Batman 1939: Three's Company

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Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 15: The Goods​
Gotham City. Fourteen years ago.

Bruce Wayne was backstage in a theater. On the other side of the curtain, Giovanni Zatara performed to a packed audience. Bruce ignored their applause. He was doing pushups with an open book under his face. Every fifth push, he lifted his hands off the floor to turn the page.

Zatanna Zatara walked by, shuffling a deck of cards. “How many pushups can you do?” she asked.

“All of them,” he said.

Zatanna walked a few more circles. “What's the book about?”

“Tax accounting,” said Bruce.

“Super.” She tossed down her cards on a crate. The top five were almost a royal flush, but with a joker instead of a ten. She sighed and sat on the crate. “John, I was wondering-”

She was interrupted by firecrackers popping onstage. Bruce stood. “One minute, Zatanna.”

They heard Giovanni sounding vaguely Arabic, “With the power of Ra, I fly!”

Bruce grabbed a thick rope hanging from the rafters and counted to three. On three, he pulled frantically, using his body weight with each tug. After several pulls, he tied the rope to a cleat on the floor.

Beyond the curtain, they heard, “Levitation! Levitation! Lo, as the last sorcerer of the Pharaohs I hear the desert winds whisper of spirits most sinister! They have arrived!” More firecrackers ignited. The crowd gasped and applauded.

Bruce stretched his arms. “Sorry. You were saying?”

“It was nothing,” Zatanna rubbed a smudge on the floor with her shoe. “Forget it.”

Bruce knelt and resumed his reading pushups.

Zatanna made some inner decision and stepped near him again. “Hey, John?”

“Yes?” He balanced on one hand to look up at her.

“Is it true what you told dad? You’re not coming back next week?”

Bruce had been blank-faced as usual, but this bent a crease between his eyebrows. He picked up his book and stood.

“You overheard us,” he said.

“So it’s true.”

“I was going to tell you.”

“But you like it here. I’ve even seen you smile sometimes.” The corner of his mouth turned up. She pointed at it. “See, see! Right there. Golly, I told you, didn’t I?”

Bruce forced his mouth flat. “I’ve already stayed a month longer than your father had agreed to.”

“Is that what you’re worried about? Geez, John, you’re not that bright.”

Bruce’s lip turned up again. “I’m not?”

“Dad likes having someone else to teach. Plus you’re finally useful enough to help in the shows. He’ll let you stay. And if he won’t, I’ll force him.”

“Thanks, but-”

“Besides, who else am I supposed to talk to? The paint on the wall?”

“You’ll make friends at school.”

“They all think I’m weird.”

“It’s only been two weeks. I’ve read that making friends takes time.”

“Some days they poke holes in my milk box. And one girl tattled on me when I showed the class a card trick, so the principal took my deck of cards. Then next period I tried with my other deck of cards so he took that too.”

“Zatanna, I’m grateful for everything you and your father have taught me, but I have so much else to learn. There are things I can’t learn here.”

“Boy that’s you: one big serious schoolboy. No time in your life for fun or magic.”

Before Bruce could answer, they noticed the tenor of the audience had turned confused. Then they realized Giovanni was shouting, “-I say again, I command the winds to lower me safely to Earth. Winds, lower me to Earth.”

Bruce dropped his book and dived to undo his knot from the rope cleat. He rose, letting the rope out hand under hand. When the tension was out, he let go and sat on the floor.

Zatanna sat beside him. “You’ll at least keep in touch, won’t you? You can always visit.”

Bruce picked up his book and brushed dust from the cover. “You’re right, Zatanna. I don’t have time for fun or magic. You deserve to meet kids your age. They’ll share all their fun with you.”

“You can share. You’re not much older than me, you know. Just because you act like a dictionary doesn’t mean you’re a group-up.”

“I’m old enough to know that some lives aren’t supposed to be shared.”
---​
The present. In the hidden room behind the fireplace.

Batman said nothing as he watched Catwoman disappear through the trap door in the ceiling, but his clenched heart stung like frost. They had separated on a mission last year, and he believed that she had died. He would never forget the lonely chill that night; he felt it in his dreams. But there was nothing he could do to stop her now. She could despise him all she wished; he only prayed that she survived. He couldn’t bear more blood on his hands.

“Hot diggity,” said Abdiel as he slapped his knee. “Is that a Little Mage’s First Primer set?” He pointed at a bookcase wedged behind a pile of empty birdcages. A birdcage flew out of the pile and struck Abdiel in the head.

“I forbade interruptions, prattler,” said Shadowcrest. “But I did wish to introduce that, so I will spare your fingers.”

Abdiel, dazed, managed to nod. Shadowcrest approached the bookcase as birdcages hopped out of its way. “Observe, Zatanna. As the dunce correctly identified, this is Little Mage’s First Primer, widely accepted as the most complete introduction to magic ever written.”

Shadowcrest turned on a floodlight over the bookcase. The shelves held four dozen books with the same blue leather covers and gold engraving.

“For millennia, young magi across the world have studied any hand-copied pages they could gather. One original volume is precious. The complete set is a rare treasure indeed. Even the library lacks a full set in English.”

Zatanna frowned. “So? Don’t we have other things to worry about?”

“This is as critical as any sword or shield, Mistress. Even if you survive tonight there is no prey more vulnerable nor infant more self-destructive than an untrained mage. Your father could not teach you from experience, so he acquired these books. If you wish to save your father, you must read.”

“So he was going to tell me about all this mage stuff? What was he waiting for?”

“I cannot say.”

Zatanna’s frown deepened as she crossed her arms. “You don’t know or you aren’t allowed to tell me?”

“I’m not allowed to know.”

“Well, he brought half the old studio here,” she said, looking around at the piles of dusty magician props, “If this is his storage room, I guess he didn’t plan to mention your fancy books anytime soon.”

“I cannot say.”

“Of course not.”

“May I speak, Shadowcrest?” asked Zachary.

Shadowcrest didn’t deign to look at him. “Be brief.”

“We can help Zatanna,” he said a little too eagerly.

“Yeah,” said Abdiel, “We’ll help her read the whole set. Doesn’t matter how long it takes.”

Zachary clapped her shoulder, and she cringed. Zachary didn’t notice and said, “Cover to cover. We’ll make a mage out of her in no time.”

Batman squeezed Zachary’s shoulder. Zachary lifted his hand and stepped back.

“Can we talk about fighting now?” asked Zatanna. She was now plainly upset, and her voice was close to cracking.

“Yes,” said Shadowcrest, “You may help prepare us, Mistress, but know that when Lord Faust arrives, you will return here for safety. These men will confront Faust from the study.”

Ordinarily, Zatanna would resent being treated as a helpless hangeron. But she remembered Faust wrecking the entrance hall and she decided not to make a fuss about this staying-out-of-danger idea. Zachary and Abdiel shared an uncomfortable glance at the notion of the same danger but said nothing. Batman had no response.
---​
In the infinite hallways of pink marble.

“A sacrifice,” said Catwoman. Part of her instantly grasped what this meant, but the rest hoped she misunderstood.

“With the arsenal scattered, I have but one device with which an unskilled mundane might slay Lord Faust. This device requires the lifeblood of a mage. One death for another. We could sacrifice one of the foolish brothers, but they are better served as battle fodder.”

“Sacrifice. Human sacrifice. You want me to put a stranger on an altar and kill them?”

“An altar won’t be necessary.”

“And you don’t know who it is? Somebody is chained in your attic and you can’t say anything about them?”

“Given Giovanni Zatara’s proclivities, I imagine it is one of the kin with whom he feuds.”

“Does he usually take prisoners?”

“No. Never.”

“Why’d he made an exception?”

“I cannot say.”

“Mm.” Catwoman bit her lip.

There was an airy whistle behind them. Catwoman spun to see a silver glint fly towards her like an arrow. She flinched, but the object stopped a yard from her chest. It was a short dagger, unremarkable except that it hovered in the air.

Catwoman let out a deep breath and cursed, angry once again that Shadowcrest didn’t have a tangible face to smack. She grabbed the dagger by its leather hilt.

Shadowcrest walked ahead. “Come.”

“Was that really necessary?” she asked as she followed.

“Early in his tenure as caretaker, Giovanni took an inventory of the arsenal and found some items unpalatable. He ordered these items destroyed, but a caretaker is not sovereign here. I would not let him rob from posterity, so I hid the forsaken collection.”

“Well, aren’t you smart,” said Catwoman, running her finger along the edge. “Do I press a button?”

“You press the point against flesh.”

Catwoman raised an eyebrow. “You want me to kill the world’s meanest wizard. With a knife?”

“For now the blade sleeps.”

“Care to clarify that?”

“When it tastes the final pulse of mage life, it will awaken. It will know the target for whom your heart harbors the bitterest spite. It will tell you what to do.”

“So it’s a talking knife.”

“It will tell you what to do.” Shadowcrest stopped and faced Catwoman, looking her in the eye with uncommon severity. “Once Faust is slain, do not continue to listen to it.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Then you are ready.”

Catwoman had been so preoccupied by the dagger that she hadn’t noticed they had taken several turns in the branching hallways. The marble had deepened from pink to a dark red. She stood just before a ring of geometric etchings in the walls. Beyond the ring, the marble was rougher and crossed with black veins. The path ahead had no branches, but it sloped sharply down and curved left out of sight. It was the most conspicuously evil thing Catwoman had seen tonight.

“I can follow you no further,” said Shadowcrest.

“You can’t?” she asked, sounding almost disappointed.

“This leads to one of the auxiliary treasuries. If you desire compensation, take what you wish from the round tables only, and do not dawdle. Beyond that is the chamber of the prisoner. Giovanni sometimes visits there, and he takes no precautions, so it is likely the prisoner can offer no resistance. Be steady. Finish the deed and return.”

Catwoman nodded and set her body to walk, but her feet didn’t move. She looked at the dagger and rubbed a hand over her face.

Shadowcrest lowered its head. “Giovanni Zatara is not a perfect man, but he would not cage an innocent.”

“Maybe, but there’s guilty and there’s guilty,” said Catwoman.

“And which are you?”

Catwoman’s face froze. “Come again?”

“Either go forward or die. Death means no more tomorrows, every dream and everything dear disappears. What value is a stranger against such a cost? Commit the sin, and you know perfectly well that you’ll find a way to live with it.”

“You don’t know the first thing about me.”

“Your hesitation is a vanity. You’ve never found it difficult to justify your actions. Tomorrow you’ll decide it was the lesser evil, that you are the lesser evil, surely as the sun rises. Is your life worth a minute of vanity?”

Catwoman rubbed her face again. Her lips were dry. “Shut up.”

“The man you brought? Dead. Was he a good man? I suspect the world will miss him. And dear Zatanna: whatever you may be, she is innocent. And just as dead. A moment of pain, then eternity for both.”

Catwoman grit her teeth. “I said shut up.”

“Of course, Lord Faust is very thorough. When he takes the estate, he will find this path in due time. I wonder what he would do with the prisoner. Perhaps he’ll feel merciful.”

Without making a conscious decision, Catwoman realized she was marching forward. There was nothing feline in her gait, nothing even steady, but it was committed.
---​
In the floating study.

Shadowcrest led Zatanna and her three protectors back through the fireplace to Giovanni’s seaside study.

Zachary’s police uniform had been drenched with plant sap, but after two trips through the fire it was completely dry. He muttered a spell as he walked, and in seconds the threads of his sleeves unwound up to the elbow, split from the fabric, and quickly stitched themselves over the holes in his shirt and pants. The patches were flawless.

Zatanna noticed this tiny miracle. She had a professional interest in good tailoring, and ordinarily she would have been astounded by a marvel that could put Singer out of business, but she obviously didn’t care. Batman noticed her foul mood. Focusing on hers helped him ignore his own. That bookcase had made Zatanna bitter. He had a theory why, but he couldn’t act. He had to leave her alone.

Shadowcrest reached the wrecked arsenal shelves. “Batman, bring Giovanni’s journals here.” Batman retrieved the sixteen journals and placed them on an overturned wardrobe.

Shadowcrest gestured to the stack. “Take a volume from the early-twenties.” Batman set aside a few journals then found one titled Journal of Sig. G. V. Z., Vol. 9: May ‘22 - Jul ‘24. It had torn edges and the binding was loose. “Browse the pages. Observe the top corner. You see some pages are stained blue.” Batman gently thumbed through the journal. Indeed, every twentieth page or so had a blue corner. Batman nodded.

Shadowcrew seemed relieved. “That was his most experimental period. I am blind to the pages before you, but Giovanni was lonesome and occasionally talked of his writing, if only to himself. He is an idiosyncratic journalist. His writing combines incidents of his life and mystic research in the same prose, and I’ve gleaned that blue marks distinguish his research notes, either from tests here or from observations in the field, as it were.”

Zatanna and both Cehennems had pressing questions about this information, but no one interrupted.

Shadowcrest gestured to the destruction of the study. Several small items floated out of the debris and landed on the overturned wardrobe. “Your Catwoman is acquiring our coup de grâce, but the battles of magi are rarely won in a single stroke. These tools are the best we have left to wear down Lord Faust’s defenses, so she might land the final attack.” Shadowcrest looked at the journals. “I can introduce these weapons academically, but Giovanni used them in the heat of combat. Overcoming foes with greater magical strength was his singular focus. You must find the notes to as many of these as possible.”

On it,” said Batman. He was already spreading out the pile of journals into a grid for easy reach. He opened two and began flipping through both at once, never stopping at a page for longer than three seconds. Zatanna, Zachary, and Abdiel watched him in abject shock. Even Shadowcrest might have been unnerved.

“Are you reading everything?” asked Zatanna.

Only checking the corners,” said Batman. In truth, he was reading as much as he could. This was not the relaxed pace of his monthly study. This was an Olympic sprint of reading, straining his eyes and mind in equal measure. He would not let this opportunity pass, but it took every ounce of that effort. Zatanna hadn’t exaggerated: her father’s handwriting was awful, and the ink was pale with age. Fortunately, he had grown familiar with Giovanni’s handwriting during his apprenticeship. Several passages were entirely in Italian, but thanks to the Four Families, he was almost as fluent as English.

After some time, Batman said, “The research notes don’t have a record system, but his descriptions are lucid and many have drawings. Matching isn’t a problem. I’ll search the whole collection. Could a weapon have multiple entries?

“It’s possible,” said Shadowcrest finally.

Fine.” Batman closed the first journal and opened a third, still turning pages in the second. “Do you know when Giovanni studied each weapon?

“Many of them, yes.”

I’ve already found notes on the two rings, the glove, and the fountain pen.” Batman pointed at each item without looking up. “When were the others?

“Hold on, what do the notes say?” asked Abdiel.

I’ll recite them later. Shadowcrest?

“He investigated the cane with the ivory head in the summer of 1925,” said Shadowcrest

Batman closed a journal and reached for another, still paging through a separate journal in his other hand. This continued for several brisk minutes. As Batman and Shadowcrest conferred, Zachary and Abdiel pawed through the weapons, inspecting them and talking in low voices.

Zatanna looked over their shoulder, feeling useless. She pursed her lips and peered around for a way to help. On the ground nearby was a loose drawer that had been knocked free of some lost cabinet. Inside was a pair of red sunglasses. The sharp breeze from the ocean made her eyes water, so she picked them up.

Out of the corner of his eye, Zachary noticed her putting them on. “Don’t!” he cried.

Zatanna turned to his voice, but she put on the sunglasses. The instant they touched the bridge of her nose, she tripped forward, hitting Zachary and knocking the sunglasses off her face. They both fell to the floor.

Zachary groaned and rubbed his neck. Shadowcrest turned his attention long enough to say, “In case I wasn’t clear, Mistress, do not touch anything.”

Zatanna grimaced and picked herself up. “Sorry.” She straightened her hat.

Abdiel lifted the sunglasses and shook his head. “Every mage kid in America knows these. They were a big prank when we were young.”

“They make you trip?” asked Zatanna.

“You fall in the direction you’re looking.”

“What if I looked up?”

“Then you fall up. Some kids didn’t live to laugh about it.”

Batman didn’t look away from the journals, but he said, “Gravity isn’t a direction. It’s a-” He paused. His features visibly tightened and reset. “Nevermind.”

Zachary hobbled in a circle, stretching his neck. Zatanna felt awfully embarrassed, as if she didn’t feel rotten enough. “Do you need help finding a hospital later, Zach?” she asked. “I used to live in Gotham.”

Zachary snorted. “That’s cute. Nah, I’ll visit some friends who’ll patch me up.”

“You mean with magic?”

Zachary smirked. “Yes, Zatanna. With magic.”

“Abdiel said only real strong mages know how to fix big injuries.”

“It’s ‘magi’. And he’s right.”

“Lucky you have friends like that.”

“I wouldn’t call it luck.” Zachary gave her a meaningful look. “I’ll owe them some gifts if you know what I mean.”

“What gifts do magi give?”

Abdiel shrugged. “Gold.”

Zachary added, “Frankincense.”

“Watch chains.”

“Fancy combs.”

“Myrrh.”

“Myrrh is popular.”
---​
In the spiraling hallway of dark red marble.

Catwoman stopped walking two hundred steps past the etchings where she left Shadowcrest. She was well out of sight around the curving path, but she carefully looked both ways. Seeing nothing, she muttered, “Shady? Yoo-hoo.” There was no answer. She tossed the little dagger to the floor and muttered louder, “I’m going to misbehave and put the kibosh on your fancy plans. Better come stop me.”

There was still no response. Catwoman looked around again. Then she fell against the wall. Her shoulders sagged and she slumped down, finally sitting limp on the floor. Catwoman had slept for three restless hours that afternoon; otherwise, she had been awake for nearly two days, surviving one pulse-pounding confrontation after another. She was exhausted in every way a person could be exhausted. Her eye sockets itched. Her skin felt tight. Her teeth hurt. Her emotional gearbox was almost as rusted as Batman’s. It was a miracle she had been so patient and considerate all evening.

Catwoman was the most energetic person she knew, but severe sleep deprivation was a funny thing. You could be juggling on a unicycle one minute, then knocked as flat as a bad boxer the next. This was her first opportunity to let her guard down since she entered the Lisbon, and suddenly two days of strain had come due. Despite facing imminent death, Catwoman was perfectly willing to take a nap there on the evil marble floor. She knew she shouldn’t, but it wouldn’t be long. Only for a moment, she let her eyelids flutter shut.

There, on the edge of sleep, Catwoman found whispered thoughts from the quiet corners of her mind. She remembered that this sort of sleep felt familiar. She had taken a little cat nap on her last trip with Batman. They had split up then too. And then he died.

With her eyes closed, Catwoman shivered and frowned. No, that wasn’t true. But she had believed him dead. For a whole day, in fact. She had no intention of admitting this, but she preferred him alive.

Then Catwoman recalled again that they were presently split up now. And his life was in jeopardy. Catwoman opened one eye. She recalled that his survival depended on what she did in the next few minutes, and that she was currently sleeping on an evil floor. She moaned, found the little dagger, and forced herself to her feet. Like anyone woken prematurely, she was suddenly more open to the idea of indiscriminate murder.

After another minute of walking, the hallway opened into a bright room of milky white marble. Six life-sized bronze statues circled the walls. Each figure was a tradesman carrying a tool, like a farmer with a scythe, a miner with a pickaxe, and a smith with a hammer. On the other side of the room was a plain door. Catwoman ignored these details almost immediately when she saw the pile of gold.

There were four tables in the room, three round and one square. One round table was covered with neatly-stacked bars of gold. The other round tables held bottles of fragrant brown oils. The square table held stacks of Swiss francs in one hundred and five hundred franc banknotes.

Catwoman was still conflicted and bitter and very, very tired. But when energy and clarity fail, mastery prevails, and Catwoman was nothing if not a thief. She made a decision in a split second.

She quickly dismissed the two tables of brown oils. She recognized the scents from fine perfumes, but she didn’t know any dealers for perfume ingredients and reasoned that only an idiot would play with unknown liquids from a magic house.

The Swiss francs were promising. Those who knew Catwoman by reputation might assume that she thought stealing money was beneath her. This was untrue. Her speciality was compact art and luxury items, but if thousands of Swiss francs were left unsupervised, she was happy to find them a new home.

The dilemma was the gold. Catwoman had bittersweet feelings about gold: having it was wonderful; stealing it was infuriating. Gold was nearly the densest substance known. A kilogram bar eight millimeters thick could fit in the palm of a hand. Even five such bars weighed eleven pounds. Her satchel would club her hip when she landed her next long jump. A full haul was a recipe for spinal problems.

It wasn’t worth the trouble. She snatched one gold bar on principle then turned to the Swiss francs. Catwoman swifty emptied the tools from her satchel, looked at the money, looked at the unloaded tools, put back her two favorite lockpicks, the dagger, and a smoke bomb, looked at the money again, then took the smoke bomb and one of the lockpicks out again. Then she grabbed two fistfuls of francs and immediately regretted it.

The moment her fingers touched paper, the six bronze statues squealed to life and stepped towards her.
---​
In the floating study.

“That was undeniably impressive,” said Shadowcrest, “I feared merely explaining how to search and contextualize the journals would cost my remaining time, but we have minutes to spare.”

Batman had just finished quickly reciting the journal notes for every magical weapon on the overturned wardrobe. Shadowcrest and Zatanna recognized Giovanni’s turn of phrase and knew the recitations were genuine. Shadowcrest reviewed each weapon’s basic function, but the notes added critical warnings and suggestions, the sort of details that were clearly won through brutal experience.

Every story made Zatanna feel more unreal and detached as she struggled to rationalize her smiling father with the pragmatic guerilla fighter who wrote the journals. Seeing that awful bookcase had been bad enough; the dissonance here was miserable.

On several occasions, the Cehennems had to resist the urge to interrupt when they realized the foe of an anecdote had been their grandmother.

Mostly, they were all struggling to keep up with Batman’s rapid-fire questions. For every minute Batman had saved speedreading, he used most of them to interrupt his own recitations in order to ask about magical rules or seek confirmation for some conclusion. His questions often stumped Shadowcrest and the Cehennems, yet even their ignorance fueled him, shaping future questions around the edges of their intellectual negative space.

Batman’s questions focused on the traits he had noticed from magi generally and Faust in particular. He tried relentlessly to define their limits:

Faust didn’t hear my approach at the Lisbon. Does he have any supernatural senses?

He was struck by the flash bomb in Giovanni’s apartment. Can he arbitrarily avoid or repel projectiles?

Abdiel fainited after animating the chairs in the dining room. Is magic physically tiring? Does anything prolong or exacerbate the feeling?

The Cehennems hemmed and hawed. They constantly warned that magic had few generalities, but they were reluctant to suggest specifics because Faust was a powerful mage which, by definition, meant he had secrets.

As this heated discussion went on, Zatanna was silent and seemed to turn further in on himself. Batman struggled to ignore her. He had to focus. He might have appeared calm, but he was suppressing more turmoil than anyone. He knew the story of Giovanni Zatara.
---​
In the spiraling hallway of dark red marble.

Catwoman had been under the mistaken impression that she was exhausted. In reality, she was full of energy. She had so much energy that she could dodge a hammer by jumping over a table and then outrun six bronze statues trying to dismember her. The statues ran much faster than expected. She expected statues to be stationary, but presupposing that statues could run, she would have thought they would be much less agile. She swore a scythe trimmed her hair when she entered the hallway.

Catwoman’s sprint up the hallway might have set a world record in the world. When she saw Shadowcrest ahead, she pushed her legs even harder. She crossed the etchings at top speed with a noise like a motor, “Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!”

A moment later, the six statues followed. When a statue passed the etchings, it fell apart at the joints, tumbling into a pile of bronze appendages. The first statues tripped the latecomers, causing them to launch their loose chunks a fair distance, bouncing and skidding on the marble.

Catwoman slowed to a stop ten yards past. She sucked air as she walked back, holding her side.

She finally looked up when she heard Shadowcrest made a long, angry snarl. It was the most human noise he had made all night.

“Stupid vixen. Insolent jenny. We are undone.”

Catwoman was in no mood for insults. “Hey!" She stopped to take a breath. "They attacked out of nowhere.”

“I was clear: take what you wish from the round tables only.”

“I didn’t-” Catwoman suddenly remembered that instruction. She looked down and realized she was holding a fistful of Swiss francs. “Look, it was a mistake. I’ll go back-”

“My time is ended, gutter thief. The slaughter may commence before you return.”

“I’ll run.”

“Then run, and curse your hands all the same. They take coin and deliver ruin.”

Catwoman was about to leave again, but she couldn't ignore that. “Listen bricks, these hands do a lot of good with that coin. I help people.”

Shadowcrest scoffed with a boiling rage. “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous; and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted.”

“Huh?”

“The most High is not pleased with the offerings of the wicked; neither is he pacified for sin by the multitude of sacrifices.”

“Wait, is that scripture?”

“Whoso bringeth an offering of the goods of the poor doeth as one that killeth the son before his father's eyes.”

“No. I will not be quoted scripture from a haunted witch house.”

“The bread of the needy is their life: he that defraudeth him thereof is a man of blood.”

And with the last word, Shadowcrest disappeared.
---​
In the floating study.

The heated discussion had tapered to silence.

The Cehennem brothers walked around the study, pointing at pieces of furniture and casting spells.

Zatanna sat in a stuffed chair with her head in her hands, looking as lost as ever.

Batman had turned a table into a makeshift workbench. He disassembled and combined tools from his belt and bits of surrounding trash, preparing new devices with silent intensity.

Shadowcrest patiently watched the horizon, a statue to the world. It had seemed surprised that they had finished its preparations in time, but if it was at all sentimental about its own demise, it didn’t show.

Finally, Shaowcrest announced, “I end.” And with that, it disappeared.
---​
Leagues away, on a sandy atoll.

Lord Felix of Faust lied on the edge of a beach. The surf soaked his shoes and sand was getting in his silk indigo suit. A vulture with black-and-white checkerboard plumage pecked at his keffiyeh headdress. Scattered around him were the corpses of hundreds of large crabs shaped like rooks. He was centuries old but looked older.

There was a change in the air, like a faint chime gone silent, or the clearing of a distant mirage. It was something so infinitesimal, Faust barely noticed. It would be an impossible change, so it must not be happening. That was a comforting thought, but an old mage couldn’t afford complacency. He vaporized the vulture, sat up, took a deep breath, and attuned his senses to the mystic vibrations of this dimension.

Faust looked confused. Then his jaw dropped. Then his old lips broke into a wide smile. He began to chuckle, then to laugh a deep belly laugh. He vaporized another vulture circling above and launched himself into the air. Faust was soon a speck on the horizon, his laughs echoing across the waves.
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 16: The Magnificent Zataras​
Over the Emergent Sea.

Lord Faust no longer sensed Shadowcrest’s spirit. Its absence felt bizarre, even perverse. After the initial glee passed, a victory this simple made him uneasy. It was dangerous to have distractions when one attempted to fly, especially when navigating at sea.

But luck was on his side. After only a few minutes, he spotted a shape on the horizon. He soon recognized it as Giovanni’s floating study; his brief visit with Barbatos made him quite familiar. He was very pleased. Still, Faust was plagued by an odd headache at Shadowcrest's absence. It was like a concussion except he was immune to concussions. He did his utmost to ignore the pain. He turned his focus on spotting a trick, any trick, but nothing moved as he neared.

The trick turned out to be that nothing moved as he neared. He discovered that his destination was a billboard-sized painting that used forced perspective to appear like Giovanni’s floating study from the exact direction whence he had come. Faust fumed.

The board was held aloft by a line of buoys. He cursed the end buoy, turning it to stone. He would clear this sea of distractions and tricks one by one if he had to. The buoy sank as it petrified, and the enormous painting began to tip.

As the painting touched water, the sea suddenly fell out from under it. Like a plug pulled from a bathtub, a vortex two hundred feet deep appeared beneath Faust. The painting tumbled through the air, shattering as it was swept around by the steep currents. The displaced water created a tremendous suction which pulled Faust out of the sky. He couldn’t breathe and struggled to ascend, but the suction steadily drew him below sea level, nearing the churning slope of the vortex.

Faust redoubled his focus and finally began to inch up when the vortex stopped. Faust shot skyward, but he was trapped by the collapsing seas before he reached the surface. The impact wasn’t painful, as the water lacked surface tension, but he was pinwheeled by wild cross-currents until he couldn’t tell which way was up. He willed a bubble of air around his head and tried to get his bearings.

He realized he was upside-down the same moment he made eye contact with a giant squid.

---​

Giovanni’s Journal
25 May 1915

Disaster! Reached Istanbul yesterday (two days ago?) only to be arrested when I step off the train. Lo and behold, Italy has joined the Entente! I can’t believe it. Steadfast Italia switching sides in a war? What foul luck. I thought I had been terribly clever. Italy is Germany’s friend, said I, surely the Ottomans will welcome an Italian. I paid Enrico seven dollars for that passport. I wish I’d asked for Austria.

Then they found my journal written in English. Bad news. Good news is they recognize an American accent, Grazie Dio. I shudder to imagine if they thought I was English. So far the interrogations seem halfhearted. They believe I’m too amatuer a spy to raise an alarm. I fear that may change.

No doubt the banditi have hawked my luggage from the dirt of a souk already. I won this book and pencil from a fellow inmate over cards. Hardly better than theft, but needs must. My strength is returning. Tonight I’ll escape.

I heard an airplane this morning and truck engines most hours. Not many cars in Turkey. Must be close to a military camp. Wonder if I’m near the front. War or not, the trail has brought me this far. I will see its completion.


---​

In the floating study.

When Shadowcrest disappeared, Zatanna, Zachary, and Abdiel felt a severe discomfort. They assembled in the middle of the study. Batman exhibited no emotions and continued to modify his tools nearby.

Zatanna held her stomach and stuck out her tongue. “I feel funny. Like someone put garlic in my Listerine.”

Abdiel nodded, looking faintly sick. “I think we all have the willies. It’s because Shadowcrest is gone.”

“What do you mean?” asked Zatanna.

“As a mage, you learn to sense magic. And a magic estate feels like the house spirit. The air, the bricks, everything.”

“A house this old without a spirit just feels wrong,” said Zachary, “Like when your limb falls asleep. I’d be surprised if even Faust has felt this before. He probably finds it as distracting as we do.”

“We’ve set up some alarm spells,” said Abdiel. “We should have some warning if Faust does come, but I bet he’s been delayed.”

“Why don’t houses lose their spirits?” asked Zatanna. “ Fighting’s messy, after all.”

“Destroying the house spirit means destroying the house,” said Zachary, “Only the master can destroy the spirit by command.”

“Wait, but isn’t that me? I didn’t command anything. It was Shadowcrest’s idea. It didn’t even ask permission.”

“I know,” said Zachary. “That didn’t make sense.”

Abdiel shrugged. “They say old house spirits are more free-spirited.”

Zachary rubbed his chin. “I think it’s Giovanni. He’s not the master, but he’s run the place for over twenty years, right? And he spent lots of time away: his real life was on Earth. The spirit must have grown used to independence.”

“Oh! And the latest incarnation of the spirit was imprinted on him.”

“And she’s his daughter.”

“Which means he’s her father.”

“I’m standing right here,” said Zatanna. “Are you saying the spirit can just does what it wants? Am I not good enough?”

Zachary shrugged. “I told you a house spirit always tries to keep its dynasty alive. Inheritance rules are complicated. Heck, I once considered trying to win Shadowcrest myself, but there’s no one left to tell me its rules since your dad killed them all.”

Zatanna rolled her eyes in dispair. “I know we have other things to worry about, but help me out here. Are you two sure it’s him? Why would he attack your whole family? I’m having a bundle of trouble imagining my dad killing people. He doesn’t like to kill spiders.”

Batman planted his hands hard on his workbench, but the others didn’t notice.

Zachary said, “Believe me, Zatanna. Thanks to your dad, I’ve been to more funerals than I have fingers, and I usually have ten. No one knows why Giovanni hates us so much. Only he does.”


---​

Giovanni’s Journal
13 August 1915

This journey has been humbling.

I have spent many nights playing maghi dell'Oriente, but it was always a farce. Why should occult wisdom be more profound in foreign lands? Because their creeds have never known reformation? Because they are latecomers to the steam engine? I earn my supper indulging fantasies, not believing them.

I didn’t believe that blotto in Galvaston. But he wasn’t lying about the crypt in Mexico City. I didn’t believe the old sacredote who tended the chapel, but the tomb was sealed years before Cristoforo Colombo set sail, yet the coins inside were Greek.

What could I do? I told my friends that I heard rumors of some fine magicians overseas and wished to take the measure of them. They tried to stop me, of course. It was a silly excuse, doubly so with the war. But what else could I say?

