Batman 1939: Three's Company

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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Stewart M wrote: 2020-07-09 08:28pm The curious thing is Selina has almost never heard his default voice...
Huh... never noticed that.
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Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Who know, it might be meaningful.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by SpottedKitty »

LadyTevar wrote: 2020-07-11 10:58am
Stewart M wrote: 2020-07-09 08:28pm The curious thing is Selina has almost never heard his default voice...
Huh... never noticed that.
On the gripping hand... does he have a distinctive chin, like Judge Dredd? :wink:
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

SpottedKitty wrote: 2020-07-12 10:17pm
LadyTevar wrote: 2020-07-11 10:58am
Stewart M wrote: 2020-07-09 08:28pm The curious thing is Selina has almost never heard his default voice...
Huh... never noticed that.
On the gripping hand... does he have a distinctive chin, like Judge Dredd? :wink:
Not to some Leno-esque magnitude, but it's pretty chiseled.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Stewart M wrote: 2020-07-12 10:21pm Not to some Leno-esque magnitude, but it's pretty chiseled.
TBH, I've been seeing him as B:TAS. They went pretty 30s with a lot of the imagery, so that's where my mind went.
Image
Librium Arcana, Where Gamers Play!
Nitram, slightly high on cough syrup: Do you know you're beautiful?
Me: Nope, that's why I have you around to tell me.
Nitram: You -are- beautiful. Anyone tries to tell you otherwise kill them.
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP" -- Leonard Nimoy, last Tweet
Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

LadyTevar wrote: 2020-07-13 12:33am
Stewart M wrote: 2020-07-12 10:21pm Not to some Leno-esque magnitude, but it's pretty chiseled.
TBH, I've been seeing him as B:TAS. They went pretty 30s with a lot of the imagery, so that's where my mind went.
I consider B:TAS a core inspiration for the series. That's a fine mental template.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 6: Homecoming Queen​


Gotham City. Fourteen years ago.

Giovanni Zatara had never lived long at one address. He liked the traveling lifestyle, but it had its disadvantages. Being a single parent was more difficult on the road. Yet over the years he grew accustomed to raising a daughter without a community. What he never grew accustomed to was his lack of a workshop.

Professional magic was part acting and part invention. A magician could practice his stagecraft until he upstaged Chaplin, but he would never be a star with old tricks. Professional magicians needed to design and rehearse new material. While some styles of magic fit in a suitcase, the big crowds demanded big stunts, which meant big props, which required a dedicated workshop. Giovnani had struggled for years to rent or borrow the space when he could. His performances had suffered for it. Worse, he couldn’t teach Zatanna how to make her own magic without a place to call her own.

So there was little regret when Giovanni officially suspended the Zataras’ traveling lifestyle by signing the lease for the old Fox Playhouse on Anderson Boulevard in Gotham City. The theater’s office and loft were converted into a living space, and its stage offered all the room a magician could need.

In the early afternoon of their third day in their new home, Bruce Wayne arrived for his lessons. Giovanni was hammering scaffolding together on the stage when he heard a motorcycle purr to a stop in the alley. There was a knock on the side door. His daughter Zatanna, twelve years old, was sweeping nearby. Giovanni hustled over, but she reached the door first and opened it.

Zatanna said, “Hi, I’m-” then froze.

A grim young man filled the doorway. He was lean and wide-shouldered; Giovanni had pegged him as a boxer before, and here a split lip completed that impression. The young man couldn’t be a day past sixteen, but he had bags under his eyes and a tense, rigid demeanor. His short hair was messy from the leather helmet tucked under his arm, and his face seemed like it was installed without the option to smile.

Zatanna stepped back in alarm. The young man looked down at her blankly.

“Good afternoon,” he said.

“Ah!” Zatanna slammed the door. “Daddy, there’s a robber at the door!”

Giovanni called out as he ran over, “Hush, it’s okay.” He stood in front of her and re-opened the door. “Welcome, John. Please come in. Zatanna,” he looked at her intently, “you remember I mentioned I was teaching a new student today? Well, this is John. John, this is my daughter, Zatanna.”

Bruce glanced down at her with his stony expression and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He looked back at her father. “I’m grateful for your invitation, Mr. Zatara. It’s an honor to be here.”

Zatanna pulled at the back of her father’s vest and hissed, “Tell him we don’t have anything to steal.”

Giovanni smiled uncomfortably. “The honor’s mine, John. Please come with me. Let’s see what we can do for you.”

He led Bruce to the stage with Zatanna trailing several paces behind. For Giovanni, their mutual aloofness was disappointing. Amid all the other hidden motivations behind this teaching arrangement, Giovanni had nurtured a secret hope that John might be Zatanna’s playmate for the summer. The girl would be entering school in the fall, and Giovanni was worried she might have trouble making friends. It was telling how few chances he had given Zatanna to play with other children that a strange older boy whose only known habits were violence and motorcycles was the best companion he could wish for his daughter.

But alas, Zatanna was suspicious of their guest, and John’s feelings about Zatanna depended on whether John had feelings.

He brought Bruce onto the stage and offered him a stool. “Sorry for the humble furnishings. We’ve just moved in.”

“It’s fine,” said Bruce as he sat.

“Can I get you some tea or something to eat?” asked Giovanni, finding a stool of his own.

“No, thank you.”

“Very well. John, I’ll admit this is all new to me. I’ve never had a student before.”

There was a loud “Humph!” from the edge of the stage. Zatanna glared at them with folded arms.

Giovanni smiled. “With one lovely exception of course. I’ve been training Zatanna here in the family business.”

“That’s right,” boasted Zatanna.

Bruce ignored Zatanna and answered, “Sir, I’ll adapt to whatever fashion of teaching you try. I promise I’m an attentive learner.“

“I’ve no doubt. Well, it may be useful to know what brings you here. Let me guess,” Giovanni pointed with a twinkle in his eye, “You saw one my Gotham shows last month and decided you had to peak behind the curtain?”

“No.”

“Oh,” Giovanni said, mildly put out, “My most recent visit before that was two years ago. I don’t imagine-”

“No.”

“Then where have you seen me? One of my East Coast tours, I’m sure.”

“Sir, I’ve never seen you perform.”

Giovanni struggled in confusion. “You’ve never seen my show?”

“I don’t mean to offend, Mr. Zatara. I’m too busy to visit the theater. But I’m certain you’re very good.”

“I see. That’s kind of you to say.”

“That wasn’t intended as flattery. I meant that in the consensus of your peers, you are one of the most accomplished magicians in the country, at least in certain disciplines that I’m interested in mastering.”

“So someone else inspired you to be a magician.”

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“I have no interest in being a magician.”

At this remark, Giovanni seemed modestly offended and Zatanna seemed very offended. Giovanni sputtered a moment and scratched his head. Finally, he asked, “Then what exactly do you want to learn, John?”

“My first interest is escape artistry: breaking out of locks and bindings, opening sealed containers.”

“Yes, I’m familiar.”

“Some critics have called you the world expert since Mr. Houdini passed away.”

Zatanna huffed. “Daddy was two hops better than Houdini.”

Giovanni tutted good-naturedly. “No, Zatanna, that’s not true. And we shan’t speak ill of the deceased. But between you and me, John, I was better than ol’ Harry at sleight-of-hand.”

Giovanni winked and a pair of aces appeared in his hand. Bruce’s eyebrows rose. The cards disappeared and a yellow daffodil appeared in their place. He tossed the flower to Zatanna who dropped it in a stovepipe hat on a table. She shook the hat, turned it over, pulled out a full bouquet of daffodils, and took a bow.

Giovanni gave her a short round of applause. “Brava! Benissima!”

Bruce clapped stiffly twice. “On that note, I’d like to learn sleights-of-hand from you as well.”

“Lock-breaking, sleight-of-hand tricks, but not a magician. You aren’t aiming to rob banks, are you, John?”

Bruce’s eyes narrowed. “No, sir.”

Giovanni chuckled. “Good. I’d hate to be a party to that. Anything else?”

“I’m not sure whether your profession has a single term for what I have in mind, but I’d like to learn the general art of misdirection. I imagine this would include optical and noise illusions, disguises, decoys. Not to suggest any particular tool, of course; I defer to your judgement.”

“Is that all?”

“For now.”

“John, you’re proposing quite a demanding curriculum to learn in a few months.”

“Respectfully, sir, that’s a matter of opinion.”

---​

Two months later.

Bruce Wayne was in peril. Bound in a straitjacket and leg irons, he was suspended headfirst over a pool of water. Every few seconds, the motorized pulley supporting him lowered more chain. Bruce stared ahead with anxious concentration as he swung and wiggled in his straitjacket.

“Ugh! Summer school is boring and dumb! I hate it, hate it, hate it!”

Bruce glanced at the interruption. Upside-down, he saw Zatanna Zatara marching across the stage carrying a stack of books. She dropped the books on a table and collapsed dramatically next to them.

In case he wasn’t paying attention, she slapped a book to the floor and cried, “Since when does math have letters in it?”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Hello, Zatanna.”

She sat up brightly, as if just noticing him. “John! My good buddy pal, John.”

“Homework trouble?”

She rubbed her forehead. “I don’t understand. I’ve always been a great student. It’s like they’re trying to trick me.”

“Well, you’re used to being taught through correspondence courses. Standards in the Gotham school system are more advanced.”

“Advanced at being dumb.”

“Actually, Gotham awards the most doctoral degrees in the country,” said Bruce, “It's irritating that half of the graduates move to Metropolis, but the schools are fine.”

Zatanna leaned against the pool and batted her eyes at him. “I don’t suppose you-”

The chain lowered. “No, Zatanna, I’m not doing your algebra again. You need to learn it.”

“Humph.” She looked closely at his restraints. Bruce was three feet above the water and struggling harder now.

“Handcuffs under the jacket?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said as the chain lowered.

“No key?”

“No.”

“No hairpin?”

“Your father took it.”

“Thumbcuffs?”

“Yes.”

“Sounds like your only hope is a Boston hand pass.”

“I know,” he said bluntly as the chain lowered again.

“Swell. Then I guess you have it under control.” She took a deck of cards from the pocket of her pinafore and started shuffling. “All under control. Yep, no foolin’, John’s got it all-”

“Zatanna, please be quiet,” Bruce said with forced calm as he tried to press his shoulder into his ear.

“Whoops! Sorry.” She lowered her voice, shuffling faster. “If it was anybody else, I’d be worried. When I had to learn the Boston hand pass, Daddy told me that everybody forgets the finger slide. You know? Right after you cycle your wrists? He made me practice twenty times a day until I got that finger slide. Took me a month.”

Bruce stopped. “Finger slide?” He furiously cycled his wrists.

Zatanna feigned surprise. “Gosh, don’t tell me you don’t remember the finger slide. He showed you yesterday. Oh well. In that case, don’t forget the pool’s escape hatch.”

Bruce closed his eyes. He could smell the chlorine in the water now. He let out a long breath. “Get your algebra.” The chain lowered again. “Quickly.”

Zatanna let out a cheer and raced to get her books. “Okay, ready?”

The chain lowered again. Bruce said, “Yes.”

“Four plus X equals sixteen.”

“X equals twelve.”

“That doesn’t sound right. Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Nine minus X equals minus three.”

“X equals twelve.”

“Are they all twelve?”

“Probably not.”

“I still don’t understand how a number can be minus. You can’t count something that isn’t there. How can something be less than not there?”

Bruce’s hair touched the water. “I’ll explain negatives again later.”

“You better promise.”

“I promise.”

“Good. Two times X equals twenty-two. Wait, elev-”

“X equals eleven.”

“Hey, I had that one. You didn’t let me finish.”

“Sorry.”

“I forgive you. How about X divided by two equals eight?”

Now Bruce’s eyes were underwater. “Zatanna, the finger slide?”

“Hm?” Zatanna looked up from her book and jumped. “Right! Okay, watch this.”

She stood near the pool’s glass wall and started miming a hand motion. Bruce took a deep breath as his nose submerged and tucked close to the wall to see her. She mimed the motion again and again. Bruce shifted in his straitjacket, squinting through the water. He tried to replicate her gestures, but his movement splashed the water, blurring his sight.

But they didn’t give up. When Bruce’s chest passed under the surface, she crouched to keep her hands at his eye level. Finally, there was a new billow in the arms of his straitjacket. Bruce writhed, sending trails of bubbles to the surface. He stretched, and the heavy jacket slipped off, sinking slowly away. He tucked up, forcing his face over the water for a deep breath. When he submerged again, it took three seconds for him to discard the handcuffs and thumbcuffs. He tucked up again, catching his own legs, and started slipping out of the leg irons. His head was almost submerged by the lowering of the chain yet again, when he got his final foot free.

Bruce let go and flopped over. He swam one stroke to reach the edge of the pool and climbed out.

Zatanna watched him, shuffling her cards. “Eh. Not the worst.”

Bruce sat panting on the stage floor. “Thanks.”

“Escapes are for dumb boys anyway.”

He took off his soggy shoes. “Uh-huh.”

“I like illusions.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Hey, are you okay?”

Bruce gulped and nodded. “I’m fine, Zatanna.”

“Great. So, X divided by two equals eight?”

---​

The present.

Zatanna Zatara shouted questions and accusations and curses at the apparition of her father until her throat was hoarse. The thing watched her tirade like a waiter taking criticism for a meal, then, when she could shout no longer, it said, “Mistress, I am and shall ever be your servant.”

Then chairs flew across the room - a miracle spent on petty hospitality. It spoke more words which Zatanna couldn’t hear through the roaring in her brain. She could only lean on a chairback and heave painful breaths.

Behind her stood Batman and Catwoman. Batman stared intently at Zatanna. His expression was blank as usual, but he wouldn’t look away. Catwoman nudged him and whispered, “Looks like we have time for questions.”

Batman didn’t respond.

She nudged him again. Hey, Batman.

He stared resolutely forward.

Catwoman looked forward, looked Zatanna up and down, looked back at Batman, then posessively grabbed his butt.

Batman’s twitched slightly. He turned and glared at Catwoman. She met his glare with an arched eyebrow. After a few seconds, she let go of his butt.

The form of Giovanni walked past Zatanna and addressed them. “Strangers, You’ve shown your valiant intentions to protect the Mistress. Yet you promise to spirit her away. I must ensure her wellbeing when she leaves this house, so I ask you to speak your piece. Why do you need the heir?”

Catwoman shrugged. “I think everyone needs air.”

Zatanna let out a little chuckle. She turned around, red-eyed. “They don’t need to tell you a single thing. You’re the one who needs to do some talking.”

The form of Giovanni asked, “You vouchsafe their intentions? These are friends of the house?”

“What house? I have no idea what this place is. I’m guessing you two don’t either?” Zatanna looked at Batman and Catwoman who both shook their heads. “See? They have nothing to prove. She started a riot that got me out of paying a big penalty fee, and he eats evil people. They’re fine. You’re the problem.”

The form of Giovanni considered this news. Batman glared at Catwoman.

Zatanna continued, “And then they tried to save me from kidnapping before I even got here. That was what you were doing at the burned building, right?” Zatanna looked at Batman and Catwoman who both nodded. “See? And they have actual bodies.”

Giovanni’s face flickered with a moment of doubt. He said, “The visitors will account for themselves in time, but I see it is incumbent upon me to begin.” He paced past the fireplace, glowing translucent as he crossed the center of the blaze. Batman and Catwoman stepped forward to stand beside Zatanna.

She crossed her arms. “Well?”

“This estate is called Shadowcrest. It is yours.”

“Mine.”

“Yes. By birthright.”

“So you mean to tell me that my father, who spent his whole life in hotels and mid-range apartments, owns a huge mansion in the middle of,” she hesitated, “I’m sorry, where are we exactly?”

“There is no answer to that question which you would find satisfying.”

“If the man is offering you a mansion,“ Catwoman purred in her ear, “I would just take it.”

“Shadowcrest is your birthright,” the form continued, “But not from your father. He is merely its caretaker.”

“What does that mean?”

“You possess it through your mother’s blood.”

“Ha. Okay.” Zatanna rubbed her temples and walked in a circle. “Hold your horses.”

“As I said, your-”

“No no, I heard you.” Zantana dropped herself in one of the chairs. “This ought to be good. Now let’s hear about how my poor immigrant mother owned a haunted house the size of Buckingham Palace.”

“As you surely have surmised, I am not a natural being. I was created to imitate a small aspect of your father’s intellect, namly the knowledge and intentions he believed necessary to perform his duties for this house. You are correct that your father spent little time here. I exist to serve the estate in his absence. I am Shadowcrest’s genius loci.”

“I don’t know Latin.”

“Nor do I. There are great tracts of Giovanni Zatara’s mental territory which are known only dimly to me or not at all, and upon which I can but offer conjecture.”

“So my father made you?”

“Yes and no.”

“I need a better answer than that.”

“Hmmm.” The form of Giovanni flickered in the firelight. “Forgive my struggle, your father understood this lesson must one day be taught, but he did not create me to teach it.”

“Did he create you to make excuses? That sounds like an excuse.”

“Very well. Know this first: magic exists.”

“Sure,” said Zatanna, idly fanning a deck of cards, flipping them, then fanning them again to show all jokers.

“Not parlour entertainment, Mistress. I mean the supernatural. Separate rules governing the universe unknowable to most.”

Batman said, “He’s right.

Zatanna glanced up in shock. Batman was so still, she had half-forgotten he was standing behind her. She settled higher in her chair and frowned. “Fine. I guess tonight has been a dandy demonstration. Suppose magic exists. Is my father a wizard?”

“The preferred term is mage. Your father is not a mage. Your mother was.”

“So she made you.”

“Yes and no.”

“You’re killing me.”

“I’m saving your life.”

“What’s your name?”

“Whatever you wish. As I command this house, as much it exists as a single entity, your father addresses me as Shadowcrest.”

“My father talks to a reflection of himself in order to talk to a building?”

“When he must.”

“Okay, Shadowcrest. You said my mother owned this place?”

“Before tonight, Sindella Cehennem was Shadowcrest’s last lady-in-residence.”

“Cehennem?”

“Your mother’s maiden name.”

“Cehennem,” Zatanna said quietly. “I didn’t know that.”

“Your father took many steps to isolate you from your mother’s legacy.”

“I did know that.” sighed Zatanna. “So my mother used magic to build you? I mean you the building, not you the, uh, tour guide.”

“No. She too inherited this estate.”

“How long has this place been around?”

“It is difficult to express in Earth years. Six to nine centuries would be a fair measure.”

“Who is that purple man in the turban?”

“Felix, Lord of Faust.”

“Him. Why’s he have my father? What’s he want with me?”

Catwoman interrupted. “I forgot about the turban guy. Where is he anyway? Wasn’t he with you when you walked through that mist door?”

“Oh, crumbs,” said Zatanna, “I haven’t told you two about the big fight. It was ridiculous. We went in the front door, then-”

yawa ylf sloot dna taolf sregnarts!

There was a loud sucking noise, and Batman and Catwoman suddenly rose above the floor, surrounded by shimmering orange motes. They floated a foot in the air, kicking and thrashing but finding nothing within reach. They craned their necks to see Officer Arbuckle unrestrained and very angry. After yelling some nonsense, he made a series of intense hand gestures like he was trying to guide an aircraft through takeoff.

