to that point, he'll probably still be deciding whether to use a wood, fiberglass, or aluminum carbon shaft." He frowned. "And then there's the issue about whether to use a normal broadhead, something with a barbed tip… on second thought, he might go right to the 'special' arrows." He glanced at Jay. "Did you want to be standing near another Lazarus pit?" He asked solicitously. "I mean, just to be on the safe side?"
Jason stared at Roy as though trying to figure out whether the other man was joking. After a moment, he turned around again and nonchalantly fastened his seatbelt. He didn't utter another word until they were almost out of Bristol.
"Another one?" Nightwing rolled his eyes when the door that led from the stairwell to Arkham's main floor refused to budge. "You'd think they'd quit with the remote locks already—they're barely slowing us down."
Batman bent down to examine the bar-lever. "But they are slowing us." He pointed to a spot on the doorframe, slightly above the bar. "Can you defuse that?"
Nightwing's eyebrows shot up. "They really don't think it through, do they? If this goes off, it'll take out the whole build—" He frowned. Why was the floor so wet? And it felt as though he was kneeling on a grid of some kind. "They wanted us to find the booby trap. Which means that the real one—"
Batman jerked him away from the door and pointed upward. Something large and white was rolling toward them, rumbling as it drew closer. "Thermal flares! Now!"
The ball of ice, which rolled effortlessly down the winding stairs toward them, had to be at least six feet in diameter. As Nightwing struggled to pull the thick cylinder out of his boot compartment, the reason for the puddles on the landing became apparent. In a matter of seconds, the water had frozen, leaving a near-frictionless surface. Mr. Freeze's doing. It has to be. He must've rigged that grid to quick-freeze the floor somehow. Man, we've got to start carrying road salt in these suits!
As his legs slid out from under him, Nightwing managed to dislodge the incendiary with one hand, while catching hold of the banister with the other. He landed on his back, chin tucked, sprawled along the flight of stairs they'd just come up, still clutching the handrail. With his free hand, he fired the flare directly at the approaching ice-ball.
There was a hissing sound and a muted thunk as the missile impacted the ice sphere. A large chunk split off from its body, but the newly-hewn facet did little to stop the ball's forward momentum. It continued its descent down the spiraling staircase, as though hell-bent on crushing him. Just then, two more flares struck from above in quick succession. Batman had used a de-cel line to swing clear and was firing down.
Steam filled the corridor, obstructing his vision. Water—a good deal more of it than there had been a few seconds ago—and several largish chunks of ice, flowed down. One bumped his arm as it went by. He turned on his side and let the chill stream run past him for a moment or two. Then he glanced over his shoulder and saw his partner leaning down with a concerned expression.
He forced a smile. "I'm feeling… Titanic," he said weakly. "Don't suppose you got the license number of that iceberg?" Batman's frown deepened. "I'm fine, I'm fine," Nightwing added hastily in response to the scowl. "Just had the wind knocked out of me." He accepted the outstretched hand and got carefully to his feet. "Okay… if you've got the landing de-iced, I'll have another go at that door."
"Who are you dressing up as this time?" Roy asked.
Jason twisted as far as the seatbelt would allow him to look behind him. "What?"
"C'mon, you've been Robin, Red Hood, Nightwing… I'm surprised you didn't grab a bat-suit while you were in the cave." His voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. "Or did you just want to get into Batgirl's ti—"
Dinah slammed on the breaks, nearly pitching Roy forward into the passenger headrest. "If you don't pipe down back there, I'm driving back to the manor and leaving you there."
Jason snickered. Dinah turned to him. "As for you…"
"Me? I was just sitting here, minding my own business when he—"
Dinah massaged her temples. "I don't believe this. Lian shows more maturity than the both of you put together. I'm only going to say this once. Roy, lay off. Jason, calm down. Both of you… grow up!" Her tone snapped them both to attention. "This is Bat business. This is League business. This is not the time to be horsing around." She looked at Roy. "You already know what's at stake, and you," she turned to Jason, "probably have a good idea. We can use your help, but not if the both of you are—"
"Well, DON'T finish it!" She took another breath. "Roy, behave. And get your seatbelt on."