I’m still not sure what I expect to find in these mountains. I am no professore. I am not Poe’s Dupin. But I feel there is nothing in all the world as important as pulling aside this curtain. The trail is at my feet and I am possessed. Nothing will stop me.

I met a woman at the library. My profession intrigued her, so I showed her a routine. She was amused, but not amazed. Am I out of practice? She has agreed to show me the ruins in the morning.


---​

In the spiraling hallway of dark red marble.

Catwoman waited for Shadowcrest to return. When she decided it wasn’t returning, she spit on its floor. Then she winced and held her side. Her ribs hurt from her long spirit. The running had drummed her little gold bar against her hip until the skin was tender. She took a deep breath, stretched her shoulders, and crossed the etchings again.

Catwoman stumbled down the dark red path, then she walked, then she jogged, then she ran. She did not sprint.

She stopped when she reached the treasury. She turned in a circle, confirming that no decorations seemed ready to come to life. Then she walked to the square table of Swiss francs, laid her satchel down, set herself in a running pose towards the entrance, tapped a single banknote, and ran.

Nothing moved in the room. Catwoman walked back in, turned another circle, confirming that no decorations had come to life, and returned to the square table. She opened her satchel, put the hilt of the magical knife between her teeth, and unceremoniously stuffed as many francs into her satchel as she could fit with a sweep of her arm. The satchel bulged, but she muscled it closed.

On the other side of the room was a plain door. She inspected it and found a common lock, so she leaned back and kicked it open.

---​

Giovanni’s Journal
10 October 1915

Sindella, mia cara, un giorno senza di te è un giorno senza il sole!

I have never known such joy. We must be wed. Presto!

We will meet la tua famiglia together. I will win them over if it’s the last thing I do.


---​

In the floating study.

“Remember Zatanna, we’ll hold Faust off if we can, but he’s coming for you,” said Abdiel.

Zatanna did not enjoy the reminder. “I know,” she said.

“The bad news is-”

“That wasn’t bad news?”

“Being mistress of an estate doesn’t mean much without a house spirit, but it does mean something. It will be much safer and easier for him to claim this place with you gone. Unfortunately, there are ways of sensing the master or mistress’ general direction.”

“And if we know them,” said Zachary, “You can bet Faust does. That may be how he’ll find this platform. It also means he’ll follow you to whatever room you’re in.”

Abdiel nodded. “The good news is, that might only get him to the right room. And he didn’t think to take any of your hair or blood, so there aren’t many ways for him to find you in a hurry. He’ll need to look the old fashioned way.”

“Well,” said Zachary, “Plus the ability to fly and move objects with his mind. And he might be able to see through solid objects. But not clearly!”

“I know. I heard you guys discuss his general advantages and disadvantages three minutes ago. I was standing right here. I’m not stupid.”

“Sorry,” said Abdiel, “Hopefully, the cat lady gets back before Lord Faust arrives, but if not, then it’s a waiting game. Shadowcrest was right: your best bet is hiding in that prop room. It’s large and cluttered, that might buy you a few seconds. Find something nice and sturdy to hide in. Make sure it isn’t flammable.”

Zatanna's face was pale. “Sturdy, not flammable.”

“And here,” said Zachary. “You heard us review our little arsenal. We think you should have the shy coin, the hairpin of vengeance, the Odd Vocado, and a null item.” He put a coin, a hairpin, an avocado pit, and a strange object on a table.

Zatanna picked up a strange object. “What is this?”

“It isn’t.”

The object ceased to exist.

“Oh.”

Zatanna picked up the other items and hid them about her person.

Zachary said, “Faust has to arrive through the fireplace, so he can’t sneak up on you. Use them as soon as he comes in.”

Batman appeared between them, making the others flinch. “Take this as well.” He placed a jury-rigged contraption on the table. It appeared to be a lighter attached to a short stick of dynamite and a wire. “It’s a trip mine. Zachary’s right: the fireplace is our only bottleneck. Tactical explosives are a recent and specialized invention and aren’t magical, so Faust may not expect one. Suspend the wire at shin height at the end of the passage. The illusory fire should hide it.” Batman hesitated. He reached for the trip mine again but closed his hand and pressed his fist on the table. He looked grimly at Zatanna, then back to the weapon.

“What?” asked Zatanna.

Given what Faust has survived, and presuming the three of us can’t stop him,” Batman hesitated again. “The mine shouldn’t be lethal. Hopefully it will disable him. At least the explosion will inform you he’s arrived.

Zachary and Abdiel looked begrudgingly impressed.

Zatanna seemed bewildered. “And you’re sure carrying the bomb through the fireplace won’t set it off?”

I’ve carried it all night,” said Batman.

“Hard to argue with that.” Zatanna went to lift the trip mine. Batman snatched her wrist, making her jump.

Do not pull on the wire,” ordered Batman. He let go of her.

“Jeesh,” said Zatanna, rubbing her wrist. She had a sudden idea. “You know.” She looked at Batman. “I have no idea how to install one of these.”

First-

“And I don’t think my practice run should be with a live bomb.”

Batman saw the insistent, almost desperate look in her eyes, and she had a point. “I’ll set it up,” he said as he grabbed the trip mine. “Let’s go.

---​

Giovanni’s Journal
15 October 1915

Dio misericordioso.

I was blind. We are all blind. But I have begun to see. Magic is real.

I stand now in America. Yesterday I stood in the heart of Asia, in ancient valleys where Kurdish shepards tread. Last night I spent a day in another world entirely. That is the only way I can describe it. There is so little I can describe.

Sindella comforts me. Otherwise, I fear I should be fully lost.

La sua famiglia thought they could dismiss me. They tried to awe me. They tried to frighten me. They struggle in vain. L'amore vince sempre.


---​

In the floating study.

Batman and Zatanna walked to the fireplace at the end of the study. Batman carried a trip mine.

“I forgot to say thanks for building that,” said Zatanna. “So thanks.”

Batman nodded. They walked further. She cleared her throat. “You are human, right? No horns or lizard eyes under the mask?"

Batman said nothing.

"How about a favorite ball team? That'd be pretty human." His jaw shifted. Zatanna held up her hands apologetically. “I only ask because I just discovered magic exists on the same night I discover Batman exists. You have to admit that's like a hefty coincidence. Especially since that giant bat was interested in you.”

Batman remained silent as he led her through the roaring fireplace. Soon they emerged from the smoke.

Zatanna coughed and fanned herself. “Whew. Hey, how do you manage heat in that outfit?” She gestured at herself. “Mine's nothing but ventilation and I’m already sweating."

Batman knelt and began setting the mine.

“Silent time, huh?” said Zatanna, nodding to herself. “I respect that. We all have our little get-ready rituals. It’s funny, actually, sometimes if I’m nervous before a big show, I’ll, um, talk to myself.” She leaned against the wall. “You’re not angry with me are you?”

Batman glanced at her but continued working.

“I can handle it if you are. Once I told a joke onstage that no one lives in Wyoming. Somehow the whole state heard and now they both hate me.”

It’s done.” Batman stood.

Zatanna rose from the wall. "Hey, can I ask you a question? I really need to know."

Batman was about to step through the fire, but he stopped and gave her his full attention.

Zatanna wasn't ready for his full attention. She tucked her hands under her armpits and looked at the ground. "What did that radio mean when it called you a true friend of the Zataras?”

Batman tensed his jaw. It was too subtle for her to notice.

“At first I thought you were ignoring me all night because you’re, you know, some maniac. The good kind! I thought that was how you treated everyone. But how could you be a friend if we’ve never met before?”

Batman looked at the flames. “I'm sure the radio was being poetic. You and your father have been attacked. No one attacks decent people in Gotham and gets away with it.

“Sure. Should’ve figured.” Zatanna looked up. “Not sure how strict your rules are - seems like they'd be strict - but in the spirit of full disclosure, my dad was technically attacked in Bludhaven, so-” Her rambling faded to an open question.

He looked back at her. “We’ll bring him home.

Zatanna smiled for what felt like the first time in hours. Then her smile fell. “He doesn’t have a home. They burned that down. Not that he ever cared where he lived. Always a rover.” She gave a little snort and threw up her hands. “Unless this place was home all along!” She went to sit on a box. “I still can’t picture how he snuck here all these years without me noticing.”

Batman glared again at the fire. He remembered the angst on Zatanna’s face at the bookcase of mage primers and had a brief inner debate. Finally, he went and sat near her, folding his hands under his chin. She looked across in surprise.

Zatanna,” he said. “You owe the world nothing. I don’t know what magic is, but it’s your choice to study or ignore. You can stay here or return to your old life. Get to know your family or keep your distance.” He gently emphasized that last option.

She snickered.

He didn't smile, but his face softened. “If I’m a maniac, my mania is righting wrongs when others lose hope. Whatever you choose, I’ll find a way to help.” He stood. “Stay calm. Stay hidden. Listen to Catwoman when she arrives.

As Zatanna watched Batman leave, she felt a new lightness in her heart.

It almost made her forget the nausea of garlic in Listerine.

---​

Giovanni’s Journal
2 February 1916

Sindella is with child. Her face grows lovelier by the day. I gaze upon it and worry that my heart might burst. I thought I knew joy, but those imitators were tin, and I have found gold.

I was not in favor of sharing news so early, but la famiglia has prerogatives even a husband must obey. I am still confused by the habits of these magi, but they rejoiced as sincerely as anyone. They were not any more cordial to me, but I believe they have begun to forgive Sindella for picking me.

The holdout remains her zio, Ekrim. He and his kin remain my fiercest detractors. Hearing that my wife is expecting did not warm him a single degree. If anything, he mutters with more poison than before. I wish I knew why the others pay him such deference. I know they find him strange.

Bitter old fool.


---​

In the hidden room behind the fireplace.

Zatanna hurried around the aisles looking for the best place to hide in the dim room. She recognized most of her father’s magician props and inspected a few, checking whether trap door hinges were rusty or hidden compartments were as large as she remembered.

Despite the circumstances, a part of her felt oddly comfortable. These tricks had been the better part of her life. This was her element.

Zatanna turned a corner and froze. Sitting amid a pile of forgettable things were six red chests. They were identical to the chest she found in his trashed dressing room yesterday, the forbidden chest that he had kept locked as long as she could remember. As in the dressing room, these six chests were unlocked.

Zatanna opened one. At the bottom she saw a model of a door about the size of a lunch tray. Besides its size, it seemed in every respect a copy of the door she had been brought to in her father’s ruined apartment in the Lisbon. It was brown teak wood carved with an ivy design and a shiny brass knob. The chest had assorted other items, scraps of paper and little leather bags, but the main content was clearly the model door.

Zatanna shut the chest and opened the others. Each held a model door.

---​

Giovanni’s Journal
1 March 1918

I am enraged. This journal has long served to calm me, but I can scarcely hold a pen. That diavolo Ekrim returned. He came to my home and threatened my wife.

He had been absent so long, I had forgotten his incoherent insults. He stood at my door, his appearance was dirty and gaunt, but for once his speech was clear. He claimed to have received a prophecy and demanded we listen. I repeat it here to expunge it from my mind, if only for a minute.

“The House of Cehennem will be ruined by their own, mighty in magic with fury unceasing, to protect the solstice child.”

I write little of my wife’s fame (it isn’t worth a pennyweight to me), but Sindella is admired as the most promising mage of her clan, a talent beyond her years. And our Zatanna was born on the summer solstice.

I laughed in Ekrim’s face. I had learned much about their magic, and no one had mentioned prophets. I told the house to escort il pazzo to the door, but Sindella stopped me. I saw terror in her eyes. She asked if he had shared his prophecy with anyone else. He said that he had not, out of respect and because it would be easier for everyone if she came with him peacefully. She begged for a few days to consider, and he departed without a word.

For a time, Sindella couldn’t speak. When she found her voice, there were tears in her eyes. She shared that many famiglie have an elder who claims to tell the future. True or not, even magi have superstitions, and the Cehennems are more superstitious than most. Zio Ekrim’s predictions have always come true, so they say.

I have seen many incredible things, but this is beyond belief. Yet my Sindella is sure that when Ekrim shares his prophecy, many of her own blood will have no doubt that my loving wife will ruin them. The form or cause of that ruin will not matter, nor why our bambina might need protection.

Among magi who believe in prophecies, some say they are inevitable. Others say they can be avoided, usually by killing the subject (death silences even a mage). The first school of thought argues that such action tends to fulfill the prophecy they seek to avoid, but such an argument has never stopped the activists. La famiglia will likely take a vote. If i pazzi win, they kill my wife. If they lose, some will try regardless, and the strife will split them all.

Why must this demone spit his lies? I have never despised a man so. A darkness has taken me. I can write no more tonight.


---​

The room beyond the auxiliary treasury.

When Catwoman kicked open the door, she found the room beyond far less dramatic than anything else in the house. Instead of colorful marble or bronze statues, it was a plain little bedroom. A candle sconce flickered to full glow when she stepped inside. It gave just enough light to show the low bed in the center of the room. There was a woman sleeping atop the sheets. She slept peacefully with her hands clasped gently on her stomach, hardly seeming to breathe.

Catwoman crept closer and her eyes grew wide. She forgot her anger and exhaustion and even the knife in her teeth.

The resemblance was uncanny. Catwoman knew without a doubt that this was Zatanna Zatara’s mother.

---​

Giovanni’s Journal
8 March 1918

If this is my last entry, please judge my life with forbearance. My intentions were pure.

We sought every path out of our inferno, but we had no hope to plead our case against this idiota prophecy. Nor could we flee for long. And Sindella believed it would be futile to lift a hand in violence, even if she were willing. A lone mage cannot overpower una famiglia. Solo un pazzo would try.

(I argued that this prophecy suggested such a massacre, to no avail.)

In our midnight of despair, she discovered her salvation. Magi believe that every word of a prophecy is critical. Prevent even one condition, and it breaks. Zio Ekrim prophesied that the House of Cehennem will be ruined by one of their own with “fury unceasing”. Only Sindella’s brilliance would use fury as the hinge to undo it all.

In an ancient tome she found directions for a ritual to duplicate a subject (patient? victim?) into two bodies. One mind would be fixed on its kindest mood - with patience of i santi and love for all mankind. The other mind would be at its cruelest - as suspicious and spiteful as Lucifero. Opposite minds, angelo o mostro. But only one body would survive. We possess a soul, or some animating force, which the ritual does not (cannot?) duplicate. It revives one body while the other expires.

(Is this murder? A birth and natural passing of a twin? A suicide? Or one persisting life, with no ethical burden? She dismissed my questions then, and I lack the composure to ponder it now.)

Sindella would survive in the pious body, removing the very idea of fury from her mind. This would exempt her from the prophecy. I could write pages shouting how I fought this plan, but why waste ink? She was committed. If Zatanna would not lose her mother, any sacrifice was worthy.

Mindful of what I will write soon, I admit that Ekrim was no hypocrite. He believed his own strange rules. When Sindella explained her plan, he accepted without complaint. He would still announce the prophecy but would defend her innocence. The Cehennems would need another scapegoat. Animali.

Ekrim even offered to help perform the ritual. It was not until the final preparations that he mentioned how fickle it was. Fickle! What a coy word. Sindella had not mentioned the danger, but I must forgive her. I suppose the alternatives looked no better.

I understood too little to describe the process, so I can only say that in the critical minute, her life entered the wrong body. She would wake up her most vicious self forever. I watched the gentle twin pass away.

Perhaps Ekrim grieved, though he showed little. No doubt the old mage had lost other nipoti to disaster. He said Sindella was clearly doomed to bring about the prophecy. What should be kindness in her would be manipulation. Generosity would be greed. Love would be obsession. He had to finish her now before she could bring her dark destiny to fruition.

He was not talking to convince me, of course; I was mud to him. I believe he simply liked to talk. Shamefully, I froze. Despite my wrath, he filled me with terror. It was when he promised to leave with Zatanna that I took his life.

To my surprise, the house obeyed me still. Sindella anticipated the ritual might fail and set me firmly in charge. I still shiver at the nightmares she avoided with that decision.

I knew enough mage secrets to craft a prison for Sindella (a common precaution among their plans). When she woke, I sensed the dark change at once. She acted innocent, weeping at her prison. But soon the mask fell, and she stung me with threats I had never imagined. I promised to take care of her and set her to sleep.

Zatanna cried in her crib that night, but I stayed away like a coward. I worried my crime would show on my face.

Ekrim’s daughter Yeter visited two days later inquiring after her missing father. I showed her the bodies, her father and my wife. After the house calmed Yeter down, I told her a story that Ekrim and Sindella had an argument, that he had killed her, so I killed him (the mundane nature of his wound discounted other explanations). I implored her to take their remains to be buried in their tradition. She demanded that I surrender my daughter and come for judgement. The house escorted her out. I wonder what Yeter will tell them.

I also wonder where they might bury Sindella. If I survive, perhaps I’ll ask her.

Now I must prepare. They will come for me soon, and I cannot hide here forever. Alea iacta est.
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 17: Subtle and Quick to Anger​


The room beyond the auxiliary treasury.

Sindella. Zatara’s mother was Sindella. Yes, Catwoman remembered the name from the talk in the dining room. She studied the resting woman’s face in the candlelight. Sindella’s hair was gray at the temples; her cheeks were a little sharper than Zatanna’s, and there were more lines under her eyes. Otherwise, they could have been twins. Catwoman wondered whether magic sleep kept a body looking so young, which led to the troubling question of how long Sindella had been sleeping. The house claimed to have never seen Sindella, and Catwoman couldn’t fathom a reason for it to lie about that. Of course, Catwoman was too sleep-deprived to pick apart tonight’s little opera, so who knew? But there was dust on the sheets. Did Sindella ever leave this bed?

Her impression had been that Giovanni was one of the good guys, or at worst a murky neutral. Was he responsible for his wife being in a coma? And what man convinces his daughter that her mother is dead her whole life while hiding her mother in a locked room? Catwoman worked around unsavory characters, but even by the criminal underworld’s standards that would be some dark perversity.

Then Catwoman remembered she was here to kill her.

Faust would arrive in the study any minute; it may already be too late. Catwoman imagined the gaunt psychopath in his headdress and indigo suit, his eyes glowing red as he floated through the air. She imagined Batman destroyed, bloodied in some gruesome pose. She imagined Zatanna running in terror, trying to hide and suddenly discovered.

Catwoman dropped the dagger from her teeth and caught it without looking. Then she flipped the blade point-down, moving with the ease of one who knew the business of a knife. She stepped forward and held the blade over Sindella’s chest.

Catwoman tensed her arm. Zatanna would never know. She tried to look anywhere but that sleeping face, but she couldn’t resist. The woman looked so peaceful. Catwoman grit her teeth and withdrew the dagger.

The house said I have to sacrifice a mage. Why don’t I just hop back and kill one of the brothers after all? I’d be doing humanity a favor, really. Catwoman nodded to herself, but stopped mid-nod with another thought. Wait, how do I get back to the ladder? Those marble halls all look the same. What if I get lost? The house said the dagger would tell me after it takes a life. I guess that settles it.

Catwoman lifted the dagger again, then drew it back to reconsider the issue, then she cursed and lifted the dagger once more with both hands. As her hands plunged down, she saw Sindella’s eyes blink open.

“Uh?” said Sindella.

—​

Giovanni’s Journal
20 February 1919

… Magi claim a tradition of honorable dueling. But the more records I study, the more I find conflicts ending by ambush and other bandit tricks. They live in a permanent Wild West. …


—​

In the floating study.

Batman returned from helping Zatanna to find Abdiel and Zachary settled into makeshift battle posts. Abdiel wore a mask that disguised him as a large vase. Zachary was enchanted the color of wood and knelt behind a stack of shattered chairs. Piles of debris and the remaining furniture had been pushed into concentric circles, offering some cover whatever direction Faust approached.

Batman hid under a rug between some cabinets. He had been relieved to learn that hiding behind furniture was not as useless as it sounded. A few inches of lumber offered slight but genuine protection in a magic fight, like a helmet in an artillery barrage. At least this was true against the limited strikes of most duels. Yes, more bombastic spells could sink, caramelize, or evaporate the whole study at once, but these were slow performances in a fight that might end faster than a fencing point. Even Faust was unlikely to unleash such devastation casually.

Batman fidgeted with the magical trinkets fastened across his person, turning their names and descriptions through his memory like a child exploring the faces of a block. Some of these gifts were single-use, so he hadn’t even tested them. He could only rely on dubious advice.

He wondered why Catwoman hadn’t returned. He hoped Zatanna found a better hiding spot than he had. He hoped he wasn’t about to die. He forced himself to relax. The only true strength and only true weakness was the mind. He finally willed himself into a meditative state. Pain faded from flesh. Anxiety quieted from thought. Soon he was sensing but beyond sentiment, present but beyond time, open to everything and nothing.

Time passed. Soon the defenders heard a faint singing in the air - the sound of the brothers’ alarm spell. Zachary snapped his fingers to silence the spell. They studied the horizon, looking to and fro for any movement above the lapping waves.

They spotted a dark cloud. The cloud drifted low over the water, spreading as it approached. Bolts of lightning flashed like hot filaments through the foggy interior. Abdiel was the first to see the black silhouette at the sinister heart of the cloud. His mouth went dry and he quaked at the sight. Every lightning flash lit a new feature of the silhouette, showing it was Lord Felix of Faust.

The cloud thinned as it neared the edge of the study, revealing the full man as nothing less than an angel of death. Faust’s face was an empty smile. He shouted over the wind, “Poltroons! Sneaksbies! You charily scurry, do you? Will no one redound their dignity and stand?”

Batman gripped a hand-carved javelin. Tied near its head was a golden necklace. In one motion, Batman stood, tossed aside the rug, faced Faust, and threw the javelin.

—​

Giovanni’s Journal
6 June 1928

… The Nullus chain interrupts many magics … I nailed the necklace to a baseball and tossed it at cousin Proserpina. I missed by a yard, but it stopped her levitation and shield. She tumbled to earth, hurting herself. I gave her no chance to recover. …


—​

The javelin sung through the air. Faust finally noticed the weapon at the top of its arc, and he watched with dull surprise as it plunged towards his chest. When Abdiel and Zachary saw the attack, they rose from cover and shouted a spell, sending a helix of orange energy and a salvo of steel darts at Faust respectively.

The javelin passed through Faust and he disappeared. Not only did he disappear, the javelin seemed to mop away the dark cloud as it passed. An instant later, the orange helix crossed this empty space and dissipated, then the darts flew by as well. The javelin plopped into the sea.

Before Batman or the brothers could react, Faust splashed out of the water on the opposite side of the study. He landed on the edge of the platform with a throaty cackle and pointed his palms at Abdiel and Zachary, launching bright red beams at their backs.

—​

The room beyond the auxiliary treasury.

Catwoman flinched when she saw Sindella wake. Instead of stabbing Sindella through the chest, Catwoman scraped her collarbone, ripping her sleeping gown, and sunk the dagger through the mattress. Catwoman and Sindella looked at each other, and it was difficult to judge who was more frightened.

Then Sindella winced and touched her collarbone, now welling red under the white fabric. She lifted her hand and saw a few drops of blood on her fingertips. Her eyes went wide and a shrill wail began to vibrate high in her throat. Before she broke into a full cry, both women heard a muffled growl from the mattress. Catwoman pulled out the dagger and found the blade’s steel whorls were now a bloody red. It shook with another predatory growl. “Finish her!”

Sindella finally screamed and scrambled to the far side of the bed. “Please! Please don’t kill me.”

Catwoman rubbed her eyes. “Ma’am, I’m not thrilled about this either.”

“Now!” screamed the dagger.

“You hush,” said Catwoman.

“Please, I’ll, I’ll-” Sindella paused to squint at the dagger. “Is that-? That’s the Sharib Aldam!”

Catwoman shrugged. “Probably.”

“How-” Sindella’s fright turned instantly to rage. “What have you done to Giovanni?” She lifted to a crouch and seemed ready to jump.

Catwoman stepped back. “Nothing. Never met him.”

“Lies!” screamed Sindella. She dived off the bed and tackled Catwoman. The impact shoved Catwoman into the wall. Sindella didn’t relent, clawing at her face and landing crude punches. Catwoman was seeing stars from hitting the wall. It took effort to not accidentally stab Sindella, and more to debate whether she ought to. Keeping the dagger at her side left only one arm to protect herself, and that wasn’t enough. Sindella grabbed Catwoman’s chin and shoved her into the wall again.

“Kill!” screamed the dagger.

Catwoman finally stabbed the dagger into the doorframe, muffling its growls. With both arms free, she forced Sindella back. Sindella landed one more slap before Catwoman caught her wrists, pulled her into a rear bear hug, and dragged her back to the bed. Sindella kicked and howled every step.

Catwoman pushed her onto the bed. “Sit!”

They both struggled to catch their breath. Sindella finally rose to sit, pushing hair out of her face to glare at Catwoman.

Catwoman ignored her sulk. “Listen, are you Mrs. Zatara?”

“Yes,” said Sindella with as much dignity and spite as she could muster. “Who are you?” Catwoman noticed that she had a crisp Turkish accent.

“It’s a long story,” said Catwoman. “I’m a friend of your daughter and-”

“Zatanna? But your-” Sindella pursed her lips. “What year is it on Earth?”

“1941.”

“Oh.” Sindella touched her face. “Oh, dear.”

“Your daughter is here, and she’s in danger”

Sindella’s face went white. “What?”

“Look, the house says I need to kill a mage to save Zatanna, and you’re a mage.”

“What? In danger from whom?”

“Do you know the name Felix of Faust?”

“Impossible!”

“You do. Okay.”

“Your story is mad, but you sound earnest. Like you speak the truth.”

“Lady, I am far past lying tonight.”

“But Shadowcrest should make short work of the Lord of Faust. And where is my Giovanni?”

“Faust has Giovanni. And Shadowcrest is gone.”

“Gone? What is gone? What gone?”

“Look, I wanted to be nice, but I don’t actually have time for questions.” Catwoman pulled the growling dagger out of the wall. “Are we doing this the easy way or not?”

—​

In the floating study.

The red beam cast at Abdiel was stopped inches from his back by a golden ripple in the air. The ripple seemed to drain Abdiel’s mask which shredded itself to dust, returning him from a large vase to a large man.

Faust’s other red beam narrowly missed Zachary, blasting away the top of his chair leg fort. Zachary flinched as wooden shrapnel stung his face.

Batman dropped a smoke bomb, crouching behind the ring of debris.

Abdiel hissed a disgusting chain of vowels as he waved his hands. Two bookshelves near Faust folded into something like panthers and jumped at him. Faust pointed briskly at each like a symphony conductor and they became mangoes. At the same time, Faust muttered and punched the air toward Abdiel. A pewter candlestick jumped out of the debris and smacked Abdiel in the face.

Faust was about to make another gesture when a batarang sunk into his hand. Faust stumbled back and held the wounded hand close. He looked around frantically but couldn’t spot the attacker. He heard the next batarang and disappeared in a green flash.

Faust appeared twenty feet in the air and spotted Batman behind a desk. Before Batman could react, Faust cast a silver beam that blew the desk apart and sent Batman tumbling. Faust pulled the batarang out of his wounded hand, and the narrow wound quickly scabbed shut. Meanwhile, Zachary wiped the splinters from his eyes and pointed a fountain pen at Faust. A jet of ink gushed out of its tip like a fire hose. Faust made a sweeping motion with his hands, and a gust of wind blew the ink aside, burning and bubbling where it landed. Faust clapped and reversed the jet entirely, shooting the ink back at Zacharry at full speed. Zachary had just enough time to drop the pen and fold his fingers into a diamond shape. This gesture repelled the ink from his upper body, but a bucket’s worth sprayed his legs and feet. Zachary screamed and fell. A geyser of smoke rose off his pants.

Before Faust could deliver a killing blow, Batman rang a tiny bell. The ringing carried across the study, making everyone instantly dizzy. Faust tumbled through the air, struggling to find his equilibrium. Zachary continued to scream.

Abdiel was already dizzy from the candlestick, but the bell made it worse. He clung to a marble statue and tried to stem a bloody nose. When he saw Faust wiggle through the air, he fought through his own distress and drew a tasseled wand. With an elegant wave, the wand fired a snowball. The snowball flew a loop then began to chase Faust, following his every dip and turn.

Faust was bobbing upside-down when he noticed the snowball. He pointed at it and muttered a three syllable palindrome in an ancient tongue. The snowball looped and raced back towards Abdiel, now a little faster than before.

The effort of using the wand disoriented Abdiel even more. He gaped when he saw the snowball turn around. The snowball flew nearer. It was only yards away when he managed to gurgle through his bloody nose to say a five-syllable palindrome that rhymed with the first. The snowball looped and raced again towards Faust, now a little faster than before.

The steady ringing faded to a hollow clang, and the room-wide sense of vertigo ceased, leaving Zachary’s screams as the only sound. Batman dropped the tiny bell. He stood out of cover and threw a heavy coin at Faust. Faust caught the coin. As it sizzled with dark energy, he calmly pronounced a seven-syllable palindrome that rhymed with the first two. The snowball had not traveled half the distance from Abdiel when it looped and returned faster than before. Faust idly tossed the coin and fired another silver beam at Batman, detonating his cover.

Abdiel was in full panic, watching wide-eyed as the snowball flew towards him. He tried to wheeze out a few syllables, then coughed and tried again. At the last instant, Abdiel disappeared in a puff of smoke. He appeared halfway across the study, and the snowball pivoted to follow. Abdiel sputtered out another word, but the incoming snowball forced him to vanish again, appearing near the fireplace. He was visibly pale now and could hardly speak. He was preparing to vanish when Faust shot him through the stomach with a red beam. Abdiel made a hitching gasp and started to fall when he was hit by the snowball. There was a blue flash, and Abdiel was frozen in a block of ice.

Faust finally righted himself and floated gently to the edge of the floor. Zachary’s last scream had faded moments ago. Faust let out a haunting peal of laughter that echoed over the wind. He seemed winded but unharmed.

“Come out, come out, little bat.” He chuckled. “We have so much to do.”

—​

The room beyond the auxiliary treasury.

Catwoman held the dagger behind her. “Try to relax. I promise I’ll make it quick.”

Sindella held her hands to her mouth. “Lord Felix of Faust threatens Zatanna?”

“Yep.” Catwoman grabbed Sindella’s shoulder and pressed her gently to the bed.

“You want to kill him?”

“That’s the idea.” Catwoman switched her grip on the dagger.

“Then bring me!” Sindella demanded. “I will kill him!”

Catwoman looked skeptical. “He’s a tough customer. You-”

Sindella grabbed Catwoman’s arm. “I am the toughest customer. I will kill the world for my daughter.”

“Kill!” barked the dagger.

“Yes!” Sindella’s eyes were bright with conviction. “If I fail, then I will fall on that hideous blade, and you will have your weapon. I will swear so in parley.”

“Sorry, but if the best you can do is jump and scratch, you don’t have a chance.”

Sindella scowled. It was a face so bitter that she stopped looking like her daughter. “This prison muzzles me. Free me, and my magic will be unstoppable.”

“If your magic is unstoppable, then how were you imprisoned?”

Sindella forced her scowl into a cold line. “As you say, that is a long story.”

“Hm.” Catwoman had the impression that Faust would be out of her league by age alone. And Catwoman had no idea how her ‘falling on the blade’ plan was supposed to work in the middle of a fight. But whatever Sindella’s skills, she would know how to navigate her own house. That meant she could lead Catwoman back to the study. Then Catwoman could kill one of those brothers and use the dagger as intended.

Zatanna might object, but that was a problem for later.

Catwoman was about to speak, but then she considered that freeing another mage would be stupid. Every mage she had met was a murderous lunatic, and so far Sindella seemed unstable even by their standard. Also Catwoman had repeatedly threatened to kill her, which was not an ideal foundation for trust.

On the other hand, Sindella was offering to swear in parley. Magic people seemed to take that word seriously, whatever it was. Faust had broken parley, but then the huge bat tossed him into orbit because of it. Parley sounded like a safe bet if it carried penalties like that.

Catwoman let go of Sindella’s shoulder and lowered the dagger. “What exactly are you promising?”

“I will serve you until Faust is defeated to your satisfaction. I will follow your every word and do you no harm, not unless you have lied about the threat or threaten her yourself. I must save her, Miss-”

“Catwoman.”

“Catwoman, then. This is my pledge.”

Catwoman was acutely worried that making magical contracts was a skill a person ought to study thoroughly before trying, or at least a skill that shouldn’t be practiced half-asleep.

She stuck out her hand. “Deal.”

Sindella looked at her hand then clasped it. “So mote it be.”

“No!” shouted the dagger.

“Shut up,” said Catwoman and Sindella.