Catwoman’s whip slid off its loop. Her small satchel opened and its contents hopped out. These possessions shot across the room as if flung from a speeding merry-go-round.

Meanwhile, batarangs slipped out of Batman’s outfit from seams and hidden spaces. These also shot across the room, plunging into walls and furniture. The many pouches of his utility belt flipped open, and a hefty cloud of tools floated out. These fired around the room, but many suddenly stopped when they reached the end of metal cords welded into the belt. Orbited by small tools like the rings of Saturn, he pulled on a cord until he reeled back a thick flashlight. He pointed this at Arbuckle and flipped the switch.

A hot beam of light shined in Arbuckle’s face. He squealed and turned away. The orange motes around Batman and Catwoman faded and the pair sank to the floor. Arbuckle tried to resume his gestures through squinting eyes until Zatanna hit him with a chair.

Zatanna yelled at Shadowcrest, “Why didn’t you stop him?”

Shadowcrest answered, “I vowed to not obstruct him with any force under my control.”

“You could’ve at least warned us.”

“That would stop him.”

While Zatanna fumed at this logic, Batman dragged Arbuckle into a chair. Catwoman retrieved the scattered tools and handed Batman his share.

“Hey,” she said, “why were your gadgets on strings?”

To stop pickpockets.

Catwoman thought about this for a moment, then narrowed her eyes. She let out some frustration by kicking Arbuckle in his expansive gut as he tried to stand.

Zatanna was still arguing with the house. “You let Batman and Catwoman sneak in. They obstructed him.”

“They are not under my control. For all I knew then, they were allies of your captors.”

“You said we weren’t in any danger here.”

“Are any of you harmed?”

“If I threw something at a wall, would you feel pain?”

“No, Mistress, but for you I would pretend.”

Batman and Catwoman finished repacking their equipment. Batman inspected Officer Arbuckle’s discarded restraints. Arbuckle was just regaining the ability to breath when Catwoman grabbed his chin and forced it upward.

“Short and sweet, bud. What do you want?’

“Justice,” he wheezed, “for all you murderers.”

Catwoman was not an easy woman to surprise. She shared a look with Batman who showed no reaction. She released Arbuckle.

“Okay, less short. Explain that.”

Zatanna joined the interrogation. Arbuckle looked regretfully at her. “Sorry, Zatanna. None of this was your fault. No hard feelings.”

Catwoman snapped in his face. “Storytime. Go.”

Officer Arbuckle looked at Zatanna again. “Her dad, Giovanni, is a monster. We came to stop him before our whole family’s dead.”

Zatanna, Catwoman, and Batman looked at each other. Catwoman noticed the tendons in Batman’s neck were tighter than ever. Zatanna turned back to the fireplace. With a tone of rising concern, she asked, “Shadowcrest, what is he talking about?”

Shadowcrest answered, “I imagine he’s referring to all of the relatives your dad hunted.”

With a quiet fury, Zatanna folded her hands to her forehead as if in prayer. “Shadowcrest, Officer Arbuckle, I want both of you to work together until I understand what you’re talking about, or so help me, I won’t rest until I bring this building down with all of us in it.” She looked at Batman and Catwoman and added, “Except you two. You seem nice. I hope when this is all over we can get to know each other.”

Catwoman gave her a bemused smile. Batman didn’t react.

Arbuckle said, “To start with, can we dispense with this ‘Arbuckle’ talk? My name’s Abdiel.”

“Um, okay. Officer Abdiel.”

“No, just Abdiel. I’m not a cop. I’m not even from here.”

“Fine. Abdiel.”

“No, The stress is on the ‘ie’ with a little on the ‘l’. It’s Hebrew. Say it like ‘deal’. ‘Ab-deal’. You can call me Dee if you have to.”

“Abdiel,” said Zatanna, slowly.

“Close enough. Listen, Zatanna, there’s no easy way to say this, but we’re family.”

Catwoman muttered, “That was easy.”

“I’m your cousin,” said Abdiel, “Your mom and my dad were siblings.”

Zatanna asked, “So you’re a Cehennem?”

“Yeah,” said Abdiel in shock. “Abdiel Cehennem. How’d you know? My folks said your dad never told you anything about us.”

“They’re right. I just learned the name Cehennem two minutes ago.”

“It’s pretty,” said Catwoman.

It’s Turkish,” said Batman, “For inferno. Or Hell.

“That was unnecessary,” said Catwoman.

Shadowcrest spoke in a lofty voice, “This estate was the sanctuary of the Cehennems for five generations, an exceptionally long-lived dynasty.”

“Yep,” said Abdiel, “Then your mom off and married some Zatara fella, took his name, and ruined it. Of course, then your dad murdered all the Cehennems, so I guess that’s moot.”

“What murders are you talking about?” asked Zatanna.

“Over twenty years ago, your dad killed one of our uncles, a man by the name of Ekrem. We don’t know why. I was just a baby then. To be fair, everyone said that Uncle Ekrem was a blowhard with a mean streak.”

“Ekrem Cehennem was a profound fool,” said Shadowcrest.

“Maybe he picked a fight with your dad. Maybe what your dad did was justified. The point is that after your dad killed him, the rest of the family came round to settle matters. But your dad wouldn’t meet with them.”

“Hold on,” said Zatanna. “Shouldn’t someone have called the police?”

Abdiel gave her a pitying smile. “Zatanna, we’re mages. That’s not how it works.”

“My dad wasn’t a mage. The house said so.”

“He wasn’t. And it’s not often you see a regular guy get the better of a mage; we were all very surprised. Still, mages don’t snitch, and your dad knew the rules.”

Catwoman said, “Get to the murders. This Ekrem bozo hardly sounds like one.”

Abdiel said, “Maybe not, but Giovanni wouldn’t explain himself. Things got heated. Then he attacked us again. Tried to kill my mother, as a matter of fact.”

“Tried? So she lived?”

“She did,” said Abdiel in a hard voice. “Ever since then she’s been in a sanitarium in California. She thinks the sun is spying on her.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Not your fault. But for your dad, that was it. He started a one-man war. Another uncle of ours, Uncle Iso, Giovanni trapped him in a dumpster.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Then dropped the dumpster in a geyser.”

“Oh.”

Catwoman interrupted. “And how would he possibly do that?”

Abdiel shrugged. “Some spell or enchantment. I wasn’t there.”

Zatanna shook a finger at him. “You just said he wasn’t a mage.”

“Don’t need to be a mage to use magic. You just need to be a mage to make magic.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Well, look at Shadowcrest. Your dad didn’t build the building. But he can tell it what to do.”

Shadowcrest, still by the fireplace, said, “Giovanni tells me little of his affairs beyond these walls, but his visits here are often spent collecting potent artifacts and studying infamous texts.”

“That’s exactly what we assumed,” said Abdiel. “That’s how he kept getting the better of us. After Iso, he shot our cousin Eddie.”

“With a spell?” Zatanna asked hopefully.

“With a bullet.”

“A magic bullet?”

“Forty-five caliber.”

“Oh.”

“It was a slow feud. We had our own lives to live, you know? And we had our own disputes. But every so often, someone would get a hint where your dad was hiding, so a team of us would get together and take a run at him. He’d duck us, lay low. Then the next year someone would show up dead, so we’d wait for another clue and try again.”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘hiding’? My dad’s famous. He does stage shows all the time. How could he possibly hide from you?”

“It’s mage stuff. Hard to explain. You can’t just walk into a theater with a pistol.”

“You just said he shot a cousin.”

“Not in a theater.”

“And you’re sure it was him? My dad randomly attacked your family for two decades and never explained why?”

“Our family,” said Abdiel firmly, “and yes. Most of us assumed he’s a lunatic. Your mom passed away before it all started. Maybe losing her made something snap”

Batman asked, “Why are you here tonight?

“We’re desperate. Zachary and I are some of the last of the Cehennems.”

“Zachary?” asked Zatanna.

“My brother. You know him as Kravitz. Also not a cop.”

“What’d you do?”

“We made a deal with the devil.”

“That arch-scoundrel, Felix, Lord of Faust,” said Shadowcrest. “Even I know the knave. There is a small list of visitors who are never welcome in this home, and he is near the top.”

Abdiel explained, “Magic is dangerous. People who tango with it and survive are very dangerous, and usually a little cuckoo. Most mages keep to themselves to avoid being targeted. But there are a few exceptions: Faust, that scary man with the turban, he’s one of the big exceptions. He has a wild reputation.”

“From doing what?”

“He robs powerful people, loots cursed tombs, experiments with some real dark business.”

“Sounds like a terrible person.”

“Yeah, but the people he’s robbing also tend to be terrible, so it’s sort of a wash. The point is, Faust never hides and never runs from a fight, and he’s still alive. It’s hard to explain how impressive that is.”

“I think I got the message back in the hall.”

“Zachary and I decided that we had nothing to lose. Somehow, your dad had outsmarted our whole family. We didn’t have a chance against him. So, we went to Faust for help. We half-expected he’d kill us for fun. But he listened. Then he set a price. It cost us everything, but he agreed.”

“He kidnapped my dad.”

“That’s right, and now he’s here to make sure your dad will never hurt anyone again. And nothing’s going to stop him.”

The room was quiet for a while. Zatanna sat down by the fire again, her lips trembling from a broken heart.

Batman watched her from a distance.

Catwoman leaned on Abdiel’s chair and quietly asked, “Out of curiosity, what do you pay an evil sorcerer in?”

“It depends. Our upfront fee was Swiss francs.”

“Really?”

Abdiel shrugged. “They’re stable.”
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

That's... interesting. I wonder what Zantara's side of the story is, because TRUTH is always somewhere in the middle.
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Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 7: Questions for the Chairman​
Batman clung at the edge of panic.

There was sweat on his neck. He felt a buzz radiating through his limbs like feedback through a speaker. His fingers twitched, so he folded them into fists. His mouth was sandstone, so he swallowed in vain. Blurred gaps crossed his vision, so he closed his eyes. He resisted the urge to take frantic breaths when each steady breath burned half-empty.

Batman’s mind had torn when he was young and never fully healed. He had since built a sprawling castle of self-control to entomb the old scars. But there are damages that a mind cannot fix on its own: chronic nightmares, episodes of rage, and tonight, panic. They had fallen into a battlefield of sorcerers. What hope did they have when reality was putty in the hands of madmen? This near-panic brought memories: little Zatanna forcing a rabbit into a hat, Wonder Woman’s sneer as she crushed his ribcage, Catwoman freezing to death in his arms, his father bleeding in an alley, Faust and the cops abducting Zatanna, now a terrified woman, Der Wehrwulf using him as a puppet gunman. Waves of anxiety crashed over Batman while his self-control bailed water, a stalemate just short of drowning.

Catwoman stood behind Batman and watched him squeeze his hands. She sympathized - punching through chairs was hard on the knuckles. Still, she was surprised the Dark Knight could be so aloof given the hammer blows of news Zatanna had just received: her father was a killer, her mother was a witch, her father had killed most of her witchy relatives, and the survivors were here for payback. Catwoman was barely a rubbernecker to the drama and already had a headache. Batman ought to say something to the poor girl.

Catwoman stepped up and nudged Batman’s arm. You okay in there?

Batman’s body language was garbled. His throat flexed and each breath was a silent huff. He seemed off-balanced. Finally he turned to her, but Catwoman needed a moment to be sure he was giving her what passed for eye contact. She prodded him again and nodded expectantly toward Zatanna. Go be nice. He was the hero after all. Even a self-centered thief knew that.

Batman looked. Zatanna sat in front of them, lost and choking on anguish. He straightened with a short nod. Catwoman watched as he stepped around Zatanna’s chair and stood at her side. Zatanna looked up. Her melancholic slouch jolted to surprise as she watched as he moved his hand toward hers. An inch away he hesitated. His fingers twitched and he pulled back. Zatanna tried to peer through his lenses.

Before either spoke, Catwoman sauntered around and clasped Zatanna’s other hand with hers. “What he’s trying to say is ‘Chin up, we’re going to get through this just fine’. Isn’t that right, Batman?”

Batman set his jaw and stepped back.

Catwoman said, “Sorry, he’s usually more talkative.”

Zatanna watched him over her shoulder. “I hear it’s the thought that counts,” she said idly.

Batman appraised Shadowcrest who was looming at the fireplace. He swallowed again and forced his vertigo aside. “You told us that Zatanna would never leave this place on her own. You have a plan. Why haven’t you shared it?

Zatanna shook her finger. “Good point. If our lives are on the line, why the runaround?”

Shadowcrest looked down at Zatanna. “You, Mistress. Although I am feeble at shows of empathy-”

“No kidding.”

“-I can see these revelations cause you grief. I wished to let you rest before adding to your cares.”

“Rest? I’m not a baby,” said Zatanna, jumping up. ”Who knows how much time we have? Spill the beans.”

“I know how much time you have.” replied Shadowcrest. “I shall spill no beans. The threat is grave but not urgent.”

Catwoman crossed her arms. “So we’re supposed to stand here like bumps on a log until you think your new gal is looking perky enough?”

Shadowcrest said nothing.

Catwoman looked at Batman. “I don’t get it. What’s going on?”

Batman stood tightlipped, pushing down his panic to watch Shadowcrest. It watched him back intensely. “It’s waiting,” said Batman in a curious tone.

“For?” asked Catwoman.

Batman realized his hands had stopped twitching. “Shadowcrest is the house. It welcomed us.

“Even gave us tea. So?”

It welcomed us, but it delayed us. Kept us outside. It was waiting then as well.

“This is taking forever,” said Catwoman, tapping her foot, “Hey, Shady, if we leave, are you going to drop a brick on our heads?”

Shadowcrest ignored Catwoman and continued to stare at Batman with a singular intensity.

Batman no longer felt the need to swallow. He asked Zatanna, “What did you see when you arrived, Zatanna? You mentioned a fight.

Zatanna nodded. “Faust and the Bludhaven officers - well, I guess they’re not really officers - they brought me inside the house. Then my dad showed up, but he wasn’t my dad, he’s some kind of ghost and I guess also a property manager, and he could make the candles burn hotter. I’m sorry, I know none of this story makes sense.”

Go on.

“Faust and my ghost-dad-property manager start arguing.”

Batman’s sight began to clear. “About what?

“Faust wanted to go through the house, and dad, I mean Shadowcrest, wasn’t happy about it. At least I think that’s what they said. Have you ever listened to a real old professor? The sort who sounds like he learned to talk a hundred years ago? They were both like that. I do remember Faust bragging that Shadowcrest’s ‘sentries’ failed to stop him at the ‘portal’. I guess he was referring to you two jumping him near that weird doorway in the burned building.”

“We’re not anyone’s sentries.” said Catwoman.

“You’re not?” asked Abdiel groggily.

The other humans in the room looked at him. Abdiel was still slumped in quiet agony over the night’s various beatings. He had seemed eager to be ignored, so his question came as a surprise.

“Why would you think we are?” asked Catwoman, raising an eyebrow.

“Because I just …” Abdiel looked among their faces and decided he didn’t like scrutiny. “Nothing. Just seemed funny.”

Batman noticed Shadowcrest was still staring at him, somehow with even more mechanical intensity since Abdiel’s interruption. The investigative engine of Batman’s mind upshifted a gear and tested the throttle. His panic had gone quiet. Catwoman recognized this little change in Batman’s posture and quirked half a grin. Zatanna saw Catwoman grin and questioned her sanity.

Batman, in a firm new voice, commanded Zatanna to continue.

Zatanna nodded. “Faust and the house are trading insults, then all of a sudden the floor starts turning into hands.”

“Wait, what?” asked Catwoman.

“That’s what I saw. Floor hands.”

Catwoman pointed at Abdiel. “What is she talking about?”

Abdiel shrugged. “Y’know, floor hands.”

“No, I don’t know floor hands. And what were our fake cops doing in all this?” asked Catwoman, turning back to Zatanna.

“Hiding,” said Zatanna, “and I don’t blame them. The floor hands try to catch Faust but he turns green and starts flying around the room.”

“You want to try that again?” asked Catwoman.

Zatanna frowned, trying to mentally rearrange her description before giving up. “You kind of had to be there.”

“I’m kind of glad I wasn’t.”

“Did you see those suits of armor in the hall?” asked Zatanna.

“Yes,” said Catwoman cautiously.

“They’re alive, and they also fly. Faust knocks a few out of the air with these beams of light from his hands, then one of them cuts off his arm. But then he disappears and reappears at the top of the stairs and destroys the rest.”

“Hold on.” Catwoman looked to Abdiel.

Abdiel shrugged. “Good summary so far.”

“Thank you,” said Zatanna. “So all these praying mantises jump out of a painting and swarm the guy, so Faust gives up.”

He surrendered?” asked Batman.

“It seemed that way,” admitted Zatanna, “then Faust and Shadowcrest started negotiating, which was strange, since they were just trying to kill each other. Did I get that right, Abdiel?”

Abdiel said, “You forgot the chandeliers.”

“Right: the chandeliers turned into shotguns. That was before the mantises. While they’re negotiating, Faust rips off his shirt - his arm is growing back by then - and he has a chain sticking out of his chest. At the end of the chain was a locket.”

You could recognize a locket from across the hall?” asked Batman.

“Not at first,” admitted Zatanna, “But then the locket starts to grow until it’s taller than he is. He opens the clasp, and my inside is my dad!”

Shadowcrest was inside the locket?

“No, no, it’s - ugh - my dad, my dad-dad, was sleeping inside.”

How do you know it was your father?

“That’s what Faust said. Even Shadowcrest admitted it.”

“This is true.” said Shadowcrest. “Giovanni is held captive by Lord Faust with a cardial chain.”

Which is?” asked Batman.

“A cardial chain binds the life of its captive to its owner’s will. Should Lord Faust die or choose to cease the connection, Giovanni’s heart will stop. To my knowledge, the chain is impossible to remove without its owner’s consent.

Giovanni’s a hostage.

Shadowcrest said nothing, content to stare.

Zatanna scowled. “Faust said my cousins wanted him to do something to the house. I think he wants to destroy it. Something about a stone. Then he said he’d free my dad and we could all leave.”

Catowoman was about to speak but Batman interrupted. “Did he say anything else?

Zatanna nodded. “Faust wanted to take me along with him. Shadowcrest convinced him to leave me behind with Abdiel and Zachary. So long If they didn’t hurt me, he wouldn’t bother them.”

Bother?

“He used the word ‘obstruct’. Doesn’t that mean bother?”

“Close enough,” said Catwoman.

“Well, that’s the story. Once Faust left, Shadowcrest disappeared, then Abdiel pointed a gun at me and we all waited until you two showed up.”

At the mention of a gun, Batman slowly glared at Abdiel who flinched at the sight. But then Batman glanced again at Shadowcrest. He noticed a pleased tilt to its expression. Acting on an investigative instinct like a wolf tracking a scent, Batman stalked over to Abdiel and began to circle his chair.

Anything you care to add to the account?

“No,” said Abdiel hastily, “She got to the bottom of it.”

Faust is seeking a stone to destroy the house?

“Uh, yeah, the keystone.”

Keystone.

“Call it the, um, the magical heart of the house. It’s about the only practical way to destroy a place like this.”

And where is it?

“I have no idea. I’ve never been here before. But Lord Faust knows.”