A faint but audible click was the only response to her directives. Dinah nodded to herself and started driving once more. After a moment, Roy asked, "So, kid? What's your code name? I mean, if I happen to see Hatter sneaking up on you with a customized fedora, how would you like me to shout out to warn you?"
The younger man thought for a minute. "You might as well call me 'Jay'," he said.
"Jay? You mean like… Blue Jay? Green Jay? White-collared Jay? Nah, you're not planning on the priesthood, are you?"
The youth glowered. "Just 'Jay.' Hey, It's still going with a bird theme," he added defensively. A pause. "It'll do until I come up with something else."
"Oh? You looking?"
"I don't know." The smirk was out of his voice. "There are…" He started to say something, but caught himself. "Look. Stuff happened to me last year. If I tell you everything, you'll think maybe bringing me to Arkham is a good idea even if Batman isn't there. Hell, I started trying to write stuff down, thinking it might be easier to tell Bruce in a letter and I thought I ought to be committed. Just… you know how they say you should be careful what you wish for?"
"Yup," Roy's reflection nodded in the rearview mirror.
Roy was silent for a few moments. Then… "This wouldn't have anything to do with what happened when you and Donna went looking for Ray Palmer?"
Jason wondered whether Roy had actually heard his jaw drop open.
The archer grinned. "She and I do chat every now and then, you know."
Jason relaxed visibly. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it does. See, there was this one Earth we ended up on where after I… died… Bruce… lost it and killed the Joker…"
Batman eyed the dimly lit corridor with distaste. "I do not like this. Not at all."
Nightwing shrugged and turned on his flashlight. "Infrared scans show clean," he said, tapping one of the Star-Lite lenses of his mask for emphasis.
"There are ways to block those," Batman pointed out, as he turned his own light on. It cast a narrow beam directly before him. Nothing ahead of them appeared to be a booby trap at first glance. Neither man took appearances at face value.
Nightwing took the lead, letting his beam sweep from one wall to the next ahead of him. "Tripwire," he whispered. He was about to step over it when Batman pulled him back.
"Hold it," Batman cautioned. "That floor looks wet—and it shouldn't. I think…" He tossed a small batarang into one of the puddles and was rewarded with a spark and a hiss as it hit the water.
Nightwing shook his head. "An electrified floor. I take back what I said in the stairwell. They really did think of everything, didn't they?"
The shriek echoed down the corridor. Both men froze.
"Bruce, help! They're going to—Mmmmphg!"
"Jezebel!" Batman whispered. "We have to…"
"KILL YOU! CRUSH YOU!" A guttural voice bellowed from behind.
The dynamic duo turned as one, as Killer Croc came barreling toward them.
"Think he'd survive the floor?" Nightwing asked out the side of his mouth.
"Uncertain. As the Black Glove intended," Batman snapped back. "Croc has brute strength and endurance on his side, but he's not intelligent enough to obey anyone's orders for long. They may see him as too great a liability." He took out a bola and whirled it above his head. "But they know we'll try to save him. Even if it kills us."
Nightwing slid two nightarangs out of a compartment in his glove. He aimed low, as Batman released the bolas.
The three linked, weighted balls wrapped around the reptilian torso, pinning Croc's arms to his side. The man who had once called himself Waylon Jones roared with rage, as he tried to break free of the polymer cable.
The roar changed to a shriek of pain scant seconds later, as Nightwing's razor-sharp, stylized shuriken found—and severed—their mark: one of the ligaments of Killer Croc's right knee. The heavy-set man collapsed to the ground, writhing in agony, scaly fingers trying in vain to reach the joint and hold in the blood streaming from the side of his leg.
Nightwing winced. "I just wanted to stop him."
"It doesn't look like you sliced the artery," Batman pointed out. "With the right medical attention, he should recover." He rested a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Good work." He pointed to an overhead light fixture. "That should bear our weight," he said, as he readied his grapnel. "I'll go fir—"
"BRUCE! HELP MEEEEEE!"
Batman gripped Nightwing's arm. "Let's move!"
"What the hell…?" Dinah muttered. The Maserati parked on the shoulder of the road looked a bit too familiar. As did the woman standing next to it, peering frantically over the low metal fence that served as a guard rail between the Aparo Expressway and the drop to the river below.