—​

In the floating study.

Lord Faust raised a hand, and a barrier collapsed. He gestured, and another barrier fell. There were few left. Faust heard a faint shuffle. He smiled and scattered another.

In a loud voice, he said, “I am in a mood of surpassing clemency, Batman. I have decided to take you alive. Will you surrender?”

He heard no response but the wind.

Faust sneered. “Your trifling defiance matters not. I will have you.”

There was a flash of black around the side of a chest, and a batarang flew at his head. Faust disappeared in a green flash, reappearing twenty yards beyond the other side of the chest. He saw Batman crouching behind the chest and looking urgently around. He saw Faust just as Faust fired a jet of white mist at him. Batman vaulted the chest and hid on the other side. The mist bloomed around the chest, losing most of its momentum. Where a finger of mist touched his cheek, the skin went numb. Batman held his breath and covered his face with his cape.

Faust watched Batman hide and made a series of three fluid gestures. On the third, a large crystal appeared above the chest like a shooting star. Batman looked up in time to see the crystal rupture, scattering a hundred streamers of gray-blue slime. Still holding his breath, Batman lifted his cape just as the slime splashed over him and the floor. The substance stuck like tar and was remarkably heavy. He managed to catch almost all incoming slime on the cape, but its impact forced him to let go. The dropped cape almost pulled Batman off his feet, but he tugged on a hidden release cord and the cape slipped from his shoulders like a lead blanket.

The rain of slime had dispersed most of the mist. Batman peered around the chest and saw Faust midway through another spell. Batman tossed a metal pellet from the hip. Faust lifted a palm, freezing the pellet in midair, but the flash bomb still detonated, blinding him. Batman grabbed another batarang, but Faust had already vanished again.

Batman looked down. A little slime had splashed on his boots, and he quickly scraped it off. He was near the edge of the platform and noticed that the foam of the surf didn’t wash away the slime when it slid over the floor. He looked up and found Faust rubbing his eyes at the far end of the study. Batman pulled out a tool like a gray pool ball: the distance sensor he had used at the Lisbon. He knelt and pressed the sensor into a slime puddle, then he dived into the sea.

Soon after, Faust finished the complicated spell to clear his eyes. Technically, it was the spell to make his ears act like eyes until his real eyes recovered. Ear-eyes had a distractingly-panoramic field of view and terrible depth perception, but he was able to look around. Upon looking around, he failed to see Batman. This was very frustrating. He was not disposed to patience. Besides the searing pain in his original eyes, he had a motley of other aches from being tossed many times tonight. His arm stung like a nest of ants was biting him, as it always did after being regrown. His clemency was diminishing by the minute.

Faust lifted into the air but Batman was still nowhere to be found. Faust was trying to remember the counterspell to overcome invisibility when he saw movement in the edge of his distorted field of vision. He spun, trying to orient sideways to the movement and get a clear look at it. Several times he faced the direction normally, which was his ear-eyes’ blind spot.

Before Faust could get a clear look, Batman climbed out of the water. He had swam under the width of the study, which was difficult in boots and a rugged bodysuit, but he was Batman. He saw Faust pivoting high in the air and fastballed the distance sensor. It hit Faust in the back of his indigo suit jacket and stuck thanks to a coat of slime. Batman pressed a switch on his belt and the sensor began beeping.

Faust flinched when he was hit in the back and reflexively disappeared. He appeared on the floor behind Batman, but Batman heard the beep, turned, and threw a batarang before Faust had even found his footing. The batarang cut his face, and he disappeared again. Faust appeared floating over the sea, but Batman was ready. When he heard a beep, he twisted and threw a marble ashtray at Faust like he was picking off a runner at first. The ashtray hit Faust in the chest, and he disappeared again.

On the next appearance, Lord Faust conjured a shield that deflected Batman’s next projectile, a fire poker. His original eyes were mostly clear of dots from the flash bomb, so now he saw using four overlapping fields of vision. His brain was not prepared for this. It took a moment to return his ear-eyes to standard ears. In that moment, a smoke bomb popped at his feet, rendering his vision adjustments moot. He called forth a strong wind to blow away the smoke, only to find Batman sprinting at him.

Without a cape and in clear light, Batman did not look ghoulish. Faust had seen ghouls. No, Batman was only a large man determined to steamroll Faust like a defensive lineman whose life depended on disassembling a senior citizen.

Faust flicked two fingers. The end of a floorboard bent out of the floor, its end sloped to a thin edge. This spontaneous stake emerged one step ahead of Batman and speared him just below the ribs. The wooden edge was not sharp enough to impale him, but it tore along his torso as he bounced off. Batman let out a sickened grunt then stumbled three more steps and collapsed.

Lord Felix of Faust tore the beeping sensor off his jacket. Black threads began to patch the fresh disfigurements across his wrinkled face. He was soaked with sweat and rocked with tremors.

Faust crushed the sensor and shook his head. “I did not wish for violence.”

—​

The room beyond the auxiliary treasury.

“So, how do I free you?” asked Catwoman.

“Invite me through the door,” said Sindella.

“Simple. Love it.” She walked out to the treasury and turned around. “Sindella Zatara, you are cordially invited through this door. How’s that?”

Sindella’s mouth was dry, but she managed a nod. She stood frozen at the threshold.

“Hey.” Catwoman tapped her wrist. “Unless you’re trying to put the ‘dead’ in ‘deadline’, we need to move.”

Sindella found this comment disgusting, but the disgust motivated her to step through the door.

“Well?” asked Catwoman.

Sindella looked around, holding herself tight. “I am good,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Yes.” Sindella stretched her fingers and watched twinkles of light blink between them. She broke into a delighted grin. “I am most good.”

Catwoman tightened her grip on the dagger. “Fantastic.” The red tint had faded from the steel and the dagger was silent again.

Sindella began to whisper in some deviant form of Latin and tenderly traced her hand along her wounded collarbone. In seconds, the dagger’s cut recovered from red to fresh pink. On her next pass, the skin healed completely. It was, Catwoman judged, two months of recovery in five seconds.

For her next trick, Sindella snapped her fingers and her sleeping gown transformed into a shimmery black dress with a high collar. She floated an inch into the air and a pair of shoes appeared on her feet. Her hair set itself into a fine coif.

Given the circumstances, Catwoman kept her questions to herself.

Sindella pulled at her sleeves, nodded, then looked around again. “Were there statue guards here?”

“No idea,” said Catwoman, urging her forward.

“There's a bar missing from that stack of gold.”

“Don’t think so.”

“See, it is shorter than the others.”

“Must be magic.”

—​

In the floating study.

Batman lay on his side on the floor. He looked vacantly into the distance as he stuffed all of his gauze into the long wound across his stomach. The gauze was already saturated red. A little spillover dripped to the floor. He unbuckled his belt, pulled it higher to cover the wound, tugged the strap two notches tighter to secure the gauze, then buckled it again.

Lord Faust watched him bleed with mild interest. “You intrigue me, sirrah. Do you know who forewarned me of you, Batman? What deep waters you’ve stirred?”

Batman said nothing.

Faust said, “You are the object of no less a personage than the great Circe.”

Batman looked up, his mouth slightly open.

“Yes,” said Faust. “Circe stands in the shadow of my majesty, of course, but I am fain to vouchsafe she is no less great as my inferior. Forsooth, she strides above many beings of import. Her thone is lofty beyond reckoning to a mundane. Yet you have won not only her gaze but her fury. Wondrous! Truly wondrous. You must have quite the tale. I shall insist you share at an hour more propitious.” Faust licked his cracked lips. “Mmm. Her discomposure is the sweetest wine.”

With lidded eyes, Faust savored the daydream of Circe being inconvenienced.

The ancients of the mystic world shared centuries of history, and the only way to tolerate a person for eternity was to maintain a code of etiquette. For this reason, Faust saw no contradiction in plotting Circe’s downfall while capturing Batman for her. That was simply polite. A favor was worth a lot when you could lord it over someone for a millennium. Faust was doubly eager because it had sounded like Batman might be responsible for causing Circe some scandalous failure. Faust would go to great lengths to keep Batman alive to hear that story.

But as much as Lord Faust enjoyed getting one up on Circe, that game was a secondary pursuit. The venerable Shadowcrest estate was nearly in his grasp. It was time to end tonight’s little spat.

Faust gently dismissed his daydream. “You stay here,” he said to Batman. He waved his hands in wide ovals and chanted a spell. Five heavy chains materialized around Batman, binding him from shoulders to shins. Faust inspected his work. It was tight, and the boy’s crude medicine would keep him alive. Batman struggled against the chains but quickly stopped out of pain.

Faust snorted. “Jobbernowl. Yet, all the same …”

He pointed at Batman’s face and summoned another jet of white mist. Circe warned him to be careful with this one. As the mist thickened, Batman’s head wavered and soon fell limp on the floor.

Faust made a satisfied noise and turned away. He knew Batman was holding his breath and only feigning sleep. Among other clues, the mist didn’t work so quickly. But Batman couldn’t hold his breath forever, and he wasn’t going anywhere in those chains.

Now for the coup. Faust sensed that the young heir was behind the fireplace. She must be hiding with the last of her court, the violet lady with the whip. An untrained mage and another mundane. Nothing to challenge him. A routine task for one as mighty as Lord Felix of Faust.

However, as he strode to the fireplace, Faust was unaware that he had made a mistake. His observations were correct: Batman’s chains were tight, he couldn’t hold his breath forever, and he wasn’t going anywhere chained. However, Faust was unaware that a mundane could escape a few tight chains in one breath. This took special training, but Batman had been trained by the best.

When Batman struggled against the chains this time, he did so carefully and with technique. And he silently bore as much pain as it took to finish the job. The third loose chain freed his arms. By then Faust was nearly at the fireplace. Batman hopped to his feet, ignoring the stabbing across his waist. Faust heard him and turned. Batman had already pulled a pair of red sunglasses from his belt. He put them on.

As the Cehennems had advertised, Batman immediately fell in the direction he was looking.

It was normal for the human eye to shift several times a second, even when trying to focus on one point. This was a natural way to maintain balance and safety. Now it did the opposite. When Batman donned the sunglasses, he was looking at Faust’s back. He was taller than Faust, so he fell forward and at a slight angle down. His feet immediately dragged on the floor, followed soon by his shins. Alarmed, Batman glanced down to inspect the problem. His body stopped moving forward and fell flat on the floor. His head bumped sideways, so his prone body slid sideways, bouncing erratically several times a second as he tried to see where he was going. Spells fired past him, but he was too erratic to catch. Finally, mercifully, he bounced into the sea.

He had enough momentum to keep the sunglasses on the nose guard of his cowl as he splashed underwater. He whirled through columns of bubbles. When his direction steadied, he was racing straight down. The water was cold at the surface, but it was becoming frigid and fading to black. Fortunately, he fell through the water much more slowly than air. Batman finally managed to remove the sunglasses. He peered sluggishly around, trying to find his way up. He was finally able to spot the surface, a dim and distant glow.

Batman had taken just one breath before putting on the sunglasses, and most of it had been knocked out of him against the floor. His lungs burned. His wound was in extraordinary pain. And then a fin slapped his leg.

Batman looked straight up, willed his pupils to stay still, and put the sunglasses on. Snapping his arms to his sides, he shot up, cracking the surface and popping skyward like a cork. He let himself get higher and higher, gulping air until it was too thin to bother. Flying this way was still a tremendous challenge, but he had the entire sky to practice in. And he needed it, often glancing down on impulse and falling a hundred feet before he could correct himself.

He discovered that he could close his eyes to return to regular gravity. He discovered this because it happened automatically every time he blinked. Another helpful move was to lift the sunglasses briefly off his eyes. This also returned his body to regular gravity, but he could look around as he fell. Batman learned the knack of lifting the lenses, peeking at what he wanted to see, then looking back at the direction he wanted to fly before lowering the lenses again.

Batman quickly acclimated and flew descending loops towards the study. He wanted to be bait, and it worked. He saw Faust flying up to meet him. They circled each other. Faust flew nearly as fast as Batman and with vastly more control but was unwilling to approach too boldly. By contrast, Batman dive-bombed Faust at every opportunity, and was far more nimble without the burden of inertia. Faust occasionally cast a spell that would throw up some obstacle or net, but he resorted little to magic during their chase. It seemed to take most of his focus just to maneuver, and he wanted to save his energy for the right moment.

By the luck of the fight, Batman’s moment came first. Timing just right, he flew above Faust and closed his eyes. He plummeted twenty feet and landed on Faust’s back. Between the white mist, the frigid water, and the chilled air, Batman was almost entirely numb, so he didn’t feel this impact. Faust did. He cried some nonsensical curse as they plummeted toward the sea. It must have been the classic non-magical sort of curse as Batman didn’t catch fire or face any similar impediment. He would not give him the chance.

Many of Batman’s tools were welded to his belt by metal cords (to prevent feline-themed theft). One was a grappling hook. Batman slung an arm around Faust’s throat and swung the hook into his side. Faust screamed. Their dueling flight magics shook the pair back and forth, and Batman’s red sunglasses finally whipped off during an erratic barrel roll.

Faust tried to maintain altitude, but together they continued to plummet. Maybe his magical powers were insufficient for the task. Maybe it was because Batman had pulled the hook deep through fabric and flesh and was now punching Faust in the side of the head as often as he could.

Faust tried several times to vanish. But after every green flash, he found Batman still hanging on his back. Now that Faust was wearing the hook; they would vanish together. Just as the Cehennems anticipated

Finally, tumbling at terminal velocity, they hit the water without surface tension. If Faust assumed that Batman would feel compelled to swim away, he was mistaken. Batman kept an arm around his throat and refused to move. He seemed eager to make sure they both drowned.

With his last dim thought, Faust cast a desperate spell to be launched to safety. He had acquired it lifetimes ago at enormous expense. It was single-use, so he had kept it for a rainy day.

He and Batman blasted out of the water like a cannonball. The hook dislodged mid-flight, so they drifted gently apart. The pair crossed the quarter mile to the study and landed at a shallow, angle, skipping across the floor. Batman went so far he nearly slipped off the far end, but he wasn’t aware of this. In fact, he was unconscious. He had been unconscious since his second dip in the water. This was largely due to blood loss: the pile of gauze in his wound slipped out during his first dip in the water, though the blunt impacts and hypothermia may have contributed.

Waves splashed Batman, and one finally woke him. He vomited water and curled on his side. He felt desperately weak. He looked at himself. The good news was that his last two chains had fallen off his legs. He rose to his knees. When he tucked the grappling hook away, he realized his shoulder was dislocated. He grabbed the wrist of that arm, tensed, and popped the shoulder back into place.

He crawled to a smashed cabinet and sat against it. He pulled off a glove, put it in his mouth, and bit hard. He unbuckled his belt and laid it aside. Then he took out his thermite applicator, a tool like a thick soldering iron. Holding it in his gloved hand, he turned the knob to medical and set the tip above the edge of his wound. He tried to take a few deep breaths, snorting through the leather in his mouth. He breathed faster and faster then pressed the trigger. He saw a tremendous halo of sparks. He screamed, then his mind went gray.

—​

In the spiraling hallway of dark red marble.

As Sindella and Catwoman ascended the hallway, Catwoman often urged Sindella to go faster, but Sindella routinely slowed to catch her breath. Catwoman supposed that humans weren’t meant to sleep for years. But then something unnatural would happen. The first time her eyes shone purple. The next time glowing fireflies circled under her skin. Sindella wasn’t forthcoming about why these were happening, and Catwoman was out of ideas.

It got worse when they reached the section of wall with rings of geometric etchings, the spot where Shadowcrest had seen Catwoman off. When Sindella crossed the rings, she held her stomach and stuck out her tongue. “Ugh. I feel as if someone placed garlic in my Listerine.”

Catwoman looked around. “I don’t feel anything.”

Sindella pursed her lips and held the wall for balance. “We’ve entered the domain of the house spirit.” She took a deep breath. “I believe I feel its absence.”

“Is it that bad?”

“The spirit is meant to be here. It is a wrong feeling, yes. But we must go on.”

Gradually the color of the red marble turned pink, and the pair reached the maze of endless hallways. They made good time at first, but Sindella’s stops grew longer and more frequent, and the strange phenomena grew stranger. Tongues of flame lined her arms. She started floating. Her voice turned impossibly husky. Each change lasted seconds, but Catwoman grew more unsettled each time, and she was badly struggling against sleep again. She even stopped hiding how Sindella’s changes made her clutch the dagger.

Secretly, Sindella was all too pleased to see Catwoman’s nerves fray. She passed the time with a few reasonable questions: how Catwoman had arrived, how Giovanni was trapped, and how Zatanna was doing. Catwoman’s answers were careful at first, but she was too exhausted to watch her mouth for long. Soon she was sharing every personal opinion that came to mind: her hopes, her fears, who she wanted to hit with a bus, and who deserved something less gentle. At first, Sindella acted the perfect disinterested stranger. But answer by answer, she would offer a word of support, or innocently suggest a perspective that justified Catwoman's biases, or mount a flimsy argument that Catwoman could enjoy demolishing.

With diabolical finesse, Sindella made Catwoman feel good, and Catwoman had precious little to feel good about lately. Catwoman hardly noticed as she stopped seeing Sindella as deranged witch and began seeing her as a friend.

—​

In the floating study.

Batman came to his senses in agony. His ugly cut was now a white bed of blisters. The surrounding skin was seared bright red, and bits of fabric were fused across it. That was the least serious consequence of cauterizing a wound; there were many worse, but if it bought him a few more minutes, then it was worthwhile. Batman looked around for the applicator. All he could find was a smoking hole in the floor next to him and the sea rolling beneath.

The Dark Knight pulled on his glove and slung his belt over his shoulder. He forced himself to stand. One foot didn’t want to hold his weight. His knees weren’t cooperative either, and there was something very wrong with his spine. He found a pool cue to use as a walking stick. Batman tottered around and found Lord Felix of Faust kneeling in the middle of the study. Patches of his head and the hook wound in his side were slick with black webbing. His eyes were unfocused. He wasn’t moving.

Batman was a few paces away when Faust finally stirred, trying to stand. Batman hit him in the forehead with the pool cue. Faust toppled over, but Batman caught him by the collar and kneed him in the hook wound before letting him drop. Then Batman stumbled on damaged knees. He sat down, produced a syringe from his belt, and gave Faust a shot in the neck.

Batman felt a new rush of weakness and dropped the syringe. He slumped over and fell asleep.

—​

In the endless pink hallways.

Catwoman threw up her hands in disbelief. "And then this Abdiel crumb offers his help, like he's some bloody hero doing us a favor. Like he hadn't held a heater to poor Zatanna an hour ago."

Sindella gasped. "The scoundrel."

"And somehow I'm the only one with the decency to smack his teeth in. Suddenly, everyone looks at me like I popped champagne at a funeral."

"I can't believe they showed such ingratitude. You are very brave to defend Zatanna this way."

"It's nothing."

"But you are, dear. She's is blessed by the fates that you came along. I say it is you who is the true hero."

Catwoman shrugged. "Sure, but I'm not asking for a parade. I just don't understand why Batman hasn't knocked his head off. What is he waiting for?"

"Perhaps he lacks your keen sense of justice."

"Maybe you're right, Mrs. Zatara. It's not like Abdiel has some noble excuse. I'm telling you, this lard balloon is the worst. Who kidnaps their own cousin? You couldn't find a colder reptile at the zoo."

"I remember my nephew. He was always no good."

"Hold on. You knew Abdiel?"

"Well," Sindella hesitated, "He was a baby. But he was a very bad baby."

—​

In the floating study.

Batman woke up feeling very wrong. He was no longer numb. He was no longer in pain. Also he was standing.

Lord Faust sat patiently in front of him on a stool. He looked like he had woken up on the wrong side of a hurricane, but he didn’t appear bothered by his battered condition. When he saw Batman was awake, Faust looked pointedly at Batman’s chest.

Batman glanced down and found that his body was now a tree. Where he felt arms, he saw branches, and where he felt legs, he saw a trunk and roots. Logically, he would have expected no sensation in his tree limbs - wood had no nervous system - but his body still felt like flesh. It was merely very stiff. He forced himself to not panic.

“Are you humbled to civility, Batman?” Faust asked. “I tire of these mephitic japes.”

Batman said nothing.

Faust held up a syringe. “What futile poison was this?”

Batman seemed amused. “You wouldn’t recognize it.

“Infant, I have read the natural philosophers for more generations than you’ve had winters. What was it? Hemlock? Arsenic? I can find myself well enough, but you’d save yourself grief telling me now.”

Does the word ‘radioactivity’ mean anything to you?

“No. What poxy rascality is ‘radioactivity’?”

You should take a chemistry class this century. Radioactive material toxifies blood in a way unlike any plant or mineral poison of antiquity. Your traditional remedies are useless.

“Nonsense. You bluff.”

I’ve heard blood is sacred in magic. It’s the one bodily component even you can’t replace. Not in a hurry. And believe me, Felix, you’re in a hurry.

“That’s Lord Faust to you, churl.”

For a regular man, the damage would be irreversible in less than an hour. I’m not sure the timeline for your metabolism changes the timeline, but you may want to get your affairs in order.

“Irreversible in less than an hour. You imply there is a cure if a chirurgeon intervenes posthaste?”

Yes, if they can diagnose which of the many radioactive substances is responsible and know the cure. There are maybe five doctors on the planet with that experience. But then you might be doomed before their tests finish. On the other hand, I know the cure right now.

“You think I am at your mercy.” Faust stood and began to pace. “Your terms?”

Free Giovanni Zatara. Do what you can to heal the Cehennem brothers. Leave and never bother the Zataras again.

“You wish me to swear that?”

Your oaths are mud. But the cure doesn’t happen in one dose. You would need me to prepare you fresh doses for months to purge your system. Until then, I own you.

“I see.”

And I’d rather not be a tree.

“Lenient. But what prevents me from torturing you until you share your cure?”

You think pain can change my mind?

“I’ve rarely been disappointed by the fruits of it, but let’s suppose not. Still, your threat is hypothetical.”

You’re willing to take that risk?

“Do you have a way to prove it?” Faust held up a hand to stall a response. “Because I do.”

He snapped his fingers. An electric light flickered from inside the scraps of a broken shelf nearby. An unseen speaker hummed and crackled with fuzz. Then a nasally announcer spoke.

“Loyal listeners! Welcome back to Candid Psychic Radio, the only station that plays what’s really on your mind! This just in, we are behooved to bring a baleful bulletin: a sylvan sentinel suggests sinister science! Will the syringe surreptitiously sicken the saboteur's sanguine system? Has the knight errant erred? Poison or ploy? Only on CPR!”

Faust snapped again, and the broken shelf caught fire.

The nasally voice spoke much faster. “It was a bluff. Radioactivity is real and dangerous, but the injection was nothing but a mild sedative. This is CPR. Goodnight.”

The radio shut off. Faust made a final snap and the fire died. He looked past Batman in silence for a moment. Then he nodded to himself and looked at Batman. “Commendable. I’m most eager to hear how this same guile confounded Circe.” He stood and walked towards the fireplace. “If you escape, I won’t spare you thrice.”

Stop!” shouted Batman. “I’ll do anything.

“You’ve certainly proven that.” Faust entered the fireplace and disappeared.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Well... crap.

It really looks like there's no hope.
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Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 18: Discovered​


In the hidden room behind the fireplace.

Lord Felix of Faust entered the illusory fire in pursuit of his final prey, an untrained mage and a mundane. Normally such foes wouldn’t warrant a tenth of his might, but he had suffered enough from the last mundane, so just to be safe he would annihilate them. He recalled his most devastating curses as he stepped out of the fire. Then his legs exploded.

Faust vanished behind a pillar before he hit the ground, but he wasn’t sure what had happened even after the dust settled. His first guess was that a powerful mage had surprised him, but there was no further attack. He did hear footsteps across the room. Faust seethed. It must have been some sort of mundane bomb.

His left leg was missing below the knee and his right leg was scarcely intact. He was in enormous discomfort. The effort of stabilizing the wounds took nearly all of his focus. He certainly couldn’t spare the energy for levitation. He was stuck. Faust closed his eyes and considered more desperate options.

A magic spell was a deal struck with a supernatural being to let a mage break a rule of nature. Some deals permitted the mage to break a rule as often as they wished. Others had conditions. For instance, Lord Faust enjoyed a warm working relationship with several forest spirits, having once driven a species of weevil extinct. Faust had won the power to turn people into trees as often as he wished. He had also negotiated permission to turn parts of himself into a tree while still moving like a person, but this spell was pay-per-use. He would owe them a substantial gift the next time he entered a forest. Such was the life of a mage.

At least the technique was simple. Faust brought to mind the potential of an acorn and cast the spell. He smelled pine needles and heard birdsong. Gnarled roots began to sprout from the wounds in his legs. Soon he had new legs and feet covered in bark. Besides a sudden fear of lumberjacks, he felt intact. Faust stood and stretched his new limbs.

He looked around the dim storage room. He sensed the heir nearby, a feeling so loud now that it buzzed in his mind. He had to forget any dreams of annihilating the room in one strike; he didn’t have the strength. This would be a hunt. Still, he could make the job easier. Faust looked around and estimated the most flammable corner of the room. Then he cast a rain of burning pitch. Crates and odd machines quickly caught fire. The fire began to spread.

—​

Zatanna Zatara was hiding in a cramped iron maiden when she smelled smoke. Then the iron surronding her grew hot. When she couldn’t stand another moment, Zatanna cracked the door and peeked around. The box in front of her was on fire. Zatanna gasped, immediately inhaling smoke. She stumbled out of the iron maiden and coughed, crawling as fast as she could. Clouds of smoke blotted out the ceiling, and the fire seemed to be spreading in every direction.

Zatanna looked around. Rising above the rows of magician equipment was her father’s three-story water tank. She could see through its glass that it was filled to the top. Her father’s first rule of submersion tricks was to have a hammer nearby. He was a stickler for safety. Zatanna took a deep breath and stood up. Her eyes watered as she rushed through the smoke.

Fortunately there were no big flames blocking her path, and she found a sledgehammer leaning against the tank. Her first swing chipped the glass. Her second swing caused a crack: a spray of water drenched her legs and puddled on the floor. Zatanna turned her head away and swung once again. The hammer shattered the glass. Scores of gallons flooded out of the man-sized hole. The wave crashed through nearby fires, transforming them to steam. It was obvious the water wouldn’t reach all the fires, but it stopped a wide area of its growth.

Zatanna had stood at an angle to avoid the worst of the wave, but she was still blasted by the spray and lost her hat. Stumbling away, she coughed and tugged wet hair out of her face. She spared a thought to all the rare magician props she had just ruined but reasoned that they were doomed regardless.

Zatanna turned and stopped. Through the fiery haze, Zatanna saw the far figure of a man shuffling towards her. They locked eyes, and the man grinned, doubling his pace. Zatanna ran. A red beam flashed past her arm and destroyed a popcorn cart.

Lord Faust was quickly finding his footing on his wooden legs. He chased the girl around a corner. Yards ahead, he saw her climb into one of a pair of coffins on a platform. He stopped. Green motes of light surrounded his hands. He bent his fingers and thrust them at the coffin. Green bolts of lightning struck the coffin, obliterating it.

Faust sagged to catch his breath. A moment later, Zatanna climbed out of the other coffin and ran away. He growled and gave chase. He whispered another costly spell to add speed to his wooden feet and quickly closed the distance. He spotted Zatanna hiding behind some barrels. The arrogant girl was smiling and wearing her hat again. Faust fired a red beam. It destroyed the wooden cutout of Zatanna from an old circus promotion.

The real Zatanna was hiding on a tall shelf above Faust and trying to be silent. Faust looked around in consternation. He seemed ready to keep walking. Then he suddenly looked up. Faust and Zatanna locked eyes again. In a panic, Zatanna tossed down all her magic weapons: a coin, a hairpin, and an avocado pit. She had entirely forgotten how she was supposed to use them. The coin and hairpin did nothing. The pit burst into a volcano of avocado pulp. Faust was blinded and swept off his feet by a wave of avocado.

Zatanna jumped down and ran the other way. She saw the ladder to the attic door only a few rows away. Zatanna couldn’t understand why Catwoman hadn’t returned, but the safest bet seemed to be climbing up and joining her. The problem was that climbing a ladder would leave her exposed. She had to distract Faust for a minute or two to have a chance. Zatanna had no idea how to do that. She could only head towards it and hope for a lucky break.

As luck had it, between Zatanna and the ladder was a mirror maze. Faust spotted her running inside the maze and briskly followed. Soon he saw Zatanna cross his path. He fired a red beam at her and destroyed a mirror.

The paths of the maze curved and intersected at strange angles. Occasionally Zatanna appeared running across four or more mirrors, and it was impossible to tell which were reflections and which, if any, was the woman. The thin smoke from the fires and the dim electric lights made the odds of spotting her even worse.

“Stay still, girl,” he sputtered after destroying his fourth mirror. “I’ll make this quick.”

“I’m not dumb enough to fall for that,” he heard her say.

“A bluestocking, eh?” He turned a corner and saw five Zatannas, hands planted on their hips. As he tried to squint between them, all five ran away. “Blast,” he said.

“Maybe we got off on the wrong foot,” said Zatanna. “Instead of chasing me, how would you like to see a card trick?”

“Huh?” grumbled Faust. He ran down a hall of mirrors. Zatanna strolled through them on both sides as she shuffled a deck of cards.

“It’s easy! All you have to do is keep your eye on the card. Nothing to it.”

Faust responded by destroying three mirrors. He stepped through the gap and found himself in a circle of mirrors.

“Remember,” said Zatanna, “Eye on the card.”

“Come out now,” ordered Faust.

Zatanna walked in, appearing in every mirror. She shuffled her deck once more and fanned out a hand. “Eye on the card.”

Faust let out a scream of frustration and shattered every mirror around. Steam rose from his ears.

Zatanna was standing behind the circle. With no more reflections, she seemed very alone.

Terrified, she raised her hands. One hand held her deck. The other held the fanned cards. She suddenly squeezed the deck, firing a fountain of cards in the air. Faust glanced up at it. Her other hand flicked a playing card which flew ten feet and hit Faust square in the eye. He squealed and held his eye. “Ow!”

“Eye on the card,” said Zatanna. She flicked another card which hit his other eye.

“Ow! How are you so accurate?”

“Magic,” she said as she ran.

She didn’t get far. A wave of force knocked her over, along with most objects nearby.

Faust marched up through the shadows on wooden legs, blinking his red eyes. His headdress was missing, revealing thin strings of hair. His indigo suit was almost as shredded as his face, and both were flecked with avocado.

Zatanna looked up at him from the cold floor. She wanted to beg or scream, but her body froze.

Faust looked tired. “If you had but halted, I would have ended you swiftly.” A small blue flame hissed like a welding torch from his index finger. Zatanna was wide-eyed and couldn’t look away. He pointed the finger at her chest. “I’ll still offer a swift end if you confess where your garish woman is hiding.”

“Hey!” shouted a familiar voice.

Faust looked up. Catwoman hung near the top of the ladder. Sindella floated beside her, lit by rising embers below. Sindella’s eyes glowed with bright moonlight, and twirling blue vapors fled from her outstretched hands.

Sindella proclaimed, “ELAPMI DROL TSUAF HTIW RANUL SEKIPS!

Twelve spikes of ghostly moonlight appeared around Faust. He raised a feeble shield, but the spikes plunged through it, piercing him in a dozen places. Faust clutched himself with a wet snarl. He dropped to his wooden knees, then fell to the floor and was still.

For a moment, the snap of flames was the only sound in the room.

“That was easy,” said Catwoman. She slid down the ladder with Sindella floating after her.

—​

Zatanna hadn’t seen the new arrivals. She remained fixated on Faust. Even as she struggled to her feet, she couldn’t take her eyes away.

Faust was still, but she was wrong to believe him dead. He would not stop for Death so lightly. His mind was leashed to flesh like any mortal, but Faust had spent lifetimes gathering lifetimes, and his leash was loose. His thoughts continued in another place for a little while longer.

In this other place, Faust remembered acquaintances far more dangerous than forest spirits. Most mystical beings were elusive, treating humans with indifference or disdain. These were the safe ones. The few who were eager to do business invariably had a taste for human misery. A mage could easily bargain away freedom, sanity, or life if they weren’t careful. Wise magi avoided these predators at all costs. But true masters kept them in mind for emergencies.