He’s visited Shadowcrest before?

“Nah, I doubt it. But he knows just about everything.”

Where is your brother?

“I dunno. Must’a woke from you roughing him up and split.”

Faust captured Giovanni Zatara. Why pay him to destroy Shadowcrest?

“We didn’t! Not at first. I mean, uh-”

You didn’t?

“Never mind. Forget it.”

Tell me why, Abdiel.

Abdiel scoffed. “I don’t need to put up with this. Lord Faust is just about done, then he’ll teach you two-”

Batman, pacing behind Abdiel, seized his collar and slammed a batarang through it, staking his police uniform to the wooden chair. Abdiel frantically reached to free his collar, but Batman caught his arms and twisted them behind the chair. “Hey!” Abdiel cried, feeling his shoulders stretch to the edge of pain. Batman held his wrists together then stabbed another batarang through the thick fabric where the sleeves crossed. Abdiel struggled, but the blade was stuck clean through the wood: his arms were pinned to the chair. He was keenly sensitive to the batarangs’ sharp tips pressing against his neck and spine.

Abdiel’s protests grew more shrill as Batman grabbed his top of the chair and yanked back, tilting it onto two legs and sending his massive girth rocking. Abdiel whined, “Is this necessar-woah!” His complaint was interrupted as Batman pulled further, levering Abdiel just past his center of gravity. The chair legs creaked. Abdiel sat very still.

Finally, Batman spoke. “I don’t know magic, but you look tired. Maybe you can incapacitate us. Maybe you can escape this chair. But I doubt you have the strength to do both.” Batman let the chair tip back another inch. “If I disappear, you drop and crush your hands.

Abdiel grit his teeth. “Everybody said Giovanni worked alone. Who are you people?”

I’m Batman,” said Batman.

“There it is,” muttered Catwoman.

I don’t know a Giovanni,” continued Batman. “But I do catch men who drag women into abandoned buildings.

Abdiel snarled, “So you’re some noisy neighbor, dressed like that? Some wannabe cop? I don’t buy it, bud, you are so-”

Batman let the chair fall a foot then caught it again. Abdiel let out a noise of pain from his strained shoulders that ended in a high note from the batarang pricking his back flab. Catwoman and Zatanna joined Batman at the interrogation.

Shadowcrest.” said Batman.

“Yes?” asked the specter of the house looming by the fireplace.

You demanded to know my intentions.

“Indeed.”

Do you know me? Does this Giovanni know me?

“I have never seen you before.” said Shadowcrest. “To my knowledge, you are no colleague of our senechal, but he did not share everything.”

Hear that, Abdiel? I don’t know your family drama, and I don’t care. My only intention is to take Zatanna home. Once she’s safe, I’m-

“The Lady is home.” interrupted Shadowcrest with a touch of impatience. “Your selflessness is laudatory, Batman, but her safety depends on the resolution of her ‘family drama’.”

Fine.” Batman looked back to Abdiel and asked, “What was your plan with Faust? I want all of it.

Abdiel blanched like he briefly forgot he was pinned to an over-tilted chair by a large muscular man in a mask. “I’m not telling,” he said.

Brave,” said Batman. “Catwoman?

“Yes, Batman?”

My hands are starting to cramp. Do you mind taking him?

“Gosh, I dunno,” she purred, “he’s probably four hundred pounds.”

I can’t hold him much longer.

“If you really need a break, I suppose I-”

“Okay! Fine! Stop wiggling the chair!” shouted Abdiel. “We wanted to get rid of Uncle Giovanni, but the old man had the run of this place for decades.”

“So?” asked Zatanna.

“Right, you’re new to this.” Abdiel pursed his lips, trying to cobble hours of explanation into a summary short enough to save his fingers. “Listen, Shadowcrest is special. There aren’t many magical strongholds that exist outside of time and space. They’re hard to build, and they usually get wrecked by feuds or accidents. But if a home like this survives a few generations, it tends to be chock full with sweet, sweet treasure.”

So?” asked Batman.

“Giovanni wasn’t a mage, but we knew he was illuminated.”

“You put him under a light?” asked Zatanna.

“No, illuminated: that’s what we call someone who knows the lore. He understood mage behavior, tools, that sort of thing. Like I said before, there’s all kinds of magical inventions that you mundanes can use. The trick is getting your hands on one and knowing enough that your hands don’t turn to cheese. Shadowcrest would have lots of them.”

Your point?” demanded Batman.

“We knew Lord Faust could bring us Giovanni. But we didn’t know whether Giovanni had a backup plan.”

“I’m sorry,” said Catwoman, “a backup plan for death?”

“Sure. Maybe he stored a clone in the mansion. Maybe he hid part of his soul in a clock. Maybe he’s a time traveler using the mansion as his temporal anchor. Maybe there are doors here to other realms where his friends would come for vengeance. That’s what I thought you goons were.”

“But daddy's alive!” said Zatanna. “You didn’t kill him.”

“I’m getting to that,” said Abdiel. “Zach and I knew that if Giovanni had some tricks up his sleeve, it would come from Shadowcrest. So we planned a two-pronged attack. Lord Faust would bring us your dad while we cut Shadowcrest’s portal to Earth.”

How?” asked Batman.

“Faust discovered that the portal was hidden in Giovanni’s apartment. But we didn’t know what sort of security he had protecting the thing. So we played it smart and burned it all down.”

There was a stillness as if the air had left the room.

Batman quietly grabbed Catwoman’s wrist as her hand bent to claw. He leaned slowly over Abdiel. “You burned down the Lisbon.

“Yep,” said Abdiel, “set the incantation across the street. Run-of-the-mill fire actually does a swell job on all sorts of magic if you use enough of it. Didn’t work in this case; the portal’s sort of indestructible. We had to come up with a Plan B.”

Batman said nothing for a moment. Finally, almost casually, he asked, “Did you know that people died in that fire?

“Hmm?” Abdiel heard a layer of frost in Batman’s tone and had tried to sound solemn. “Well, uh, I guess a few people, I mean it makes sense if-”

Nine deaths so far, forty hospitalized, two hundred residents made homeless.” Batman let go of Catwoman’s wrist but squeezed her hand. “You and your brother caused more misery yesterday than a cell block of felons will in a lifetime.

Abdiel simply said, “A monster killed my family.”

A monster’s going to finish the job.

“Huh?”

Batman pulled the batarang out Abdiel’s sleeves and shoved his chair forward. Abdiel’s considerable mass ripped the other batarang out of his collar as he flung to the floor. Batman turned and stared into Zatanna’s eyes. She was still flinching from his show of force and gave him her full attention, He silently mouthed the words: stand still. Zatanna fearfully nodded.

Abdiel had risen to his elbows and knees. He was crying, and there was a gash on his chin. As he struggled to stand, Batman put him in a headlock and lifted him to his feet. Batman released him and clapped Abdiel’s cheek.

“Ugg! Wha- what are you-”

Hit me!” barked Batman.

Abdiel stumbled away and folded his hands sinisterly at Batman. He began to mutter in a dark tongue, but he didn’t finish his second syllable when Batman backhanded his throat. He gagged and tried to curl up in a ball, but Batman grabbed his lapels and forced him to stay upright.

Hit me!” barked Batman into his ear.

Abdiel lifted his fists in a sniveling defense and swung. Batman let the blow bounce off and prodded Abdiel in the chest.

Hit me!

Abdiel swung again. Batman took a half-step back and prodded Abdiel again, harder.

Murderer! Hit me!

Abdiel galloped forward and launched a left-right combo with the finesse of a man who had just discovered hands. Batman ignored them and jabbed Abdiel in the nose.

Hit me now!

Abdiel stumbled, half-blind from crying and the strike to his nose, half-deafened from the yelling. He screamed and advanced again, throwing a volley of punches ahead of him.

Batman then performed a move that could only have come from the ballroom. He pivoted to face Zatanna behind him, holding her by the hand and waist. Then smoothly, gently, he led her into a turn, guiding her to take his place. Her steps briskly followed his, as a student does with the dancing master. When they had nearly switched places, Batman let go. Zatanna continued forward for an instant until Abdiel punched her in the ear.

“Ow!” screamed Zatanna.

Abdiel’s response, if he had one, was interrupted by a salvo of iron bands breaking through the ceiling and binding him like a metal mummy.

Zatanna marched in a circle, cursing a stream of unimpressive profanities as she rubbed her ear.

Catwoman watched the scene in blank disbelief. She caught Batman’s attention and planted her hands on her hips. Did you know that was going to happen?

Batman paused then offered a head-shrug.

He cautiously approached Zatanna, considering what he could say, then Shadowcrest appeared at his shoulder. It stared at him again, but its eyes were softer than before, if not with genuine approval, then at least with a new sort of acknowledgement. Batman had the unsettling impression that it looked more than ever like Giovanni.

Behind Shadowcrest, the middle of the dining room wall folded away, its bricks turning inward by the dozen. In seconds, there was a new arch through which they could see a vast library.

“Come,” Shadowcrest commanded. “Now the contest is afoot.”

---​

Several minutes earlier.

Far away, deep in the mansion’s maze of serpentine halls and cobwebbed chambers, Zachary Cehennem - the self-styled Officer Kravitz - descended an enormous spiral stairwell. He didn’t know how far beneath the earth it sunk, hundreds of feet at least, but he had already come far underground through many other stairs and sunken passages to get here, so any sense of distance to the surface was long lost. He couldn’t rule out the possibility that the stairwell led straight to Hell.

Given that he was on the trail of Felix, Lord of Faust, this wouldn’t be too surprising.

When Giovanni’s minions had ambushed Zachary and his brother in the front hall, Zachary was certain he was a goner. The big cut on his nose still stung, and he could feel the boot-shaped bruises along his ribs, but the thugs had left his stunned body to chase after Abdiel. After Zachary came to his senses, he decided his brother was doomed, and it was no good throwing himself to the wolves. Even if his brother was alive, Zachary needed backup. He had to find Lord Faust.

Faust had a several minute head start. Normally, that would be more than enough to evade pursuit. Zachary knew spells to track a person, but magic had countermeasures, and Faust operated leagues beyond any mage Zachary had met. He could nullify Zachary’s best efforts in his sleep - if he slept. And Shadowcrest was not a regular building. The architecture gave the strong impression that any attempt to perceive through its walls would probably fail and probably hurt.

Fortunately, there were mundane ways to track a person. For instance, Zachary could follow the gory residue where Lord Faust had crossed the beastly things lurking in the mansion’s dim places, and Shadowcrest was ninety percent dim places. Whatever his mystic credentials, Lord Faust didn’t mind leaving footprints from the puddles of ooze and ichor that remained of his fights. And where combat had been scarce and footprints ran dry, Zachary watched for simpler signs of passage like broken spiderwebs or melted locks. Perhaps these sounded like obvious clues, but there was a stereotype that older, stronger mages lost common sense as they grew older and stronger, and Zachary Cehennem took pride in avoiding that rut.

Round and round, Zachary crept down the stairs, the dank space lit by some weak sourceless glow. He saw a texture to the shadows below which formed more clearly into a floor as he approached. At the bottom of the stairwell was an open door. Its frame was fitted with many locks and chains, all ruined. Zachary crept to the doorway and peered inside.

The room beyond was a square chamber bathed in deep greenish-blue light, like an aquarium or a forest glade under a full moon. The black onyx walls were etched with geometric patterns. Hundreds of whorls and constellations as small as a thumbprint combined to form larger and larger shapes, the largest the size of a man. Spotting them in one’s peripheral vision gave the illusion of movement, making the walls seem to shift wherever one looked. The room was empty, save for a small onyx pedestal in the center. Lord Faust stood over this pedestal.

“Enter, lackwit,” he proclaimed.

Zachary cringed and stepped into the room. The air had a dense magical charge, like the hum around a transformer. He suspected both were capable of powering a neighborhood or vaporizing a squirrel.

Zachary bowed. “A thousand apologies, Lord Faust. I-”

“Neglect simple commands, you unexcretable dunce? Indubitably.”

“We were attacked, my Lord. I hardly escaped with my life.”

Faust finally looked at him. His arm and face were nearly healed, though the mending flesh was bulbous and pale. “There were no wild foes in the front hall.” Faust closed his eyes. “And this overbuilt yurt has not violated parlay.”

“They were the sentries from the portal. They attacked my brother and I.”

“Hmm. Human sentries would mayhaps stand exempt were they beyond the house spirit’s authority. Yet they interfered betimes. Had we not just approached? Such alacrity! Perchance both serve a greater master. But whom?”

“Please, Lord. We need to go save Abdiel.”

“If he lives, he will live a few minutes more. Wait outside.” Faust returned to his work over the pedestal.

Zachary knew that arguing further would be a quick form of suicide. And he was eager to leave this chamber where the walls made him dizzy and the thick air gave him goosebumps. But from here he could see that the pedestal supported a rough wedge-shaped brick: the keystone.

When the brothers discovered last night that the portal to Shadowcrest could not be easily closed, they decided to visit the house itself and destroy it from the inside. Only then could they kill Giovanni Zatara in peace. Lord Faust agreed to help in return for all the plunder he could carry on the way out. Zachary didn’t like this plan and decided he ought to research how precisely one destroyed a keystone, to confirm the feasibility of Faust’s offer.

The deep magics required to craft a private dimension were obscure to say the least, but Shadowcrest wasn’t the Cehennem’s only repository of mystic knowledge, and Zachary Cehennem was an ambitious student. As expected, he found that the inner workings of a keystone would take decades to grasp, but his few hours of research were enough to find what it might look like to break one.

Faust was not trying to break this keystone. Instead of cracks, red threads were weaving their way through the porous gray stone. Something was wrong.

Zachary finally managed to stutter, “Ah. Of course, my Lord. I’ll, uh, I’ll be outside.”

He took three steps backwards and began to turn when a green lance stabbed through his side. He cried and tumbled to the floor of the giant stairwell.

“Clever worm!” crowed Lord Faust, walking slowly to the open door. “You noticed, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know what you-”

“Hist!” Faust pointed a flat palm and another green lance shot at Zachary. But Zachary, though he writhed in pain as his shirt pooled with blood, raised a glowing hand as well. The glow deflected the green lance into a wall.

“Stop,” Zachary begged, “please.”

But Faust didn’t hesitate. He fired another lance, which was deflected as well. Faust closed his fists and punched them together, and a wall of flame rolled from his forearms across the floor. Zachary disappeared in a glittering flash as another dropped him on the stairs.

“I’m tired, whelp. Don’t make me chase you.” Faust began humming and moving his hands apart in a rounded fashion like he was wiping a globe. A dark orange flicker grew between his hands, sparking brighter by the moment.

Zachary was too exhausted to lift his head. He felt very cold.

He didn’t see two ropes twirl out of the darkness above like tentacles of some impossibly-long squid. He barely felt as they wrapped around his arms and lifted him off the stairs, pulling him up the stairwell like a rocket. Then an arc of orange energy disintegrated the stairs and a five yard circle of wall around where Zachary had lain a moment before.

Faust, orange sparks still falling from his fingertips, scowled.

“Zooterkins,” he muttered.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Well well well. I'm assuming he's trying to take over the house, not destroy it?
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Simon_Jester »

I hardly ever come back to SDN these days, but my God is it nice to see this back...

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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 8: Straights Against Curves​

Catwoman was angry. The feeling had consumed her so quickly that she only realized her anger after she noticed that her cheeks felt hot and her stomach refused to unclench and her vision was tunneling and she wanted to break things. The muscles of her face were so frozen by rage-pressure that her expression remained tranquil. Catwoman wasn’t the type to fight her feelings. She dived in and let them soak. They felt righteous.

While stewing in the bitter rush, Catwoman remembered a Sunday school lesson from a lifetime ago that this flavor of anger had a name: wrath. She hadn’t felt wrath in a long time. Make no mistake: Catwoman was a big fan of the deadly sins. Gluttony had never been tempting, but the rest of the list was plenty of fun, and wrath was near the top. Some of her fondest memories had been fueled by wrath. But Catwoman had realized long ago that wrath, fun or not, was ultimately a weak person’s emotion. She knew this because she used to be a weak person. Weak people had attachments, and when the universe ruined those attachments, then all the weak had left was bitterness. She hated being weak. Better to live unattached and get while the gettin’s good, like a cat.

But like a cat, Catwoman had tried to slip even that one rule, expecting that the universe wouldn’t notice. She had kept an attachment, a friend. Then last night her friend nearly burned to death. Catwoman had sat a long vigil by Maven Lewis’ hospital bed as Maven struggled to breathe. The doctors said her lungs might fully recover, or she might have a cough for the rest of her life, but either way she was very lucky. Another two minutes in the smoke and her prognosis would have been far less cheerful. Catwoman despised hospitals.

After taking her friend to safety in the early morning hours, Catwoman set off to avenge her. The day’s adventure brought her through a tilt-a-whirl of feelings, but none of those feelings had been wrath because she had no target, and Catwoman wasn’t the sort of misanthrope who could direct wrath at hypothetical people or at everyone.

Then Abdiel Cehennem, novice wizard and world’s biggest ball of lard, admitted that he was responsible for nearly killing her friend and ruining a few hundred other lives. Now Catwoman had a target, and wrath was back in her life like the furnace of a locomotive. The only reason Catwoman didn’t immediately take her pound of flesh upon hearing Abdiel’s confession was because Batman - whose emotional sensitivity was usually stuck between ‘defective’ and ‘pebble’ - anticipated her feelings and held her hand before she could use it more productively. Otherwise Abdiel would have been due a few hundred stitches and maybe a new ear. Then Batman proceeded to humiliate Abdiel so completely that even Catwoman’s rage was slaked by the show.

But that was only an appetizer. After Batman finished, the time seemed ripe for Catwoman to enact her own vengeance, but then Shadowcrest decided to wrap Abdiel in an iron chrysalis. The metal was obviously claw-proof. Catwoman quietly fumed. She turned to Batman for an explanation he couldn’t provide.

The spirit of the old house opened a hole in the wall. “Come,” it commanded as it entered. “Now the contest is afoot.” Abdiel’s metal prison grew three spindly legs and tottered through the hole after it. Catwoman heard Abdiel’s muffled protests, presumably about the discomfort of blindly bouncing inside a moving sarcophagus, but no one cared.

Instead, Catwoman watched Batman try to apologize to Zatanna for getting her punched in the ear. It seemed his emotional wisdom had reset to ‘pebble’ as he tried explain himself through sentence fragments, only for Zatanna to interrupt by shouting “What?” as she rubbed her ear, which Batman answered with louder sentence fragments.

Catwoman walked between them and elbowed Batman fiercely in the side. He huffed and glared at her. Catwoman ignored him and smiled at Zatanna. “There, now you’re square.”

Zatanna cringed at the violence and yelled, “Do you solve everything with hitting?”

Catwoman shrugged. “More him, honestly.”

“What?” shouted Zatanna.

“Excuse us.” Catwoman took Batman by the shoulder and led him aside. “Can we talk a minute? Alone? Over there? Now?”

Batman sensed the rolling boil behind Catwoman’s thin smile and followed without comment. She didn’t give him enough credit: the World’s Greatest Detective was very good at reading emotions. A parade of dark fixations in his brain made it difficult to express his own emotions, but that was a separate issue. He could certainly recognize when a person felt like committing grave bodily harm, having seen harm aimed at his own grave body many times.

