Batman 1939: Three's Company

UF: Stories written by users, both fanfics and original.

Moderator: LadyTevar

Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 200
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

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: 200
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: 200
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.
User avatar
LadyTevar
White Mage
White Mage
Posts: 21141
Joined: 2003-02-12 10:59pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Well... crap.

It really looks like there's no hope.
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: 200
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

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?
User avatar
LadyTevar
White Mage
White Mage
Posts: 21141
Joined: 2003-02-12 10:59pm

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
Padawan Learner
Posts: 200
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

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
Padawan Learner
Posts: 200
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.
Post Reply