Seventy years ago, Faust summoned one particularly sinister beast who offered life insurance. In exchange for an unspeakable favor, Faust could call upon the beast to ensure his life with a boost of vitality and strength, redeemable at any time. The favor earned him access to this service, but actually using it would cost Faust his firstborn child (or his firstborn’s firstborn, and so forth). The beast set these terms unaware that Faust had traded away rights to his potential firstborn many times. He had also traded away his ability to have children. If Faust redeemed his insurance, his trick would be discovered, and the beast and all vicious brethren in its company would hold a grudge forever. And they might share the news to all other spirits who had a claim on his firstborn. Such was the life of a mage.

In this place of thoughts beyond life, Faust called in his policy. His features flickered dark blue like a photo negative. The spikes through his body blinked away, then he disappeared.

This happened so fast, Zatanna would have missed it if she hadn’t been watching him all along. She stared at the vacant patch until she heard a high-pitched buzz overhead. A woman in a black dress hovered in a lotus pose twenty feet off the ground. A sphere of rainbow energy vibrated between her hands, so bright it hurt to see.

“No!” shouted the woman, her voice impossibly loud. “LAEVER EREHW TSUAF SEDIH!” The sphere fired out in a rainbow arc. Shelves toppled and crates flipped, scattering props as the energy crest swept the room. Even the walls shook. The woman made a furious noise through gritted teeth. She began another energy ball when Catwoman appeared on top of a stack of crates and yelled, “Hey!”

The woman let the energy dissipate. Catwoman gestured down at Zatanna. “Look.”

Zatanna had fallen to the floor again and watched the scene in abject horror. She was easy to see in the center of a light.

“Oh,” the woman covered her mouth. “Oh, tatlım. Oh, dear.” The woman descended and began to cry. She landed nearby, but Zatanna scurried away, trying to make herself as small as possible.

Catwoman moved between them and pressed firmly against the woman’s shoulders. “Hold on.”

For the briefest instant, an ugly look creased the woman’s face, but it passed.

“Catwoman?” Zatanna asked.

Catwoman helped her to her feet and gave her a hug. “Sorry I’m late.”

Zatanna looked past her. “What … who’s that?”

Catwoman hesitated. “Meet Mrs. Sindella Zatara. Your mom.”

“What?”

“Listen, I know this is absurd and unfair, but we-”

“What?” Zatanna was suddenly annoyed and pushed her away. “No. Who is that?”

Sindella stepped into the light. “Zatanna?”

Zatanna tensed, her features rapidly changing between confusion, surprise, and dread. Zatanna looked Sindella up and down. Her eyes widened the longer she noticed their uncanny resemblance. She began to shake her head. “No.”

Sindella stepped closer. “Zatanna, please.”

“No.” Zatanna stepped back and raised her voice. “No. You’re not- No!” She sniffed, holding back a sop. “Stop!”

Catwoman moved between them again. “Sindella, find Faust.”

Sindella frowned but nodded. She raced into the sky.

Catwoman held Zatanna’s arm. “It’s okay. Breathe.”

Zatanna stared blankly at Catwoman. “It’s a trick. It’s a bad trick. That can’t- I haven’t-”

Catwoman sighed. “I’m sorry. Forget that for now. Let’s find cover. Faust could be back any second.”

Zatanna wiped her nose with her arm and let herself be led away. “I’m not sure he could.”

“What do you mean?” Catwoman peered around, keeping her dagger at the ready.

“Faust seemed … sluggish. Not at all like before. He chased me on foot.”

At the far side of the room, they heard Sindella shout, “Found the devil!” Bolts of colorful energy and plumes of fire cast lit up the room.

Catwoman watched the show. “He seems peppy enough. Where’s Batman?”

Zatanna looked down. “The plan was for the boys to stop Faust in the study until you arrived. Since Faust made it here, well, I guess they didn’t.”

Catwoman narrowed her eyes. “Let’s check.”

“Wait, what about the sleeping spell?”

“Change of plans. Your mom is the spell.”

They felt the blastwave of an explosion across the room. Zatanna shielded her face. “Does she know about the sleeping part?”

Catwoman shrugged. “She knows Faust by reputation. She assured me he can take a few hits.”

They heard another explosion. Zatanna ducked as a box sailed over their heads. “Will she stop at a few?”

“Of course,” said Catwoman. There was a third explosion. “Absolutely.”

They hurried to the fireplace, but the dueling magi arrived first.

Lord Faust was making a fighting retreat. His head was flaming like a matchstick and his left arm was a goose. He was trading spells with Sindella who was surrounded by green halos. Faust’s new lease on life still left him half-exhausted from the night’s abuse, but even impaired he ought to dominate a youngster like Sindella. The problem was her maniacal onslaught. Magi who survived long enough to develop any skill usually fought very cautiously. But Sindella was ignoring the most basic defenses to press her attack. One strike would bring her down, but they were almost matched so long as she kept the momentum.

His goose honked tactically, deflecting a hail of razors, but again this assault pushed him back. He threw up a tidal wave of sand and finally escaped through the fireplace. Sindella dived through the sand, letting it abrade her as she pursued.

Catwoman and Zatanna hid a distance away.

Zatanna pointed at the fireplace. “So. Do we …”

Some bricks fell out of the wall. A ceiling light had shattered on the floor, surrounded by sand and craters. A box was encased in a pyramid of Jell-O. The last standing shelf suddenly fell over, scattering a pile of birdcages. They heard another explosion.

“Maybe give ’em a minute,” said Catwoman.

“Yeah,” said Zatanna.

They waited. Catwoman looked at Zatanna. “What happened to your hair?”

“It got wet, but the fires dried it off. How’d you get that knife?”

Catwoman held up the dagger. “Parting gift from the house.”

“How about the black eye?”

“What?” Catwoman gently touched her eye. “Great,” she muttered.

“Get in another fight?”

“Bad first impression.”

They continued to wait.

Zatanna gestured vaguely where Sindella had left. “Is … is she really …”

“Pretty sure she is,” said Catwoman. “First thing she did was ask about your dad.”

“But it could be some disguise.” Zatanna said earnestly. “We’ve seen all sorts of hooky jibber-jabber here.”

“Maybe. But I think she’s the real deal.”

“Where’d you find her?”

“Just a little room. She was sleeping.”

“Hm.”

They waited. Shrill goose noises echoed through the fireplace.

Zatanna gave her a reassuring smile. “He’ll be fine.”

“Huh? Oh.” Catwoman sounded forcefully nonchalant and started to pace. “We’ll see.” She stepped on the edge of a book. It had a blue leather cover and gold engraving. There were similar books scattered across the floor around a collapsed bookshelf.

She picked one up and read the cover aloud, “Little Mage’s First Primer, Volume Three.“

“Oh, heck.” Zatanna slumped against a box. “Just throw it in one of the fires.”

“What’s wrong with the book?”

“Shadowcrest said my dad brought these special textbooks so I could learn magic.”

“Okay?”

“And I don’t-” Zatanna’s voice caught, clearly upset. “ Ugh, forget it.”

“Sure.” Catwoman nodded carefully, then asked, “So these are supposed to teach you magic from scratch?”

“Yep.” Zatanna rolled her eyes. “A billion books in the library, but apparently these are the tip top best.”

They waited.

Catwoman stretched her arm. “Do you mind if I use that handkerchief chain of yours?”

“Why?”

“Tweaked my elbow when I took that tumble earlier. Thought I should put it in a sling.”

“Sure.” Zatanna plucked the handkerchief out of her tuxedo pocket. She kept pulling and pulling, eventually pulling out nine more tied together. “Here.”

“Thanks.” Catwoman wrapped the handkerchiefs around her shoulder and forearm, tying the ends and spreading out the fabric to make a sturdy sling. “Haven’t heard any destruction in a while. Want to go check on them?”

“Do you really think there’s anything we could do to help?”

Catwoman spun her dagger. “We can offer moral support. Unless you want to stay behind.”

Zatanna cracked her knuckles. “Not this time.”

“Attagirl.”

—​

Zatanna and Catwoman crossed through the fireplace in a crouch, ready to retreat at the first incoming energy beam.

They saw Abdiel frozen in a block of ice. They saw all furniture broken across the floor. They saw a tree where there had been no tree. And they saw Sindella and Faust locked in mortal combat, a crackling arc of mystic power bridging between their hands: red near Faust, blue near Sindella. For a moment Sindella strained harder, and the purple center of the arc pushed towards Faust. Then Faust redoubled his efforts, and the purple center pushed towards Sindella. The balance shifted back and forth, but Faust was slowly building an advantage. Both combatants were near collapse.

Faust sneered. “Mirthful follies! Your kin did not expect you here. How swiftly the forgettable are forgotten.”

“You talk like a Herald,” growled Sindella. Rivulets of sweat rolled down her face. “Despicable.”

“You know nothing, haughty foal,” crowed Faust, “And you never will. Take heart as I finish what your husband began. I will extinguish the House Cehennem.”

Before Faust could extinguish the House Cehennem, a flying dagger plunged into his back. He convulsed in shock, letting the arc of mystic power crash into him. Faust bounced across the floor.

Catwoman whistled. “Nice throw.”

Zatanna was stunned. “I was trying to hit him with the handle.”

Sindella stood over Faust and swirled her hands. “EVOMER EDALB. DNIB TSUAF. NOMMUS DROWS FO SELCOMAD!

The dagger slipped out of Faust and slid away. Straps and chains burst out of the floor, pushing Faust onto his back and wrapping around him. His goose morphed into an arm and his head fire extinguished. When he was tightly bound, a small sword appeared in the air with the sound of a menacing chord plucked on an unseen lyre. The sword wavered slightly in the breeze, but its point remained directly over Faust’s face. He crossed his eyes to stare.

Sindella stood back and summoned a towel to wipe the sweat off her face.

Catwoman walked up to her, followed paces behind by Zatanna.

“Fantastic,” said Catwoman. “Way to go, Mrs. Zatara.”

“My thanks,” said Sindella.

“Do not ignore me,” said Faust, “Nothing fills me with rage like being inconsequent!”

“Did you know they have diapers for adults now?” asked Catwoman.

“No!” said Faust, “Inconsequent! Irrelevant! Without meaning!”

Catwoman stepped on his mouth. “Anyway,” she said to Sindella, “I think there’s an introduction that’s been delayed long enough.”

Zatanna stepped forward. “Are you really my mom?”

Sindella ran forward and embraced her. “Yes! Oh, Zatanna. You’re so beautiful.” Mid-hug, she abruptly turned to Catwoman. “I trust you are satisfied with Lord Faust’s defeat?”

Catwoman was surprised by the change of topic, “I mean, you did a great job, so-”

“Kill!” screamed the dagger, newly red with blood.

Sindella scowled at the interruption. Without releasing Zatanna, who was trying to escape now, Sindella sweetly asked, “What were you about to say, Catwoman?”

“One moment,” said Catwoman.

“Just a little yes or no would be lovely,” insisted Sindella.

“Hold on.”

“Mm‘nerf off.” muttered Zatanna, trying to pry herself from Sindella’s hug.

“Kill them all!” commanded the dagger.

Catwoman picked up the dagger and threw it into the trunk of the tree. She wiped her hands. “Sorry. What were you asking?”

Please take that out,” said the tree.

The women all jumped. Sindella summoned motes of energy around her arms, ready to attack. Zatanna finally pushed away and took a deep breath.

“Wait, wait” said Catwoman. “That voice.” She crept around the tree. “Batman?”

Catwoman.

Now that she was looking from a different angle, she could see his cowled face sunk into the trunk. Catwoman struggled to believe her eyes. “How?”

Batman’s expression was slightly more wooden than usual, but he conveyed impatience with a pause before responding, “Magic.

Catwoman pulled the dagger from his trunk and plunged it into the floor instead. Sindella and Zatanna followed Catwoman and saw Batman’s face as well.

Zatanna covered her mouth with a gasp. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“Who is this?” demanded Sindella. Her attack energy had dispersed, but her posture was itching to bring it back.

“Right,” said Catwoman, “ Mrs. Zatara, this is Batman. Remember I mentioned Batman? He’s not usually a tree. Please don’t hurt him. Batman, this is Sindella Zatara. I found her by accident. She’s Zatanna’s mother.”

I gathered,” said Batman. “Mrs. Zatara, we’re grateful for your help. I apologize for not announcing myself earlier, but I feared I would distract you.

Sindella cautiously lowered her arms. “A sensible concern. Catwoman has shared that you did much to protect my daughter and my ancestral home tonight. The gratitude is mine.”

Batman managed to nod with his forehead. He looked at Zatanna and his face lightened. “I’m fine, Zatanna.

“Are you sure?” asked Zatanna.

Check on Abdiel and Zachary. If they survived, they’ll need immediate care.

“Sure. But you’re okay?”

My condition isn’t a priority.

Sindella looked between them suspiciously.

Catwoman snorted. “Idiot. Sindella, can you help this man?”

Sindella circled the tree. “Not easily. Lord Faust could surely reverse the curse.”

“Bring him over.”

Sindella’s eyes narrowed at being given orders, but she bid Faust to join them. Still trapped in his bindings like a half-finished mummy, Faust floated over to the group, the short sword following above his head.

Catwoman rapped a knuckle on Faust’s shoulder. “Game time, skippy. Turn Batman back into a person and no funny business.”

Faust could not have looked more sour if he had eaten a treeful of lemons, but finally he said, “Disgorge my hands.”

Sindella snapped her fingers. Faust’s straps loosed to free his arms up to the elbow. He stretched his wrists to several angles then pressed his thumbs and clapped.

A strong breeze twisted around them. A curtain of leaves flew from the tree and began to circle it like a spinning cone. The leaves concealed the tree, but they could see glimpses of something changing inside.

“Batman?” said Zatanna in alarm.

The breeze stopped. The leaves fell at once. In the middle, Batman lay flat on his face. He looked human again, at least as much as he ever did. Sindella quickly reset Faust’s bindings. Catwoman and Zatanna crouched at Batman’s side, helping lift him to his knees. He let out a long, low groan. Both women saw the giant, fresh burn above his waist and recoiled.

“What happened to your cape?” asked Catwoman.

Batman grunted. “What happened to your eye?

“So you just ignore the arm?”

“Guys!” said Zatanna. “How did you get that nasty gash on your stomach? Did Faust burn you?”

I did,” said Batman.

“Of course,” said Catwoman.

“Excuse me,” said Sindella with diminishing politeness. “Catwoman, I truly want to make sure that you were satisfied with Lord Faust’s defeat.”

Faust spat. “Defeat? Pah! You presume overmuch.”

“What an excellent point,” said Catwoman. “Let’s show him a real defeat.”

You should check on the Cehennems,” insisted Batman.

“They’ll be fine,” said Catwoman, “Or not. Who cares.” She stood and looked Faust up and down. “Let’s start with the main course.”

Sindella smiled. “Do let me.”

Catwoman,” warned Batman.

“Catwoman?” asked Zatanna, worried.

“Steady,” said Faust. “I still have Giovanni. Do not challenge me.”

Sindella clutched Faust’s chin. “Challenge you?” She slid her hand down, pressing it over his throat, then his chest. She reached into his shirt and pulled out the locket at the end of the cardial chain. “Challenge you? I’ve drowned rats that had more leverage to stand upon.” She pulled on the locket until Faust cringed. Zatanna grabbed her other arm. “Careful.”

“Have no fear, Zatanna,” said Sindella, “I’m addressing a confusion. Lord Faust believes we value your father’s life more than retribution. Let’s fix that.”

Sindella snapped her fingers. An electric light flickered from inside the scraps of a broken shelf nearby. An unseen speaker hummed and crackled with fuzz. Then a nasally announcer spoke.

“Loyal listeners! Welcome back to Candid Psychic Radio, the only station that plays what’s really on your mind! This just in: maternal mysteries! Ambivalent ambitions! Rising risk of ribald rendezvous? Soul-splitting spells support subterfugal sentiments; a sacrifice of scant salubrities-”

“Radio?” asked Sindella kindly.

“Apologies, madam,” said the radio, “Attention Lord Felix of Faust! Sindella Zatara will certainly kill you. And she will enjoy it!”

Faust looked between the women. “But-”

“Addendum! If you release Giovanni Zatara from captivity in the next twenty seconds, then Sindellia will still probably kill you, but she also might not. Stay tuned!”

“Hold now,” said Faust, “With but a thought I could kill your husband. Her father!”

Sindella crossed her arms. “He knew what he was getting into.”

“Mom?” Zatanna sounded betrayed. She grabbed Catwoman. “Do something.”

Cawoman shrugged Zatanna off. She stood beside Sindella with a grin from ear to ear.

Catwoman,” said Batman.

Sindella held out her hand. The floating sword fell into her grip. She placed its point at the base of Faust’s throat.

“Ten seconds,” said the radio.

Faust stared down his nose and began to panic. “Be prudent. Swear in parley to-”

“No deals,” said Sindella, “I wonder what afterlife awaits you. Be sure to write.”

“Please,” begged Zatanna.

“Two seconds,” said the radio.

Stop!” said Batman.

Sindella began to push the blade.

“Cease!” shrieked Faust, “I submit.” A moment later, the cardial chain fell loose from the locket.

Sindella held up the locket to admire it. “Lovely. Thank you, radio.”

“Madam.” The radio shut off.

“Where were we?” Sindella smiled and readjusted her grip on the sword.

“Hold on,” said Catwoman.

Sindella reluctantly stepped back. “Problem?”

“Is this the time to deal with him? We have what we want.”

“My dear,” Sindella laid a palm on Catwoman’s back. “Do we?”

“Don’t we?”

“Is everyone going to ignore me?” asked Zatanna.

Sindella pocketed the locket. “Love, Faust is a parasite. He’s brought nothing but misery to you and yours. And he’s ruined a thousand lives before.”

Catwoman nodded. “True.”

“Crushing this parasite would make the world a brighter place. But deep in your heart, that’s not really the problem, is it?”

Faust watched them with a grim expression but stayed silent.

Sindella said, “You certainly can’t release him. He’ll seek vengeance as soon as he’s able, and you won’t survive him twice.”

“I see,” said Catwoman.

“What then? Even if there were a prison to hold the likes of Lord Faust, that wouldn’t be fair to all the pain he’s caused you, now would it?”

Catwoman considered this a minute, tapping a finger to her lips. Then she took the sword out of Sindella’s hands.

“Yes,” cooed Sindella. “Good girl. We’ll have no doubt of his defeat when you separate his head.”

Catwoman wore a calm expression as she weighed the sword in her hand. She took a stance and lifted it back.

Batman struggled to his feet. “Catwoman.

Catwoman prepared to swing.

Batman grimaced. His voice lost its righteousness. “Selina.”

Catwoman froze.

Batman took a painful step towards her. “Selina, please.”

Catwoman lowered the sword and turned around.

“Ignore him,” urged Sindella.

Catwoman held a finger to Sindella and looked at Batman. “So you know my name.” Her voice threatened to crack. “Big surprise.”

Batman took another shaking step. “I know you’re angry. If you do that, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

Catwoman had a sad smile. “Yeah?” She lifted the sword. “I’ll take my chances.”

“I’ll never forgive you.”

She stopped smiling. They watched each other, waiting for anything more.

“Hold it! Hold the phone!” yelled Zatanna. She clutched her head and paced like she was going mad. “That voice! The fighting, the mediocre lockpicking, the speed-reading, the muscles on his muscles, the chin, and the voice. I know that voice.” She faced Batman. “John!”

Catwoman’s jaw dropped. “What?
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Well well... took her long enough.
Image
Librium Arcana, Where Gamers Play!
Nitram, slightly high on cough syrup: Do you know you're beautiful?
Me: Nope, that's why I have you around to tell me.
Nitram: You -are- beautiful. Anyone tries to tell you otherwise kill them.
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP" -- Leonard Nimoy, last Tweet
Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

LadyTevar wrote: 2022-01-07 04:39pm Well well... took her long enough.
In her defense, they hadn't met since she was 12, and she's been distracted all night.
Stewart M
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Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 19: Estranged Affections​


Catwoman and Zatanna looked between Batman and each other. They were not at a loss for words so much as a traffic jam competing to be spoken first. Eventually, words gushed out.

“You know him?” shouted Catwoman at Zatanna.

“Were you planning on telling me?” shouted Zatanna at Batman.

“Uhhg,” moaned Batman.

“Is it true?” shouted Catwoman at Batman.

“What is going on?” shouted Sindella at everyone.

“Wait, did you forget about us?” asked Zatanna.

“Us?” asked Catwoman.

“Am I that forgettable?” Zatanna asked herself.

“I can’t-” Batman tried to answer but started coughing.

“Pardon me-” said Faust.

Catwoman swung her sword into Faust’s ribs so she could yell with her hand. “John? Really?”

“Ow,” groaned Faust.

“I,” Batman muttered and stumbled to a knee. He grabbed Catwoman’s wrist and looked her in the eyes with the last of his strength. Sindella, she is-

“Get off me.” Catwoman brushed him away.

“Cease!” shouted Sindella. A sound of thunder deafened the room. Batman fell to his side. Sindella folded her arms. “I insist on knowing why you children are bickering!”

“Yes, Zatanna,” said Catwoman, barely maintaining a conversational tone, “What exactly did you mean?”

Zatanna was so worked up she broke into nervous laughter and shook her finger. “Oh! I’ll tell you. This man,” She pointed at Batman then stopped, finally noticing how sick he was. “Needs help.”

Catwoman looked Batman over. He had collapsed on the floor, and his breathing was hoarse. Whatever her other feelings, she couldn’t deny he was the last person to fake being ill. He was more likely to run a marathon with broken ankles. Or the plague.

Sindella sighed. “Very well. What’s wrong with him?”

Batman made an attempt to speak but only coughed again.

“Not sure,” said Zatanna, “But this burn is turning some funny colors.”

“His face is turning some funny colors,” said Catwoman.

“Forget it,” said Sindella, “I’ll perform a full reset.”

Batman tried earnestly to speak but only earned another coughing fit.

“Sorry, what is a reset?” asked Zatanna.

“Stand aside.” Sindella laid a hand on Batman’s chest and circled the other hand in the air. Tiny fireworks flew from her fingers, forming geometric patterns as they burst. She recited, “ODNU LLA MRAH MORF NAMTAB!

A low-pitched hum sounded. Batman wheezed once and convulsed. He began to blend and fade like an overexposed photograph.

Zatanna gagged and looked away.

“Are you sure that’s helping?” asked Catwoman with alarm.

“More than I expected.” Sindella tried to sound nonchalant but was clearly under pressure. “Mm. Better leave the head alone. Resetting the brain can be trouble.” Batman’s face resolved into focus, but now his expression was slack. He could have been asleep or dead. Sindella wiped her forehead then returned to circling. “Where did you dig up this mule? I’ve met old coal miners with better knees.”

“Is he going to be okay?” asked Zatanna.

“He’ll be marvelous. I’ll need a drink.”

“So, why’d you call him John?” asked Catwoman.

Zatanna blushed. “Is now really the best time?”

“Seems like the perfect time,” said Sindella. “I’m curious what company you’ve been keeping.”

“It’s not much of a story,” said Zatanna as she looked at Batman. “We were kids. My dad took him on as a student for a summer.”

“Giovanni was teaching students his magic show?” said Sindella brightly. “He never seemed the type.”

“No, it was just John. The summer we moved to Gotham-”

Sindella couldn’t believe her ears. “You live in Gotham?”

“I used to.”

“We’re from Gotham,” added Catwoman.

Sindella shook her head. “That explains so much.”

Zatanna hesitated. “Well, one day dad introduces John and says he would study with us.”

“And?” asked Catwoman.

“That’s it. He stayed that summer then we never heard from him again. Actually, I only learned this morning how he convinced dad for the lessons in the first place.”

“How?”

“The Cehennems tried to adopt me. I met the lawyer who helped dad keep custody. He said John paid his bill.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah, his parents were divorced, so he knew a real sharp lawyer.”

“Okay, but how do you know that he,” Catwoman gestured to Batman. “Is that John?”

“Like I said, the voice finally gave it away. I think his lockpicking was the first big clue. I helped teach him; he was always a little slow. And even back then he was getting in fights, all bruised-up, and he almost never smiled, and he was awfully smart too. He helped me with my math homework.”

“Batman did your homework.”

“Not all of it.”

“And how young were you?”

“Twelve.”

“I don’t know, Zatanna. That’s a long time to remember a voice.”

“I remembered. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to.”

“Just a minute,” said Sindella, “Are you saying he had a man’s voice as a child?”

“Well, no. But it’s not the pitch that’s stuck in my mind, it's his - what’s the word? His cadence. He was so careful about everything.”

Catwoman sighed. “Dammit.”

“What?”

“I was wondering why he started talking funny tonight. It was right before he had to talk to you.”

“What a strange man,” said Sindella. “But no use speculating. He’ll solve the mystery when he’s awake.”

The hum stopped. Sindella moved her hands away. She stood up and stretched her back. “Whoever’s responsible for the poor man, kindly dissuade him from jumping in front of any more trains or however he occupies himself.” She held out a cupped palm. “YRD INITRAM THGIARTS ON SEVILO!” There was a pop, and a cocktail appeared in her hand. She downed the drink and tossed the glass into the sea. “Now! Where were we?”

The distortions over Batman’s body had ended. The fabric across his lower abdomen was still torn, but where before they saw a hideous burn, now there was unblemished skin and smooth muscle.

Catwoman shook his shoulder. “Hey.”

“He can’t hear you,” said Sindella. “The spell is not gentle. He will need some time.”

“How long?”

“He’ll wake in twenty, thirty minutes. No more than an hour.”

“Thirty minutes?”

“Perhaps it’s just as well, dear. If he’s been deceiving you, both of you, then you could use some time without his lies. Who knows what he was planning once you let your guard down.”

“Hold on,” said Catwoman, “Batman has a lot to answer for, but he’s not a threat.”

Faust laughed. “Not a threat?” Black bile trickled out of his mouth.

“Shut up.”

Sindella looked at Catwoman with motherly pity. “And what of those bloody handprints on your clothes? You told me Batman lost his temper with you. I’ve known so-called gentlemen who hide a temper. I didn’t want to say anything, but …”

“That’s not how it happened,” said Zatanna. “He was protecting Zachary.”.

“Yes, my murderous nephew. Valiant Batman threatens his beautiful partner when she stops the monster from striking again. How noble.”

Zatanna crossed her arms and shook her head. “It wasn’t like that.”

“It was kind of like that,” said Catwoman.

Sindella clucked her tongue. “Dear, even if Batman doesn’t intend you harm, that’s not to say he keeps your best interests at heart. Or do you enjoy it when he makes your decisions for you?”

“Good point,” said Catwoman.

Zatanna stuck her hands between them. “Mom, Selina-”

Catwoman made a sour face. “Stick with Catwoman.”

“Oh.” said Zatanna. “But when he said-”

“He did.”

“I just thought we were having a nice moment.”

“We were. But we’re not quite there yet.”

Zatanna rolled her eyes. “Look, I know we have a lot to talk about, but aren’t we forgetting something? Can we free dad now?”

“Of course!” said Sindella. “Bless me, you must be worried sick.”

Catwoman looked carefully at Sindella. “And you’re ready to see your husband?”

Sindella seemed puzzled. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Zatanna looked between them. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said Catwoman after a moment. “No reason.”

“Let’s go then!” said Zatanna.

“I think it will be safe,” said Sindella. “Of course, the decision is yours, Catwoman.”

“Why is it hers?” asked Zatanna.

Sindella ignored Zatanna and looked at Catwoman. “If you want to wait until your boy wakes up to discuss Lord Faust’s fate, that is no trouble. I don’t think Faust can threaten anyone now. We have beaten him soundly. Don’t you agree?”

“Seems like it,” said Catwoman.

“So yes?”

“Sure,” said Catwoman indifferently. “Can’t wait to hear Giovanni’s side of this whole story.”

“I’m so glad you think so,” said Sindella who suddenly changed. Her smile stretched into a smirk, and her gentle eyes turned as sharp and cold as a hawk.

“Idiots,” muttered Faust.

“Mom?” said Zatanna, stepping back.

“Quiet, girl,” spat Sindella, who then turned with surprising sweetness and clutched Zatanna’s cheeks, “‘I’m sorry, Zee-zee. We have so much catching up to do. Just give Mommy a minute.”

Catwoman knew something had just changed, but she was too tired to understand why. In the meantime, to be safe, she used her heel to pry the now-silent dagger from the floor and secretly kicked it up to her hand. She hid the dagger in her arm sling as she asked, “Mrs. Zatara, are you feeling okay?”

“Never better, dear. But I just had this pesky little thought. We really aren’t ready to bring Giovanni back yet, are we?”

“He’s just in your pocket, though,” said Zatanna.

“Zatanna, these execrable vermin devastated my beautiful house. Our beautiful house. We ought to do a little sprucing up for our big reunion.”

“But-”

“Tut, tut!” Sindella lifted her palm and gave a whistle. With a steady roar, the enormous walls and ceiling of the study lifted out of the Emergent Sea. These floating structures slowly rotated, letting streams of seawater run off before they settled in their original place. The breeze went slack, and its chill was replaced by the cozy warmth of the fireplace. Lamps grew out of the ceiling and lit themselves. Except for a few puddles, it was as if the study had been a regular room all along.

Sindella smiled. “Delightful. Never liked that dreadful chess set. Now where was I? Ah, yes. NAELC EM MORF THGIF! DDA A ELTTIL ELZZAD!” The wrinkles in her dress disappeared like they had been lovingly ironed. Every loose strand of hair tucked back into her coiffure, which expanded into a more opulent design, and her smile flashed with a coat of dark red lipstick.

“Now,” she looked at Zatanna, “OD ANNATAZ!

“What?” Zatanna who felt a strange rush of fabric across her skin. Her arms and collarbone felt bare and her shoes fit differently. She looked down and found she was wearing a black dress. It was much like her mother’s though less daring and more frilly, like a dress for a child. She felt a tug on her scalp, so she reached up and found her hair had been cleaned, curled, and tied with a bow.

“Hey!” yelled Zatanna. “What gives?”

“Hush, darling. I just want you to look presentable.”

“Presentable?” Zatanna tore the bow out and tossed it on the ground. Another bow appeared in hair. “Where’d my outfit go?”

“Don’t be fussy, Zatanna.”

“That tuxedo was expensive.”

“Yes, but it looked cheap. I don’t know what passes for fashion today, but you looked like a magician.”

“I am a magician!”

“Aw! Just like your daddy.”

“Can I at least have my old shoes?”

“They wouldn’t match. Now! Let’s whet our appetites with an appetizer.” Sindella waved her hands at Lord Faust. “STNA SSELDNE!” Pockmarks appeared in the floor around him, Little cones of dirt emerged. Faust watched them appear with dejected acceptance. Soon ants emerged by the hundreds. They were small and fast and white, and when they climbed onto Faust, scurrying under the straps and chains that bound him, each searched for an empty spot to dig and bite. Lord Faust had wooden legs, and the rest of him had been regrown more times than he could count, but whatever abomination he had for a nervous system did not enjoy hundreds of ant bites. He grit his teeth and muttered bitterly, flinching whenever he felt a bite in a sensitive spot.

Sindella rubbed her hands and cackled. “Yes! Take that, you fossil. What do you think girls?”

Zatanna watched the ants swarm in open-mouthed horror.

“Love it,” said Catwoman.

“Bah!” said Faust between flinches. “Reveling in trite slings and arrows. Juvenilia! Abstemious conduct in victory is the only true victory.”

“Bitter words from a loser,” said Sindella. “As if you wouldn’t crow when you win.”

“Priorities mature, infant. Can you fathom what those of venerable age seek?

“Softer apple sauce?” said Catwoman.

Faust flinched again and growled, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

“Oxygen is wasted on the old.”

“Bah.”

“Go on, Zatanna,” said Catwoman. “Give him your best shot.”

“Oh. Uh.” Zatanna looked around. “You’re a frayed shoelace with no shoe. You’re mustard water.”

“No,” said Faust, “You’re mustard water.”

“How dare you.” said Sindella, raising her hand.

“Hey, it’s okay,” said Zatanna hurriedly, not eager to see what the torment came after ant swarms.

Faust sneered. “Do you know why I had those imbeciles bring you along, little fawn? Your father would have opened the door just as well.”

“No,” said Zatanna.

“It would have let me clear out all claimants in one fell swoop. All you mewling Cehennems and Zataras, ground to paste under the latest monument of my glory.”

Sindella yanked the sword out of his ribs. “Well, you missed one.” Faust wheezed as thirty ants quickly covered the wound.

Sindella dropped the sword, turned, and walked toward the fireplace. She idly flicked piles of debris out of her path. “Come along.”

Catwoman and Zatanna gave each other a look.

“What’s happening?” whispered Zatanna. “I’m scared.”

Cawoman whispered back, “The dress was uncalled for, but let’s see what she has in mind.”