Catwoman waited for Zatanna to pass through the hole in the wall. When they were alone in the dining room, she clasped Batman’s face and aimed it at hers.

Hey! Are you listening?

Batman looked deep into Catwoman’s big green eyes. His mind played a rapid montage of ways the next few minutes might transpire, each more concerning than the last.

He slowly nodded. I’m listening.

She patted his cheek and released his face. You know this little game we play? We joke, we bicker, I tease you, you stand there like a stump? I’m calling a timeout.

He looked past her. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Catwoman snorted. I missed it too. But let’s be serious. You were right: this magic nonsense is the worst. Now we need to work together.

Batman folded his arms suspiciously. What have we been doing?

She rolled her eyes. You know what I mean.

I don’t.

These Cehennem brothers burned the Lisbon! Mystery solved. Now you have the bad guys. Catwoman poked him in the chest. Let’s drop the hammer on ‘em.

We’re here to-

Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re here for the showgirl. Fine. But you’re Batman. Save the kid and slug the thugs. Bing-bang-boom, right? Special order for two hot servings of justice.

But I-

Catwoman cracked her knuckles and grinned. I can’t wait to go to town on these piles of trash! How about we start with their fingers? See if they like casting spells with their knuckles.

Batman shook his head. Catwoman, you can’t-

I’m trying to think of a way to get Fatso the Wizard out of his cage. This place has a lot of weird rules popping up, and you’ve got the knack for figuring those out. I’ll bring the pain; I just need a tour guide to Neverland. Are you with me?

Batman pursed his lips.

Catwoman, the brothers aren’t our priority.

Catwoman shoved him into the wall. Her expression turned mean.

Don’t you dare get soft on me. Let’s see the real Batman.

She shoved him again.

I know he’s in there. I’ve seen him. I need the guy who learns two killers burned down an apartment and gets on the warpath. Come on Caped Crusader, here’s your crusade.

Batman’s mouth was a frigid line. He didn’t enjoy being reminded that she had seen him lose his temper the last time they worked together, and the notion that he lacked enthusiasm for crimefighting was ridiculous. He caught her third shove.

I haven’t forgotten about the Lisbon. If by some miracle I can bring the brothers to justice without risking our lives, I will. But we’re not in control here. Stop acting like it.

He pushed against Catwoman’s hands, forcing her back.

And no one is getting mutilated.

She pulled her hands away with a disgusted look.

Coward.

Before she could gesture again, Shadowcrest appeared through the wall between them. “Sorry to interrupt your silent twitchings, but are we ready to proceed?”

Catwoman shot Batman another nasty look as she slipped through the hole.

If you won’t help, then I’ll do it myself.

Batman followed at a distance, mentally updating his list of ways the night could get worse.

---​

Zatanna hadn’t noticed Batman and Catwoman’s absence. Beyond the hole she found an extraordinary library and instantly forgot everyone else. The room was as wide as a football field and twice the length. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling arched forty feet overhead, covered with copper mosaics that glowed like the setting sun. By this gentle light, Zatanna gaped at ten million books. It was an impossible abundance of books, more than ever printed, more than ever dreamed. Wooden bookshelves covered the vast walls and hundreds of bookcases crowded the floor.

Zatanna stood on a balcony, the highest of several tiers of balconies that circled the room and provided a fine vantage to the decadent architecture and the sea of words it carried. Batman and Catwoman approached from behind Zatanna, and they too were overcome by the sight, so much that they momentarily forgot their shoving match only seconds ago.

Zatanna, Batman, and Catwoman shared a love of libraries, though each would be surprised to learn this about the others.

Batman assumed Catwoman was too much of a thrillseeker to visit a library unless she was there to rob it.

Catwoman, who did rob libraries, had a genuine passion for the arts and considered literature enriching. She assumed that Zatanna wasn’t interested in libraries because she assumed that strangers weren’t sophisticated enough to share her hobbies. She also suspected that pretty people in show business weren’t employed for their brains, though part of her knew this bias was unfair and a little hypocritical.

Zatanna wasn’t very bookish, but her father used to drag her to libraries and book dealers across the world when she was young (which suddenly made more sense), and now she enjoyed visiting for old time’s sake. She also liked that libraries were cool and quiet and let tired travelers sit all day for free. Zatanna assumed that Catwoman wasn’t interested in libraries because she assumed criminals who started riots weren’t much for reading.

As for Batman, Zatanna suspected that he didn’t enjoy libraries because she doubted he was a regular human with regular pastimes. Catwoman assumed the same because she knew he was an irregular human with irregular pastimes. Both women believed that a Batman sighting in a library would make the news. Neither fathomed that he might wear something else in public. This lack of imagination said more about Catwoman who once saw him do that.

And Batman - possessing the only informed assumption amongst the three - assumed Zatanna didn’t love libraries because he had known her for three months and she didn’t love libraries. He knew that people changed. Logically, this woman named Zatanna was a stranger. But he had trouble not seeing the girl from fourteen years ago. And that girl never missed a chance to mock the books he brought to study every spare minute. On several occasions she had pretended to feed his books to doves or dip them in ink or burn them. Once she had actually burned his books because stage fire is fickle.

Now he saw Zatanna the woman gaze over this heaven of books with her features deep in thought. He saw her expression change to wonder, then to joy.

Zatanna grinned and said to no one in particular, “Hey, this is mine.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Catwoman absentmindedly.

Shadowcrust rose through the floor before them, blocking their view. “We must hurry to the senechal’s sanctum,” it said briskly. “I’m bending the halls of the estate to speed our transit, but we have a vital stop here first. Take a ladder.”

No one understood this command. Catwoman, who quickly remembered how angry she was, readied a snarky complaint when she heard singing metal nearby. The humans turned and saw three bookcase ladders racing towards them at highway speeds, stopping instantly when they arrived.

Abdiel’s metal prison trotted to the bookshelves and hopped up. Its legs fit the ladder tracks and it sped off. They heard his screams fade in the distance.

Shadowcrest nodded. “Hold tight. The ride can-”

“Yeah, we get it,” said Catwoman as she watched Abdiel circling the library like a cat stalking a fat canary. Without further ado, she sprung to the first ladder and raced after him, leaning forward as if to egg her steed faster.

Batman was about to grab the next ladder when he noticed that Zatanna was frozen behind him.

“Uhhh,” she muttered as she stared at the ladders in rational wide-eyed terror. Batman hesitated, looking between her and Catwoman chasing Abdiel unsupervised.

“Come, Mistress,” said Shadowcrest.

“Do you have one with a seat?” asked Zatanna. “Maybe a harness?”

Batman looked again at Catwoman, who seemed to be gaining on her prey.

“Now child!” said Shadowcrest, but Zatanna seemed more reluctant every second.

Here,” said Batman. He chopped at the nearest ladder, snapping off four wooden rungs. “You’ll be fine.

Zatanna let him guide her to sit on a remaining rung with her back to the bookshelves. He tied a short rope across her lap so she couldn’t fall forward. Zatanna trembled and held the ladder’s rails with a white-knuckle grip.

Don’t worry about your hat,” said Batman.

“What?” asked Zatanna.

Batman snatched the tophat from her head as the ladder rocketed away. Her screams echoed across the vast room. Batman held the hat and climbed aboard the last ladder one-handed. He looked at Shadowcrest. As he sped away, he thought for a moment that the spirit looked pleased.

---​

The ladder tracks ahead of the four riders split off the wall, extending an arc of new tracks down the lower tiers of balconies. They descended like landing aircraft, soon connecting with the tall bookcases that covered the floor. As they descended, Batman saw that the outer stacks were spaced wide enough to fit a car, but the bookcases grew closer and more winding towards the middle of the library. The innermost rows were a maze, full of dark paths and dead-ends. Their ladders came to a surprisingly-gentle stop halfway towards this maze. The bookcases here were too close for two bodies to pass comfortably, close enough to cast shadows over their own shelves. It was no worse than many library basements in old universities Batman had visited.

Catwoman had already dismounted and was inspecting Abdiel’s prison which was blissfully intact. Zatanna still sat on her ladder. Batman had feared that his rope wouldn't stop Zatanna from falling backwards when the tracks left the wall, but the ordeal only changed her screaming octave. Batman walked to her and held out her tophat. Zatanna looked at it for a moment as she hyperventilated, then she mutely patted down her wind-tossed hair and returned the hat to her head.

Batman took his rope back and gave her space. He sympathized. Magicians performed death-defying stunts with a smile, but the audience never saw the painstaking weeks of design and rehearsal to prepare those stunts. Most magicians faced as much genuine danger as a typical grocer, and Zatanna hadn’t been much of a daredevil. It seemed that hadn’t changed.

Zatanna struggled to her feet as Shadowcrest appeared through a bookcase.

“We must continue afoot,” it said without preamble. “The most direct path is ahead between involuntary autobiographies and our Nubian etchings. They shall be no problem if we stay exactly on their border. Beyond them lies the domain of the ink lords and their catspaws in the noosphere. Be cautious. I’ve convinced the Phansigar strangling scrolls to abstain from cursing trespassers with pox or blindness, but they reserve the right to strangle.”

“We still haven’t heard your master plan, Shady,” said Catwoman.

Catwoman,” warned Batman quietly.

“I think we deserve that much before we take your marching orders.”

Shadowcrest ignored her and began walking the nearest path toward the library’s heart. Abdiel’s prison trotted behind.

Zatanna chased after him. “She’s right, Shadowcrest, that would be awfully nice. I don’t know what it’s like to be a house, but we’re getting really anxious in our, uh, chimneys. Or would it be attics? Where does a house keep its brains? Could you clean our gutters, maybe? Gutters here meaning doubts. Does that make any sense? This is all very unfamiliar.”

Batman followed Zatanna, and Catwoman reluctantly followed him.

After a pause, Shadowcrest said, “You deserve to know everything, Mistress, but I’m afraid circumstances are shifting on perilous courses even now, and to tarry would spell doom. Yet idle talk is reckless distraction when crossing the inner library. I will inform you as best I can while we remain in well-trod regions.”

Zatanna nodded, her head twisting back and forth to read the spines of impressive books they passed. Batman was tempted to do the same, but instead he kept an eye on Catwoman as they brought up the rear. Her mood hadn’t improved.

“We’re waiting,” called Catwoman.

Shadowcrest didn’t look back. “As is your place, immodest commoner.”

Batman could practically feel the anger radiating off of Catwoman at that remark.

How am I the immodest one? At least I’m wearing pants!

Batman gave her a look. She ignored it and scoffed at Zatanna’s back.

You could count the freckles on her thighs from a blimp!

Batman glared at Catwoman, then quickened his pace to leave her behind.

Catwoman crossed her arms and fumed. A book beside her giggled. She gave it a furious look and it stopped.

Shadowcrest spoke. “Mistress, in more civilized generations, the news I’m about to impart would be shared in a great ceremony. I’m sorry you must learn it amid such pedestrian company.” Shadowcrest paused to give the news a little gravity. “Zatanna Zatara, daughter of Sindella Zatara of House Cehennem, you are a mage.”

“Oh.” said Zatanna. “Neat.”

“Oh?” asked Shadowcrest in disbelief.

She shrugged. “You said mom and her family were mages. Sounds genetic, so I figured I might have it. I still don’t know what a mage is exactly.”

“That’s, well,” Shadowcrest mumbled.

“I guess Abdiel could make chairs walk around. That was mage stuff, right? Could be good for my act. Faust’s magic was scary. I’m not sure I want any of that.”

Shadowcrest cleared its non-existent throat. “Mistress, listen well. There are as many perceptions of true magic as there are mages, and each of its manifold mysteries is the study of a lifetime. Notwithstanding these obstacles, I can share a few revelations no practitioner would dispute, and they must needs serve to outline reality such as your obligations tonight require.”

Batman was walking beside Zatanna now, and she looked at him with raised eyebrows for support. He could only offer a head-shrug.

Shadowcrest continued. “Know then my revelations. First, the world is full of concepts thought to be rhetorical or imaginary which are quite tangible. Second the world is full of tangible things thought to be lifeless which are quite alive. Third, the world is full of living beings thought to be mindless which are quite intelligent. Finally, it is the birthright potential of the mage to act upon these earlier truths: to hold the intangible, find life in the dead, and commune with the mute.”

They heard an impatient groan inside Abidel’s walking prison. “Can I talk to her please? You’re making it worse.”

Shadowcrest looked at Zatanna. She nodded.

A gap folded open in the metal, letting Abdiel stick his face out. “Woo, stuffy in there. Hey, Zatanna.”

Zatanna looked at him suspiciously. “Abdiel.”

“I know we aren’t best friends right now, but I am the only trained mage here, so I think you need me.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Believe it or not, one of the main reasons our folks were all so desperate to stop your dad is because someone had to teach you magic. We want to help you.”

Shadowcrest gave Abdiel a look. “This is not the time to defend your family’s wayward habits, child.” It relented a little. “But one part of his sentiment is true: your mystic education is critical tonight.”

Abdiel pressed on. “Listen, do you like movies?”

Zatanna nodded skeptically. “Sure.”

“Did you see Fantasia? Big Disney picture. Came out last year.”

“Yeah. I saw it.”

“Remember that one bit, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?”

A flock of atlases flapped overhead. Zatanna watched them pass. “Mickey Mouse sends a bunch of broomsticks to carry water. They flood the place, and he gets in trouble.”

“Exactly. That film is a perfect introduction to being a mage. Only Mickey would’ve died. Or worse. Magic is a dangerous art.”

“Then why would I want to learn it?”

“Because a careful mage can do just about anything.”

“Can you dodge a book?” asked Catwoman.

“What?”

Catwoman threw a book at his face.

“Ow!” cried Abdiel.

Batman, Zatanna, and Shadowcrest looked at Catwoman with disapproval but said nothing. The book scurried into a shelf.

Abdiel winced and tried to flex his hurt nose. “And even magi who don’t care about power can be targets for those who do. You’re lucky we were the only magi trying to find you.”

What exactly is magic?” asked Batman. “What causes it? How does it overcome the forces of nature?

“What sort of forces?” asked Abdiel.

Like gravity.

“What causes gravity?”

The presence of mass.

“Why does that cause gravity?”

I don’t know,” Batman admitted. “But gravity is constant. Whatever causes it is clearly inherent in nature. Anyone can test it.

“Well bud, I don't have a great answer, but you can't blame us. You mundanes haven't solved physics for thousands of years, and all you have to explain are magnets and falling apples. Magic’s much trickier. I can only offer what I know.”

“Let’s hear it,” said Zatanna.

“The Cehennem tradition is that everything has a mind. Trees have minds. Bugs have minds. So do the wind and the moon. And love, and hate, and dreams, and France. All fires have a mind. The abstract concept of fire might as well - I wouldn't want to check. For some reason, magi are born able to chat with these minds, the bugs and trees and France and such. It’s all a matter of finding their language and learning some manners to keep ’em sweet. That’s where all the training comes in.”

"What do you say to a tree?" asked Zatanna.

"Anything you want."

“What language does the moon speak?”

“I don’t know. But I bet it’s in one of these books.”

Zatanna looked around at the endless shelves.

Abdiel clucked his tongue for attention. “There’s more to it. You have to learn how to make a deal. Say you call up the spirit of a beehive. You want the bees to stop stinging you. Well, it’s going to want something in return.”

“Like … nectar?”

“Maybe nectar. Maybe it wants a complement. Maybe it wants your firstborn son. All these little bits of the world have their own whims and ambitions. They're as smart as people in their own way, often smarter."

“What if I don’t have a firstborn son?”

“Then you negotiate. Or, better yet, skedaddle. Listen, Zatanna, magic is like a big lake. Many magi live long, contented lives only dipping their toe at the shore. That's how they manage to live long, contented lives. The deeper you swim, the more power you seek, the bigger the stakes. This library might be the most valuable room in the house because experimenting with magic without instructions is bad business.”

“What happens?”

“Anything. Imagine you’re a lone chemist trying to reinvent gunpowder. Sounds pretty dangerous, right? Now pretend you’ve never seen anyone make it before. Never even seen it used. You only think it exists because you heard a rumor. Also, all your ingredients and all your lab equipment can talk, they all have agendas, and they’ll do their best to manipulate you. Also, if you describe your project to nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand people, they’ll think you’re insane. Maybe the thousandth person is also a mage, but there’s good odds they’ll see you as a threat, or prey, or they’re so far down the rabbit hole that they no longer appreciate ideas like death or morality. That’s magic.”

“Oh.”

“Once I was trying to turn pumpernickel bread into sourdough. Just for fun. I accidentally met the high queen of the bread dimension. She said I amused her. She offered me the chance to give up life as I knew it and live for a thousand years in paradise - a cottage beside a tropic sea and a book of every poem ever penned and a bottomless bag of opium. I would never grow hungry or restless. She brought me to this place and reminded me of all the burdens of my life, how they all would slip away. I was so close to taking her offer. All because of bread. Would you give up your life for endless paradise?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure? Many would.”

“Silence,” ordered Shadowcrest. “We near the untamed shelves.”

The group had noticed the bookcases growing closer together with every winding turn, casting thicker shadows on their path. Abdiel’s trotting prison often scraped the shelves, an eerie noise in the vast quiet. The books here looked weathered and ominous. Some were bound in odd materials, and many covers were blank. A thin book hissed and jumped at Zatanna. She flinched, but Batman caught it by the spine and tossed it over the bookcase. Zatanna mouthed a thank you. He nodded.

Finally, when the path could turn no darker or tighter, the last bookcase ended and they squeezed into a round clearing. Suddenly, the ceiling’s glow seemed bright again. There were no bookcases here. Instead, they found a row of pedestals topped with glass containers like museum exhibits. All except the last pedestal which displayed a wire mesh cage. Inside these exhibits were books and other carriers of the written word from unknown ages and species.

“Do not touch anything,” said Shadowcrest firmly. “Go to the cage at the end.”

Duly warned, the group crept down the row, inspecting each exhibit from afar. One book shimmered with a warmth that could be felt yards away. Another book had a cover of bubbling black slime. There was a floating stone tablet that hurt the eyes to study. They found a book that was clearly bleeding, and another that seemed two-dimensional. There was a paperback with a brawny cowboy on the cover.

Finally, they reached the wire mesh cage at the end of the row. Three metal bands around the frame were secured with dozens of locks. Inside the cage was a short shelf of leather-bound journals. To Batman and Catwoman, it seemed the most mundane exhibit of the lot. But Abdiel began to cringe and cough as he approached, and soon Zatanna felt her eyes itch.

“What’s going on?” she said, trying not to panic.

Abdiel coughed again. “It’ll pass. Jeez, that’s strong.”

“What?” asked Catwoman.

“This cage,” said Abdiel, “It’s got more magical protections than I’ve ever seen. It’s like Fort Knox.”

Shadowcrest circled the cage. “These are Giovanni’s private journals. The contents are secret to me, but I am sure you will need them.”

“Great,” said Zatanna, rubbing her eyes. “Pop it open.”

“I cannot.”

“Why not?”

“Your father designed this cage to resist the most determined attempts at forced entry, magical or mundane. It must be unlocked manually.”

“Fine. Where’re the keys?”

“There are no keys.”

“Then how does he open it?”