"Oh no," Jason groaned. "Don't stop, Blondie. Just keep driving."
"Popinjay has a point," Roy chimed in. "We don't have time for this. Hey. Where's Demonbrat?"
Dinah took a deep breath. "Well," she said, "I've never exactly tried to pass myself off as any kind of detective," she pulled onto the shoulder behind Talia, ignoring her passengers' protests, "but most people don't stop in the middle of the highway to admire the landscape." She opened her door and stepped cautiously over to the rail.
"Hey." She said quietly.
Talia turned to face her, a desperate hope flickering in her eyes. "You have him?" The hope died almost immediately. "He is not with you," she stated. "Of course not," she continued, speaking more to herself than to Dinah. "You are only just arriving on the scene and he," she pointed down the incline, "is several miles ahead of us and likely halfway to that… that madhouse by now." She hugged herself, closed her eyes, and began to sniffle. "He wants to help his father," she wept.
"Of course, Damien, you simpering hussy!" Behind the tears, Dinah saw rage glisten. Talia continued. "He flung himself out of the car and onto the roof of a passing truck." She shook her head. "He sees this as some… some… sirah. Or a tale out of the Arabian Nights. He has no idea of the sort of monsters that await in the asylum."
"But you do," Roy said coldly. "If you didn't know it before, you must have figured it out after your father's stint in that place. And you still helped set this whole thing in motion. Not such a brilliant scheme now that your son's caught up in it, is it?"
"I told you," she hissed, "I am trying to help you!"
"Yeah?" Roy snorted. "Do me a favor, then? Switch sides! We'll do better that way."
Talia flinched. "Please," she whispered, "I beg you. Don't leave me bereft of both my son and he whom I had hoped to make my husband. Not both on the same day. You," she dabbed at her eyes with a linen handkerchief, "you claim to be heroes. You're supposed to render aid, not… not berate m-m-me."
"We'll help," Dinah said firmly. Over Jason's disgusted protest, she added, "we can't turn our backs on a ten-year-old wandering around Arkham."
Roy observed the exchange with a bemused smile. "I'm beginning to see why you left this business," he remarked to Jay. His eyes met Dinah's. He sighed heavily. "Guess the kid can't help who his relatives are. And it's not like we weren't headed there in the first place." He turned back to Talia. "Were you going to come along, too? Or were you just going to wring your hands and tremble in the parking lot?"
Two spots of color rose to her cheeks as she drew herself up and lifted her chin. "I shall follow your vehicle in my own. I am his mother, after all. Who else would he heed?"
Jason began to laugh. "Lady," he said, "do you really think this latest stunt of his counts as 'heeding' you?" He snorted. "And please don't try and say that you didn't tell him not to jump, so it doesn't count. Face it, Talia, he's out of control. Believe me, I know."
"Jay," Dinah said, "that's enough. Get back in the car. You too, Red Arrow. We've got to get moving." She smiled sweetly at Talia. "Try not to tailgate. When I get nervous, well… I'd hate to think what my canary cry could do to your windshield."
Batman and Nightwing paused before the gunmetal-gray double doors. "Alright," Nightwing said finally. "If I remember the floor plans, this should be the rec room, right?"
"Do we go in?"
He nodded again. "But if we had any reason to doubt it, it's definitely a trap."
"You're kidding!" Nightwing gasped. "I mean," he continued with an eyeroll, "besides the fact that we've followed the screams this way, and the passageway dead-ends here, what makes you think that?"
Batman was not amused. "First," he said, giving his partner a hard stare, "despite what was on the blueprints I showed you earlier, these doors are the only way in or out of the rec room. Jeremiah had the fire exit sealed off last year after he'd experienced three breakouts in two months."
Nightwing blinked. "And the safety inspectors allowed it?"
"Think about it, Nightwing," the other man sighed. "Do you honestly believe they want to make sure that the inmates can get out? This place hasn't had any kind of safety inspection since the Rebuild."
"Ah. Okay," Nightwing nodded. "And the second reason?"
"The room's soundproofed. We wouldn't have heard those screams unless they'd opened the doors to lure us here. Are you ready to go in?"