Sindella stopped at Abdiel frozen in ice. She looked him over. “Utter fool. TSORFED!” she declared, and the ice began to melt.

“He’s alive?” asked Catwoman.

Sindella studied the dark rip in the center of Abdiel’s large gut. “For now.”

“Will you heal him?” asked Zatanna.

“I won’t let him slip away so gently.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Oh, he’ll have time to learn the error of betraying my daughter.”

Zatanna sensed that Sindella was more talking to herself now and stopped asking questions. As Sindella’s magic continued, steam soon wafted off the ice block as Abdiel’s head and shoulders were uncovered. His body was limp, his skin gray and blue. When the ice around his torso dripped and puddled off she cast a spell which covered his wound with a white plaster. She did nothing to prevent him from gradually falling over as the ice melted below his center of gravity.

“Will he wake up?” asked Catwoman.

“When it serves us. Better we find the brother first and treat them at once. Where is the scoundrel?”

They searched the room, trying to find some clue to where Zachary had ended up during his wild battles. But after two magic battles tossed the room, the task was hopeless. It was probable that he had fallen into the sea. Sindella was about to interrogate Faust when Catwoman had the idea to check Sarkoth’s nurse. She had only noticed it by accident, as it was covered with scrap. Miraculously, the plant was still intact. A few burns marred its giant white leaves, and it was shut like a venus fly trap with a juicy catch. Catwoman pulled open a leaf and saw Zachary once more floating in its thick sap.

“Found him,” she called.

Sindella walked over. “My Sarkoth’s nurse. Shadowcrest brought it here?”

“Long story.”

“Yes, well,” Sindella waved her hands, and Zachary floated out of the plant. Sap dripped as he bobbed through the air. He floated along until she guided him to the floor beside Abidel. They saw blistering burns across his legs, but only Zatanna winced.

Sindella clapped, “EKAWA!

Abdiel and Zachary stirred. They did not seem as uncomfortable as might be expected from two men who, by plain evidence ought to be maimed or dead. But they grimaced and looked around like they wanted to complain to someone.

Then they laid eyes on Sindella. She crossed her arms and looked back with a judgemental stare. Then they noticed Zatanna. They looked back to Sindella, then back to Zatanna, and back and forth, faster and faster. Then they noticed Catwoman and cringed. But soon they returned to looking between Sindella and Zatanna.

Abdiel tried to speak, but his teeth chattered and his gray lips quivered, still too frozen for anything useful.

It was Zachary who finally squeaked, “Auntie Sindella?”

“Very good, Zachary.” She softly clapped. “I understand you’ve been quite cruel to your dear cousin Zatanna.”

Zachary tried to sit up. “We were-”

“Silence!” Sindella screamed. She pointed a rigid finger at Zachary and his teeth fused together. As he panicked and pressed around his mouth, she continued, “I don’t care for your excuses. You hurt Zatanna, and you brought a vile stranger to destroy our ancestral home. Despicable.”

“They also wanted to kill your husband,” said Catwoman. Zachary and Abdiel glared at Catwoman. She smiled back.

“Yes, I suppose that too,” said Sindella. “You’ve proven yourselves unworthy kin. You are snakes! Swine!” She rubbed her chin. “Yes, snakes and swine. That will do nicely.” She raised her hands, fingers dancing like they were guiding puppet-strings. Zatanna tried to grab her but Catwoman held her back.

In a dark voice, Sindella chanted, “NRUT LEIDBA OTNI EKANS! NRUT YRAHCAZ OTNI GIP!

There was a swirl of fog around them, then echoes of faint brays and squeals like a barn on fire, then a tremor like an earthquake. The fog grew as thick as soup over Zachary and Abdiel. When it dispersed, Abidel was a snake and Zachary was a pig.

Abdiel the snake looked at his fat pig-brother then at his slender self. He pointed his tail at Zachary and laughed. “Ha!”

Zachary the pig rolled his eyes.

Sindella snapped her fingers, and a man-sized bell jar appeared over both of them. “There. I’ll deal with you later. If you’re hungry, feel free to eat each other in the meantime.”

“What did you do?” cried Zatanna, planting her hands on the jar when Catwoman finally let her go.

“Now Zee-zee, it’s obvious. Don’t be silly.”

Zatanna looked to Catwoman for help, but Catwoman only shrugged, not bothered in the least.

Sindella was breathing a little harder now. She laid a hand on her forehead and summoned another two cocktails. After gulping down the drinks, she threw the glasses into a pile of debris.

Zatanna frowned. “Hold on, if you could wake up Zachary and Abdiel, can’t you wake up Batman too?”

Sindella scowled, but put on a smile to face Zatanna. “He’s recovering. The poor man needs his sleep.”

“Fine,” said Zatanna. “Can we see dad now?”

“Certainly,” said Sindella with an airy confidence. Zatanna smiled, and Sindella added, “It’s about time you learned our story.”

“You mean-”

“Zatanna, I’m afraid you’ve not been told a great many things.”

“Yes! No one tells me anything!”

“Before we let your father free, it may save him some grief to prepare you for the tale.” She held Zatanna’s hands. “What have you learned already?”

Zatanna paused, trying to make sense of the monsoon of revelations that had washed over her in the past day. “Your family are magi.”

“That’s true.”

“Something happened when I was young, and you disappeared. Dad said you had died. But I guess you were here. Catwoman said you were sleeping.”

“For much of it, yes.”

“Then dad, well, I guess he got into a fight with your family. And it sounds like he won.” She looked at Abdiel and Zachary. “Almost. He got rid of most of them.”

Sindella nodded sadly. “I’m afraid I know little of that chapter myself.”

“Right. I guess you wouldn’t. But that’s all I know.”

“I see. I’m truly sorry you’ve been put through all this Zatanna. You deserve so much better. We’ll set it right.”

“So now we see dad?”

Sindella grinned. “Let’s bring out your father.”

They moved to the center of the study. Sindella pulled the locket out of her pocket and whispered to it. In a moment, the locket began to expand. She placed it on the ground and stepped back. It doubled by the second until it was the size of a large wardrobe. Sindella tapped the side, and the door sprung open.

Inside was Giovanni Zatara, an older man in a fine old suit with a white bowtie. His neatly-combed hair was streaked with silver, and his small mustache was impeccable. His eyes flickered open. With heavy steps he pulled himself out of the locket.

“Daddy!” Zatanna shrieked and jumped into her father’s arms, and this time he was real.

“Zatanna?” he asked, his voice weak. “What happened?”

“I should ask you the same,” said Sindella.

Giovanni turned to look, but Sindella had already pushed Zatanna aside and grabbed him by the collar. Before he could speak, She forced her lips into his for a kiss that lasted quite a while, then for an indecent while longer than that. And it was loud. Zatanna was repulsed. Catwoman was amused. Abdiel the snake stuck out his tongue. Zachary the pig tried to cover his eyes with his hoof.

Finally, Sindella pulled away for air and slapped him. “You dastardly silver fox.” He tried to answer, but she slapped him again. Then she turned, entwining her arm through his. Giovanni rubbed his jaw. “Grazie a Dio,” he muttered with relief, though it wasn’t clear whether this was over his escape from the locket, the kiss, or the slapping.

Sindella clutched Zatanna’s arm with her other hand. “Look, where we are, Giovanni. Our little Zatanna has finally made it home. Doesn’t she look nice?”

Giovanni finally got his first clear look around the room. He recognized they were standing in Shadowcrest’s study, though everything had been crushed to splinters.

He recognized Zatanna, though her dress and hair were of a style he had never seen her wear. They rarely saw each other, so perhaps this was new, but Zatanna had never played much with fashion off-stage. If anything, the style matched Sindella’s tastes.

He also saw a strange woman in a violet bodysuit and an arm sling standing nearby. She returned his look without a word. Further away, he saw a pig and a snake under a large bell jar. They were watching him too keenly for his liking. The snake had its fangs bared, and the pig was kicking the glass.

In the other direction, he saw a haggard old man bound like a prisonner and tortured by ants. Another man lay motionless on the floor. Giovanni’s mind raced to make sense of it all. He was terrified: the soft arm wrapped around his couldn’t have been more threatening if it had been a tiger’s mouth.

Before he could form another thought, Sindella let go of Zatanna and grabbed his chin. “I said, doesn’t Zatanna look nice?” Sindella pulled at his chin, forcing him to make a little nod.

Giovanni managed to smile. “Yes. Molto bella, Zatanna. Bellissima.”

“Dad, are you okay?”

Sindella smiled indulgently. “He’s never been better. Let’s all take a seat and catch up.” She ushered Giovanni and Zatanna to a couch-sized pile of wood and sat them down. Then Sindella gave Catwoman a little wave. “I think we’re all fine now, Catwoman. Let me whip up a door for you and your friend to take you home.”

“Mom,” objected Zatanna, “Batman isn’t even awake yet. We should wait until we know he’s better.”

“Hold on. Batman?” said Giovanni. “The Batman?”

“And Catwoman,” said Catwoman.

Giovanni stood up. “Batman’s here?”

“He rescued us,” said Zatanna.

“It was Catwoman’s idea,” said Catwoman.

Zatanna stood. “And, dad, I think he’s John.”

“What?”

“Calm down, calm down,” said Sindella. “I can give your friend a little pep, then he’ll be on his way. I’m sure he’s very busy.”

“But you said Batman needs to sleep.”

“I’ll find him a wheelchair. Catwoman can push him while he rests.”

“Ahem,” said Catwoman, gesturing to her arm in a sling.

“I’ll heal your arm, then you can go.”

“No thanks,” said Catwoman quickly. “I’ve seen enough magic tonight. It’ll get better the old-fashioned way. And it wouldn’t be smart for me to be pushing Batman in a wheelchair through the middle of the city.”

“Mom, what’s the hurry?” asked Zatanna. “I want Batman to wake up here so I can ask him who he is.”

Sindella sighed. “Then I suppose they can stay a little longer.”

“Excuse me,” said Giovanni. “I know we have much to discuss, but how did I get here?”

Before Sindella could wrest control of the conversation, Zatanna sat them back down and gave an exhaustive report of how she found him missing from his dressing room at the casino, how she found Franklin Wash’s business card in his old chest, how Franklin explained that she had family who tried to adopt her, how Abdiel and Zachary tricked her into coming to his apartment in Gotham, how Lord Felix of Faust was with them, how Batman and Catwoman showed up to save her, how Shadowcrest protected them, how Faust betrayed Abdiel and Zachary to steal the house, how Catwoman found Sindella, Shadowcrest died, and finally they all fought Faust and won.

Sindella tried at several points to interrupt Zatanna, but her sheer enthusiasm couldn’t be stopped until, at long last, she ran out of news to share and took a deep breath. “So what do you think?”

Giovanni was not an easy man to shock, but held his chest and tried to slow his pounding heart. “I can’t believe it. I’m so glad you’re safe, Zatanna.”

“Do you remember anything?”

Giovanni reflected. “I was in my dressing room practicing lines. There was a noise, yes, then nothing. Then I was here.”

Sindella squeezed his arm. “I shouldn’t be surprised knowing my family, but I can hardly believe those nasty boys would hire Lord Faust like some lowly brute.”

“What did the Cehennems do?” asked Zatanna. “Why were you hidden all these years? Why all the fighting?”

Giovanni swallowed, glancing at Sindella, but she patted his arm as she clutched it. “Of course,” she purred. “Let me do the honors. When your father and I got married, it made my family very upset. They didn’t like that he was a mundane. Mage families can be strict. After you were born, they decided to punish us.”

Sindella casually moved her hand to Giovanni’s lower back. Zatannta couldn’t see her pressing her fingernails into his back, or that her nails glowed red with heat. He didn’t say a word, and her voice didn’t waver.

“See, there is a spell that can suck the mystic power out of a mage. It puts the subject in a deep sleep. My family cast this spell on me, each of them growing a little stronger at my expense. They intended to kill your father, naturally, but they made the mistake of confronting us in this house. I was asleep, but Shadowcrest drove them off. Once we were safe, your father hid me in a deep room of the house, and-”

“Hold on,” said Catwoman, “You weren’t just in a room: you were in a prison. You said it yourself. That door was locked from the outside.”

Sindella gave a scornful look at Catwoman and sounded nonchalant. “I was getting to that. See, this spell wasn’t gentle. Depending on what my family was doing, the mystic connection could induce a sort of sleep-walking. I might thrash about, cast spontaneous magic. Very dangerous. For his and my safety, he kept me locked away.”

Giovanni flinched and stiffly nodded.

Sindella turned back to Zatanna. “Your father knew that my family would never end the spell voluntarily. They wanted to take you away, Zatanna. So, he fought them all. It is a bitter thing, but with each relative slain, I recovered a little more. Enough that we talked from time to time, when I could muster a little strength, and we agreed it was simplest if I kept out of your life until the feud was over.”

“Wait,” said Catwoman. She jerked a thumb at Abdiel and Zachary. “Those idiots are still around. If the feud is still on, how do you have magic?”

“Hey, quit interrupting,” said Zatanna.

“It’s fine, Zatanna,” said Sindella. “The family’s eldest, those who cast the spell, are gone. The only survivors were children then, or are distant relations who weren’t part of the retribution. They are still blood, but their draw upon me is very feeble, so I am nearly at full strength.” Sindella took a deep breath and looked away, seemingly overtaken by a feeling. “I don’t relish any more violence. If only they could forgive Giovanni, if only they voluntarily gave up on this parasitic curse, then we could be a family again.”

Zatanna didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t sure she trusted Sindella, but her dad was sitting right there and nodding along. Could she trust her dad? It was all too much to take in.

Catwoman suspected that there was something fishy in the story, but she trusted Sindella. Also, Catwoman could count her hours of sleep in the past two days on one hand, so the attention she was willing to give these mage dramas was microscopic.

Sindella stood and gave a prim clap. “Now. To less grim things. We should move Lord Faust, Zachary, and Abdiel immediately to more secure accommodations until we decide what to do with them. Then we can prepare a door home for our guests. As soon as they have their little chat, they can be on their-.”

Before she finished, Batman let out a loud groan. It lasted seconds, echoing around the study. Zatanna gasped and ran to his side. Catwoman followed. And Giovanni, after a scathing glare from his wife, waited at a respectable distance.

“I thought he was supposed to sleep for half an hour,” said Catwoman.

“He was.” said Sindella, sounding mightily annoyed.

Batman was trying to move, but was still flat on the floor. He seemed only in control of his head. Catwoman and Zatanna knelt beside him.

Zatanna touched his glove. “Batman?”

Batman frowned. “What happened to me?

“Again with the voice,” said Catwoman,

“You were sick,” said Zatanna. “Sindella healed you.”

“You were about to explain why Zatanna thinks she knows you.”

“Catwoman, let him rest,” said Zatanna, “How do you feel?”

Batman tried to shift his arms. “I felt better as a tree.

“Wow, jokes,” said Catwoman. “She broke him.”

“He will need time,” said Sindella. “The mind spends years teaching the language of movement to the body. His new sinew must learn it from scratch.”

“So he’s a baby?” asked Catwoman.

Sindella nodded. “Briefly. Also, I cannot replace lost blood, and he seems to have bled all over the place.”

“Let’s help him sit,” said Zatanna.

They dragged Batman a short distance to a broken desk and lifted his upper body against it.

“So,” said Zatanna. “Is that you, John?”

Batman looked at her, then looked at Catwoman. Listen.

Catwoman raised an eyebrow. Okay.

Sindella is evil. She can’t be trusted.

How do you know?

I read Giovanni’s journals.

He does seem uncomfortable.

Zatanna isn’t safe here. Get her out. Please.

How?

I don’t know.

“Why is his face twitching?” asked Zatanna.

“That shouldn’t be happening,” said Sindella.

Catwoman stood up. She was always skeptical of Batman’s moral judgments. But he wouldn’t beg her to protect someone without a good reason. He wouldn't beg at all without a good reason. And as much as Catwoman loved Sindella’s attitude of turning people she hated into animals, the woman had a few screws loose. She was a mage, after all. And if Batman said she was evil? Catwoman had to admit it fit a lot of the evidence.

What to do about it? Catwoman was not in a state of mind to scheme and charm her way to the truth. She still had that parley deal, so it couldn’t get too dangerous. A direct approach then.

Batman had gone silent. Zatanna was panicking and trying to rouse him. Catwoman knew Batman was fine, relatively-speaking. The eye lens did a great trick of making him seem dead to the world, but he was just being stubborn.

While Zatanna and Sindella debated over Batman, Catwoman walked back to Giovanni and threw an arm around him. “Hey, there.”

Giovanni struggled to step away. “I’m sorry, miss, what was your name again?”

“Catwoman.”

“Er, right. If you don’t mind-”

“Gosh,” said Catwoman, pulling him closer. “This magic stuff is fascinating, huh? I have so many questions.”

Sindella noticed her and spun around with an expression like a frigid mask. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Catwoman kept facing Giovanni. “How often did you lovebirds chat in her cell anyway? Once a week? Once a month?”

“Uh,” Giovanni hesitated, watching his wife with dread.

Sindella shot to her feet, abandoning whatever was wrong with Batman, and flew over to Catwoman. “Are you trying to insult me, girl?”

Catwoman finally looked at Sindella. “Don’t worry.” She winked. “I’ll bring him back in one piece.”

Sindella snarled and thrust out her hand. A dark blue light flashed and Cawoman was launched backward like she had been hit by a car.

“Mom!” screamed Zatanna.

“Your guests have rotten manners, Zee-zee. They’re leaving.”

Catwoman slowly got to her feet, stretching her limbs and neck. “Sindella, stop right now. That’s an order.”

“An order?” Sindella cackled in disbelief. “An order?”

“By parley! Or whatever it’s called. We made a deal.”

“I completed that deal, you dolt.”

“When?”

“When you agreed that Lord Faust had been defeated.”

“Oh. Right.”

Sindella pointed at a wall. “ROOD OT MAHTOG REWES!” A sturdy door appeared. “Take Batman and get out of my house.”

“But I have so many questions,” said Catwoman innocently, circling to keep her distance. “Your story has a few holes, and I don’t want to leave until-”

Sindella cast an orange beam at Catwoman’s feet, kicking up sparks. “You dare!”

“Mom, stop!” Zatanna tried to run in front of Sindella, but Giovanni held her back.

Sindella was too angry to articulate what Catwoman dared. She could only repeat himself. “You dare! You dare! Petulant mundane! Get out!” She cast another beam, grazing Catwoman’s thigh.

Catwoman hid behind some wrecked shelves, slipping in and out of sight as she moved. Sindella’s fury grew incandescent, and her attacks grew more violent. Finally, Catwoman appeared just behind where Faust was being chewed on by ants.

“Hold on.” Catwoman stopped and raised her non-slung arm. “Let’s make another deal.”

Sindella floated to her, nearly shaking. “The audacity. What deal could you possibly offer, you Gotham trash?”

“This.” In the blink of an eye, Catwoman pulled the magic dagger out of her arm sling and held it to Faust’s throat. A few ants crawled onto her glove, but her hand was steady. “Remember this?”

Sindella seemed cautious of the blade. She landed and didn’t come any closer. “What of it?”

“The Sharib Aldam?” said Giovanni, “But I ordered it destroyed.”

“Shut up,” said Sindella and Catwoman.

“Catwoman, what are you doing?” asked Zatanna.

“Mommy knows what I’m doing,” said Catwoman. “The house said this dagger could take down Faust at his best. I’m pretty sure it can handle you. All it needs is one dead mage.”

Faust looked supremely annoyed at the situation but said nothing.

Sindella slowly shook her head as flames rose from her forearms. Her voice turned icy and gentle. “You dare threaten me? I will rend your skin from your still-living flesh.”

“Whew.” Catwoman let out a whistle of relief. “Thanks. Honestly, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure you were evil, but that clinches it. This would be embarrassing if you weren’t.”

Sindella began to raise her hand, but Zatanna finally jumped in front of her. “Stop!”

Sindella slapped Zatanna. The blow didn’t carry much force, but it easily knocked Zatanna to the floor and burned a handprint on her cheek. Before anyone could react, Sindella flicked the same hand, and the hundreds of ants swarming Faust jumped onto Catwoman.

If Catwoman had any resolve to perform a killing cut, it was lost when eight ants tried to fly into her eyes. She screamed and stumbled away, slicing a corner of Faust’s chin as she dropped the dagger. Taking her arm out of its sling, she wiped at her face with both hands, keeping the worst of the swarm off her skin. But hundreds still crawled over her clothes, trying to bite through the fabric.

Sindella followed Catwoman as she ran around the study, bumping into debris and tossing away fistfuls of ants. Sindella waited until she had a clear light of sight and fired another orange beam, hitting Catwoman square in the side. Catwoman let out a hollow sound and tripped behind the pedestal of a broken statue. Curled on the floor, Catwoman expected the worst. But she didn’t feel any new pain. And when she touched her side, she felt no fresh blood or new hole in her suit. Confused, Catwoman looked down and saw a smoking rip on her satchel instead. She opened the flap and found her bar of gold had a new pockmark.

Sindella waited for some response. Finally, she hovered around the statue and was whipped in the face. Sindella held the new cut under her eye as Catwoman ran away.

Before Sindella could pursue, she heard Zatanna yell across the room. “Stop it now!”

This time it sounded less like a plea and more like a command. Impressed, Sindella turned to look.

Zatanna stood behind Lord Faust and held the magic dagger. But instead of holding it to his throat, she held it under the final strap binding his arms. The many other straps and chains were scattered at their feet.

Sindella flew over and landed near her. “Zatanna, what-”

“Stay back!” Zatanna’s voice was firm, despite the bright handprint on her face and the tears rimming her eyes. “Don’t get closer. I know you’re out of ants.”

Sindella looked at the fallen bindings in astonishment. “How did you do that?”

“I’m a really good magician! How many times do I have to tell people?”

“Okay, okay. Calm down.”

“Calm down? That’s rich.”

Giovanni watched from another direction with his arms crossed. He looked worried but resolute.

Sindella turned to him for support. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

Giovanni’s answer was uncannily cool. “It seems our daughter is in control. I suggest doing what she says.”

“Listen,” said Zatanna, “Maybe you are my mom, but you can’t hurt my friends.”

“Zatanna, I was-”

“And for the record, I don’t like how you’ve treated me or dad. I don’t know why you act like this, and right now I don’t care. We’re going to make a new deal.”

“Zee-zee, you’re speaking nonsense.”

“Stop calling me that! If I cut this strap, Faust goes free. He and you had a pretty close fight earlier. Do you want to take bets on who wins round two?”

“You're mad.”

“And I bet he'll get free on his own if we waste time talking. But you don’t have to fight again. Just make a deal.”

“What deal?”

Zatanna glanced at Giovanni who smiled ever so gently. She swallowed and said, “Make a parley. I won’t cut him free. But you have to take Faust and leave. Never bother me again. Never bother dad or Batman or Catwoman or try to come to Shadowcrest. Just go.” There was a hitch in her voice and she looked down. “If I want to talk, I’ll come to you.”

Sindella pleaded, “But Zatanna.”

Zatanna looked back up. “That’s about it. I honestly don’t care what you do with Faust. Just make sure he doesn’t bother us either. Can you do that?”

Sindella clenched her jaw. Any softness or sentiment vanished from her face. She looked in her daughter’s eyes with shrewd appraisal and simply said, “I don’t think you have it in you.”

“You think I’m bluffing? Get the radio.”

Sindella didn’t move.

Zatanna lifted her eyebrows and began to pull on the dagger, slowly splitting the strap. The rasp of leather was deafening. Zatanna paused, tilted her head innocently, then pulled further.

Sindella shut her eyes. “Fine.”

“Say it.”

“I will take Faust and leave. I won’t visit you or Batman or Catwoman or your father again.”

“I didn’t say ‘visit’, I said ‘bother’. I don’t want any tricks coming after us, whether we can see you or not. No getting your evil friends to hurt us. Don’t do anything that might make our lives worse. And also don’t visit.”

“That’s terribly broad.”

“You’re a terrible broad,” said Catwoman, lounging nearby.

“I mean it,” said Zatanna. “Swear.”

“Very well,” said Sindella. Something in her expression seemed to crack, but her voice was unmoved. “I won’t bother you or Batman or Catwoman or your father again without your permission. I’ll take Lord Felix of Faust away and ensure he also doesn’t bother you. I swear this in parley.”

Zatanna nodded. “So mote it be.”

Despite herself, Sindella’s lips bent up in a tiny smile. “So mote it be.”

Cautiously, Zatanna lowered the dagger and stepped away from Faust.

Sindella gestured at the fallen bindings. “May I refasten him before he kills us all?”

“Please.”

Sindella quickly repaired the bindings holding Lord Faust. Meanwhile, Zatanna bent over and dry heaved, clutching her knees.

Giovanni hurried to Zatanna and patted her back. “Breathe. Gentle now. That’s right.”

Zatanna took a deep breath. “Oh, that was scary. I can’t believe that worked.”

Sindella watched Zatanna with thin-lipped disbelief. She looked at Giovanni. “That wasn’t your plan was it? It couldn’t have been.”

Giovanni shook his head. “All hers.”

Sindella considered this then made her first candid remark of the night. “You’ve raised quite a woman, Giovanni.”

No fitting response came to mind, so Giovanni simply nodded.
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 20: Storytelling​


Sindella Zatara lost tonight. She was kicked out of her house; she was spurned by the only family she cared for; she almost lost her life. It was easy to cry over losing, but once she accepted the night was over, Sindella took the long view and realized what she had won: her freedom.

The rest of her family was gone. No more threats to toss her on a pyre to appease old superstitions. No more hiding in a tower like a fairy tale. A fresh start. She had nothing but time and power. The world was her oyster.

As for her misfortunes tonight? Shadowcrest would be standing tomorrow. And grudges didn’t last forever.

Sindella’s fantasized about her future as she idly enchanted a broken chair back together for her new prisoner, Lord Felix of Faust. She forced him into the chair, fused his bindings into its frame, and animated the chair legs to walk so it could follow her.

“This is undignified,” said Faust.

“You could ride as a cockroach,” said Sindella.

“I won’t give you the satisfaction.”

“Don’t pretend you can keep your guard up forever.”

Faust snarled and looked away.

Sindella erased the door she had made before and raised her hands again. “ROOD OT SEÉSYLÉ-SPMAHC!” Another door appeared.

Giovanni cleared his throat to get her attention. “I would avoid Paris this year.”

Sindella looked at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“There’s a new war on.”

Sindella rolled her eyes. “Again?”

“Afraid so.”

“How about Warsaw? Or Krakow?”

“This is not a good time to be in Poland.”

Sindella sounded frustrated. “Then Bucharest.”

“I would stay out of Europe.”

“You're joking. How about Saigon?”

“Avoid Indochina.”

“Hong Kong then.”

“East Asia overall is not so welcoming.”

“Then-”

“Or South Asia. Or North Africa.”

“Are there any nations not at war?”

Giovanni tapped his mustache. “The Americas are peaceful.”

“Fine. Buenos Aires.”

“Except Argentina.”

“Ugh.” Sindella summoned another door. “ROOD OT ZURCAREV!” She looked at Giovanni. “Until next time.”

Giovanni tipped his head politely.

Sindella looked at Zatanna. “And dear-” She hesitated.

Zatanna had mostly calmed down. She gave Sindella a guarded look.

Sindella bit her lip as she returned Zatanna’s gaze. “Have fun.”

Without waiting for a response, Sindella swept open her new door. It was night on the other side. A breeze wafted through with the starchy scent of fried food and the chatter of a street market. Sindella gestured for Faust’s chair to walk through. Then she gave Catwoman a wink and followed, closing the door behind her. The door toppled and turned to sawdust.

Catwoman immediately turned on Giovanni. “Hey, where do you get off giving that witch advice? She wants to put us in a cage or on a slab.”

Giovanni ran a hand through his hair and sat heavily on a crooked bench. “Are you married, miss?”

“No.”

“Then perhaps this will sound sentimental to you, but I once vowed to care for my wife in sickness and in health, and I’m afraid she is very sick.”

Catwoman was unconvinced. “Mm-hmm.”

Giovanni raised his hands. “It also crossed my mind that if she runs into trouble tonight, then trouble is in grave danger. Best no innocent trouble crosses her path.”

Zatanna sat. “So she’s sick?”

Giovanni opened his mouth to speak, but his first words came out as a muffled sob. Giovanni stopped and chuckled. “I’m sorry.” He pulled a handkerchief chain out of his breast pocket and dabbed at his eye. “Zatanna, I’ve-” His voice caught again.

She hugged him from the side. “It’s okay.”

“I’ve planned this talk for twenty years. Now I’m lost for words.”

“We have all the time we need, dad.”

Catwoman yawned. “Sooner would be better.”

Zatanna glared at her. Catwoman shrugged.

Giovanni looked at Catwoman thoughtfully. “Catwoman, yes? Why did you suddenly try to upset Sindella? You seemed to treat her respectfully at first. That was a risky thing, aggravating her.”

“Thank Batman. When he woke up, he told me she was evil.”

“I didn’t hear him say anything,” said Zatanna.

Catwoman grinned. “He just had that look in his eyes.”

Zatanna and Giovanni looked at Batman’s white lenses in confusion.

Giovanni asked, “Excuse me, Batman, why did you say my wife is evil?”

Batman had no desire to join this conversation. Perhaps he felt shy at his near-paralysis, or perhaps he feared opening his mouth would offer another thread of his identity. But he couldn’t refuse the man. He strained mightily to push himself into a more erect sitting position and looked at Giovanni. “I read your journals.

Giovanni accepted this with a hard expression. “Indeed.”

“Wait,” said Zatanna, “But you said you just read the bits with the tool notes.”

I lied,” said Batman.

“You read all of it, didn’t you?" She shook a finger. "You really are John. Gosh, I feel like the world’s greatest detective.”

Giovanni stood and took a knee next to him. “Are you John? The John we knew?”

Batman looked past him to Zatanna. “It doesn’t matter.

“Dammit.” Catwoman rubbed her eyes. “How?”

“How what?” asked Zatanna.

“It’s never a coincidence with this guy. He planned this. But that means he knew wizards would burn the Lisbon. He knew I would ask him to help, even though we hadn’t talked for a year. And somehow he knew the aforementioned wizards would snatch you and bring you to where I was bringing him. I want to know how the hell he knew all that.”

I d-

“Actually, put a pin in how. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Zatanna more loudly.

Batman looked between them. “I said nothing because there’s nothing under this mask worth knowing. John was a means to an end. It’s better he stays a memory.

“Easy for you to say!” shouted Zatanna. “I’ve been terrified all night! A friendly face would have been a relief.”

Catwoman was annoyed. “Batman, didn’t it occur to that jumbo brain that your shared history with this girl might relate to one of the magical mysteries we’ve run into tonight? Might’ve been nice to know.”

If we had found a hint of that, I would have said something. It’s a coincidence.” Batman turned to Zatanna. “Zatanna, I’m sorry you were frightened. But it’s better this way.

Zatanna folded her arms. “For who?”

“Zatanna,” Giovanni gently chided.

“He should have told me.”

“Zatanna, your friend was willing to lay down his life for you. Will you scold him for keeping a secret?”

Zatanna huffed and seemed to deflate. She looked aside at Batman. “So you did remember me?”

Batman nodded. “Since the start.

Giovanni patted Batman’s shoulder and held Catwoman’s hand. “Well, I’m sure we will respect the privacy of our saviors in any case. I can’t thank either of you enough.”

Catwoman yawned. “Then how about we hear your side of the story?”

Zatanna nodded. “We need to know.”

Giovanni sat back down. “Very well. I’ve kept these secrets long enough. The Cehennems-”

“The Cehennems! Drat!” Zatanna sprung to her feet and turned around. Under a large bell jar on the other side of the room were Zachary and Abdiel in the forms of a pig and a snake. Their piggish and reptilian eyes watched her with the same irate expression.

“How much air do you think they have?” asked Catwoman.

“Drat,” said Zatanna again. “I forgot to ask mom to change them back before she left. We have to get them out.”

Giovanni gave the brothers a disapproving look. “Are you sure you want their company, Zatanna? They’ve been very cruel to you.”

“We can’t cage them like animals.”

“Then allow me.” Giovanni stood and tugged at his bowtie. His kindly demeanor hardened into a grim stare. He walked to the bell jar and looked down at Zachary and Abdiel.

“Boys, we haven’t been formally introduced. I’m your uncle, Giovanni Zatara. Please remind me which of you is which?”

Abdiel cowered on the opposite side, peeking his head between his coils and hissing. Zachary snorted against the glass, scowling at Giovanni and stamping.