“He forbid me from watching. He said a true Zatara would know.”

“Then he's mad,” said Abdiel. “It’s impossible.”

They heard a series of clicks.

Catwoman, standing beside the cage, turned around. She twirled an open lock around her finger.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Hehe. Pick the lock and it opens.

Interesting discourse on DCU Magic. Not sure how much it helps us
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Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

I guess we'll see.
Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 9: Lulu’s Back in Town​


The mystic cage containing the journals of Giovanni Zatara was bound by three metal bands, each built with twelve sturdy latches. It was an intimidating piece of security, though its fearsome appearance was diminished when the thirty-six latches had only thirty-five locks.

The group stared in silence as Catwoman swung the thirty-sixth lock around her finger. After a moment, Zatanna slapped her forehead. She pulled her white gloves tight, muttered about family habits and topping Houdini, and marched up to Catwoman. Each woman smiled and tried speaking at once, saying that the other could relax and let an expert finish the job. Each woman paused, quite taken aback. Struggling to keep their smiles, each tried to speak again, but their mutual interruption killed the effort.

There was another tense silence. Each woman glanced at the cage, then at the other, then at the cage again. Zatanna flicked her wrist, and a pair of metal picks appeared in her hand. Catwoman thought the trick looked familiar but had no time to ask. She tossed the open lock over her shoulder. They turned as one and attacked the cage.

Neither Catwoman nor Zatanna claimed to be the best lock breaker in the world - that would be arrogant - but Zatanna often suspected that she was the best in the country, and Catwoman’s imagined reign stopped at the hemisphere. This confidence was rational: Zatanna had surpassed even her father’s legendary lockwork by her first solo tour, and Catwoman had once been hired by The Batman.

They started at opposite ends of the cage, backs bent, elbows tucked, feverishly finessing the thick iron locks. Metal squeaked as their tools pecked and twisted. Every few seconds, another lock popped open, and the lady responsible would slap it off its latch and jump to the next.

Catwoman and Zatanna felt quite off-balance from the evening’s many unwelcome surprises, and they were sick of it. They were itching to do something they understood, something proactive. Lockpicking was proactive Neither had met a serious rival in years, so they found the audacity of a challenge very motivating. After Zatanna picked her second lock, beating Catwoman’s second by a hair, Zatanna cheered out her score, then continued to announce her count after every lock fell. Catwoman was too dignified to call out numbers like a child, then she pulled ahead with her fifth lock and couldn’t resist a smug, “Five.”

He produced his own picks and started on an untouched lock. Zatanna frowned, and Catwoman shot him a dirty look. Batman ignored them. This was no time for a competition: their lives were at stake. Also, locks weren’t his strong suit and he needed to focus.

The platform holding the mystic cage was as large as a pool table. The women started on opposite sides, but it didn’t take long for them to bump shoulders. Without missing a beat, Catwoman, working the lower lock, crouched in front, while Zatanna, working the upper lock, hunched her spine to give her competitor space. They finished their locks at the same instant, stepped past each other, and resumed.

Catwoman was the first to bump into Batman. She had finished every lock within reach save for two hidden by his wide frame. Zatanna was making short work of the last few locks on the other side of him. Catwoman vibrated with impatience for two vast seconds, then she shoved Batman out of the way and swiftly finished both. But it was too late. When the last latch opened, Zatanna was the victor with sixteen locks, Catwoman had only fifteen, and Batman had spoiled the affair with four. Catwoman was livid.

Zatanna skipped and whooped and pumped her fist. For all her charisma onstage, Zatanna had spent more of her life in steamships than friendships. Like many loners, she was pleasant in an awkward, inoffensive way and had trouble relating to people. When this made her feel self-conscious, she rationalized that at least she was sincere. But sincerity had limits. For instance, Zatanna was entirely unused to the thrill of winning a close contest after an exhausting night, and she was not a gracious winner.

As Zatanna danced around, Cawoman folded her arms and glared at Batman who was opening the cage.

Catwoman finally snapped at Zatanna, “Are you done yet?”

Zatanna continued her victory shuffle. “Don’t have kittens now.”

Catwoman gaped. Before she could answer, she heard a snort from behind. She twisted around to see Batman keeping a straight face.

Shadowcrest loudly cleared its non-existent throat. “This is no time for frivolity, Mistress, no matter how decisive and well-earned your conquest.”

Catwoman steamed.

Batman lifted the sixteen leather-bound journals out of the cage. Zatanna rushed over and picked a volume from the top. She flipped the journal to a middle page.

“Oh, wow!” said Zatanna.

“What?” asked Batman.

“I forgot how bad his handwriting was.”

“Bring them along.” said Shadowcrest. “We must depart at once.”

“Oh.” said Zatanna, tossing the journal back atop the stack in Batman’s arms. He shifted to keep the stack balanced.

“What part did you want us to read?” asked Catwoman. “We might as well do it here.”

“I do not know.” Shadowcrest growled briskly. “These books are but one arrow. We must first fill your quiver, then we will loose them in their proper course.”

“That sounds like a fancy way to say you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Hardly. Time is short, so I must explain while we proceed.”

“Yeah, you keep saying that. Don’t see you making good on that promise, Shady.”

In an instant, Shadowcrest grew ten feet tall. Its face turned red as it bellowed down at her, “Silence!”

Catwoman stumbled back. Batman dropped the journals and slipped beside her.

Shadowcrest’s skin shook with fury. “You shall respect my prerogatives, vapid girl.” Bookcases around them began to rock as squadrons of books took to the air, diving and circling like clouds of gnats. The ceiling’s gentle glow turned the ugly scarlet of a bruise.

Zatanna marched between Shadowcrest’s towering form and her human rescuers and shouted, “Hey! Don’t hurt them!”

Shadowcrest hardly glanced at her. “I must ensure the deference of your lessers, Mistress. This one’s impertinence must not threaten you, whether you see the danger or not.”

Batman slowly raised his hands. “We submit. You have all the power here.”

“More than enough to chastise you, squire. And your girl?”

Batman subtly elbowed Catwoman. She elbowed him back. He elbowed her harder. She grudgingly raised her hands. Shadowcrest scrutinized her for a frightful second then nodded. All at once, the scarlet ceiling turned its gentle yellow and hundreds of books hit the floor.

Batman looked sternly across at Catwoman. It’s growing unhinged. Stop aggravating it.

Catwoman scoffed and looked away.

Shadowcrest returned to normal size. “I’ve readied our path to the seneschal's sanctum. Be swift.”

Batman collected the journals off the floor, trying to hold all sixteen under one arm. “Shadowcrest, would you help carry these? I’d like my hands free.”

“I’m afraid not,” said Shadowcrest. “Much as Giovanni prevented me from opening the cage, he forbade me from touching the contents when they are released.

“His life is on the line.”

“His command made no allowances for such a predicament.”

Batman shifted again to keep the journals from slipping. “... Catwoman?”

“Sorry, my satchel’s full,” said Catwoman, inspecting her claws.

“Oh!” said Zatanna. She turned over her hat and pulled out of black drawstring bag which unfolded to the length of her arm. “Keep ’em in here.”

“Why do you have that?” asked Catwoman.

Zatanna began stuffing the journals into the drawstring bag. “It’s for a trick I’m inventing. I hide an owl in the bag, then pin the bag inside the hat. The bag is the same color as the hat lining, so no one sees it when they peek inside. Then I enter an empty glass chamber, give a big speech about how nothing can possibly get in, then a curtain falls. Before the curtain hits the ground, I’m holding an owl.”

“How’s that working out for you?”

“Not great. It turns out owls hate being stuffed into hats. And they’re not fond of bags.”

Zatanna cinched the drawstring and tied it around the leg joint of Abdiel’s walking prison.

“An acceptable compromise.” said Shadowcrest. “Come.”

---​

On the other side of the house.

Felix, Lord of Faust climbed the last rickey staircase to the top of Shadowcrest’s highest tower.

His corrupting spell continued to spread its tendrils through Shadowcrest’s keystone. He could feel the mystic energies in the walls bubble and bend as the corruption grew. The spell would finish without his supervision: like a kindling fire when the fuelwood ignites, its momentum was assured.

He raised his palm to the door at the top of the stairs and sensed for traps. His little captive ensured the house spirit stayed tamed, but there was no such thing as a reckless old mage, and the Lord of Faust was very old.

Sensing no danger, Faust opened the door and entered the observatory. A brisk wind howled through the windows. Faust shivered in his indigo suit and caught the flapping ends of his headwrap. He grumbled and flicked a hand, shutting the windows.

The observatory was a hexagonal sawdust-smelling room with a large window on each wall. Lanterns hung from the bare rafters, but most light came from a full moon so large it filled two windows. There was an impressive telescope pointed at the moon and a table of surveying instruments nearby. The center of the room was monopolized by a huge orrery, a clockwork model of the solar system the size of a merry-go-round, though this model had several planets unknown to mainstream astronomers.

Faust circled the room, eyeing the windows and tools. Observatories in the great magical estates were used to spy on distant realms. In layman's terms, Shadowcrest was detached from the rest of the universe in a little bubble. But here the bubble’s membrane was thin enough to let in light and sound from other bubbles. A skilled mage might steer against those distant bubbles to peer inside. But Faust had not come to gaze outward. The observatory’s tools and permeable nature also made it the best place in the house to spy on the rest of the house. Shadowcrest’s masonry blurred even Faust’s senses, but here those blinders would be lifted.

Faust’s goal was singular: finding the two strangers who had ambushed his retinue at the entrance portal. Faust had assumed they were Giovanni Zatara’s guards - freelance mundanes or weak mages: it explained the magician’s longevity. But then Zachary Cehennem claimed the same assailants had attacked him and his brother in the main hall. This second attack gave Faust pause. If true, it came after Faust struck parlay with the spirit of Shadowcrest. If the strangers were agents of the house, they would be bound by those teams.

Now, free-willed humans could break parlay. This was one of the most dangerous acts in all of magic, but it happened. Faust had broken so many oaths that he lost count. Magical constructs, like a mansion, usually couldn’t, but if the human servant of a construct broke parlay, the magic of the agreement would punish both servant and construct. Faust would sense such retribution, yet tonight he sensed nothing. The attackers were not Giovanni’s men. This was chilling news for Felix, Lord of Faust.

More chilling still, after Zachary had given his report, Faust decided the boy had exhausted his value and made to end him. But Shadowcrest came and captured the boy. The whelp would die from his wounds, but the move meant that Shadowcrest could act against his wishes without breaking parlay. How? The strangers surely killed the fat brother, which was no loss, and they may have stolen that silly heiress. But even with her support, Faust couldn’t imagine how the strangers could free the house from its promise, and he was an expert in loopholes. It was baffling.

Ultimately, this was still a modest concern. Parlay was a valuable shield, but the house would not attack him so long as Giovanni was his prisoner. Let it snipe at his followers; they meant nothing. But that still left the assailants. The other characters in tonight’s petty drama, these Zataras and Cehennems were grains of sand in the arena of true magical power. If these strangers were not agents of the house, then Faust judged it likely that they were not part of the family’s little play at all. They had come for him.

Faust had many, many enemies, and more than a few were a grave danger when he had perfect health. He had come to the observatory to identify his foes. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, after all, and time was on Faust’s side. Soon Shadowcrest would be his, and with the almighty house at his command, he could pick apart his rivals like petals from a flower.

Faust spent several minutes inspecting the room’s surveying instruments (if they were his, they would be booby-trapped). Then, ever so gently, he thinned the mystic membrane around the tower, tuning the instruments to pierce the veil. Technically, he would still be looking out of Shadowcrest’s bubble, only to look back into the bubble at another part of the house. As difficult as this was to understand conceptually, the difficulty of performing it was fivefold.

But one by one, the windows misted over, leaving the observatory dim. Faust turned dials as one window began to resolve into the faded, fuzzy image of a plumed helmet. He turned another dial and the image retreated, showing a suit of armor, then a wall of the entrance hall. The hall was empty.

Faust searched the vast mansion room by room, thinning the membrane further when he needed to peer through yet another wall. He eventually found the library and discovered hundreds of books scuttling across the floor.

“Curious,” he whispered.

Faust was so focused on the window ahead that he failed to notice a pulse of light from the window behind him. It wasn’t until he heard a faint echo of upbeat jazz piano that turned his attention. Faust spun, orange sparks dancing over his hands, but he was still alone in the observatory.

The opposite window, however, now looked into the private room of a swanky nightclub. Shadowy figures in tuxedos mingled in smokey corners, but the middle of the windowpane faced the dark silhouette of a couch. Then a string was pulled, and a cone of warm light shined down from a purple Deco lampshade.

The hand holding that string was attached to a woman in a green satin evening gown. Her other hand held a cocktail glass. She had dark red curls, bold red lipstick, and a look of wicked self-satisfaction that Catwoman couldn’t match on her best day.

“Felix, darling,” said the woman with a languid laugh, “Always playing hard to get.”

---​

In the library.

Once again, Shadowcrest demanded silence as the group traveled the untamed stacks. They crossed with no interruptions. Zatanna had the impression that the books remaining on the shelves trembled as Shadowcrest passed.

She also sensed a new chilliness between Batman and Catwoman. As a natural entertainer, grumpy faces made her uncomfortable, plus friction between her allies jeopardized her odds of seeing tomorrow. She dearly wished someone else could fix their issues. Their outfits suggested this was impossible, but putting their short-term problems on hold might be in her wheelhouse. The operative word was ‘might’. Of all the social graces which Zatanna had little practice, mediation was probably the most lacking, but she didn’t have a choice.

The feuding pair were walking at opposite ends of their line, which Zatanna took as a blessing as she needn’t face both at once. Catwoman seemed more approachable than Batman (a cactus seemed more approachable than Batman) so Zatanna sidled up to her.

“Hey there.”

Catwoman was sulking but mustered a short half-smile. “Hi.”

“Want to see a trick?”

“Hm?”

Before Catwoman could question her, Zatanna fanned a deck of cards under her nose. “Pick a card.”

“I’m not in the mood for-”

“Come on, humor me. People pay to see this.”

Catwoman rolled her eyes and picked the three of clubs. “And?”

Zatanna pulled the deck away. “Hold the card tightly between your palms. Don’t let it escape.”

“Fine.”

“Now open your palms.”

Catwoman lifted her palm. The card was gone. Her eyes opened wide. She inspected all parts of her arms and patted the creases in her outfit. Finally, she looked at Zatanna with annoyance and a hint of wonder.

“How?”

Zatanna said nothing but turned over the deck again. Every card was a three of clubs.

“Okay.” Catwoman gave her two slow claps. “That wasn’t bad. I’ll figure it out in a minute, but that wasn’t bad.”

“You know, I think we have a lot in common.”

“Oh?” said Catwoman with more condescension than she intended.

“I have to admit, you beat me with the lock picks.” Zatanna didn’t actually believe this, but it was a white lie. “It was close though. I guess thieves and magicians have similar lines of work.”

Hearing her superiority acknowledged, Catwoman offered Zatanna a real grin. “I guess they do. I suppose I never met a magician to find out.”

“And I never met a criminal. Well, I knew a boy in school who wanted to join a gang, Edwin Manschwitz. But he was from such a nice family, I doubt anything came of it.”

“Wait,” said Catwoman. “Manschwitz? You mean Eddie the Gangster? I’ve heard of him. He runs with the Bricksville Boys. Big bookmakers.”

“Shucks, his mom must be so disappointed. But he’s not a big-timer, is he? Maybe it’s just a hobby.”

“Do you have any idea how enthusiastic a gangster you have to be for your gangster nickname to be Eddie the Gangster?”

“I guess not.”

“What do you want, Zatanna?” Catwoman asked kindly. “You’re not here to show me card tricks.”

“Well,” Zatanna folded her hands, “I’m worried.”

“You’ll be fine, dear.”

“Worried about you two.”

“What, me and King Frowny?” Catwoman chuckled insincerely. “Don’t worry about that.”

“Well, it’s none of my business, but you were getting on famously, but now all of a sudden the pair of you seem as cross as two sticks.”

“I’m fine, Zatanna. And don’t mind him. His personality is a work in progress.”

“What are you doing together anyway? Aren’t you a criminal?”

“I don’t shout it from the rooftops.”

“And doesn’t he hunt criminals?”

“He likes to think so.”

“What then? Are you married?”

“What?” Catwoman missed a turn and almost knocked over a bookcase. She grimaced and stretched her shoulder. “What makes you say that?”

“Because you came together in costumes but you act like you have nothing in common.”

“And that spells ‘marriage’ to you?”

“I’m in show business.”

“No. We’re not married.”

“Dating?”

“Ha. No.”

“Business partners?”

“No.”

“Friends?”

“No.”

“Relatives?”

“I hope not.”

“I’m confused. Does someone owe someone money?”

“Let’s go with acquaintances.”

“You said the two of you were here to bring me to safety. Do I know you from somewhere? Did my dad send you?”

“No. Actually, this was all an accident. A friend of mine lived in the Lisbon.”

“No! I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry. She’ll be fine. I think. But I wanted to find out who was responsible. Batman has a knack for checking that sort of thing, so I brought him along to search the place. We saw you being kidnapped and decided to do something about it. Spur of the moment decision.”

“Huh. Well, thanks for chasing after me, I guess.”

Catwoman glanced at the sinister books looming over them. “My pleasure.”

“But still, the two of you seemed like a real team in the dining room. What got between you?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Catwoman.” Zatanna slung an arm around Catwoman’s shoulders in what she hoped was a friendly gesture. “My world’s been spun more times tonight than a washing machine. Nothing you say is getting under my skin.”

Catwoman gently pushed her arm away. “I told you I wanted to find who started the fire.” She gestured at Abdiel. “Found ‘em.”

“Oh.” said Zatanna. “Yeah, I’m furious at him too.”

“Are you?” asked Catwoman uncharitably, “Cause you don’t seem too angry.”

Zatanna shrugged. “I’ve screamed all my screams tonight. I’m plum tuckered out. And I’ve never had a family before. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. This is all new to me.”

“Well, family isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” said Catwoman.

“I understand. They dragged me into an abandoned building and pointed a gun at me. No one’s done that before. Do families point guns at each other?”

“It’s on the menu.” Catwoman looked at Zatanna sadly. “But to answer your question, Batman and I have different attitudes about what to do with your brothers. Mine’s a touch less gentle. He doesn’t like that very much.”

“Isn’t he the crime hunter?”

“You would think.”

Zatanna stared at Batman’s back. “So who is he really?”

“Batman? No idea. Probably had his name surgically removed. Why?”

“I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something familiar about him.”

“I doubt that.”

“Are you sure you aren’t an item?”

“Can’t imagine how I’d make that mistake.”

“Really? He’s nice.”

“No he isn’t.”

“He’s ... polite.”

“Granted.”

“And looks like the Farnese Hercules.”

Catwoman brightened. “I've been to the Farnese. You like art?”

“I liked that art.”

“When were you in Naples?”

“Three years ago. I went to Europe for a tour that fell apart."

"What happened?"

"Someone stole famous props from a theatrical museum in Rome, and my tour manager spent a month in jail as a suspect.”

“Huh,” said Catwoman, looking away. “What a tragic, unforeseeable happenstance.”

“Thanks.”

---​

In the observatory.