A short while earlier…
He'd timed it perfectly. By the time his mother registered that the car door had opened, Damien had been out of the vehicle, scaling the guardrail. By the time she'd been able to stop the car and retrace her path, he'd been over the fence and atop one of the slow-moving supply boats that traversed the Sprang. He'd studied the maps of his father's city well enough to know that Mersey Island, where the asylum stood, was situated at the western mouth of the Sprang, where it flowed into the Gotham River. It had been simplicity itself to locate a westbound barge and leap aboard unnoticed. And then, to slip off the craft as it passed within striking distance of Mersey.
Bypassing the alarms had been child's play. No, they'd been a child's challenge. The security experts, apparently, had never thought that someone might try to break in to Arkham—and certainly not through an opening scarcely two and a half feet wide. It only took him a few minutes to remove the bars from the window. And it never occurred to him to wonder why no guard appeared to challenge him. He was a Son of the Bat and a Grandson of the Demon. Certainly, their talents were encoded in his blood and in his bones. As the panel of bars came away in his hand, Damien felt a rush of joy. So would all obstacles fall before him!
After ten minutes of reconnaissance, however, Damien had to admit that he'd encountered no obstacles. The halls were quiet. Perhaps 'deserted' was a better term. He'd expected to encounter doctors and orderlies, possibly hear the moaning and raving of the lunatics incarcerated here. But there was nothing.
He walked down a corridor with cells on either side of him, which had clear Plexiglas panels for doors. He cautiously pressed his face to one of them. The space beyond was empty. So were the others. For the first time, Damien felt a twinge of apprehension.
As he rounded the corner, he heard voices. Two of them. One male, one female. They seemed to be coming from a room labeled 'staff lounge'.
"It's excellent, Simon!" The woman was saying. "The likeness is superb."
"Thank you, my dear," the man replied. "I'd thought to bury him in it, but now I can see that it would be a waste. I'll need to work on the voice, I think." When the man spoke again, it was in a low-pitched, gravelly tone. "Is this better?"
Female laughter, and applause. Damien opened the door a crack and looked in. His father was there, in costume, along with the woman Mother called 'his newest strumpet'. He was about to announce his presence, when he stopped. The strumpet had addressed him as 'Simon'. That wasn't his father's name. Better, he resolved, to hide in the shadows and listen longer. Only a fool would charge in without understanding the situation. And he, Damien Al-Ghul was…
…Suddenly dangling in mid-air as a mighty hand clamped about his forearm and hoisted him high. A dank, earthy smell surrounded him, not unlike the inside of a potter's workshop.
"Well, well, well," a deep voice rumbled. "And just who do we have here?" His captor laughed. "I didn't know we'd opened a children's ward! Who are you!"
"Unhand me!" Damien snapped. "At once. Or my father shall make you pay!"
His captor laughed again. The hold on Damien's arm tightened, and then, it seemed to spread until it immobilized him from wrist to shoulder. Even through his shirtsleeve, and especially on his bare forearm, the grip was icy, with a dampness that seemed to seep into his very pores. "Your father? Oh, that's rich. I don't see him anywhere around, kid. Do you?"
"Not yet," Damien blustered. "But he will be. And when he arrives, you will pay for daring to lay hands on the son of Batman."
All at once, the hand swung him around and he gazed, for the first time, at the face of the man who had so effortlessly subdued him. Only… it was no man. It was a vast behemoth of living clay! Damien opened his mouth to scream—and a muddy hand clamped itself over his lips. Cold fury overcame terror. This… creature… dared to lay hands on an Al-Ghul? Enraged, Damien bit into the hand. The clay flowed over and around his teeth, coating them and fusing them together. A ribbon of clay rippled out from either side of the gag and quickly ran behind Damien's head, where the two ends met and fused. The clay dried instantly.
Clayface smiled a leering, toothless, grin. "That should keep you quiet until we need you to speak up," he said. An arm reached over to pat the boy's head. "Aw, don't take it so hard," he said as he wrapped Damien from neck to ankles in a clay cocoon. "If it makes you feel better, we want to see your daddy about as badly as you do. Why don't we go into this room with my friends, here," he pushed open the door to the lounge, "and we can wait for him together?"