Giovanni seemed contemplative. “I never wished you boys harm. You’re in this mess because you tried to bump me off, but as an olive branch I’m willing to call us even. We can reckon with what you did to my building later. After all, I can’t bring animals before a judge, and your curse looks as miserable as prison already. However,” He lowered his voice just above a whisper. “You also kidnapped my daughter. If she forgives you, I might eventually do the same. Until then, you are on very thin ice. Tonight, you listen to what I have to say. You’ll need to decide whether there is enough mercy in this life for us to coexist. Now, will you behave if I let you out?”

Zachary and Abdiel looked at each other.

“Fine. We’ll hear you out,” said Abidel.

“And you are?”

“Abidel.”

“And you, Zachary?”

Zachary snorted. “Fine.”

Giovanni stretched his wrists. “Don’t disappoint me.” He crouched and clutched the textured rim of the jar. With a heave, he tipped it two feet off the floor. The pig and snake hurried under the gap. Giovanni dropped the jar with a groan and held his spine.

While Giovanni winced, Abdiel rose behind him and bared his teeth.

Catwoman called over, “Hey, snake meat.”

Abdiel and Zachary spun to see Catwoman unsheath the claws of her free hand. “Just give me an excuse.”

Abdiel bumped Zachary and shook his pig head. They moved back.

Zatanna muttered to Catwoman, “Do people eat snake?”

Catwoman nodded. “More places than you’d think.”

Giovanni recovered from his back pain and ushered Zachary and Abdiel over to the group where they stopped on a patch of floor beyond anyone’s reach. The cousins were frightened of Catwoman, and they were even more deeply unsettled by Batman’s unrelenting glare.

Zatanna tried to break the tension. “Are you two okay?”

“I miss magic,” said Zachary.

“I miss hands,” said Abdiel.

“Hands were nice.”

Zatanna nodded awkwardly. “Does the spell wear off?”

They both answered glumly, “No.”

Catwoman yawned. “Can we get to the story?”

Giovanni looked around the group. “We are all victims of a prophecy. The year was 1918. Sindella and I were deeply in love. Zatanna, you were just a year old. I wish you could see your mother as I knew her then: kind and warm and patient and brave.” He smiled at a memory, then his smile fell. “Her family ended that happiness. One of its elders-”

“Great-uncle Ekrim,” said Zachary. “The first you killed.”

Giovanni sighed. “Yes, and let me tell you why. Ekrim was the family prophet. Many of them believed he received warnings of the future. One day he visited us to share a new prophecy. He believed that Sindella would destroy the family.” Giovanni looked down. “He was going to recommend that the family destroy her first. He wanted her to come quietly.”

“So you bushwhacked him,” said Catwoman.

“Not yet. Prophecies are never simple. Sindella tried to argue with Ekrim over his interpretation.”

“What was the prophecy?” asked Zatanna.

Giovanni lifted his voice and declared, “The House of Cehennem will be ruined by their own, mighty in magic with fury unceasing, to protect the solstice child.”

The others looked at him blankly. Giovanni smiled bitterly. “It fit so well. Sindella was a prodigy; they all respected her power. More than that, she was a passionate woman. When her patience ran out, then out came her temper. And Zatanna, you were born on the solstice, the only solstice child in the family. Ekrim believed that some day a conflict would pit your mother against the rest of the family, a conflict over you, and this conflict would be the end of them.”

“And they believed him?” said Zatanna. “Without any evidence?”

“He hadn’t told them yet. But yes, they would believe him. Or enough would. His gift was held in great esteem. And most of them shared his logic for such things.”

“Why tell you first?” asked Catwoman. “Seems risky to deliver a death sentence without backup.”

“He believed prophecies could be avoided if you,” Giovanni hesitated. “If you eliminate the subject. But you had to be very careful. Ekrim wasn’t stupid or cruel; he had to collar the tiger of fate without waking it. He hoped that if he went alone and appealed to Sindella's sense of duty, he might avoid her fury. If he told anyone else, they might take matters into their own hands.”

“This is unbelievable,” said Zatanna. “Couldn’t she just promise not to hurt anyone?”

“She did.”

“Huh?”

“Ekrim wouldn’t simply take her word for it, but she made just that sort of deal. She found a magic spell that would keep her on her best behavior forever.”

“You mean a lobotomy?” asked Catwoman, disgusted by the idea.

Giovanni shrugged sadly. “The spell wouldn’t harm her intellect. She would simply face each day at her most serene and compassionate. I fought her tooth and nail. She was determined to try it. For Zatanna’s sake.”

“No offense,” said Catwoman, “But are you saying the woman we met tonight was your wife at her nicest?”

“No. The spell backfired. It did the opposite.”

“What does that mean?”

“Imagine the most desperate day of your life. Now ask yourself: what were you capable of? What lines were you willing to cross?

“So she’s a monster.”

“As much as anyone can be, I believe.”

Zachary shook his snout. “This doesn’t make any sense. She didn’t ruin the family. You did.”

Giovanni chuckled, growing louder and louder. He began to clap. “You are much smarter than you look.”

“Thanks?”

“It took me years to realize that. Years! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ekrim supervised the spell. After it all went wrong, he decided she was doomed to fulfill the prophecy. He was about to kill Sindella. I struck first.”

Catwoman asked, “How did Sindella end up in a locked room for twenty years?”

"Even with Ekrim's warm corpse at my feet, I had the clarity to realize Sindella wanted nothing more than to be your mother, Zatanna, and she would be an abominable parent.” Giovanni’s eyes started to shine with tears, but his voice stayed calm. “I didn’t know if I could raise you alone, but I knew that I couldn’t do worse than her. I’m so sorry, Zatanna.”

Zatanna’s eyes also shone with tears. She hugged her father tightly. “It’s okay, dad. I think you made the right call.”

“Magi have many tools to force slumber on their victims; even then I was familiar with a few. I had to be quick. If she had recovered from the spell, she would’ve killed me the first time I tried to keep you apart. Or forced me into a marriage worse than death.”

Catwoman was skeptical. “And you guessed all the consequences of this wild spell backfiring in a few seconds?”

“That’s right. I guessed. But I spoke with Sindella later, before I put her to sleep. As you saw tonight, it’s not too difficult to make Sindella angry. And she’s very honest when she’s angry. Her intentions were as bad as I feared.”

Abdiel hissed. “Did you consider that you were wrong from the start?”

Giovanni looked at him curiously. “What do you mean?”

“You shouldn’t have interfered. You should have let Ekrim stop her.”

Giovanni looked at him coldly. “Do you really mean that?”

“If Ekrim was the family prophet, then he was protecting us. It was his choice to make, and her duty to submit.”

“Have you ever been in love, son?”

“No. I’ve been busy hiding from you.”

Giovanni nodded. “Fair enough. Actually, I almost let him stop her. I almost let this bitter old man murder by wife for the sin of appearing in his dreams or in tea leaves or the stars or whatever stupid method he used. I was too terrified to do anything else. I suppose I’ve developed a dangerous reputation among the Cehennems, haven’t I? But back then I was as convinced as anyone that a mundane attacking a mage was suicide. If Ekrim had kept his mouth shut, he would have gotten away with it.”

“What did he say?” asked Zachary.

Giovanni squeezed Zatanna’s hand. “He said he would take my daughter away.”

“So?” said Zachary.

“Someone’s got to teach her,” said Abdiel.

Zatanna scowled.

“Well,” said Giovanni, determined to ignore his nephews, “That set it all in motion. I told the family that Ekrim and Sindella had an argument, that he had killed her, so I killed him. Naturally, they wanted my head. And they wanted to take Zatanna. I couldn’t let that happen. They tried again and again, year after year, and each time I stopped them. To be honest, I didn’t expect to survive this long.”

“That still doesn’t answer the prophecy,” said Zachary. “And prophecies are almost always right. Everyone knows that.”

Giovanni smiled condescendingly. “Oh? Do tell.”

“The prophecy said that the family would be ruined by a mighty family member trying to protect Zatanna. But you’re the one who ruined our family.”

“And?”

“You’re not mighty in magic.”

Batman, Zatanna, and Giovanni shared glances.

Giovanni lightly shook his head, “I did meet most of this family. They resented me, but I was invited to weddings and birthdays, and we would talk. Every single one felt as you do. Do you know what I do for a living, Zachary?”

“You’re a stage performer.”

“I’m a magician.”

“He’s a great magician,” said Zatanna.

Zachary laughed. “But that’s not real magic.”

Giovanni shrugged. “I thought the same. But I’ve had nearly half my life to ponder this riddle, and I think fate has a more flexible definition of ‘magic’ than we do. Prophecy is a fickle art.”

Zachary snorted. “Maybe.”

“I do have a final theory. The prophecy may describe Ekrim himself. He believed he was protecting Zatanna, and he set me on the warpath. I guess we’ll never know.”

“Fascinating,” yawned Catwoman, “Is the warpath over? Any more cousins crawling out of the woodwork to light the woodwork on fire?”

Giovanni looked keenly at Abdiel and Zachary. “I hope it’s over. Before tonight, I thought it was.”

“You did?” asked Zatanna.

“The rage didn’t touch everyone at first. Ekrim was an unpleasant man; I doubt many mourned his loss. His kin fought, of course, and those who worshiped his gift, and a few who hated me on principle. There was no reasoning with them. But the more lives I took, the more branches of the family started looking for revenge. It was a vicious cycle.”

“And none stood up for you?” asked Zatanna.

“Hm?”

“I mean, your story was that you avenged mom when she died in a fight with Ekrim. Didn’t she have anyone close who admired you for that?”

“None willing to speak. Not after I made it clear I was keeping you.”

Catwoman was thoughtful. “You spent twenty-odd years as a wizard hitman and didn’t tell a soul. You could make some decent scratch in Gotham with talent like that.”

“A hitman? No, no, not like that.” Giovanni turned to Catwoman, then Zatanna, then the Cehennems. “Please, I shouldn’t have sounded so cavalier. I’m not a violent man.”

Catwoman was unconvinced. “Mm-hmm.”

“They came for me, again and again. I wasn't on the offensive. I couldn’t find them if I tried, not in the early days.”

Abdiel and Zachary looked disgusted through this talk, which was not an easy expression for a snake or a pig. It required unorthodox stretching of little-used facial muscles, but they managed to make their feelings clear.

“How did you survive, exactly?” asked Abdiel.

“That would take a long time to explain,” said Giovanni. “My attackers’ self-restraint was a great part of it. They were reluctant to hurt me where Zatanna might see, or where they might be spotted by the public. And did you know that many tried to take me alive? Some wanted a confession. Some wanted a trophy. Some wanted leverage to control Zatanna. Some wanted my help to take Shadowcrest. Others had a thirst for torture. Didn’t matter. They found I’m a difficult man to trap.”

“I can’t believe it,” said Zachary. “All of them?”

“Not all, and they grew less restrained as years passed. But I grew as well. As I suspect you boys have discovered, living under the specter of death makes a man capable of anything.”

No,” said Batman. “Not anything.

They watched in surprise as he abruptly struggled to his feet. Batman had felt this frail before, but the feelings had always made sense, like pain or numbness. Now his frailty came from feeling whole. His skin was hyper-sensitive. He felt the texture of every grain in his glove leather. The air tickled his abdominals through the charred hole in his suit. But his new sensitivity made it impossible to ignore what he couldn’t feel: his scars. Dozens were missing. There was a radical suppleness in his joints. His cartilage had never been so silent.

Batman didn’t trust his feet to walk, so he stood and trembled. “Were they all in self-defense, Giovanni? Some entries in your journal were light on details.

Giovanni rubbed his face. The lines of his eyes creased with memories. Finally, he said, “I never killed anyone who didn’t make it intimately clear they wished to destroy me first.” Giovanni’s head bent. “Toward the end, some learned to fear what I could do. They found ways to threaten me from a distance. Ways I couldn’t resist, or wouldn’t. They stopped caring who might be hurt.” He squeezed Zatanna’s hand, then lifted his head to face Batman. “I beat them to the punch.”

Batman glanced at Zatanna. He said nothing.

Giovanni’s eyes softened. “Magic is not as simple as a pistol or a fist. It can be dangerous in a hundred ways you’d never imagine. To beat a mage, you must be bold. I doubt a jury would understand, but I hope you all do.”

Batman seemed ready to speak, but he only managed to swallow. He gave Giovanni a fraction of a nod.

Zatanna finally broke the silence. “What end?”

“What?” Giovanni asked.

“You said ‘toward the end’. What end?”

“Didn’t I say? The feud is over,” said Giovanni. “I finished months ago. I won.” He looked at Zachary and Abdiel. “Or so I thought.”

“Were you ever going to tell me about this?”

“Zatanna, I was going to tell you last night.”

“You mean at the show?”

“Just after. I had it planned years ago.”

“What was the plan?”

“I was determined from the start to let you choose your life. If you wanted to meet your mother, if you wanted to enjoy this estate or learn your family’s craft, that would be your decision. But I knew that I couldn’t offer an honest choice while there was a target on our backs. Whatever you chose, it would take all my care and attention to introduce you to your heritage properly. Besides, it seemed cruel to share a war with a child, even if she’s all grown up.”

“How come I never figured it out?”

“I guess I can keep a secret.” Giovanni tugged at his shirt cuff and two doves flew out of his sleeve. “Of course, the tools here were invaluable. I found safeguards to discourage family from approaching you behind my back. These were less effective once you moved out on your own, but I had thinned the ranks by then, and happily the survivors focused on me. Once you were out, I could devote all my time to finishing the job.”

Zatanna brushed a dove off her head. “How did you know you’d won? Zachary and Abdiel said they still have family around.”

“That was the easy part. Magi fight dirty, but they’ll let you know you’re in a fight. And if I worried someone was hiding their intentions, I went to them first. I offered to let them swear in parley to leave me alone. If they wouldn’t take the offer, then I knew the fight wasn't over.

“My only exceptions were the young ones. Some joined the feud when they came of age, but others stayed hidden, and I let them be. Why, I hadn't seen Zachary and Abdiel since they were yay tall.” He held his hand at his knee. “I didn’t believe anyone in this family would nurse a grudge so long in silence. They didn’t seem patient enough.”

Zachary sniffed. “I found funerals educational that way.”

Giovanni accepted this with a shrug. “My last foe was Domina Mordecai-Cehennem, widow of Sindella’s second cousin Ahmet. I got the better of her in June. The next day I scheduled our show at the Arabia Casino and sent you an invitation.” He smiled sadly. “I wanted one last normal show with my Zatanna before I took her old life away.”

“Oh,” said Zatanna. She felt a new wetness from her eyes.

Abdiel finished swallowing a dove. “And you set up the door to Shadowcrest yesterday morning.”

“I did,” said Giovanni suspiciously. “How did you know?”

Abdiel managed a shoulderless shrug. “That’s what Lord Faust was waiting for. We made our deal last month, but he wouldn’t attack until you put up the door. He could sense there was only one left on Earth, but he didn’t know where until it was installed.”

Zachary nodded. “Pretty smart of you to destroy all the rest.”

“He didn’t destroy them,” said Zatanna. “She pointed at the fireplace. Are you talking about the doors in those red chests?”

"That's right," said Giovanni. "Say, what did you think of the storage room, Zatanna?” Giovanni took a moment to reminisce. “Remember all those old tricks?”

“Well,” Zatanna choose her words carefully. “Remember how I said there was a fight in there?"

"Yes."

"The room got a little water damage.”

“Ah.”

“And a little fire damage.”

“Oh.”

“Actually, a lot of fire damage.”

“Hm.”

“And a few other kinds of damage.”

“Well.” Giovanni kept the concern off his face. "The important thing is that you’re safe.”

“So you planned to bring me to Shadowcrest after the show? Just throw open the curtain on your whole secret life?”

“I thought we’d have a late dinner first.”

Giovanni and Zatanna broke into giggles at the absurdity of it.

Catwoman yawned. “This is fascinating, but if you folks are out of trouble, then I think it’s time to hit the road. How do you leave this place?”

Giovanni stood. “You must let us host you, at least for tonight.”

Catwoman quickly shook her head. “Swell offer, but no thanks.”

“We have a dozen guest suites fit for a queen.”

“I’ll take a rain check.”

Zatanna stood and asked, “But you’ll stay a while, won’t you, John?”

Catwoman gave Batman an appraising look. He kept his face blank. “Are you comfortable here, Zatanna?

Zatanna shrugged. “Dad’s here, so I’ll be okay. It’s either this or my hotel in Bludhaven.”

The three Gothamites twitched like they had smelled something sour. Giovanni gave her a caring smile. “You’re wise to stay, Zatanna. Sindella won’t break her vow, but she may skirt the edges with innocent gossip, and we don’t know what ears her words may reach. An untrained mage is easy prey for many dark things.”

“He’s absolutely right,” said Abidel.

“Wait, what about us?” asked Catwoman. “Do we have to watch for ghouls and goblins now?”

Giovanni gave her question more thought than Catwoman was comfortable with, but he finally shook his head. “You shouldn’t be at risk.”

“Shouldn’t?” exclaimed Catwoman.

Zatanna looked again at Batman. “Will you spend the night then?”

Batman shook his head. “If you’re safe, then I should leave.”

“But you’ll write, won’t you? Both of you.”

Catwoman yawned. “I’m not sure my postman delivers to this dimension.”

“Zatanna,” said Giovanni, “Our guests are exhausted. Let’s not hound them for promises.”

Zatanna looked at Batman. “Won’t you, though?”

Batman said nothing.

Catwoman interrupted. “So where’s the exit, Giovanni? Do we click our ruby slippers?”

Giovanni smiled. “Almost as simple.” He crossed the room to the scattered remains of his desk. With a heave, he dislodged a crooked drawer and found a simple silver wand. “It’s across the house. Just a moment.” He tapped his head and disappeared in a shower of sparks.

The others waited uncomfortably. Catwoman leaned against a wall and closed her eyes. Abideal practiced rattling his tail. A dove cooed somewhere in the ceiling.

Zachary scratched his ear with his hoof. “Don’t suppose anyone has acorns?”

“Shut up, bacon,” said Catwoman without opening her eyes.

Zatanna noticed that Batman’s utility belt was on the floor. She picked it up and handed it to him. “Here.”

Batman tried to grab it. It slid between his fingers and fell. He struggled to hide his frustration, only exhaling a little stronger than usual.

Zatanna picked up the belt again, and this time the handoff was successful. “There you go.”

Thank you.

“You’re welcome.” They stood awkwardly: he couldn’t move and she didn’t want to. She rubbed her arm, fixated on how much dried blood was on his suit.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

Fine.

“Right.”

They continued to stand awkwardly. Finally, Batman said, “Third flap left of the buckle.

“Huh?”

He nodded at the belt hanging in his grip. Zatanna held up the end of the belt and found the noted pouch. She looked up for permission, and he nodded again. Gingerly, she opened the pouch and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. She raised an eyebrow.

Batman shook his head. “Behind that.

Zatanna replaced the handcuffs and pulled out a syringe. She raised both eyebrows.

Behind that,” he repeated.

She replaced the syringe and found a business card. It was empty except for a number.

Before Zatanna could ask, Batman gave a quiet answer. “If you don’t feel safe, call.

“Thanks. I will. Or won’t. I hope I won’t.” Zatanna made the card disappear. “Thanks.”

Batman shut the pouch and roughly swung the belt over his shoulder.

He felt a gaze on his back and looked over his shoulder. Catwoman was watching him through lidded eyes.

There was another shower of sparks and Giovanni reappeared. He carried an old standing camera.

“Miss Catwoman, if you’d please come here.”

Catwoman strolled back to the group. “Yes?”

Giovanni began to prepare the camera. “This will bring you home. Will you be traveling together?”

“Yes,” said Catwoman with uncharacteristic speed. “Yes we are.” She gave Batman a meaningful stare. It’s important.

Batman slowly answered. “We are.

“Very well,” said Giovanni, screwing in a flash bulb.

“What do you mean by ‘home’?” asked Catwoman. “Where specifically does this go?”

“I can’t be sure,” said Giovanni. “It will be somewhere familiar, somewhere important. A place you were together. I’m sorry that doesn’t narrow it down much.”

Batman and Catwoman shared a worried look. That narrowed it down considerably. They simply hadn’t spent much time together. Those chases in the early days were rarely in one spot. It could be from today: maybe the Lisbon or her cat shelter. But they knew that in terms of minutes and meaning, the majority of their relationship had transpired at Fort Morrison. They dreaded that idea of going there now.

“Do you have any other gadgets to get out of here?” asked Catwoman.

Giovanni shook his head. “Not without a mage or the house spirit. Or three days to go digging in the basement.” He saw her concern. “Don’t worry, you won’t hate where you go.”

“How do you know?”

Giovanni fiddled with the lens. “The inventor made a deal with one of the lesser embodiments of hatred. It won't send you somewhere you hate. It also avoids umbrage, fear, anguish, and gloom.”

Batman offered a head-shrug. Catwoman gave a small nod. “Let’s go.”

Giovanni stood up and wiped his hands. “I don’t suppose you want a cane, Batman? Most people aren't up so soon after the treatment you’ve had.”

I’m fine,” said Batman.

“Suit yourself. We’re ready.”

Zatanna gave Batman and Catwoman a big hug. “Take care, you two.”

Catwoman patted Zatanna kindly on the back. “Take care, Zatanna.”

Batman lifted his hands halfway, but he lowered them untouched.

“Okay, okay.” Giovanni urged Zatanna back. “We’d best get them back to town.” He stepped in and kissed Catwoman’s hand. “After all,” Giovanni clasped Batman’s shoulders and looked him keenly in the eye, “The night will soon begin to wane.”

Batman froze. His mind went blank. His breathing stopped.

Giovanni hurried behind the camera and held up the flash-lamp. “And one. Two. Three.”

A flash lit up the room, and Batman and Catwoman were gone.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Well well... nice way to say "I know you're Bruce Wayne".
Image
Librium Arcana, Where Gamers Play!
Nitram, slightly high on cough syrup: Do you know you're beautiful?
Me: Nope, that's why I have you around to tell me.
Nitram: You -are- beautiful. Anyone tries to tell you otherwise kill them.
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP" -- Leonard Nimoy, last Tweet
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Author's Note:

Dear readers, it is bittersweet to say, but I've finished writing Batman 1939: Three's Company.

However, the final chapter was so long that I've decided to split it into three chapters. This is the beginning of the end. The middle will be posted in two days, on Friday the 25th, and the true finale with be posted two days after that, on Sunday the 27th.

If you like my writing, all future projects will be shared through my new website: www.fredwattswrites.com. Subscribe to get the inside scoop on the latest updates. (I am still getting the hang of WordPress, so please let me know if you encounter any issues.)

As a final goodbye, I will be sharing details on my next novel in this thread following the last chapter.
---


Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 21: Ships Dock​


Gotham City.

When the flash faded, Batman and Catwoman found themselves under a flickering street lamp. Dark buildings rose in all directions, glittering with a million city lights. Ever grander towers loomed in the distance like sequoias in a forest of pines, while trails of smoke covered half the stars. The neon maze welcomed them with a car horn symphony, and the breeze from an alley smelled of trash and dogs. They were home.

Catwoman took a deep breath and stretched. She hadn’t realized how trapped she felt in Shadowcrest. Here she was uncaged. She let out the happy grunt of a good stretch.

Batman faced ahead with a vacant stare. Giovanni’s parting words echoed in his mind.

Catwoman stretched again. “Alright. That could have been a lot worse.”

Batman felt nothing. Her voice was a dissonant tune in a deafening echo chamber.

“Hey.” Catwoman nudged his arm. He offered no response, so she nudged him again. “Hey!” Then she shoved him.

Batman fell. His cheek hit the cold metal of a manhole cover, snapping him back into the world. He rose to his knees and rubbed his face.

Catwoman crouched beside him. “What happened?”

Batman took deep breaths. He wouldn’t say he found the city air invigorating, but it helped calibrate his senses. This was the real world.

“Giovanni, he-” Batman paused.

“What?” she asked.

Batman closed his eyes. He forced himself to be calm. In this artificial calm, he could scrutinize Giovanni’s words without the distraction of feelings. He decided there was no immediate threat and compartmentalized the memory for later.

“Nothing. I was confused. I’ve lost a lot of blood.”

Catwoman shrugged. “Business as usual then.” She slipped an arm across his back and helped him stand. “Up and at ’em.”

With Catwoman’s help Batman slowly rose to his feet. Some pedestrians passed, giving them odd looks.

“Nothing to see here, folks,” said Catwoman, “He slipped and landed in tomato sauce.”

Batman strained to take a step. His knee wobbled, and Catwoman briefly bore his weight until he found his footing.

She huffed. “If you think I’m going to drag you, you are sorely mistaken.”

He snorted like a bull. “Use both arms.”

“My arm is in a sling, dummy.”

“Your arm is fine. Your sling is a prop, probably to hold contraband.”

“How’d you guess?”

“When Sindella’s ants attacked, you had no trouble using both hands to protect your face. Meanwhile, your sling hung like it still carried weight.”

“You noticed.”

“I’m Batman.”

Catwoman dropped him. By then he had recovered enough to continue on his own. He staggered another few steps for practice.

“Look.” Catwoman pointed across the road. “I know this street.”

Batman looked. At the end of the block, a large truck had just pulled away from the curb. Behind it, they saw the bright sign of a corner diner, the Hughes Diner and Café.

They stood for a moment, reminiscing.

“Let’s go in,” said Catwoman. “The owner’s a good guy. He won’t give us any trouble.”

Batman made a deeply skeptical noise. He took extraordinary pains to avoid being seen in public. On the other hand, he wasn’t strong enough for covert travel - riding atop trains or moving through the sewers. Even if he could reach a car, he doubted he had the dexterity to drive. Perhaps he could enter the establishment just to call for support. But that had its own risks.

Batman was about to enter a deeper layer of planning when Catwoman snapped her fingers in his face. “Hey! Less thinking, more walking.” She took his hand and led him to cross the street. “You don’t want to be caught outside, do you?”

She was right. Even in Gotham City, wandering around in a mask and bloody clothes made the neighbors nervous. He would be lucky if he was only arrested. Perhaps his mind was more dulled from blood loss than he assumed. Still, he asked, “Are you sure you trust this place?”

“It’s fine. Besides,” she yawned, “I’m dead on my feet here. I need to sit before I start drooling on your shoes.”

They reached the end of the block. Catwoman pulled open the door to the Hughes. Like most corner diners, it was unpretentious and cozy. The air smelled like bacon grease and lemon meringue. A lively band played “Chattanooga Choo Choo” on the scratchy radio.

The proprietor, Mister John Quigley, was a big, cheerful man, and he looked dapper in his apron and white paper hat. He was talking with a patron at the counter but nearly fainted when he saw the pair who walked through the door.

He raised his hands. “Easy! We only got a little in the register.”

Catwoman rolled her eyes. She ripped her mask over her head and shook her dark hair out. “Johnny, it’s me.”

John’s jaw dropped. “Selina? Holy smokes, you nearly gave me a heart attack. What are you doing in that getup?”

“Costume party.”

“Geez, now that’s a shiner. And what happened to your arm?”

“Toothbrush accident.”

John looked at Batman. “And who’s he?”

“Met him at the costume party.”

“Is that blood on him?”

“Different toothbrush accident.”

The patron at the counter, an old milkman in coveralls, had a ham sandwich in front of his open mouth and hadn’t moved a muscle since they entered.

Catwoman approached the man as she reached into her satchel. “Private party tonight, buddy. Do you mind?” She took his sandwich and replaced it with a gold bar.

The man looked at the gold bar, confused it was not a sandwich. When he realized what it was, he jumped from his stool and stumbled out of the door, clutching the treasure to his chest.

“Hey!” said John, “That was a customer!”

Catwoman dropped the sandwich on a plate then tossed John a stack of banknotes. “My friend and I need a minute alone, Johnny. Can I treat you to a coffee around the corner.”

“What? I make coffee.”

“Please? It’s been a rough night.”

He looked at the banknotes and scratched his head. “Is this money Swiss?”

“John!”

John threw up his hands. “Okay, okay. Twist my arm, why don’t you. I’ll close up to get some air. How’s that?”

“You’re a dear, Johnny.”

“Yeah, yeah.” John Quigley turned off the coffee burner, took off his apron and paper hat, and grabbed his coat and fedora from the coat rack. “Take care, ‘Lina.” He flipped the “Open for Business!” sign on the door while giving Batman another look. Batman was swaying and gazing at the floor.

John patted his shoulder. “Not for nothing, pal, but maybe go easy on the martinis next time?”

Batman slowly looked at him. John shrugged and left, locking the door behind him.

Catwoman leaned far over the counter and grabbed two bottles of soda out of an ice cooler. She placed them on the sandwich plate and carried them to a booth, dropping into one of the plush seats. Catwoman beckoned to Batman and patted the seat beside her. Batman stumbled over and sat across from her. Catwoman wrinkled her nose at him. You’re no fun. She pulled the sling off her arm and tossed it on the table. There was a shape hiding in the loose folds.

Batman let his belt slide off his shoulder onto the chairback. He looked at the shape concealed in the sling and said, “You wanted us to leave together. Was there something you wanted to tell me?”

She gently kicked his shin. “First of all, relax. We deserve it.”

Catwoman took a soda bottle in each hand and struck their caps against the edge of the table, popping off both at once. She took a long sip of hers and placed one in front of Batman.

She smacked her lips. “Don’t tell me you aren't thirsty.”

Batman stiffly opened and shut his hands, trying to grasp the bottle without tipping it.

“You silly man,” said Catwoman. “Take the gloves off.” She took off one of her own gloves and dropped it on the table.

“It’s fine,” muttered Batman.

She watched while he struggled and balanced her bottle on one finger. “I’m amazed you do anything in those big mitts.”

“It’s fine,” he repeated, finally grasping the bottle. He lifted it, but it slipped from his grip and bounced off the table. Catwoman snatched the bottle before it hit the floor and placed it in front of him. He looked at the bottle and frowned.

Catwoman yawned, loud and long. “It’s not a big deal. I’ve seen your hands before, remember?”

Batman had a reason for not shedding his gloves, beyond respecting the powerful image of his suit. Sindella’s spell hadn’t only made him weak, it made his skin distractingly sensitive, like every inch was rubbed raw. He didn’t want to see his hands because he was scared of what he might find. And whatever he found, he didn’t want an audience.

Catwoman took a bite of the sandwich and washed it down with soda. “I could get you a straw,” she suggested.

Batman had a relentlessly rational streak, and it warned him he was being stubborn. He knew it was safe for him to show some vulnerability in front of Catwoman; she’d proven that often enough. Without a word, he stuck a glove under his armpit and tried to remove his hand. This took several tries of increasing effort. Finally, his forearm whipped free and smacked a napkin dispenser across the room. The dispenser narrowly missed Catwoman. Instead of being upset, she snorted and laughed at him, then she winced as soda went up her nose.

Batman ignored her and looked at his uncovered hand. He had to convince himself it was his hand. He recognized the shape of it, but his skin was as soft and pink as an infant. His knuckles were smooth divots, not the bony hills he knew. His veins and tendons were delicate. He decided it wasn’t an injured hand; quite the opposite: it was a hand that had never been hurt.

Batman forced himself past shock. His dexterity had steadily improved since he woke from the spell. He might recover. But recover to what? Time would tell.

He stopped inspecting his hand and dislodged the other glove. No point in inviting attention. The second glove slipped off more smoothly than the first. Now barehanded, he found it was easier to grasp the soda and took a sip.

“There you go,” said Catwoman, “I was afraid I’d have to bottle feed you.” He was unamused, but she still snickered the way sleepy people do when they’re tired enough to laugh at their own jokes.

“Thank you for the drink.” said Batman. “What did you want to discuss?”

She pointed at him. “Why is your voice different when you talk to me?”

“That’s what you wanted to discuss?”

“No. But why? You growl at everyone else.”

Batman stared at her. Catwoman thought she had earned the silent treatment, but he finally answered, “Because I have nothing to prove to you.”

“I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or an insult. You have a talent for riddles, John.” Catwoman rubbed her eyes. “Do you like being called John? Seems fair, seeing as how you know my name. You’re lucky it is John.”

“Lucky?”

“Sure. If your mom went with Horatio or Melvin or, I don’t know, Egbert, someone might find you. You’d be the only big bad Egbert in the city.”

“I suppose.”

She folded her hands behind her head and laid her feet on the chair beside him. “You know what would really be fair?”

“What?”

“If you told me your last name.”

“No.”

“John No. I like it. Has a certain mystique.”

“Catwoman.”

“John Catwoman.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t have the same ring.” She tried to see the reflection of her face in her bottle. “How’s my eye?”

“The bruise looks superficial. Was it a weapon?”

“Just a fist. Sindella and I got off on the wrong foot. Accurate first impression, come to think of it.”