Faust pointed a bony finger at the woman in the window and shouted, “Metamorph! Ishtar!”

“How dramatic, Felix. I can do that too, see?” The woman sipped her cocktail then began a mocking falsetto, “Oh, Sunderer of Babylon! Oh, Lord of Faust! Heavens! Dearie me!”

“Why do you pester me?” he demanded.

“Why? I think we both forgot a title. Maybe that’s why.”

Faust sneered, “Herald of Trigon.”

She replied, “Outcast of the Heralds of Trigon.”

“Outcast? I left of my own accord, Strumpet of Trigon.”

The faint jazz piano stopped. The woman’s eyes turned less amused. “That wasn’t very nice, Felix. Nor very accurate.”

“Boil! Carbuncle of a trollop!”

“It doesn’t become a man of your advanced age to talk so childishly, you know. Let’s try again with some civility.”

“Vexations,” Faust grumbled. He took a deep breath. “Begone, Circe.”

“That wasn’t so hard. And don’t be silly. Do you know how much effort I’ve put into tracking you, darling? You must be in quite the pickle if you’ve cast an undisguised ethereal scope from a stranger’s observatory. The disguise charm takes, what, an hour? Three for you, perhaps?”

“I’ve nothing to say to you, Circe. Go back to your thralls and puppets before I break this window.”

“I see. So you won’t mind if I send your address to the other heralds. I know they would drop everything to see you. They’re dying to say hello.”

“Circe, don't-”

“Oo, Is that a private estate?” Circe asked, leaning closer to the window to look around. “Impressive. Those are not easy to come by. Though given those wounds on your face, I suppose it isn’t yours quite yet.”

“Don't squander my time. What do you want?”

“Oh, just some friendly taunting. I do miss the old days. You really should come back. I’m sure I could convince the other heralds if you begged us. Maybe kissed some boots.”

“Codswallop. Intolerable.”

“Don’t pout, Felix. You’d get to see my menagerie again. I’ve made some lovely additions since last time.”

“I’ve nothing more to say.”

Circe suddenly looked past him, her eyes growing wide. She idly plucked an olive out of her glass and popped it in her mouth. “Have you entertained the possibility that you’re wrong? And also an idiot?”

“Pah! Come with the herald dogs. I’ll greet you with a fortress.”

“Not if he does something about it.” She pointed past Faust.

"He?" Faust turned. His search window showed a corner of the library from twenty feet in the air. Faust saw a line of figures pass through an intersection. Faust rushed to adjust the image, circling the group for a better angle. He saw a strange lady speaking with the Zatara girl, Abdiel Cehennem in a walking prison, then Shadowcrest and a man with a cape.

“He who? Whom do you ken, Circe?” Faust barked. “The poncy blaggard with the cape?”

Circe started laughing. A waiter poured her another cocktail. She downed it at once and laughed some more. “Do be careful with that one, Felix. He's just full of surprises.”

They watched the group exit through a door, but his view couldn’t follow. The image misted over with every attempt. Faust slapped the table of tools and cursed. “Who is this lumpenproletariat rogue, Circe?”

“Aw, but it’s more fun if you find out on your own. Fun for me, I mean.”

“You deceive. He’s nothing.”

“Believe that if it makes you feel better, darling.”

“I want no more of your hugger-mugger brabbling, Circe!”

“In all seriousness, Felix, watch out for that one. Oh, and if you do get the better of him, I'd like a bite. If you can bundle him and send him my way, I’d owe you big. Alive, preferably, but don't get distracted on the details.”

“Tell me!”

It’s been a real hoot. Toodles.”

“Don’t you dare!”

But window to the nightclub had already returned to mist.

---​

The library exit.

Shadowcrest led the four humans to a stately door at the far end of the library. They had walked for many minutes after leaving its untamed stacks, but Shadowcrest still refused to speak. Its former cool demeanor now seemed a steady state of agitation. Zatanna and Catwoman chatted in the rear. Batman believed that the women bonding over anything couldn’t possibly end well, but he didn’t interrupt and didn’t work too hard to eavesdrop. He stayed near Abdiel who had fallen into another sullen silence.

The stately door opened to a short hallway fit for royalty: every surface marble, thick carpets, and filgreed portraits on the walls. It seemed ten paces from one end to the other, but Batman found a strange resistance to each step, like he was walking against an enormous wind or a swift stream. And no matter how far he thought he stretched his leg, his foot only shuffled a few inches forward.

Zatanna, wearing heels, fell over. Catwoman struggled to help her up, almost falling in the process. “What’s happening, Shady?” called Catwoman with restrained alarm.

“Hurry,” said Shadowcrest. “I’ve compressed the house along this passage. Reach the end and we’ll have traveled seven rooms. The sanctum awaits.”

“Sure, that makes sense.” said Catwoman as she tip-toed.

Batman managed to grab one of the legs of Abdiel’s prison, which was little slowed by the new conditions. He reached back and grabbed Catwoman’s arm who did the same to Zatanna. They let the walking contraption half-shuffle, half-drag them as a chain to the end of the room.

Through the next door, the group found their feet worked as usual. Zatanna fell again while discovering this. They also found themselves in a magnificent study. There was a great desk in the center, and cabinets and tables strewn around with many sorts of books and records and other random things. Along one wall, reaching the thirty foot ceiling, was a dense and richly-painted family tree. On the other wall was a roaring fireplace. And in the corner was a radio.

The moment the door shut, Shadowcrest faced them and announced, “Apologies, Mistress. I’ve kept silent for your protection. But here in your father’s sanctum we may speak.”

“Wonderful,” said Zatanna. “Do it.”

“I had reason to worry that our enemy, Felix, Lord of Faust, possessed the means to spy on our progress, but here I may speak unhindered. This one,” Shadowcrest gestured to Abdiel, “and his brother believed Faust’s plot was to destroy me, kill Giovanni Zatara, and leave you in peace.”

“He does,” said Abdiel firmly.

“He lied. He wishes to control this ancient house and make it his own. He is corrupting the keystone, not destroying it.”

“That’s impossible,” said Abdiel, “You can’t change ownership of an estate without the owner.”

“Your grasp of these magics is puddle-thin, child. He can and he is.”

“Prove it.”

“If he only wished to destroy the stone, he would be finished by now. I suspected his deceit early. I cannot see into the keystone’s chamber, but after Faust entered, I began losing touch with distant corners of the mansion, room by room. Presently, I don’t control even half the house. I am crippled. In less than an hour, his takeover will be complete.”

“That’s not proof.”

Anger crossed Shadowcrest’s face, but then it arched an eyebrow and continued calmly. “Do not presume your protests matter, but there is another witness.”

A wall opened, and through it floated a giant potted plant which landed at their feet. It looked like a venus fly trap with a closed pair of mottled white leaves the size of mattresses lined with tiny hairs. Shadowcrest nodded and the leaves parted.

Between half-open leaves, Zachary Cehennem floated motionless in a pool of amber sap. His eyes were closed, and there was a vicious wound in his side.

Abidel took some hitching breaths and began to cry. Before he could speak, a metal cup stretched over his mouth. The others were speechless.

“Mistress,” said Shadowcrest, “Once Faust commands this place, he will certainly kill your father, then you and your comrades in short order. You could escape now back to your world, but it is inevitable he will track you there as well, lest you dream of retribution. With his talents and my resources, you might buy yourself a week. No more.”

Zatanna’s eyes were wet again, but her voice was steady. “So I’m dead?”

“Not yet. I brought you this far because I have a plan. I cannot reverse this corruption, but I have the final option, put simply, of suicide.”

“You mean-”

“I am a machine. I do not value existence save for serving you. Without me, this great manor is nothing but brick and mortar, and Faust is denied a thousand weapons.”

Catwoman asked, “So without the keys to all your toys, he’ll leave?”

Shadowcrest shook its head. “The estate and its treasures still possess inestimable value. Faust has come to claim Shadowcrest; he won’t leave but by force. But he’s weakened. And now he must confront you on your home turf: I will prepare you with every advantage before I expire. I don’t believe this is a fight you will necessarily lose.”

Zatanna stared at him blankly. “That last part didn't sound as reassuring as the rest.”

“Forgive me, Mistress, I was not made to be reassuring.”

“Do you think we have a good shot? What are our odds?”

“I can confidently say your odds are better than mine.”
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Oh, that's not promising.
But... why is Circe interested in.... oh. wait. Circe and WonderWoman. Of course Circe knows something of Batman. Heheheh. I hope Faust ignores her advice.
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Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 10: Support


Batman, Catwoman, and Zatanna shared a look, reading each other in the flicker of the fireplace. Something had gone out in the women’s shell-shocked eyes. Even Batman’s stony face bent low. Shadowcrest was leaving. Their ghostly guide was the only presence in this nightmare who cared a whit for their survival. They would be left alone with Lord Felix of Faust, a predator as far beyond their understanding as an owl to mice. A new gravity settled in the room.

Shadowcrest’s bland expression didn’t share this gravity. Perhaps his spectral form couldn’t. Zachary Cehennem’s mutilated body was equally unconcerned, floating limp in a pool of plant sap. But Abdiel Cehennem felt more gravity than any pair combined. His enormous frame shook with quiet sobs muted by the muzzle on his face. Abdiel’s tears were as much for his own doom as for his brother’s grisly condition. They had depended on Faust’s protection far more than the trio had ever trusted Shadowcrest, and Faust had stabbed them in the back (proverbially; the hole in Zachary was too grisly for a blade).

But the others couldn’t care less about Abdiel’s problems. Catwoman thought Zachary’s soggy corpse was the best news of the night, and even she was too shaken to gloat. Until now, she and Batman had only heard of Faust’s fearsome power. Now they saw Zachary’s side torn apart. Now they understood what it meant to face the vengeance of a master mage.

Zatanna's despair was a darker creature. She didn’t need to imagine Faust’s rage. Seeing her cousin’s floating body, her conscious mind retreated, replaced with looped memories of Faust’s carnage in the entrance hall, his bolts of green flames rupturing metal and stone, his limbs regrowing like a weed. Zatanna didn’t face death weekly. She didn’t face death ever. She faced late trains and tough crowds, and her nerve had passed its limit. She held herself tight to keep from shaking.

Shadowcrest had no sympathy for any of this.

“Have you made peace with your mortality yet, Mistress?” it asked.

“No,” said Zatanna, “No I haven’t.”

“Our time is limited.”

“That’s the problem.”

Catwoman reached out and squeezed Zatanna’s hand, bringing a brief smile to her lips.

Shadowcrest said, “If you survive, you’re welcome to ponder death as often as you wish.”

“Thanks,” said Zatanna.

“Then heed this. Lord Faust cannot breach this sanctum at a distance. When I expire, he will be forced to eliminate you here. He will do so immediately.”

You’ve said he’s cautious.” said Batman, “Why would he rush into the one room he can’t see?

“Faust is not this estate’s first invader. As a final barricade, my past masters concealed their most dangerous artifacts in an armory here.” Shadowcrest gestured across the opulent study. It was cluttered with cabinets and tables but no obvious weapons.

Zatanna raised a finger. “Uh-”

Shadowcrest waved. Half the walls spun to reveal racks with many obvious weapons. Some steamed or glowed or growled. One did all three.

Zatanna lowered her finger. “Never mind.”

Shadowcrest spoke again, “Somehow, Faust has studied my secrets. He will know to fear this armory. But he understands that innocents like yourselves need time to learn its powers. He will come at once while you may still be harmless.” Shadowcrest paused with a glint of regret. “I’m wagering my thousand-year existence that you are fast learners.”

“Wait,” said Zatanna, “You said this place has only been around six to nine centuries. If you’re the mansion, how are you older than the mansion?”

“I said it is difficult to express in Earth years.”

“And aren’t you made out of my dad’s brain? Is he a thousand years old?”

“My latest incarnation is cast in-” Shadowcrest’s eyes flickered. “This is all irrelevant.”

“Well,” said Catwoman as sarcastically as possible, “Since you’ve had a millennium to think about it, are you finally ready to tell us your big plan?”

“Yes, ill-bred servant, my plan consists of three preparations: fortification, reconnaissance, and armament. Fortunately, none rely on you, but take pride that you have a part to play.”

Catwoman was so weary that she didn’t bite at this remark.

“First, fortification,” said Shadowcrest. “Come.”

Shadowcrest led them to the far end of the study. They passed a wall covered entirely by a richly-painted mural of a family tree. There were dozens of faded portraits with names in illegible cursive. Catwoman studied the tree as they passed. It seemed to her there were too many connections and not enough portraits.

“Ew,” she said.

Zatanna was beside her inspecting a battleaxe. “What?”

“Nothing,” said Catwoman

They saw Batman had stopped to glare at a wood-cased Philco radio on a shelf.

Zatanna asked, “What’s the matter?”

Batman finally turned away. “Everything else in this mansion is pre-industrial. Of all modern tools, why own a radio?

Zatanna shrugged. “To catch the news?”

From what broadcast? We’re not on Earth.

“Maybe radio waves are magic.”

Batman was annoyed that he couldn’t refute this theory.

Shadowcrest brought them to a low table with two stools. On the table was a chess board. On one stool was an ushanka, a Russian fur hat with ear flaps.

“Mistress, generations ago, the great mage Koschei sought refuge here after his banishment from the court of the Czar. Your ancestor hosted him in this room.”

Shadowcrest bowed to the hat. The hat did not respond.

Zatanna scratched her head, “Is - is that the mage?”

“No,” said Shadowcrest. “The Great Koschei was homesick for Mother Russia. Perhaps this is why he became obsessed with his homeland’s favorite game.”

“Marching?” asked Zatanna.

“Sadness?” asked Catwoman.

“Chess,” said Shadowcrest as a pawn moved on the board.

“Koschei soon exhausted your family’s patience for the game and began enchanting more capable opponents.”

A knight moved, then another pawn.

“Some of his creations were so intelligent that they outgrew their dictates and threatened the household.”

Both sides moved a bishop.

“But Koschei was never able to ensorcell a better player than himself.”

A pawn was taken and floated off the board.

“He grew so desperate for a challenge that he began to modify the rules of the game, then he modified the board itself.”

Another pawn moved. A knight captured a knight. Rooks were brought out.

“Koschei’s idea of chess evolved into a more literal sort of battle. Your ancestor wasn’t fond of this new game, Mistress, as each iteration occupied more space in this sanctum, but such an illustrious guest could not be rebuked.”

Pieces were quickly traded, and a knight and rook floated off the board.

“Then word arrived that a new czar had been crowned, and the Great Koschei could return to court. He was gone that very night.”

Clever pins and forks thinned both sides. The game would be close.

“Your ancestor discovered that Koschei had left two gifts: his ultimate chess set, designed to make its own space for his extra rules, as well as his most refined chess opponent, the only one who could play the new set.”

“Oo, let me guess,” said Zatanna. “That furry hat is the opponent. My ancestors kept the gifts because they realized these new rules actually fortified the armory somehow. And the first part of your plan is fortification. But you have to win the regular game to open up the new bits.”

“Yes, indeed, Mistress. All correct.”

“See,” said Zatanna, nudging Batman and Catwoman, “I can figure things out too.”

“Lovely,” said Catwoman.

“You can’t spell pizazz without Zatanna.”

Catwoman shook her head. “That’s not true.”

Zatanna shrugged. “Some people say tomato, some people say tomahto.”

“Sure, some people say tomato, and some people say tomato wrong.”

“That’s prescriptivist!” screamed the hat.

“Ah!” Zatanna flinched.

“Checkmate,” said Shadowcrest.

Pizdets!” screamed the hat, throwing itself on the floor.

A gilded cord swung down from the ceiling, stopping at shoulder height. There was a thick knot at the end with a card tied above it. Printed in large red letters, the card read: Novyye Shakhmaty. Below it, scribbled in pen, were the words: Pull For Emergent Sea.

“Would someone with hands do the honors?” asked Shadowcrest.

Catwoman planted her hands on her hips. “What does ‘Nova Shark-matey’ mean?”

New Chess,” said Batman. He stepped forward and pulled the cord.

---

Many rooms away in the library.

Clouds of books dueled in the air over the library like beehives at war. The border of Lord Faust’s control steadily expanded across the house, and now it crossed the center of the library. Those shelves still loyal to Shadowcrest’s rightful mistress were assaulted by neighbors who followed the usurper. Binding threads and scraps of paper snowed across the floor as the skirmishers bled ink above.

Faust found the whole affair annoying. With time and effort he could order his growing horde to stand down, but he was simply too busy. This was a shame, he might want to read them later. Faust otherwise ignored the struggle. The front lines were distant enough for him to work in peace as he ordered the spirits governing his half of the library to bring him texts that might shed light on that mysterious caped fellow following the Zatara girl.

Faust could search a library very well. He had known every trick in the book since the printing press was new. As books came, he studied them feverishly, flipping through heavy works then tossing them away as new books flew into his hands. Occasionally he called out new topics he desired, causing fresh squadrons of books to soar off the shelves and wait at his side. Between his research skills and Shadowcrest’s impressive collection, he was confident that he’d get his hands on some record of the caped fellow soon. He had some connection to the Zataras after all, and this was their library.

Faust was bothered that the fellow also had some connection to Circe. Faust wasn’t surprised to find him on Circe’s bad side; she was petty enough to hold a grudge over anything, but not many figures had the presence to earn her attention in the first place. She rarely visited the mortal universe; someone would need to upset one of her little schemes among the mundanes, and Circe’s pets weren’t pushovers. If the fellow was a strong mage, why didn’t he attack Faust magically when they met in the burned building?

Worse, Circe had been concerned enough to give Faust a warning. She wasn’t concerned enough to share what she knew of the caped man; this was still a game to her. But Faust knew her games. It would be a weak joke to scare him over a helpless stranger. Faust would merely destroy the stranger a little more thoroughly. It only made sense if Circe was genuinely concerned the fellow might put up a fight. Even if Faust conceded to take the man alive, not many could resist him.

If Circe wasn’t joking, then this stranger was as elusive as he was fearsome. His search had so far proven fruitless, and the pile of discarded books behind Faust was growing taller than him. There was simply no mention of the caped fellow or his lady companion with the hood ears. Faust was weary. Shadowcrest would be his in less than an hour, and he wished dearly to relax. Yet he refused. Contests of magic were won on preparation and attention to detail, and he would take no chances until his conquest was secure.

Deep in his work, Faust felt a magic shimmer. Another block of the library had joined his domain. His attendants among the library’s spirits instantly swept the new shelves, repeating the many queries he had supplied. Soon eight new books floated at his side. He tossed most aside in seconds, but the last book made him pause.

Among Faust’s first queries was a demand for any art that matched the simple icon on the caped fellow’s chest. This had harvested a few slight resemblances, but nothing relevant to his target. However, the cover to this last book seemed more than a coincidence. The winged icon was there, but of a sharper, more sinister design than its twin. So too, the book’s cover was a dark gray, much darker than the gray on the man’s outfit. Faust read the book’s title slowly, his eyes narrowing with each word.

The Hymn of Barbatos, King of Bats.

---

Back in Giovanni’s study.

Batman stepped forward and pulled the gilded cord. The group peered back and forth, but nothing moved.

After several moments of silence, Zatanna turned to Catwoman. “So you don’t like the motto?”

“What?” asked Catwoman.

“The motto. ‘You can’t spell pizazz without Zatanna!’”

“Are you serious?”

“I’ve been trying to think of a catchphrase for the posters. I have some alliteration in my name, you know, people recognize me for the letter z. Seems like I better use more z’s. And pizazz has three of ‘em, so there you go.”

“Zatanna, do you really think now is the time to worry about that?”

“Not really. Honestly, I’m trying to keep from remembering how my dad looked in Faust’s giant locket. He looked like people do in a coffin: arms crossed, utterly still, too still for sleep. I keep thinking he must already be dead, even though everyone promised he isn’t. Then I think how scared I was when Faust was flying around with this horrible laugh, sending fire out of his hands. I keep thinking he’s about to come back and finish the job. Then we’ll all be stuffed in big lockets looking like dad.” She paused to breathe. “I think sometimes I talk silly because it distracts me, and I’m worried that if I’m quiet with my thoughts right now, my heart will beat so hard that it will pop out of my chest.”

“Oh.” said Catwoman slowly.

“Sorry.”

After several seconds, Catwoman said, “It’s not terrible.”

“Huh?” said Zatanna.

‘The catchphrase. Pizazz. It’s not bad. No one knows how to spell anyway.”

“Neat. Thanks.”

“Sure. Talk all you want.” She leaned in and winked. “Nice change of pace compared to some people.”

For a moment, Zatanna smiled again. Batman, standing next to Catwoman, was unamused.

After another interval of silence, Zatanna whistled and looked around. “Excuse me, Shadowcrest, how long will this take?”

Shadowcrest did not respond. The ghostly figure was perfectly still.

Catwoman wiggled a hand in front of its face. “Did it turn off early?” She slowly poked a finger through its eye to no reaction.

“The house is busy, devochka!” yelled the hat from the floor. “It must make way for the Emergent Sea! It wasn’t careful last time, and the tea room was crushed to splinters!”

“Let me guess,” said Zatanna slyly, “It’s going to expand the room into a big new chessboard with all sorts of dangers in every space. Maybe they’ll be shaped like chess pieces. It’s called a sea because the board will be as big as an ocean. Something like that, right?”

“Ha! You know so little! Ha ha ha ha!”

Zatanna stalked away as it laughed behind her. “Dumb talking hat.”

Catwoman stopped waving her hand through Shadowcrest’s head. “The hat’s not wrong. We might as well look for something useful in this armory until Shady wakes up.”

Agreed,” said Batman.

The trio wandered around the study, keeping a wide berth from Abdiel who still cried silently over his brother’s floating body.

Zatanna lifted a jet black scythe. “This is neat.” She held the blade near her ear. “Can you hear that? It’s whispering.”

“Zatanna,” warned Catwoman.

“But it has such wonderful things to say. It knows the beginning of all and the end of all.”

Catwoman snatched the scythe out of her hands.

“But,” cried Zatanna.

“No,” said Catwoman, who then held the scythe to her own ear. “Wait a minute, it is whispering.”

Batman snatched the scythe out of her hands and returned it to its rack.

“But-” Catwoman blinked and cleared her throat. “Thanks.”

Batman nodded.

They wandered further, and Batman soon stopped again to glare at the wood-cased radio. After watching him glare awhile, Catwoman stepped over and turned it on. The dial light flickered. The speaker hummed a moment then let out a shrill noise. Catwoman played with the dial, trying to find a station. Zatanna stopped idly swinging a battleaxe and listened in. After several spins, the noise faded to fuzz, and a nasally announcer began to speak over the low crackle.

“Loyal listeners! Welcome back to Candid Psychic Radio, the only station that plays what’s really on your mind! CPR! Every hour on the hour, you need CPR! For those just tuning in, our tremulous triumvirate treds tenebrous tracks! Might the mild-mannered Mistress muster major moxie merely to manumit a murderer? And what ho, the haunted hero hides a history. Heaven-sent? Hardly! He dreads discovery from the damsels deux. Dare our debutante discern decade-old deceptions? Dare his debauched distaff discover denials-”

Batman quickly turned off the radio.

“What was that about?” asked Zatanna. “Were they calling me mild-mannered?”

Mystic nonsense,” said Batman, “Keep if off.

“I’m not mild-mannered. I’m plucky.” said Zatanna. “What does manumit mean?”

As they walked past, Catwoman peered suspiciously at Batman’s back.

---

Many rooms away in the entrance hall.

Once Felix, Lord of Faust ruled Shadowcrest, he would find a nice reinforced chamber just to perform major summonings. In the meantime, Shadowcrest’s entrance hall was a fine substitute. It was large and possessed good feng shui, and there were several escape routes and nothing valuable to break.

The Hymn of Barbatos, King of Bats floated open in front of him, and Faust flipped through the pages as he paced the room. He inspected the giant circle of salt, big enough to fit a baseball infield, and patted tight any gaps. In the center of the circle was a ten gallon pile of bugs. He was fortunate to have acquired Shadowcrest’s fishing closet.

Content with his work, Faust retreated to the top of the stairs and began reciting the Hymn of Barbatos.

Verse by verse, Faust chanted obscene and terrible oaths in antique tongues. The crystal chandeliers went dark, and the hall’s many candles were dimmed by an unseen breeze, but he did not cease. Little red eyes blinked in the walls. The fluttering of many wings could be heard as if from a distance, but he did not stop.

A lone wail echoed through the hall as the last candle went out. Faust finished the final verse and shut the book. On the floor inside the salt circle, a smoky red light burst forth. It was as if there were no more floor, but instead the edge of some endless pit. A shifting of titanic weight was heard, noises like a calving glacier falling into the sea.

From the red smoke, a leather wing like a clipper sail stretched out of the pit. Its claw seized the edge as another wing appeared. Then the monstrous head of a bat thrust out, each fang larger than a man. It screeched like the dawn of a new age, shattering chandeliers and knocking suits of armor to scrap.

This enormous bat, a hill of brown fur and leather wings, climbed fully out of the pit, its form briefly hiding the smokey light. Underlit in hellish red, it sniffed the air. Its ladle ears twitched, and its black eyes turned toward Faust.

Oi!” it bellowed. “You the dodgy bloke tryin’ to summon me?

---

Back in Giovanni’s study.

It wasn’t long after Batman shut off the radio that Shadowcrest moved again.

“Prepare,” it suddenly announced, “the Emergent Sea rises. Mistress, please put that battleaxe down.”

Batman was about to open the first of Giovanni’s sixteen journals. Catwoman was pawing through the drawers in the large desk. Zatanna reluctantly dropped her battleaxe on a chair.

“Behold,” said Shadowcrest.

In a blink, three walls of the study toppled outward. They splashed up a cloud of white foam as they hit water. When the foam cleared, the walls were gone, sunk under the swells of the ocean. The study was now a platform on a green sea that stretched from horizon to horizon. They spotted dots of tiny islands in the distance. Beyond them, a sea serpent arched out of the water and gracefully returned, its body hundreds of feet long.

A salty breeze made Zatanna shiver in her stockings. She sighed. “I’ll never understand chess.”
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

IT LIVES!

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

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 11: The Sanguine Solution​


The Emergent Sea was a fortress disguised as a briny, measureless expanse. Measureless here did not mean infinite. Rather, the sea resisted measurement. Lengths and angles shifted with the waves, and the distance between two points might vary on whether the sea disliked you. Despite these vagaries, the waters were known to stretch thirty fathoms deep and at least five leagues in every cardinal direction.

Zatanna raised her hand. Shadowcrest sighed and explained that a league was about three and a half land miles, and a fathom was six feet. Zatanna lowered her hand.

Shadowcrest continued, predicting that when Lord Faust tries to enter the study, he will find himself on a distant sandbar, leagues away from the actual study. Faust will quickly detect the Mistress here and try to approach, but the Emergent Sea will lead him astray many times. The Great Koschei considered violence the best part of chess, so each wrong turn will hide a trap. These struggles will exhaust Faust. And his wandering will be easily witnessed from here, so he will arrive with no advantage of surprise. Indeed, he will be ripe for ambush.

“So this is the fortification you were talking about?” asked Zatanna.

“Quite,” said Shadowcrest.

Zatanna looked around Giovanni’s opulent study. Besides one remaining wall, the room looked like a flat barge. Gentle waves lapped the floor.

“I thought you meant thicker walls or some magic barbed wire. This feels a little exposed.”

“If I may impart some wisdom, Mistress, never trust your feelings.”

“Thanks,” said Zatanna to the inhuman house spirit.

“The Emergent Sea will serve its purpose. Victory depends on our other preparations: reconnaissance and armament.”

“Reconnaissance?” said Catwoman. “You want us to spy on Faust?”

“No, child, our spy has performed his work. We need only hear his report.”

As the group tried to understand that, Batman was the first to notice Shadowcrest gazing past them. He turned and found that Shadowcrest was staring at the giant plant and the body of Zachary Cehennem.

---​

Many rooms away in the entrance hall.

The smoky red pit whence Barbatos had emerged began to dim and close below him. He was a huge beast in the form of a bat. But as the candles relit by twos and threes, it was obvious Barbatos was a bat much like the Sphinx of Giza was a cat: resembling the animal but with every feature distorted and a thousand times larger.

Barbatos shouted again. “Are you deaf, mate? I asked if this is your summoning circle?

From the top of the stairs, Felix, Lord of Faust trembled so hard his knees knocked. He opened his mouth, but a noise like an asthmatic donkey came out, so he closed it again.

To use a sports analogy, magical beings could be divided into leagues. Most magi only played in the schoolyard. A strong mage considered it a serious endeavor to confront a being from the minor leagues, where Shadowcrest would be a rookie. The major leagues were something else. Creatures of true majesty, those mysterious entities governed entire nouns - like ‘winter’ or ‘hope’ or ‘bats’. Even a legend like Faust rarely visited the major leagues. Few magi ever did, and very few returned.

Barbatos was a major leaguer. Faust had been so swept up in the thrill of the hunt, he had forgotten what that meant. Faust desperately tried to remember whether he had left any gaps in the salt circle.

Barbatos was looking impatient, so Faust managed to find his voice. “Uh, hail! Hail, Barbatos. I, Felix, Lord of-”

Faust!

“Um.”

Strewth, I’ve heard of you.” Barbatos leaned over the circle and grinned, his head level with the top of the stairs. Bat mouths were not built to grin. “Yes, you and your little crew.”

“Um. Of course! For, uh, tales of my deeds have rung across the multiverse. But may I ask from whom you heard of me, mighty Barbatos? If you please?”

Barbatos leaned closer as its fangs dripped. “Bunch of derros, pay them no mind. What can I do for you, here in this lovely estate that-” Barbatos closed his eyes and scratched his ear. “Feels like you’re halfway to stealing! Why, you poddy-dodging malaker.” He opened his eyes, impressed. “Did you summon me to help you knock off some old fool’s house? Fair dinkum, that is bold and no two ways about it. Wait till the lads hear about this.

“No, great Barbatos, most wise, and, um, smart. I humbly seek your counsel to, uh-” Faust felt Barbatos’ hot breath on his face and stumbled backward. “To decipher a mark.”

Decipher a mark? Do you think I’m some bloody graduate student?

“No, magnificent one, I misspoke. For tonight I met a blackguard who hath adorned his ignoble self with what appears to be your vespertilian heraldry. I called upon you to reveal this crime, as I knew you would like - no, deserve! - to avenge this insult.”

Is that so? You stop in the middle of a burglary where you lost an arm, find my book, read my book, and draw up some hasty excuse for a summoning circle, just to warn me of some trademark infringement?

“Yes.”

Fine, let’s see it.

Faust cast a spell. There was a flash, and a roll of parchment fell into his hand. It had a lifelike ink sketch of Batman as Faust had seen him through the observatory portal. The image was centered on Batman’s chest emblem. Faust held up the parchment.

Barbatos huffed, and two bats fluttered out of the shadows of the ceiling, seized the parchment with their claws, and held it before Barbatos’ face. Twenty more bats appeared carrying an enormous pair of spectacles which dropped over his eyes.

Barbatos peered at the sketch. “Huh.

---​

Back in Giovanni’s floating study.

Abdiel Cehennem hadn’t said a word since Zatanna’s party entered the study. This was due to the muzzle on his face, but moreso the sight of his brother Zachary with his side ripped open had put Abdiel in a fugue. Minutes passed like heartbeats. Voices passed, dreamlike and distant. His throat was nearly too tight to breathe, and his cheeks were hot with tears that wouldn’t end. Abdiel hadn’t noticed when the house was playing board games with a hat, and he barely noticed when three walls fell and revealed an ocean, or that the ceiling had disappeared.

Abdiel’s tears weren’t only for his brother. He was trapped in a walking prison commanded by a mystic house who hated him. No doubt Faust was coming to kill him. And if Faust failed, he was stalked by two vicious thugs in animal costumes. The man was confusing, threatening to break his hands one minute then discuss philosophy the next, while the lady simply wanted to tear his head off. But Zatanna was the biggest disappointment. He had tried to treat his cousin kindly all evening, but ever since he pointed that gun at her she barely seemed to tolerate him.

Abdiel was used to facing death. Growing up in a mage family was dangerous, doubly so when the family was dying in a feud. But he could always count on Zachary. Abdiel had never faced death alone.

The others were looking at Zachary again. Now they were walking over, surrounding the big plant. It resembled a white venus fly trap with Zachary floating limp in its mouth. Shadowcrest pointed at Zachary. Abdiel struggled to listen.

Shadowcrest said, “We have a source who can tell us his most recent disposition.”

“He’s alive?” cried Zatanna and Catwoman in very different tones.

“Yes, and shortly-”

Abdiel stopped listening. He stared at the white plant, struggling to catch a hazy recollection on the edge of his mind. Zachary should be dead. What could the house be talking about? No big white plant could heal a wound like that.

Then he remembered. And with terrible clarity, he understood the plan. Abidel screamed.

Shadowcrest paused, interrupted by a muffled wail from Abdiel, who thrashed inside his walking prison, his eyes red with fresh tears.

“Quiet,” muttered Shadowcrest. The seams in Abdiel’s prison flashed blue. He squeaked in pain and was silent.

“Shadowcrest,” scolded Zatanna, “Let’s hear what he has to say.”

Shadowcrest relented. “Be brief.”

The muzzle on Abdiel’s face retracted. Abdiel gasped for air, his eyes unfocused in pain. But he didn’t wait to gather his wits before wheezing, “Don’t. Don’t let’em do it, Zatanna. Please don’t. Please. Don’t let him die.”

Zatanna frowned. “No one’s doing anything yet. What are you talking about?”

“Tell’em!” Abdiel’s sightless eyes turned to Shadowcrest. “Tell’em why it’s white. Tell’em why it’s white.”

“What does he mean?” Zatanna asked Shadowcrest.

Shadowcrest said, “When Abdiel struck you in the dining room, he broke my agreement with Lord Faust, freeing me to apprehend both brothers. At that instant, Zachary and Faust were exiting the keystone chamber, no doubt discussing further misdeeds. But before I could seize Zachary, Faust attacked him. I am no healer, so I brought him to the greenhouse to buy time.” Shadowcrest petted a white petal of the giant plant. “This is Sarkoth’s nurse. The plant was bred ages ago by Sarkoth the Undying, a mage with two passions: dueling and botany. He was a poor duelist, so he cultivated the nurse to ease his frequent recoveries.”

“So that goop is healing him?” asked Zatanna.

“No!” shouted Abdiel.

Shadowcrest refitted Abdiel’s muzzle and said, “The sap in Sarkoth’s nurse slows the organs to near-stillness, delaying death from a fate of seconds to one of hours. When I rouse Zachary, his lingering sedation will keep him lucid despite his wound. He will last long enough to report on Faust’s schemes.”

Abdiel struggled to scream against his gag as he stared at the group with wide eyes.

Lines of doubt creased Zatanna’s face. “Can we leave Zachary in there? I’d rather he didn’t die.”

“Mistress, his knowledge may be vital to your survival. Surely he forfeited any clemency when he made himself your enemy.”

“Technically, he made himself your enemy,” said Zatanna. “And Faust attacked him. Isn’t the enemy of our enemy a good guy? Maybe he had a change of heart.”

Abdiel nodded vigorously.

Catwoman rolled her eyes. “It pains me to agree with Shady, but gangs turn on each other in the middle of a heist all the time. Doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Leopards don’t change their spots, sweetie.” She looked at Abdiel. “Trash is trash.”

“He’s not trash!” said Zatanna. “Or a leopard. We don’t know the whole story.”

Catwomen pinched the bridge of her nose. “Dear, he kidnapped you. Batman, help me talk some sense into her.”

Batman was deep in thought. He looked toward the sea. Finally he said, “Shadowcrest, you said the plant eased Sarkoth’s recovery. Did he have doctors to treat him?

“No,” said Shadowcrest. “The plant can do more than maintain health. Sarkoth also imbued his cultivar with an extraordinary power to heal.”

“You sure didn’t mention that,“ said Zatanna. “Let’s use it.”

“This power was fueled by that most potent of mystic ingredients, fresh human blood. The plant has a ravenous blood-hunger, but Sarkoth was also a great slaveholder, so it had food in abundance.”

Catwoman and Zatanna winced. Shadowcrest continued, “Without blood, the sap of the Sarkoth’s nurse merely postpones death. Unfortunately, our specimen hasn’t been fed in many years. Witness its pale petals. A sated plant would be a rich pink.”

Batman asked, “How much blood does it need to heal Zachary?

The plant rustled, and from the bushy leaves at its base grew a long vine with a pair of needle-like barbs at its ends. It rattled these eagerly but kept its distance. Then another vine grew up beside the barbs ending in a small pitcher of translucent fronds.

Shadowcrest gestured at the pitcher. “To knit the boy’s wound, this must be filled to the brim.”

Batman studied the size of the pitcher. “That’s more than fatal.

Shadowcrest nodded. “Then the matter is closed.”

“Hold on,” said Zatanna, “There’s got to be another way. Maybe the donor could give a half dose. You know, get him steady enough to talk without anyone dying?”

“Mistress, when starved of blood, Sarkoth’s nurse naturally exsanguinates the very minimum it judges necessary for the patient to survive. And it is a very good judge. A partial feeding would merely treat the patient’s deadly wound into a smaller deadly wound.”

Catwoman knocked on Abdiel’s prison leg. “Hey, Batman, are you sure it would kill jumbo here? He’s got to have some extra blood.”

Batman walked to Abdiel’s prison and looked at Shadowcrest. Shadowcrest opened the prison, dumping Abdiel’s massive bulk to the floor. Batman inspected him.

Batman shook his head. “Still fatal.

Shadowcrest said, “If the Mistress wishes to sacrifice one brother for the other, I see no issue. The process is swift and our interrogation could proceed. Zachary seems the more valuable pawn in any case.”

Abdiel turned pale, but he kept bravely silent.

“No,” said Zatanna. “Come on, think. Abdiel, you’re a mage. Can’t you help your brother with magic?”

Despite his tears, Abdiel chuckled. “Nope.”

“Nothing?”

“Don’t you think I would if I could? Anything involving people’s guts is real serious magic, Zatanna. Real serious. Fixing bodies, adding accessories, anything. I wouldn’t trust myself to fix a bad ankle. This is out of my league.”