“Apply a cold compress. If you have vision problems, see a doctor. It may mean a concussion or skull fracture.”

Catwoman laid the cold bottle across her eye. “How’s that?”

“Inefficient.”

“Pff.”

“Catwoman, what did you want to discuss?”

She lowered her feet and hands and looked at him with a sudden clarity. “Batman. John. You did right by me tonight. You walked through that spooky doorway. You fought wizards. A giant bat yelled at you. You were a tree. I got you hurt.”

“You’re not responsible for-”

“You're sweet. Shut up. I got you hurt. And you know what? I was incredibly mad at you for tonight. And I still kind of am.”

Batman struggled to guess the point of this conversation. She was as confusing as his blood loss. But Catwoman grew more earnest as she talked.

“And I know you were angry at me too. I’m not here to argue all that. I just need to know one thing.”

“What?”

“Do you trust me?”

Batman studied Catwoman, still failing to see inside her head. She looked back expectantly.

“Well?” asked Catwoman. “It’s not calculus. You’d’ve answered by now if it were calculus.”

“Trust you to do what?”

“Wow.” Catwoman sank into her chair, disappointed. “There’s my answer.”

“Trust you to do what, Catwoman?”

She scoffed and pulled at a strand of hair. “Catwoman. It’s funny, the nicknames aren’t as fun with the mask off.”

Batman learned forward impatiently. “Trust you to do what?”

She looked away. “I’m worried.”

“Of what?”

“I’m worried about magic. I’m worried about the people who do magic. Every single one of them is nuts, and now we’re involved in their-” She waved her hand indistinctly, “Whatever they do.”

“Go on.”

“Every story they tell turns into Hamlet: they’re all crazy by the middle and dead in the end. Remember how a mage learns magic? They make trades with demons. That’s a recipe for disaster. The more deranged they are, the more dangerous they get. And then they spend all their free time settling grudges. It’s like someone shipped a crate of Tommy guns into Arkham Asylum.”

“You don’t have to convince me magic is dangerous.”

“I spend my life thumbing my nose at dangerous people. I can hide from people. But I don’t know how to hide from magic.”

“No.”

“No. So let’s count the magic nutters who hate us. Faust is an animal, the brothers are cut-rate thugs, and Sindella’s a match in a powder keg factory.”

Batman recalled that Catwoman had gone out of her way to antagonize each of these people. Instead of mentioning this, he said, “I’m not certain they’re all hostile. Even if they are, we have some assurances. Faust is the obvious threat, but Sindella seems powerful and motivated enough to keep him captive. That’s presuming he’s not in a shallow grave already.”

Catwoman muttered, “Don’t get my hopes up,” and took a drink.

“As for Abdiel and Zachary, neither can open a door. I don’t know how the Zataras’ will treat them, but even if they recover their bodies and start settling scores, both Faust and Sindella have done them far more harm than we have. I don’t think we’re a priority.”

“This sounds like a lot of maybes. And Sindella’s still out there.”

“She is, and I don’t know enough to trust this custom of parley, but I suspect we have at least one insurance against her.”

“What?” asked Catwoman.

“Sindella cares about Zatanna, and hurting us would make Zatanna upset.” Batman preempted Catwoman’s response with a hand. “I know that didn’t stop her from attacking you, but that was before Zatanna acted assertive. I think Zatanna’s show of force impressed Sindella. I doubt Sindella will defy her again without a good reason.”

“So it comes down to Zatanna. Funny thought."

“Why?”

“Because-” Catwoman started to yawn. The yawn changed in pitch as she leaned sideways. Her eyes fluttered. “Because she-” The yawn continued. She grabbed the table to stop from falling over.

“Catwoman, let’s call it a night.”

“No.” Her lidded eyes locked on his. “I’m going to tell you something because you, of all people, might be cold-bloodedly impartial enough to take it at face value.” She furrowed her brow and muttered, “Bloodedly? Bloodily?” Bloodyididly?”

“I’m listening.”

“Let’s talk about your old friends. Giovanni scares me. More than the brothers. Maybe more than Sindella. Remember I said everyone magic is nuts? He seems sane. And it sounds like he’s one of the most prolific killers alive. How many felons in Blackgate can claim more than, say, ten murders?”

“Very few.”

“Well, you read his diary. How many bodies are on his tally sheet? Fifteen? Thirty?”

"A lot.”

“It’s terrifying. And let’s not forget, he was killing wizards. Who knows what he’s capable of? He might be a bigger paranoid obsessive than you. And I’m saying this as someone who very much wanted to kill some wizards tonight. If his tide of murder is too much for me, I don’t know how you tolerate it.”

Batman heard the echoed memory of Giovanni’s parting words. His face hardened. “I agree, Giovanni’s history is very troubling. I’ll need to reflect on what I’ve learned before I judge him. However, I’m virtually certain he means us no harm.”

“Not yet.”

“Why would that change?”

“I don’t know. He’s in a crazy world with crazy people. Who knows what makes him tick? Maybe it’ll be his daughter.”

Batman went still. After a moment, he responded gently. “What do you mean?”

“Like I said, everyone magic is nuts. They’re all lunatics. And Zatanna? She’s going to be a mage.”

“We don’t know that.”

“Oh, please. I love the girl, but she’s already acting the part. Sure, she’s all strawberries and gumdrops most of the evening, then when the cards are down, she threatens to free Faust to put the squeeze on her own mother. I don’t think she was bluffing.”

“But-”

“She was this close to cutting Faust loose. It worked out, but that was two scoops of crazy. I have a wild side, but I wouldn’t have thought to do that in a million years.

“Catwoman.”

“I feel bad for Zatanna. Her whole life has been a slap in the face. But imagine that she learns magic and wants to get even? And imagine what goulash will be left of her conscience after a few demonic contracts. Or if her mom gets back in her life. Mommy Sindella seems unstable even by mage standards, and you can’t tell me that sort of thing doesn’t run in the family. Zatanna’s a timebomb.”

“Zatanna made a desperate move in a daunting situation. That doesn’t make her a timebomb. Besides, what does that have to do with us?”

“Because we’re involved now. I’ve seen this sort of family before.” Catwoman’s expression turned dark, and she snarled out her words. “They don’t send you Christmas cards and leave you alone. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of someone’s nervous breakdown. The family picks sides and lashes out at you, whether you had it coming or not.”

“But we’re not involved. We may never see them again.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Catwoman pitied Batman with a shake of her head. “You dunce.”

“What?”

Catwoman pointed at him. “Zatanna will reach out to you. Soon, I bet.”

“Why?” asked Batman.

Catwoman shrugged. “Maybe she’s scared and lonely, and you remind her of a time when she wasn’t.”

“I spent the whole night lying to her.”

“She’ll rationalize that.”

“We were children. I knew her for a season. That’s hardly a foundation of trust.”

Catwoman rested her chin in her palm and shook her head again. “This may surprise you, but sometimes a few moments from your childhood can shape the rest of your life.”

Batman frowned and said nothing.

Catwoman yawned. “And I was there with you, so I’ll get pulled into the drama once you knock over the hornets’ nest. I guarantee it.”

“Then what do you propose?” asked Batman.

“Well, you can’t avoid her, that makes it worse.” Catwoman nestled her head in her arms and closed her eyes.

Batman watched, expecting more information. “Catwoman.” When she didn’t move, he raised his voice. “Catwoman!”

Catwoman twitched and stirred, blinking lazily. “You never gave me a card.”

“What?”

“You gave Zatanna a card. You never gave me a card”

“Do you need me to protect you?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t need it. I don’t make social calls.”

Catwoman yawned. “Surprise of the century.”

“Were you going to make a suggestion?”

“Yes. I think our only chance is to figure out magic so we can get ahead of it. That worked tonight, more or less.”

“And how do you propose we do that?”

“Well,” Catwoman stretched out the word, as if to soften a blow. “I have absolute faith in you figuring out anything you put your mind to, but I thought I’d give you a head start.”

Catwoman reached across the table and unfolded her sling. Hidden inside was a book with a blue leather cover and gold engraving: Little Mage’s First Primer, Volume One.

Batman scowled. “You’re going to give that back.”

“Sure,” said Catwoman sarcastically. “What’s their street address?”

Batman took a deep breath. “You said the owners of that book are violent and temperamental. You made that exhaustively clear. And you robbed them?”

“It was a calculated risk.” She pointed at him. “And you can’t tell her.”

“I’m not going to be complicit in your theft.”

“Yes you are, not unless you want me turned into a lamppost. And they might get you too if they’re feeling moody.”

“Catwoman-”

“I’ll hold the book. If they have some magic bloodhound that can track it down, then I’ll take the fall.”

“It’s not about the retribution.”

“Do you really think this was the last bunch of evil magic people in the world? Wouldn’t you like to be prepared next time?”

Batman remembered that the last magical person he met was a Nazi who subverted the government and helped start a war. He looked annoyed but said nothing.

“Hey, you might be right about Zatanna,” said Catwoman, “She may not even want to learn magic. In that case, she doesn’t need the book. And she has plenty of other books if she does.”

Batman remained silent.

Catwoman took this as consent and considered a plan. “Let’s go our separate ways for a month. No contact. If I’m not a lamppost by then, we’ll get back together to figure out how to avoid being mage chow.”

“Where?”

“How about where we had our little planning session last time. That art school.”

“In a month?”

“Thirty days from now. A quarter till midnight.”

“And in the meantime?”

“Well, you mentioned at the Lisbon that you’d seen magic before. Any threads you could pull there?”

“Maybe,” he said.

The clock above the door chimed the hour.

At the second chime, Batman took notice. At the third, he was curious. At the fourth, he was suspicious. With every chime after, his expression grew more alarmed. There were twelve chimes. The clock had struck midnight.

Batman panicked. “How long were we at Shadowcrest?

Catwoman was resting her head again. “Do I look like a clock? Why don’t you know?”

“I was unconscious several times.” Batman took shallow breaths and leaned over, laying his arms on the table. “It had to have been hours.

“Calm down.” Catwoman’s annoyance was quickly changing to concern. “Why does it matter?”

Inconsistencies. The time-” He blew air through his mouth.

“Hey! What’s wrong?”

Time passed more slowly in Shadowcrest than in our world. It’s an anomaly in spacetime.

“Okay. And?”

Batman swallowed. His voice had lost its edge. “That’s disconcerting.”

Catwoman yawned and patted his hand.

Batman flinched. He looked at his hand. For that briefest moment, Selina’s touch had filled him with such warmth and comfort, such uncomplicated closeness, that he feared he had been electrocuted.

His old hands had been gloved in calluses and scars and burns. He had tortured his skin into into leather. It worked so well, he had not felt another human’s touch in many years.

Batman stared at his hand, mesmerized.

When he finally looked up, Catwoman was asleep.

Batman pushed himself to his feet. He stumbled away and stood at the counter. He had so many nerves that he couldn’t think straight. He tried to meditate. He couldn’t quite relax under the circumstances, but he came close.

With no distractions, he realized his suit felt loose. The normally tight fabric was baggy around his torso and arms and thighs. Curious, he ran a hand across his chest. It was a few inches narrower than before. He felt his biceps and triceps and found them slightly diminished as well. As a lifelong athlete, Batman had an intimate sense of his physique, so this change was extremely disturbing. He nearly fell into another panic.

Soon a key rustled in the door. John Quigley entered and took off his coat and hat. He saw Batman leaning on the counter and Catwoman sleeping in a booth.

“Uh, you folks done what you need?” he asked.

We’re done,” said Batman. “May I use your phone?

“Sure.”

Batman moved the handset under his arm and lifted his hands to the dial. His fingers trembled, but with one hand steadying the other, he slowly dialed a number. It rang twelve times before the call was picked up.

Batman wrestled the handset to his ear. “Check beta-alpha-tau. Yes. Yes. Run Protocol Dust-7. No. Yes. Thank you.” He hung up. Batman had a thought and turned to John. “Do you know the number for a taxi service?

“Yeah, but please,” John reached for the handset. “Let me make the call. Watching you dial is giving me arthritis.”

Thanks. Have them come in twenty minutes.

Batman plodded back to the booth. Catwoman slept with her head in her arms. He let himself watch her for a few moments. He could see her nose and lips move slightly with each breath, and he smiled as a loose hair near her mouth blew back and forth. He folded the sling to hide the stolen book.

Taking his eyes away, the Dark Knight focused all his grit and ingenuity on buckling his belt. It took two minutes. Putting his gloves back on was marginally easier. He watched Catwoman sleep a little longer, then he forced his legs to turn and take a seat at the counter.

John was tidying up. “Can I get you anything?” he asked.

Batman considered ordering a coffee but knew he would spill it. “No thanks.

“Uh-huh.”

They shared the silence for a few minutes. Batman had a thought and asked, “How long is your shift?

“Another four hours.”

May I ask a favor?

“Can’t hurt to ask.”

Selina needs to rest. Please keep your shop closed while she’s sleeping. If she’s still asleep by the end of your shift, then call her a cab, help her in, and pay her fee. I’ll make this well worth your trouble.

“I can do that. But your money’s no good with me. Selina’s a friend. Besides, I think she already paid my rent for next year.” He pulled the strange banknotes out of his pocket and scratched his head. “At least I hope these are worth something. I’m not even sure how to turn funny money into cash.”

Batman was irritated by this undoubtedly stolen currency, but he answered calmly. “The exchange rate is about two dollars per franc. You can convert them at an airport or a large bank. The banks have lower fees.

“Two for one, huh?” John did some mental math and thumbed his stack. “Thanks!

Batman nodded. They waited in companionable silence until his taxi arrived. Batman stole one final look at Catwoman as he plodded out the door. The taxi idled at the curb. He gripped the door handle with both hands, yanked it open, and crumpled inside.

The driver looked back over his shoulder. “Yo, what’ll it be?”

Boyle Auxiliary Coal Plant,” said Batman.

The driver squinted at him and rubbed his gums. “Wait a minute. Are you Batman?”

Yes.

“Hey, you sent my son to the hoosegow! He won’t be out for ten years.”

And?

“He was a no-good twerp. This ride’s on the house.”

Thanks.

The driver faced foward and began to drive. “Hey, don’t you have a cape? I heard you had a cape.”

I lost it.

“Sheesh, no one’s safe in this economy.”
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
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Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Author's Note:

This is the second to last chapter of Batman 1939: Three's Company.

This novel has been fun, and not only in disappointing the four people who want a Batman/Three's Company crossover. It was started in the early days of the Covid pandemic, in the hopes of offering a little distraction. I hope it succeeded for you.

I've made a post on my website, www.fredwattswrites.com, soliciting comments on what to blog about. If you are interested in seeing more of my writing, subscribe and let me know.

I will post the last chapter on Sunday the 27th. Afterward, I will be sharing details on my next novel, and might make some final comments on this series, so stay tuned.
---
Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 22: Feeling Like a New Man​

The taxi stopped to the gates of the Boyle Auxiliary Coal Plant. It was a sprawling industrial site crowded with sheds, furnaces, conveyor belts, chimneys, and piles and piles of coal. The Boyle Power Company only operated the plant to satisfy peak demand from local businesses. On a weekend night, it was as dark and quiet as a tomb.

The land around the dark plant was abandoned or undeveloped, a field of trash and ruins. The nearest lit property was a quarter mile away. The taxi headlights were the only illumination here besides the moon. There were no other cars in sight.

The driver looked uneasily as Batman stepped out of the taxi. “You sure this is where you want dropped off, bud?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think you’ll find many cabs in this neighborhood. Especially at this hour.”

Batman said nothing. The driver shrugged. He put the taxi into gear and drove off, leaving Batman standing in a cloud of exhaust.

Batman knew the Boyle Power Company no longer hired security to watch inactive properties. They found it cheaper to pay off the gangs who ran the looting rackets. Batman also knew the plant blew soot and coal dust high in the air, so high that the particles snowed down long after the machines stopped and the workers went home. He knew this soot was excellent at capturing footprints and tire tracks. Any impressions in the pristine black “snow” meant someone had trespassed after Friday’s last shift.

Batman had recovered enough dexterity to pull out his flashlight. He couldn’t push the switch, so he smacked it against his chin. This worked perfectly. The beam illuminated the thick dust at his feet, and he found tracks showing one car had pulled up to the gate and stopped. Then a cluster of footprints appeared near the gate handle. He recognized the tire marks and the footprints. He also knew that the lock was broken, and indeed the gate swung open when he shouldered it. He entered and found the car had entered but quickly stopped again, with more footsteps appearing to close the gate. Batman left the gate open.

He stumbled through the plant, following the tire tracks. They led to an open shed hidden in the shadow of several furnaces. An old Buick coupe was parked inside. Alfred Pennyworth ahead of it. Beyond his regular suit and coat, he wore a flat cap and driving gloves.

He nodded at Batman. “Sir.”

Batman nodded in return. “Alfred.” He smacked his flashlight off against his chin. “Any problems?”

Alfred opened the passenger door. “I circled the lot not ten minutes ago. Unless any would-be observers can fly, we’re quite alone.”

“I’m afraid that’s possible, but we’ll risk it.”

“Sir?”

“Long story.”

With Alfred’s help, Batman fell into the passenger seat. Alfred shut the door behind him and entered the driver seat. He started the ignition.

Alfred drove the Buick out of the shed. “Well?” he asked

Batman answered in well-drilled staccato, “Bruising across the head. Moderate blood loss.”

Alfred waited. When he realized Batman had finished talking, he glanced across the car. “Was there anything else?”

Batman nearly chuckled. “Not anymore.”

“I confess I’m not sure what you mean.”

Batman didn’t answer. He watched the sky as they passed the gate and turned onto the road. Finally, he said, “I encountered magic again tonight.”

“Oh my.”

“It was difficult. It’s been a difficult night, Alfred. If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to rest.”

Alfred glanced over again. “Go right ahead, sir. I’ll see us home.”

“Thank you, Alfred.”

Batman closed his eyes and was asleep in an instant.

Since arriving at Shadowcrest, Batman had been shaken for hours by rage, doubt, dismay, and dread. His mind was stressed. His body was strained. His ethics were tested. His affections were abused. His loyalties were challenged. His most fundamental beliefs were undone. He had suffered terrible wounds. Perhaps he had died. He had briefly been a tree.

Batman was human, and a human cannot suffer forever. The cost must be paid. He was not yet home, but riding next to Alfred made him feel safe enough to finally relax. The sudden lack of tension forced his body to acknowledge just how tired he was. He slept better than he had in months.
—​
Meanwhile, in one of the oceans.

When Lord Felix of Faust cast his wicked magic on the two Gotham City police officers patrolling the Lisbon Building, they were sent on a surreal journey through time and space. They experienced lifetimes of adventures, knowing love and loss, glory and humility, and all the many-splendored secrets of the self and the cosmos, until they realized these rival ideas were never in opposition. All was one, and the two men were enlightened.

Then they returned to our time and planet and promptly forgot all of that.

The cop with the mustache was named Earl. The balding cop was named Eugene. They woke up somewhere they didn’t recognize and couldn’t remember the past evening. This was not a new experience for either man. They could tell this place was dim and clammy, and the floor against their faces was a rough sandstone.

Earl tried to stand, but he lost his balance and hit a wall. “Ow. What happened?”

Eugene remained on his back and gently moaned. “My skull feels like it’s been rolled into a pie crust.”

Earl laid down. “I’ve passed kidney stones that hurt less than that.”

“My divorces hurt less than that.”

“Even Jenny?”

“One of my divorces hurt less than that.”

“At least we’re alive.”

“Got to appreciate the little things.”

“I want you to know that I love you, man.”

“I tolerate you.”

After some additional grumbling, Eugene managed to stand. He found himself face to face with an orca. The orca wagged its dorsal fin then swam away. Eugene reached out and discovered that what he thought was a wall was instead a bubble, as clear as glass but as pliant as rubber. Beyond it was an endless blue-green ocean. Far below was a rocky seabed with coral forests. A school of tuna passed overhead.

“Get up, Earl. You’ll want to take a gander at this.”

Earl was peering at the floor, which was embedded with thousands of tiny shells. He eventually stood and whistled when he saw the ocean. “Don’t that beat all?”

The two officers were so engrossed by the marvelous sight, they didn’t notice the footsteps behind them, or the end of the heavy trident planted on the floor.

A booming voice caught their attention. “Who trespasses in my domain?

Earl and Eugene looked at each other.

“Uh-oh!”
—​
At stately Wayne Manor.

Batman woke up alone in his main garage. Batman looked around. Seeing familiar walls and some of his favorite cars put him at ease. Being here gave him a sense of distance from his many anxieties. He would reflect on his problems at his own pace. He had made it through; that was a victory.

Batman tried to open his car door, but he lacked the strength.

Soon Alfred appeared pushing a wheelchair. He opened the Buick and held out a hand.

Batman grabbed it. “I can walk, Alfred. The chair is unnecessary.”

“Humor me, sir.” Alfred helped him into the wheelchair. “Don’t want your boots tracking soot into the house.”

“Very well. Please take me to the nearest guest suite with a stocked wardrobe. I won’t be visiting the Cave.”

“Too many stairs, one supposes.”

“Not only that. I’m afraid I’m going to need you to shut down the Cave tonight.”

“Pardon?”

“I’d like you to fill a box with all refrigerated chemicals and samples from the laboratory, then bring them up and store them in the kitchen refrigerator.”

“Whatever for?”

“I was threatened tonight by a giant magical bat. It knows where we live.”

“Indeed?”

“The bat doesn’t like the noise we make down there. Once the refrigerated items are secured, shut off all power in the Cave.”

Alfred’s voice wavered. “Does that mean that your, I mean, that you’ve given up the-”

Batman coldly shook his head. “I’m giving up nothing. I’ll soundproof the Cave when I’m able. Until then, I’ll work in the manor. Please handle the Cave and return when you’re finished.”

“Very well, sir.”

Alfred walked off at a brisk pace, leaving Batman alone to watch a dark window.

When Alfred returned ten minutes later, Batman was still in the wheelchair. His gloves were on the floor, and his hands were shaking.

Alfred rushed over. “Are you feeling poorly, Master Bruce?”

Batman looked at his shaking hands. “Right as rain, Alfred. I just remembered something funny.”

“What did you remember?” Alfred checked Batman’s pulse.

Batman flinched. Alfred noticed the flesh of Batman’s hand was soft and unscarred. Batman let out a hitching breath while his hand continued to shake. Alfred was mystified.

When Batman caught his breath, he said, “I performed surgery tonight. The patient made it. You would’ve been proud of me.” His hands shook harder as he spoke. “I was so nervous, Alfred. It’s easier operating on myself. The stakes are lower.” Batman chuckled. “The funny thing is that I forget. Until just now, I forgot that I performed surgery tonight.”

“You must have had quite the eventful night to forget that.”

Batman nodded. “Please help me remove my suit.”

Alfred wheeled Batman into the suite bathroom so any soot would fall on the tiles. He unlaced and removed Batman’s boots, then applied the solvent to unglue the cowl from his scalp. Batman stood, and together they removed the rest of the outfit until he only wore briefs.

Alfred noticed from the start that the suit was oddly loose, and he watched with mounting horror as they stripped it off, revealing a healthy, unremarkable body. Bruce stared down at himself, his face unreadable. Alfred treated a few cuts and bruises along Bruce’s head, then he fetched slippers and a red dressing gown from the wardrobe. Once Bruce was clad, Alfred pushed him back into the bedroom.

Bruce’s hands had stopped shaking. He patted the silk of the dressing gown, enjoying the texture. “Alfred, please find a pen and paper. I’d like you to take some dictation, as I can’t hold a pen at the moment.”

Alfred went to a side table. “Found one, sir.”

“Then take note: in the morning, please schedule me a full medical examination.”

“How urgent is this appointment, sir?”

Bruce understood what Alfred meant by ‘urgent’. When he needed outside medical care, he sought help as far away as possible: ideally out of the country, preferably out of state, and only in Gotham in emergencies.

Bruce looked at his hands. “Not urgent, but I want a complete checkup, including all x-rays and appointments with skeletal and muscular specialists.”

“Understood.”

“Please get in touch with some produce wholesalers. Find their bulk rates and where they deliver. We’re going to be purchasing a lot of fruit.”

Alfred finished writing. “Noted.”

“Then look into doing the same with insects.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m not sure where one acquires bulk packaged insects. Maybe try zoos or fishing suppliers. We’re looking for thousands per week. Find me some options.”

“May I ask why?”

“The giant bat said so.”

“Ah.”

“Cancel all appointments tomorrow. Let’s meet after breakfast and review my schedule for the next week. I suspect I’ll need you to cancel most of it, but we’ll decide that on a case by case basis. I suppose it will depend on how much coordination I’ve recovered.”

“Will do, sir.”

“Please invite over a tailor as soon as possible. Find one who has never seen me. I’ll need half a dozen new outfits in my new size as an emergency measure. We’ll go shopping to fill the rest of my wardrobe as my recovery permits.”

“I already have a man in mind.”

“Move my current wardrobe into storage. I’ll develop into my old size again if at all possible.”

“Will do.”

“In the next few days, submit an order to the landscaper. I’d like trees planted in the corner of the west lawn between the sundial and the forest.”

“Any details you’d like to include?”

“Yes. Plant one hundred saplings and young trees in irregular rows. Aim for a natural-looking distribution. Local species are fine. Here is the critical detail: the first fifty plants should have a trunk diameter under three inches. The next thirty plants should be three to five inches in diameter. The remaining twenty should be six to eight inches in diameter.”

“I’ll ensure he knows.”

“Also, please rent us a wood chipper. And try to think of productive uses for wood chips around the house.”

“Master Bruce, if there’s loose timber in the yard, the landscaper can remove it.”

“There isn’t, but there will be.”

Alfred politely shrugged. “Very well.”

“I’m going to dictate a note. I’d like it sent to Sergeant Gordon’s desk in the morning. When you send it, please use our standard encryption and invisible ink.”

“Proceed.”

“Sergeant Gordon, the Lisbon fire was arson. The culprits have fled to a … foreign jurisdiction, but they have been caught for other crimes and punished with an indefinite prison sentence, possibly for life. In the unlikely event they are paroled, I don’t believe they will return. I have made contacts who should warn me if they do.

“The tools used in their arson were highly unusual, and I have no material evidence to prove the crime. I’m afraid that if the full story were reported through official channels, it would be met with skepticism and only ruin the credibility of the messenger.

“Unfortunately, I have discovered that other criminals possess these strange tools. This small group seems preoccupied with harassing each other and ignores strangers, so they are unlikely to target the public. However, bystanders may be caught in the crossfire of their private conflicts. This was the case for the Lisbon.

“I have been hurt, and will need an uncertain amount of time to recover. I will contact you when I’m fit to resume active investigations. Then I will seek to learn how their strange tools operate and determine whether members of this group remain in Gotham. As stated above, I fear the GCPD and other public bodies are unprepared to acknowledge their existence, let alone confront them. If I find more, we must be ready to subdue the next one without institutional support.

“Again, I stress I am unaware of any at large, but we should be prepared. If you know of officers you trust to be loyal, discreet, open-minded, and comfortable with extrajudicial punishment, I encourage you to make a list. We may need all the help we can get.”

As Alfred finished writing, Bruce coughed. “Could I get some water, Alfred?”

“Of course, sir.”

Alfred returned to find Bruce had pulled himself onto the bed. Bruce took the water and sipped.

“Turning in for the night, Master Bruce?” asked Alfred.

“I think so.”

“Need a hand with the sheets?”

“I’ll manage.”

Alfred nodded and headed for the door. “Kind dreams, then.”

“Wait, Alfred,” said Bruce.

Alfred turned. “Sir?”

“I’ll tell you the story tomorrow. Everything I can describe, at least.” Bruce lowered his head to the pillow and covered his eyes with his arm. “God help me, I don’t understand any of it.”

“I’ll lend an ear whenever you’re ready.”

“Well, there’s something I need to tell you now.”

“Please do.”

“Tonight I met Giovanni Zatara.”

“Your old magic tutor? We discussed him just yesterday.”

“That’s right. Hard to believe that was only yesterday.” Bruce sighed. “It’s been longer for me than you, though.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll explain tomorrow.”

“Well, how is Mr. Zatara?”

“Mr. Zatara is a mystery. I know he’s better than he was yesterday.”

“What brings him to mind?”

“I feel this shouldn’t wait. Alfred, he knows I’m Batman.”

“Oh.” Alfred clasped his hands uncomfortably. “You don’t seem distressed.”

“I haven’t had time to reflect on it,” said Bruce. “I’m not happy, but my gut reaction is we’re safe.”

“So you trust him as a confidant?”

“In a manner of speaking. He let it slip just as I was leaving. I’m not sure why. I don’t think he was threatening me. He didn’t hint that he expected anything, and he didn’t expose me to our companions. In fact, he claimed earlier in the same conversation that he respected my secrets.”

“That’s comforting.”

“It’s confusing. But I do think he holds me in high regard. Tonight I was partly responsible for saving his life, saving his daughter’s life, and saving his house.”

“That’s excellent!”

Bruce shrugged, unimpressed with himself. “I also played a role in rescuing his wife, which I believe he supports, but their relationship is ambiguous.”

“Can you fathom how Mr. Zatara learned your identity?”

“Yes. I suspect he discovered me when I studied with him as a teenager. Giovanni is supernaturally resourceful, and he had good reason to scrutinize a stranger who wanted to enter his life. My false identities were less robust then, and I was a rank amatuer at avoiding surveillance. I wouldn’t be surprised if he discovered he was teaching Bruce Wayne.”

“And he never mentioned this?” asked Alfred.

“He didn’t,” said Bruce. “He used my false name every day.”

“I suppose you can trust a magician to keep a secret. But how did he discover Batman?”

“Tonight his daughter recognized me by my old false identity. Just a stroke of bad luck. She told Giovanni I was his old student, and he must have remembered who his old student really was.”

“I see.” Alfred was glad Bruce wasn’t agonizing over this twist of fate. “Thank you for letting me know, sir. Despite this surprise, I believe I’ll sleep easy tonight.”

“Goodnight then, Alfred.”

“Goodnight, Master Bruce.”

Alfred walked out and shut the door behind him.

Bruce stared at the door. He hadn’t mentioned the twenty years of killing. He would tell Alfred, but tonight he didn’t know what to say.
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Author's Note:

This is the final chapter of Batman 1939: Three's Company, and, in all likelihood, the final chapter in the Batman 1939 series.

I will share some closing notes here in a few days, including details about my next writing project. If you're interested, follow my website, www.fredwattswrites.com.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy.
---
Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 23: The Adventure Continues
Three weeks later. Late afternoon. Gotham City.

Every working class neighborhood in Gotham had gangs. Like all delinquents, they enjoyed skipping school, stealing candy, vandalizing trains, chasing dogs, lighting fires, and other lawless pastimes. But their favorite pastime was to fight.

That didn’t mean it was anarchy. There were rules. Gangs fought other gangs, and it was proper to set a place and time. So long as the fights didn’t involve bystanders or end in the hospital, the community turned a blind eye.

Last year, the Lowell Street Gang broke the rules. They first rocked the boat when they fought their neighboring gangs more often than was polite. Then they fought all their neighbors’ neighboring gangs. Then things turned nasty. Some Lowell Street boys, ages fourteen to seventeen, brawled with a crew of longshoremen at a pool hall. They picked fights with railroad guards and loan sharks. The boys were often hurt or arrested, but the minute they were back on the street, they were back to fighting. They were insatiable. It was a miracle they still had all their eyes and limbs, but everyone knew their luck would end one way or another, including Batman.

Normally, Batman wasn’t concerned with boys fighting, but he made an exception for the Lowell Street Gang. He had a simple plan to scare them straight. When Batman appeared in their hideout, he expected the gang to cry and run. When they saw him, they all attacked. He gently swept the first attackers to the floor. As he dealt with the next pair, the original attackers stood and attacked again. The gang rushed Batman for three minutes before he wore them out.

Fighting is painful and exhausting. Any child who earnestly attacks a large adult for three minutes despite having no chance to prepare, despite every attack being stopped cold, and despite the opponent being Batman, really loves to fight. Batman won the battle, but his plan was hopeless. They weren’t going to stop and take up baseball.

A truce was called, and they got to talking. Batman suggested the boys join a boxing gym. They explained they had no money, and all the gyms thought they were hooligans, particularly after they had tried to fight several gyms. The conversation quickly wound towards a solution: Batman agreed to teach them.

The boys haggled on the details, but they shook hands soon enough. The Lowell Street Gang would all stay in school or keep an honest job. When they fought, they would only fight other boys, and only by the most gentlemanly street rules. This meant no weapons, no cheap shots, and only on grass. Otherwise, the gang would commit no crimes. And if they had knowledge of criminal activity, they would snitch to Batman.

In exchange, Batman would train them to fight for two hours every two months. If that sounded meager, to Gotham boys it was like getting legal advice from Abe Lincoln or doing bible study with the Pope. The lessons have run smoothly ever since.

Batman expected this program would be entirely a burden: a small sacrifice for charity. But he discovered that teaching brought two unexpected benefits. First, his students proved an excellent source for crime tips. Second, he finally had sparring partners.

The Caped Crusader fought often, but he couldn’t practice his martial art systematically while on the job. A mob enforcer wouldn’t stand still and let him practice fifty side kicks. A corrupt safety inspector wouldn’t join him for a rules-compliant collegiate wrestling match. And it was impractical for him to get in the ring in his other identity: too many risks and not enough time. Batman was forced to train alone; this was limiting to say the least.

But the older boys in the Lowell Street Gang were capable sparring partners, and they were more than eager to prove it. Batman kept this restrained, of course, but there were many valuable drills short of a full force bout. And when the rest of the gang watched, these drills made superb demonstrations.

At the moment, Batman was surrounded by eighteen boys on a decommissioned subway platform. The group was growing each class; friends from other gangs were tagging along. He’d need to talk to them about that. The boys wore boxing gloves and headgear and stood on a large grid of plywood.

Next to Batman was a nineteenth boy, Paul, one of his largest students. Paul waited with his fists up. Batman’s cape was folded in the corner, and he wore a softer version of his gloves without armor or spikes. He had their full attention as he spoke.

You can spot a boxer is his mastery of the jab. Among the basic punches, the jab is the fastest, the least tiring, and sacrifices the least balance or defense. Watch my feet.” Batman turned and threw three identical jabs into Paul’s guard. “I’m pushing with my rear foot and rotating my hips.” He threw three more jabs. ”My legs and torso contribute most of the force. My arms are quick because they stay loose. Not entirely loose: there is finesse in the position and tension of your arms through the strike. But for now, we can still develop an effective jab by practicing footwork and keeping our arms fairly loose. Paul, did it hurt to block me?

“No,” said Paul.

No. Jabs aren’t hammers. Some boxers have a jab with knockout power, but its main uses are to control the space of the fight and limit your opponent’s choices. Jabs can measure distance, create distance, stun, disorient, and counterpunch. I’ll demonstrate what that looks like.

Batman nodded, and Paul shuffled forward to attack. Batman stayed fairly stationary and largely defended with jabs. Paul readied several punches only for Batman to frustrate each with a faster jab to the arm or chin. Then, instead of stopping punches, Batman slipped or ducked them, and countered with jabs, punishing each miss. When Paul advanced, Batman leaned in and jabbed him mid-step. Paul had the longer arm span, but these little pushes had the uncanny effect of keeping Paul just out of the range he needed for good contact.

Paul grew more aggressive and finally pushed through to land a crushing hook across Batman’s face. Batman stumbled back. Paul seemed shocked, and the students muttered. But Batman smiled and held up a hand. “Good.” He gathered his wits and continued the lecture. “And that’s why it isn't wise to stand still. What is the key to boxing?

“Footwork!” cheered the students.

Footwork. Stay moving. Jabs can be thrown for full effect while advancing, retreating, sidestepping, and pivoting.” Batman nodded at one of the students in the circle. “One minute.

The student tapped a bell.

Paul moved to attack again. Batman still responded exclusively with jabs, but now he moved freely, dodging most of Paul’s strikes by sidestepping and weaving. Batman launched jabs at interesting angles, catching Paul by surprise and impressing the class. Batman didn’t always connect, and several of Paul’s punches landed, adding tension to the fight.

Batman wasn’t going easy on the kid; he was too slow to dominate the way he used to. He had regained basic bodily control in the weeks since his mystic transformation, but his muscles and lungs had only those of a common man. Years of aggressive conditioning were lost. He was especially eager to teach today. He needed a controlled environment to test himself now more than ever. He had to learn what his new body could do before he could trust it on the street.

After a minute of boxing, the bell rang again. Batman was breathing heavily. “Thank you, Paul.” Paul returned to the circle of students. Batman waited until his breathing slowed. “Remember, this is Queensberry rules boxing. It’s designed for padded gloves. I encourage you to wear gloves anywhere you might fight. If you aren’t wearing gloves, then don’t aim for your opponent’s head with a closed fist. You probably know that a barehanded punch to the skull can hurt your hand, but you should also avoid your opponent’s mouth. Their teeth can easily cut your hand and cause infections.

A student raised his hand. “Oi, what if he ain’t got teef?”

I don’t see how you could be certain of that.

“Cause he takes his dentures out.”

Batman considered this. “I suppose that’s fine.

“Neato.”

Batman pointed at a spot on the floor. “Everyone, line up facing the wall. Keep your guard up. Throw five jabs while advancing. Pivot. Throw five jabs while retreating. Then-”

Suddenly, there was a flash of blue light. Zatanna Zatara appeared. She wore a wool coat over a paisley dress. She heard shouts and noticed the crowd of sweaty young men in boxing bear gawking at her. She was equally shocked in return.

Zatanna?” said Batman with restraint as he put away two batarangs.

Zatanna gave him an embarrassed wave. “Am I interrupting something?”

Batman gave his class a quick order, “Pair up. Light sparring until I get back.” The boys were still in disbelief, but they knew Batman didn’t ask twice. They spread out and started hitting each other.

Batman led Zatanna briskly to the end of the platform behind a ticket booth where they had a modicum of privacy.

Zatanna folded her arms and looked up at him. “Hi.”

Several expressions tried to reach Batman’s face, but he kept it blank. “Zatanna.

“That’s my name.” She started to chuckle but it died on her lips. “Sorry for dropping by unannounced. I was going to call, but you made it sound like I was only supposed to call if I was in danger, and I’m not in danger - not really - and I wanted to respect your rule, and I guess doing it this way felt more respectful.” She looked away. “And now that I’m saying it out loud, I realize that sounds like an odd conclusion.”

Batman’s features softened slightly. “It’s fine, Zatanna. How did you get here?

“Magic. I’m learning magic. Didn’t I mention that? Real mage magic.” She wiggled her fingers. “The spooky type.”

Batman kept his voice calm. “You can find me using magic?

Something in his tone alarmed her, because she held up her hands innocently. “Don’t worry! I can only do it once. See, I needed your blood. You left some in the study, but only enough for one go. At least with the spell I learned.“

Batman hardened his face to conceal a fresh rush of disapproval, which Zatanna misinterpreted as a request to continue.

“I figured I’d come in the late afternoon, since I figured people see you around town at night, and I didn’t want to interrupt you during that, but I also didn’t know if you have a job, so I didn’t want to bother you during business hours. This seemed like a good compromise.”

Batman took a steadying breath. “That’s … considerate.

Zatanna bit her lip. “Can you go easy on the voice, John? It’d be nice to hear you the old way.”

Batman studied Zatanna. She had a new look in her eyes: grim and careful and terribly tired. She might sound flustered, but this was not the shy woman he met before. He noticed her left arm was bandaged under her sleeve. Life had taken a bite out of Zatanna Zatara.

He tempered his voice. “What can I do for you?”

Zatanna relaxed an inch. “It’s good to hear you again.” She peeked around the ticket booth. “Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing here?”

“I teach boxing.”

“In the subway?”

“We vary the location.”

“I didn’t think you were ever seen before sunset.”

“It’s a school night.”

“Oh.”

“Zatanna, what is it?”

She leaned against the booth. “I came because my life is strange, and I really need someone normal to talk to, and I realized you’re the most normal person I know.” She laughed. “And that made me sad, because you’re not normal, and I don’t know you. I’d say I’m the most pitiful gal in the world, but I’m not even in the world.”

Batman tried to give her a comforting look. He looked constipated instead, but he almost managed to smile. “Wait here,” he said.

He returned to his class who was busy fighting. “Listen up.” The boys stopped and formed a new circle around Batman. He looked across the group. “I’m afraid I can’t finish our lesson today.” There were some groans from the boys, but he added, “To make it fair, I’ll teach three full lessons this month. How’s that?

The class muttered but quickly voiced their approval with claps and cheers. He nodded. “Good. I’ll contact you later to set a new schedule. Gather your equipment and get home safe.

Zatanna was watching from the corner of the ticket booth. As Batman walked back to her, more than a few of the boys whistled behind him. Zatanna blushed and hid. Batman rolled his eyes.

He reached Zatanna and asked, “Would you like to talk somewhere more comfortable?

Zatanna looked uncertain. “Actually, I’m still new at travel spells. I’ve never tried bringing another person.”

“I meant by walking,” said Batman.

“Oh.” Zatanna seemed taken aback at the concept. “No, here is fine. Maybe if we sat down?”

As his class climbed over the gate barricading the other end of the platform, Batman and Zatanna found a bench and sat.

Batman glanced at her bandage. “May I ask what happened to your arm?”

“Oh, nothing.” Zatanna looked down and scratched her arm. “Remember that Little Mage’s First Primer series we found? Most got burned up, but dad knew about another partial set in the library. The problem is it’s French. We all know a little French, so we’ve been translating the first volume together, but I guess there’s some details lost in translation because I’ve had a couple accidents. This time I was trying to heat a cup of tea and my arm caught on fire.”

“I’m-” Batman’s throat tightened. Eventually, he muttered, “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Oh, it’s fine. Nothing you did. Heck, better French than none at all.”

Batman tightened his fists and ground them into his knees. “Aren’t there other books you can study?”

“Ha. Millions. But without a house spirit, the library has no librarian. Finding what you want is like winning the lottery. There’s a card catalog, but, let’s just say it’s unfriendly.”

Batman forced his hands to relax. “I see.”

Zatanna noticed his tension and jumped to conclusions. “I am sorry for popping in like this, John. I guess you like your privacy. You know, because of the mask, and, uh, silence.” Zatanna clasped her hands between her legs and looked away. “I miss being a traveling magician. I’ve always been more comfortable in-costume. Life’s messy, but I’m in control onstage. At least then I know what I’m about. Gosh, I haven’t worn one a stage costume since mom stole mine. That’s what, a month? Month and a half?”

Batman frowned at her. “It’s only been three weeks.”

“Right!” Zatanna rubbed her eyes. “Time is funny in Shadowcrest. I lose track.” She groaned. “I can barely stand it there some days. Did you know I’ve found nineteen bathrooms so far? And only one has modern plumbing. Do you know what happens to the waste when you use the other eighteen toilets?”

“No.”

“Neither do I! Each sits above a portal to another dimension! What if there are people in that dimension? What if they get angry at me? I’m scared to use them. And don’t get me wrong, these are nice toilets. One is made of ivory. Guess what kind of ivory.”

“Elephant?”

“Walrus. Ask me how I know.”

“How do-”

“Because I met the walrus. His name’s Cadbury, and he lives in an underground pond beneath the wine cellar and eats clams. His tusks grow so fast that he sheds them twice a week and he spends all his time carving furniture out of his own tusks and he likes dirty jokes.”

“Zatanna-”

“The whole house is ridiculous. I can’t reach half the rooms because they’re upside-down or only exist on leap years. We still haven’t cleaned up from Faust’s mess. Did you know a big part of the library destroyed itself? Scraps of paper everywhere. And it’s always night. I’m sick of the night. You know, I researched how to change the sky to daylight - I figured it’s not the actual sky, so there must be a way to switch it - and I discovered it’s a switch. A big switch, bigger than me, in the middle of a random bedroom. But there’s a warning label that the switch may release minotaurs into the house. Minotaurs, plural. Do you know what a minotaur is?”

“Vaguely. It’s a monster from Greek myth.”

“Yeah. It looks less mythical on a warning label. Apparently, whether or not the switch releases minotaurs depends on the current phases of the moons when you flip it. Moons, plural. All the moons in the solar system. Do you know how many moons are in the solar system?” Batman began calculating, but Zatanna interrupted, “Too many! How am I supposed to figure that out? I want daylight, but it’s just not worth the risk.”

“Is this the first time you’ve left Shadowcrest?”

“No, but we only leave to go grocery shopping, which for some reason we have to do in Switzerland. Dad doesn’t think it’s safe to spend too much time away or go alone. He doesn’t know I’m here.”

Batman casually asked, “How is your father?”

Zatanna suddenly stood and paced. Her voice turned stark. “John, I needed to talk because I’m scared I’m losing my mind. I’m stuck in this giant house learning all these wild lessons. And everything’s dangerous, and my pets are my cousins. And I get to spend all this time with my dad, and I love him, but I can’t look at him the same way because I know he killed people my whole life. And it was to protect me, but I don’t know. And I’m scared my evil mom will find me, and I want to see my evil mom again, and I don’t know what else. I keep having nightmares. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. Do you have any idea what that does to you?”

Batman also stood but said nothing.

She spun and looked at him. “Well?”

He couldn’t meet her gaze and looked down. “Exercise helps.”

“What?”

Batman spoke softly, “The nightmares. Try running, swimming; the activity doesn’t matter. But you have to press on until it hurts. That stops the nightmares. Sometimes.”

“How long have you needed that?”

“Longer than I’ve known you.”

Zatanna sniffed and wiped her nose. “Here I am gushing again. You must think I’m a regular waterworks.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s kind of you to play dumb.” She sniffed again. “You didn’t ask for me. You probably want to be out there punching people, or teaching children how to punch people. You don’t need me complaining after everything you’ve done for me.”

“Zatanna-”

“I’m no better than last time.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You and Catwoman were incredible. You fell into these impossible problems and made it look easy. Both of you were beautiful. I was useless, just crying all night. I usually don’t cry. Honest! When I’m on tour, I can go days without feelings, and I’m almost always on tour.” She sobbed. “Or I used to be.”

Batman sat again on the bench. “Zatanna, please.” He pointed at the side beside him.

She took the seat. “I can’t seem to stop thinking about that night. I was so confused and frightened and angry-”

“Of course you were,” said Batman. “And you were brilliant.”

Zatanna hesitated and looked at him. “What does that mean?”

Batman looked back at her. “Zatanna, I meet people on the worst night of their life. They’re all frightened and angry, and that’s perfectly understandable. But many also turn selfish or callous or paranoid or cruel. Maybe that’s understandable too, but it hurts to watch. These are good people, but something breaks, and that’s all they have underneath: smallness of spirit.”

Batman lifted a hand and slowly, when she didn’t move away, placed it on hers. “Zatanna, you didn’t break. You were faced with the same problems, and again and again you were compassionate and patient when you had every reason to be mean. Even when it risked your life. That takes tremendous strength of character. I hope there’s a part of you that appreciates that, because I do.”

Zatanna broke into a fresh stream of tears, which she tried to stem with her other hand. She finally managed to mutter, “You’re just being nice.”

“I couldn’t have done better. You had to endure so many painful discoveries and dilemmas, and in the end, you saved us. I’d say you had a more challenging night.”

She laughed through her tears. “You were a tree.”

“Yes.”

“You’re a queer duck, you know that?”

“I’ve been called worse.”

They sat a minute, several of his fingers resting on several of hers. Every so often, she sniffed and rubbed her face.

On a sudden whim, she gestured at his suit. “Why ‘Batman’? Why do you do this?”

Batman responded in a thoughtful voice. “I can’t tolerate people being hurt. I have to help, and this is the only way that makes sense.”

“Ever try a soup kitchen?”

He very nearly smiled. “How is being a magician? You’re a celebrity, after all.”

“Celebrity? That’s funny. You could count on two hands the people who know my name with enough fingers left over for the king to drink tea. You’re a bigger celebrity than I’ll ever be.”

“You'll get there.”

Zatanna shrugged despondently. “It was fun being a magician.”

Batman looked at her again. “Zatanna, you don’t need to learn this kind of magic.”

She sighed. “I knew you’d say that. While I was building up the courage to see you these past few days, I spent so much time thinking how I’d respond to that. Why do I stay? First I decided that dad and my cousins were right, and I needed magic to protect myself. What if Faust comes back, or some other meanie finds me? They keep saying I should at least learn enough to resurrect the house spirit and learn some good defenses. Then I’ll be safe enough. Maybe they’re right.

“But then I thought, is that my real reason? The real reason is that I want to learn magic to heal mom. Dad hasn’t come out and said it, but I know he wants it too. He wants it so bad, but he’s not a mage. It’s up to me. They say anything is possible with magic if you learn enough. Even if it takes twenty years, I’ll figure it out. I don’t think I’d forgive myself if I don’t at least try. Because she’s my mom. I mean, wouldn’t you? To save your mom?”

Batman looked troubled, but before he could respond, Zatanna closed her eyes and confessed, “But between you and me, even that’s not the whole truth.” She cleared her throat. “I wasn’t going to say this, but even if all those other reasons weren't around, I just like it.”

“Like what?”

“Casting a spell makes me feel powerful. It’s like the best tricks I ever pulled on stage and then some. Magic is-” She kissed her fingertips. “Incredible. You remember how I hated school? Well, the easiest spell is ten times harder than any book report, but I’ll study ten hours straight just to get it right. There’s so much danger, but there’s such a thrill at the end. Don’t you love a little danger? And the satisfaction of it!” She shivered. “I love feeling like I can do anything. I feel like I’m a bird and I finally noticed I have wings.”

Zatanna’s mood had changed from despair to glee in a few sentences, and Batman found the grin on her tear-stained face unsettling. He considered his next words very carefully.

“Zatanna,” he said in a serious tone.

Her grin faltered. “Yes, John?”

“A long time ago, I told you it wouldn’t be right to share my life. That’s still true. There are many things I can’t tell you. But I was wrong to think in absolutes. I can’t share my entire life, but I hope I can share a little.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Our lives are strange, and they’re getting stranger. I think that puts us in a unique place to understand each other. Whatever choices you make, I want to help. I’m glad you came here tonight. If you have a problem, or you feel anxious, or you just need a friendly ear, I’ll be there. Never hesitate to ask.”

Zatanna sniffed again and swallowed. “That’s a swell thing to say. Are you sure? You have lots of people to help. You are Batman.”

“It’s not charity. This may come as a surprise, but I don’t have many people to talk to. And there are times even I need advice. If you aren’t too busy. I may not show it, but I do enjoy when we talk.”

She smiled and covered her mouth. “That might work.”

“Was there anything you wanted to talk through now?”

“That’d be nice, but I really should get going. I bet dad’s going crazy looking for me, especially with the time difference.”
Batman nodded. “I understand.”

“I’ll have to convince him it’s not the end of the world if I leave more often. Can I call sometime?”

“Whenever you’d like.”

“By the way, what’s Catwoman up to?”

“We haven’t spoken.”

“Shame. You two make quite a team.” Zatanna said this airly, but kept an eye on his reaction.

“We’re not affiliated,” he said with indifference.

“I’d be nice to thank her again. Think she’d be willing to stay in touch?”

“Probably not.”

“Oh well.” Zatanna stood and waved her hands in a circle. “HTAP OT EHT NOBSIL!

A swirling blue vortex appeared in front of her.

“Eht nobsil,” muttered Batman as he stood. “You’re going to the Lisbon?”

“That’s right. It’s a long story, but we can’t move the door in dad’s apartment. There are no spares left, and I haven’t learned how to make a new one, so it’s our only portal to Shadowcrest for now.”

“I assumed the Lisbon would be under renovation. Or demolished.”

“It won’t be. We bought it.”

“You purchased the Lisbon?”

“Yeah, besides all the other secrets dad was keeping from me, it turns out he’s been rich this whole time. Shadowcrest has all sorts of jewelry boxes and treasure chests around. Yesterday, I was trying to find some bath towels, and I found a diamond the size of my fist in a linen closet. Honestly, I was a little upset when I remembered all the times growing up that he said we had to stick to a budget. He says he didn’t want to draw attention.”

“You sold enough precious gems to afford a dense residential lot in an upscale neighborhood?”

“The lot was on sale for obvious reasons, but dad already had money in the bank. He knows all the tricks. He set up a business to purchase the deed anonymously, then the business hired contractors to make sure the building wouldn’t fall down and to refurbish the parts we use. It turns out there’s a service tunnel that runs to a cellar across the street, so we don’t even need the front door. Though so far, I’ve just used it as a landing pad when I get back from Switzerland.”

“Hm.”

“Just thinking about money gives me a strange feeling. I’m used to riding third class carriages and getting my clothes from sheriffs’ auctions.” She snapped her fingers. “Hey! We should trade rich folk tips sometime.”

“Excuse me?”

“Franklin Wash said he worked for one of your parents in their divorce. They had to be super rich.”

“You found me out.”

She patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, John, your secret is safe with me.”

“Thank you.”

“I guess if I do get out of the house, I’d need to take up yacht jousting or whatever rich people do.”

Who told her about yacht jousting? wondered Batman.

“Hey,” said Zatanna, “Can you keep a secret?”

He looked at her.

Zatanna pursed her lips. “Right, dumb question. You won’t tell anyone we talked today, will you? Please don’t.”

“Of course not.”

“It’s silly. Dad has these strict rules when we go out. I wear a disguise. I talk with an accent. I never go to the same store twice. As if every random Swiss baker is a spy for ‘mystic rivals yet unknown’, his words.” She rolled her eyes. “But I guess he survived this long, so I shouldn’t question him.”

“It’s not a problem. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thanks. It would put his mind at ease if you kept my visit between us. And twenty junior prizefighters, I guess.”

“They’ll keep their mouths shut.”

“Thanks.” Zatanna looked at the portal, then looked back at him. “Can I ask one last question?”

“Of course.”

“When you came to study with us that summer, did you already have all this in mind?” She gestured at his suit. “Were you getting ready to be Batman?”

“I hadn’t worked out the details, but yes.”

“Too young to shave, and you decided to learn stage magic to catch bootleggers”

“That’s right.”

“Did you have fun with us?”

“Fun?”

“Fun. I’m sure you’ve heard of fun.”

“I enjoyed it. Magic is an engaging game: ingenuity versus perception. I found it fascinating.”

“Do you miss it?”

“I miss seeing the tricks you’d invent.”

Zatanna raised her eyebrows. “You do?”

“You always impressed me, Zatanna. It’s a shame I haven’t seen your shows. You were fantastic as a child; I can’t imagine what you’ve achieved with fourteen years of practice.”

“Maybe we can fix that.” Zatanna smiled and walked close to Batman. “You’re right. I’m all grown up, and there is one trick I’ve been meaning to share.” She wrapped a hand behind his neck.

“Zatanna?”

“Presto!” Zatanna lightly smacked the back of his head.

Batman was confused. Then he felt a scratchy tightness in his throat. Something was lodged in his throat! He coughed, and the obstruction shifted. He coughed again and it flew out of his mouth. Zatanna caught it and held it up.

It was a creased playing card, a two of hearts, clean and dry.

Batman stared at it, then looked at her.

Zatanna winked.

—​

Meanwhile, in a mysterious location.

The ballroom was jumping, and the Champagne flowed like a stream. The big band in the middle deck played with zip and vim. Their set tended toward yesterday's hits, but the host was a little old-fashioned that way, and the band was so sharp they reminded the crowd why these were hits in the first place.

Most guests were glued to the dance floor, but the few couples who wanted to cool their heels on the balcony could enjoy the sight of a massive nebula spinning through the night. On the other side of the ballroom, a lion and an ox in tuxedos stood guard at the entrance of a dim private room. A line of guests waited nearby. One by one, the ox would beckon a guest forward for the lion to sniff. Some guests were waved inside, but most were turned away.

At the front of the line stood Sindella Zatara in a fetching gold dress. On her wrist was a ribbon tied to a tiny cage. In the cage was a cockroach. The ox beckoned her forward. She stepped ahead as the lion leaned forward to sniff her. Its hard was as large as half her body, and its breath was hot, but Sindella waited politely as it did its job. The lion spent longer on her than most guests, taking extra effort to sniff the cage tied to her wrist, but it eventually let out a yawn and waved her inside.

In the private room, Circe lounged across a plush loveseat and drank a cocktail. She looked over the rim of her glass as Sindella walked in.

Sindella curtseyed. “Lady Circe.”

Circe tapped her cheek as she studied her guest. “We’ve met. It was a long time ago, but I know we’ve met.”

“Sindella, your grace.”

Circe looked delighted and laid a hand on her chest. “Sindella Cehennem, as I live and breathe.”

The cockroach shouted, “You won’t be doing either when I’m finished with you!”

The delight on Circe’s face grew to utter ecstasy. “No! Felix?” She glowed with joy. “Felix, is that you, darling?”

“Bah!” said cockroach, “My setback is temporary, dissipated wench.”

Circe sat up and clapped with glee. “Oh, Sindella, Sindella, you have made my day! My week! No, my year!” She stood and kissed Sindella on each cheek, then pulled her to the other cushion of the loveseat. “Gerald! Drinks!”

“A waiter appeared out of a painting with a tray of cocktails. Circe lifted two and handed one to Sindella. They clinked glasses and drank.

Circe said, “Sindella, dear, what brings you here?”

“Well, your grace-”

“Pish! Call me Circe.”

Sindella smiled and lifted Faust’s cage before their eyes. “Circe, I have quite the little story to share.”

—​

One week later. Gotham City.

The King Leopold Academy of Arts was the city's smallest college. Over the past year, the Academy's School of Painting continued to struggle (while its rival, the School of Theater, still rode high on that motion pictures fad). Lately, the School of Painting was leasing space to the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program to keep artists employed. One floor of the school would be used as a community art center to exhibit the work of local painters.

The dean and faculty of the School of Painting were not thrilled. They considered their school to be a refuge for elite, sophisticated, and decidedly rich students. It rankled their sensibilities to have a gaggle of commoners stinking up the place with their welfare art thanks to that socialist Roosevelt. But the decision had been made over the dean’s head, so he had to put up with it.

As it happened, one of the classrooms used for this community art center happened to be the same classroom where Batman and Catwoman rendezvoused last December to negotiate their intrusion of Fort Morrison. It was November this time, but a cold wind still rattled the windows, and Catwoman found it all too easy to break in.

She looked around and liked what she saw. There were some bold, intriguing works here. She made a mental note of the painters’ names for the next time she went shopping. Contrary to reputation, Catwoman did purchase art, and she liked to support local up-and-comers. Perhaps she would stop by during the day.

She was lost in an art fugue when she heard his classic, “Catwoman.”

Catwoman turned. Like last time, Batman had come through the door. This time their introductions were less adversarial.

“Batman,” she said.

He nodded. They met in a stripe of moonlight on the floor.

Catwoman noticed something was different. She planted her hands on her hips and eyed him up and down. “You look slim.”

“Likewise.”

She scoffed. “Cute. Really, what happened?”

“Sindella’s healing left some changes. I had to tailor the suit.”

“Uh-huh. Well, let’s get to business. The good news: no one bothered me about the book.”

Batman grunted. “Hm.”

“Did Zatanna reach out to you?”

“No.”

“That’s a surprise. I bet she will soon.”

“We’ll see.”

“In the meantime, take a look at this.” Catwoman opened her satchel and handed him an envelope. He unwound it and slid out a stack of large, high-resolution photographs. Each was of a page in an old book. Catwoman tapped the photographs. “This is the whole Primer. You can keep the envelope. I have my own copies.”

“Where’s the original book?”

“I hid it.”

“Where?”

“Maybe it’s better you don’t know. That way you can’t be blamed. It’s far away from where I live, and I touched the thing as little as possible, in case they can track it back to me by scent or something. I thought about destroying the book, so there’s nothing to track, but I figured that might curse me, just going by fairy tale logic. And yes, I’m aware ‘fairy tale logic’ is probably a contradiction.”

“Given how little we know, I’d say caution is reasonable.” said Batman agreeably.

“Speaking of how little we know, I hope you find these photos useful. I understood a fair bit, but together we might master this nonsense.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good. I haven’t changed my mind, by the way: these wizards will be back in our lives sooner or later. It won’t be pleasant. We need to be ready next time. We need to know how to hurt them.”

“I suspect you’re right.”

“So we’re on the same page?” asked Catwoman. “We research magic and watch each other’s backs?”

Batman nodded. “We do.” He flickered his hand and a card appeared in it.

She grinned and took it. “I guess you can find my number on your own?”

“Already have.”

Catwoman pocketed the card. “By the way, did you have any luck learning about that earlier magic you mentioned?”

“It’s a work in progress.”

—​

Two weeks later. The Adriatic Sea.

The Adriatic was known as a calm sea, but tonight’s storm was as wild as any ocean squall. Sheets of rain pelted the chopping waves, while the unrelenting gale rolled thunderheads the color of steel across the sky. The world was dark in that oppressive way particular to stormy nights at sea.

A short fishing boat bobbed in the waves. Everything aboard was as dark and quiet as possible: the navigational lights were off and the engine cowling was dampened with heavy sheets. The boat had departed unseen from a cove in Montenegro and was now twelve nautical miles out to sea. It was nearly invisible in the lashing rain, but the captain took no chances. He wouldn’t even light his cigarette.

The Adriatic was an Axis lake. Its western shore was Mussolini’s Italy, and the Balkens to the east were under fascist control. The Italian Navy ruled these waves. The nearest Allied port was little Malta, over six hundred miles away. The captain found fascist domination very lucrative. He had once been a fisherman, but the war offered bold captains more valuable trade. His current deal was to ferry a passenger to a partisan camp in occupied Greece. He cared little about his passengers and saw them as little as possible.

However, even with his full attention, he wouldn’t have recognized that tonight’s passenger was Wonder Woman. She sat on the floor of the boat’s rear cabin, injured and depressed. The cabin had no windows, so she was allowed a single candle. It provided little heat, but Wonder Woman still cupped her hands near it as she listened to the thrash of rain against the cold hull.

The last of the Balkan nations had fallen to Axis forces within the past year. But the Balkens were no more governable than usual, so Rome and Berlin were trying to hold the land using an unusual reliance on local leaders. The region was a fragile patchwork of allies, puppet states, and occupation zones. This fragile situation attracted Allied intelligence services who sought to muck it up.

Lately, attention was on the Kingdom of Kaznia. The Kaznian royal family had kept their kingdom independent longer than most by teasing an interest in joining the Axis freely. Whenever the Germans sent envoys with a treaty, the Kaznians delayed with court intrigues that made it unclear who had the authority to sign. Hitler eventually grew so frustrated that he invaded Kaznia in September.

Some of the royal family surrendered, others were captured or killed in the fighting. But rumors reached American diplomats that one royal, Princess Audrey, was still hiding, and that she wished to leave and form a Kaznian government in exile. Wonder Woman had been sent to Kaznia to find Princess Audrey and bring her to safety.

Wonder Woman had failed this mission, barely escaping with her life. The Princess would soon be locked in a castle with a hundred fascist guards. She would probably be married off to some cousin to support the new puppet dynasty.

As Wonder Woman sulked, she heard a knock on the door. This was a surprise: she assumed the captain was busy at the helm. She stood and opened the door.

Outside, Batman waited in the pounding rain.

They stared silently at each other, only two feet apart. The night was so dark and her candle so dim that even so close he appeared more a shadow than a man. Wonder Woman was startled, of course. She nearly pushed him over the side. She almost screamed. She considered closing the door. But for a time she did nothing, and he seemed content to wait. The spray against her legs eventually convinced her to act, and she ushered him inside.

Batman entered the cabin, dripping streams of rain.

Diana,” he said.

Wonder Woman closed the door. “Batman,” she answered.

I met a man who claimed Circe is looking for me.

Wonder Woman’s frame tensed, but with no threats near, she could only stand rigid.

Batman let her process the news before he spoke again. “You recognized that name before, and it made you upset. If this Circe concerns both of us, perhaps we should work together.

Wonder Woman watched Batman suspiciously, but she didn’t need her lasso to sense he was earnest. Finally, she made a slow nod. “Perhaps.”

Then I’ll start with another request. Teach me about magic.
The End​
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

I hope you enjoyed this series. Here are the long-awaited details about my next writing project. If you're interested, subscribe to my website, www.fredwattswrites.com.

Here are details about my upcoming novel:
- The novel's working title is The Hole in Philadelphia
- It's an alternate history set in the frontier city of Philadelphia at the start of the 20th century
- The plot concerns a detective's search for a missing person
- The detective is a glorified park ranger at a local park that happens to be the world's most popular tourist attraction
- The missing person hates the detective and doesn't want to be found
- The park is popular because guests experience euphoria and other exciting mood swings
- The park occasionally unleashes a pestilence which threatens the city with extinction
- It's a comedy
- I take historical fiction seriously: the story will be a lush, exhaustively-researched tour of the era

Here is my plan:
- I will release the book within a year, by April 2023
- I will post at least one update on my website per month
- I will share a free teaser chapter by the end of October 2022
- The novel will include dazzling new features like professional proofreading and multiple drafts
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