Batman crossed his arms. “I’ve seen you teleport. Your body vanished and rematerialized out of nothing.

Abdiel shook his head. “Nah, what you call ‘teleporting’ is I stay still and move the universe around me. Baby stuff. Doesn’t hurt at all.”

Batman was tremendously annoyed to learn this, but he suppressed the feeling.

Zatanna snapped her fingers. “Oh! Maybe we can all pitch in. What if everyone donated a little?”

Catwoman was ready to protest. Then she saw Batman loom over Zatanna and grimly stare her down.

“Uh,” Zatanna swallowed. “If you don’t like the idea, just-”

One hundred and twenty-six pounds,” said Batman.

“How did you know that?” asked Zatanna.

He turned to stare at Catwoman. “You’re-

“Don’t,” said Catwoman.

He looked between the women. “How much iron is in your diets? Milligrams, preferably.

“Enough,” said Shadowcrest to Batman. “The loutish cousin is fair game, but you and the crass girl must be in full health to protect the Mistress. And she certainly will not spill a drop for idle charity. I will not allow it.”

Zatanna shouted back, “It’s my cousin’s life, you big outhouse! I’m running out of family awful fast, so just shut up!” She took a deep breath. “Batman, could the rest of us donate together without getting faint?”

Batman gave the question some thought. “How much practice do either of you have with substantial blood loss?

“None,” said Catwoman.

“Practice?” asked Zatanna.

The popular opinion is that our reaction to blood loss is involuntary, but I believe most symptoms can be overcome by preparation and discipline. Medical literature likes to claim that acute effects begin after losing around fifteen to thirty percent by volume. Using volume expanders, I’ve found that I can stave off shock well into the upper bound of that range.” He paused. “Loss of consciousness before forty percent is extremely probable.

Zatanna whispered to Catwoman, “Is he a regular murderer or one of those creepy murderers?

Catwoman whispered back, “Honestly? The creepy part is that he isn’t.

Batman spoke over them. “Even at that extreme, there are anecdotes to the contrary. When George Washington was on his deathbed, his doctor administered a blood-letting that reached forty percent volume over half a day, and Washington was coherent for most of that time.

“But he died,” noted Catwoman.

Yes, but slowly.

“Forget it,” said Catwoman, throwing up her hands. “I don’t know why I listened this long.”

“Catwoman, please.” Zatanna tried to catch her, but Catwoman pulled away. With a cold stare at Abdiel, she said, “These brothers are getting what they deserve. I’m out.”

“Such wisdom from the mouth of babes,” said Shadowcrest, “Are you satisfied, Mistress? I will not wait longer.”

Zatanna grabbed Batman’s arm with both hands in a panic. “How about us? Can it work with just us?”

“I will not allow that,” repeated Shadowcrest.

Batman looked again at the plant’s pitcher. “No. If Abdiel gave his safe limit, you and I might fill the remainder and survive, but it would leave us too weak to walk.

“Please, is there anything you can do?”

Batman closed his eyes, trying to banish how her voice brought up old memories. He took a meditative breath, letting his muscles relax. Zatanna thought he was ignoring her and let go, fighting back tears.

Then Batman spoke. “Shadowcrest, you said Sarkoth’s nurse will heal as much of an injury as possible with the blood it’s given.

“Yes,” said Shadowcrest.

I assume the recovery begins at the deepest, most medically-urgent sites and proceeds to more superficial damage?

“That’s a fair description. The details are unpredictable. Plants are wild, after all.”

Batman leaned over Sarkoth’s nurse, pulling open its petals. He studied Zachary’s wound through the translucent sap. He muttered, “Strange, like electrical burns along shearing forces. Damage crosses several organs. Hmm. Only two would be fatal individually. If even the kidney was intact ...” Batman’s voice trailed off as he rubbed his chin.

“What?” asked Zatanna close behind him.

He turned around. “Zatanna, I have experience in field medicine.

“Oh.” Zatanna blinked then covered her mouth. “Oh!”

If Abdiel provides as much blood as he safely can, the plant may heal Zachary magically to the point that I can stabilize him with conventional surgery.

“Have you ever stitched up an abdomen?”

Once, but not from this angle.

“Angle?”

It was my abdomen.

“How long will your surgery take?” asked Shadowcrest.

Depends on what the plant can do. Do you have a surgical suite in the house?

“No, but I still control the embalming shrine. There are also tools in storage from a former mistress who liked to vivisect reptiles.”

Bring all of it. Do you have a pharmacy?

“We have an apothecary.”

Get me Ringer’s lactate solution and some sterile tubing.

“Pardon me,” said Shadowcrest, “Ringer’s …”

I’ll make it myself. Do you have an autoclave?

“An autoclave?”

How about potassium chloride? Produced from potash?

“We have potash.”

Start with that.” Batman looked at Abdiel. “Are you ready?

“I-”

Good.

---​

Many rooms away in the entrance hall.

Barbatos continued to study Faust’s sketch of Batman. The hall was silent, and once again Faust’s curiosity began to exceed his fear. Why would Circe warn him about some common mercenary serving Giovanni Zatara’s whelp? Surely the stranger couldn’t be Barbatos’ champion. There was no connection. But who else would wear a variant of his symbol? It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence. These senseless congeries were driving Faust mad.

Still, Barbatos seemed content to study the image.

Faust coughed into his fist. “Ahem.”

Barbatos wrinkled his giant bat nose. He snorted, nearly blowing Faust over. Very slowly, his eyes lifted over the rim of his spectacles. “Aye?

“A thousand pardons, great one. I was just curious whether you recognized that man. If he wears your mark in defiance, I would happily smite him in your honor.”

As a matter of fact, I don’t recognize him. Must be a coincidence.

Faust sputtered. “But his defiance.”

Hard to tell defiance without context, innit? Maybe the jolly bloke just likes bats. Can’t fault him for that.

“No,” said Faust crestfallen. “Forgive my enthusiasm.”

But you went through the effort to bring me here, so I do wonder. Why are you interested in this fellow? Who is he to you?

“It’s a long story, far beneath your lofty notice.”

Nah, now I’m curious. Lead me to the bugger, and you can tell me your tale on the way.

“Surely, but if you-”

Barbatos snatched Faust in his claw and took to the air. “Bloody ripper, mate. Let’s give it a go.

---​

Back in Giovanni’s floating study.

Shadowcrest was as good as its word. Piles of chemistry equipment, surgical tools, bottles of sundry liquids, and other dangerous requests started falling out of the sky. With masterful speed, Batman set up a crude laboratory. After several minutes of chemistry with an alarming number of substitutions, he had a beaker of homemade Ringer’s solution, a liquid that could replace lost blood well enough to keep a body stable.

At Batman’s direction, the barbed vine on Sarkoth’s nurse snaked around Abdiel’s arm and bit into his bicep. Tiny bulges of blood started pulsing down the vine toward the base of the plant. Zatanna couldn’t watch. Shadowcrest watched impatiently. Catwoman paced around the operation, considering whether she could break the surgical tools without getting caught.

Batman set up a tube to feed the Ringer’s solution into Abdiel’s other arm. Abdiel sipped an orange juice and wouldn’t shut up. “Thanks a million, buddy. Real sorry how this all turned out. But you saving Zachary? Woo. I just can’t thank you enough.”

Batman ignored his rambling gratitude at first. Without looking Abdiel in the eye, Batman eventually interrupted in a quiet voice. “Is Faust human?

“More or less.”

How do you stop a mage of his caliber?

“If you want to kill Faust, and you aren’t at his level, you need to catch him by surprise with the nastiest spell you have. Or a bomb.”

I meant without killing him.

“Oh, that’s impossible. And I’m not just saying that because I don’t want you to save Uncle Giovanni. I really don’t know how you could.”

I’ll make it simple. On a scale of one to ten, how many vertebrae can he lose before it shuts off his nervous system?

“I don’t know.”

Can he live with a broken trachea?

“A broken trachea?”

Assume its swelling constricts the airway.

“Then yes he could.”

Can he cast magic with a broken trachea?

“You’re really interested in his trachea.”

Answer the question.

“Most of us learn spells verbally because it’s easier. It prevents accidents. But Faust can do most anything he needs with his hands.”

What if I restrain his hands?

“He could do a lot with his fingers.”

What if I desensitize his hands?

“I’ve never seen this, but supposedly the old masters can do magic with just their thoughts.”

What if he’s unconscious?

Abdiel paused to consider that. The blood loss was starting to make him drowsy. “That might stop him for a bit. But I wouldn’t trust him to sleep for long. Hope you have a plan on what to do with him.”

“Oh, he’s all about plans,” said Catwoman as she approached from behind and ran a finger under Batman’s jaw. “Mind if we talk a minute, handsome?”

“I think she means you,” said Abdiel.

Batman checked his work again, then followed Catwoman a few steps to the big white plant. Its capillaries were threading with a faint pink. They looked at Zachary, still dead to the world. The sap was now agitating near the wound, creating little bubbles.

Catwoman glanced aside at Batman. You know how I never ask you for anything?

That’s not remotely true.

I have a favor to ask.

Yes?

Botch the surgery.


Batman wasn’t surprised. No.

We’ll get our interrogation. Zatanna won’t know. No one will know.

I’ll know.

Batman, please. These two are killers. I can’t stand that these scum get to breathe after what they’ve done. It’s eating me up inside. They almost killed my friend.

Yes.


Catwoman growled and pressed her fists to her forehead. Do you have any idea what it’s like to have a friend? Be honest.

Catwoman.

What about your cop pal, Gordon? What if he died in that fire? Would you still work overtime with that huge brain of yours to save his killer?

Batman’s throat tensed. Catwoman.

No? Then will you do it for me?

You?

I know we’re not friends. But we’re not nothing, right? Will you do it for me?


Batman looked at the floor. If it makes you feel better, I’ll probably fail.

Excuse me?

I’m not a doctor. This is a surgery I’ve only read about. I hardly have a third of the tools an abdominal specialist ought to use. I’m in a tremendous hurry. I don’t have a team. There’s no telling how much this plant will help. And the procedure doesn’t offer great odds under the best conditions. In all likelihood, Zachary won’t survive.


Before he even finished, Catwoman was sadly shaking her head. Oh, please. He’ll be fine.

How do you know?

She looked at him with disgust and pity. Because you’re Batman.

Batman finally looked at her. I don’t always get what I want.

“Hey, why are you two so quiet?” asked Zatanna, stepping beside Batman.

Catwoman broke the shared look and smiled at her. “You know, Zatanna, Batman was just saying how he could use some help when it’s time for the big operation.”

“And you don’t mind it? You aren’t angry anymore?”

Catwoman chuckled insincerely. “Oh, Batman explained that I shouldn’t worry my silly head about these things. He’s got his big strong morality to keep us all on the straight and narrow.”

Zatanna chuckled back uncomfortably. “I know you’re being sarcastic, but I don’t get what’s really going on, and that’s scaring me.”

“Sarcasm?” Catwoman waved dismissively. “Say! Magicians have steady hands. I bet he could use a nurse at his side.”

Catwoman,” warned Batman.

Zatanna bit her lip. “I never took a biology class.”

“Who needs school? I bet you know more than you think.”

In the pile of equipment from the embalming shine was an old anatomy model of the head and torso with brightly-colored organs inside. Catwoman stood beside the model and tapped it with her aggressive cheerfulness. “Quick quiz.” She pointed at the brain.

“I don’t think this is time for games,” said Zatanna.

“Humor me,” said Catwoman

Zatanna found Catwoman both the friendliest person here and very intimidating, so she humored her. “That’s the brain.”

“Yep.” Catwoman pointed at the heart.

“The heart.”

“Two for two.” Catwoman pointed at the large intestine.

“That’s, uh, your spleen?”

“Bingo.” Catwoman pointed at the small intestine.

“Your backup spleen.”

“Just in case, right?” Catwoman pointed at the right kidney.

“Gallbladder.”

“Uh-huh.” Catwoman pointed at the gallbladder.

“That’s your bananular gland.”

“What?”

“You know,” said Zatanna, “So you can digest bananas.”

“Perfect. Batman, I think she should take the lead on this surgery.”

“Stop this foolishness.” said Shadowcrest, marching toward them. “Just because we must wait for Sarkoth’s nurse to work its magic, doesn’t mean indulging in unproductive japes. It is time to-”

In the middle of his sentence, Shadowcrest disappeared.

The humans looked at each other (save for Abdiel, who was feeling lightheaded).

“So,” said Catwoman, “Did the house finally kick the bucket or what?”

With a flicker, Shadowcrest was back, now facing Batman. It’s stare was cold. Nearby sharp objects began orbiting its hands.

“You,” it said to Batman in a stony voice. “Who are you really?”

Before Batman could speak, Zatanna stepped between them. “What are you talking about?”

An upholstered chair sped into her legs, knocking her off her feet and carrying her out of the way.

Without taking its eyes from Batman, Shadowcrest said, “Mistress, I am concerned because Lord Faust is nearing my final corner of the house at great speed, and he is carried by a giant bat.”
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 205
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 12: Brujaja​
Batman had thought about how to neutralize Shadowcrest since the moment they met, and he still didn’t have any ideas.

Shadowcrest watched him with pure hostility. Sharp objects circled its hands like tame bees.

Batman spoke very slowly. ”I’m not your enemy.

“Do you serve Faust?” asked Shadowcrest, “Or is he in thrall to you?” A piano and some tables began trembling. “How have you hidden your magics?”

Batman tried to ignore the furniture. “I don’t know who Faust is or why he has a bat. It isn’t mine."

“It’s just a coincidence that you, Batman, visit the Mistress the same night that her enemy rides in on a bat?”

“A mage called Batman would definitely command bats,” said Abdiel.

“Shut up,” said Batman, Shadowcrest, and Catwoman.

“And you,” said Catwoman to Shadowcrest, “You literal blockhead.”

Catwoman,” warned Batman.

Catwoman pointed a hand at Batman. “Why would he risk his life all night trying to fight Faust if he had some secret agenda?”

“Why indeed?” said Shadowcrest. “The games of magi are shrouded and subtle.”

“Does he look subtle to you?”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Zatanna. She fought free of the chair carrying her to the end of the room and marched back. “Batman’s a good guy. It says so in the papers.” Batman and Catwoman knew she was lying, but they didn’t correct her.

“Quiet,” said Shadowcrest. “We shall see the hand Faust plays when he reaches my defenses. In the meantime, I will know your intentions, Batman.”

The shelf with the wood-cased Philco radio sped to Batman’s side so fast that it left skid marks on the floor. The radio dial turned on its own accord. The light flickered, and the speaker hummed static.

A nasally announcer began to speak over the low crackle. “Loyal listeners! Welcome back to Candid Psychic Radio, the only station that plays what’s really on your mind! Tonight on our beloved broadcast: an adoring audience comes confessing chiropteran concerns! Prolonged perfidy or regrettable reproach? Drama! Tragedy! Laughs? Only on CPR!”

“Get to it,” ordered Shadowcrest.

“Editorial effrontery!” said the radio announcer. “An antagonist to aerial art! For shame!”

Shadowcrest narrowed its gaze. A long crack ripped the radio’s wooden casing.

The radio played static, then the announcer spoke again. “Batman is a true friend of the Zataras. He has no clue about the incoming bat. This is CPR. Goodnight.” The dial spun and shut the radio off.

Catwoman gave Batman a look that asked, a true friend?

Zatanna gave him the same look, though less accusatory and more concerned.

Batman frowned.

Shadowcrest finally spoke. “Acceptable. Your intentions are beyond doubt.” The sharp objects orbiting its hands flew back to their places.

“Don’t you owe us an apology?” asked Catwoman.

“You, I owe nothing. He still breathes. We are settled.” said Shadowcrest.

“Can I have some more orange juice?” asked Abdiel.

The others looked at him. He looked back innocently. “Feeling lightheaded, y’know. Blood loss and all.”
---​
Barbatos flapped through the halls of a house he barely fit, destroying paintings and overturning statues with his wings. Faust, clutched in his claw, smacked against every piece of furniture Barbatos didn’t care to avoid, which was most of them.

So you wouldn’t play footie with yer ol’ gang, and that set their billy a’boiling,” said Barbatos, summarizing what he had just heard.

“Yes,” barked Faust, breaking a china cabinet with his face.

Right. You need a place to wait out the utter dog’s breakfast you brought upon yerself, so you traipse here like a bogan, thinking it’ll be a piece of piss to nab the whole house.

“Yes,” wheezed Faust, breaking another china cabinet with his face.

Good onya for given’ it a burl, aye. Love to see ambition in the kiddies. But then yer old lady gives you a spook.

“She’s not my - ow!” screamed Faust, knocking over a shelf of golf trophies with his shins.

Hold up, boyo. Here’s where the party starts.

Faust looked ahead. He could sense that they were about to enter the last corner of the house still under Shadowcrest’s control. Between flaps of leather wings, he saw a motley assortment of guardians blocking the hallway. Smoke dogs and metal turnips, fire clowns and spear-carrying spears, horse-sized mantises and bus-sized horses, rude echoes, angry eyes, battle clocks, floor mouths, marble moon mummies, goose gangs from the hoosegow, and a hundred other foul fantastical things that walked, crawled, slithered, stalked, or swung in defense of the house.

Barbatos flapped faster then tucked his wings for impact. He smashed through the line, tossing the defenders like a child scattering blocks. Then he flapped again, turning down the next hallway. Bolts of fire and jets of steam shot from the walls, and the floor rose to crush them, but the house could not crush Barbatos. It only pressed the claw holding Faust deep against Barbatos’ enormous furry stomach. Lord Faust found this unpleasant.
---​
“Strange,” Shadowcrest said to no one in particular.

“What?” asked Zatanna.

“The giant bat bypassed all my protections with no effort.”

All your protections?” said Catwoman.

“We are surely helpless against it,” said Shadowcrest.

“And that’s all you have to say?” said Zatanna, “That it’s strange?”

“I see my news is disheartening. I have no heart, but I can recognize improbabilities.”

“Such as?”

“Faust would not summon a being more powerful than himself. Not unless his judgement was imparied.”

Impaired how?” asked Batman.

“Any common way. Fear, most likely. Possibly greed. It would take a great measure to distract him.”

“So the bat may not be playing on his team,” said Catwoman.

“That appears to be your only hope. I doubt any weapon in this arsenal would threaten such an indomitable creature.”

“Figures,” said Zatanna.

“I apologize, Mistress. It is my duty to protect you, but I’ve left you in the hands of fate.”

“Hey, Shady,” said Catwoman, “Didn’t you say you could launch us out of here to try our luck in the real world?”

“It is too late, palty hanger-on. I need time to open a portal to Earth. There is only one alternate dimension I can reach at the moment.”

“Then let’s go.”

“It is not a welcoming dimension. You would find yourselves short of allies. And light. And oxygen.”

There was a distant popping noise. The group turned and saw a brown dot appear on one of the little islands near the horizon.

“The Emergent Sea’s illusions do not disorient the bat,” said Shadowcrest. “It is heading this way.”

“Figures,” said Zatanna.

Batman reckoned the island to be two miles away. Appearance of distance was meaningless here, but he tried to mentally calculate the size required for a dot that far to be visible, as it seemed intuitively impossible. He stopped calculating as the dot quickly grew into a figure crossing the water. It was a giant bat.

Catwoman, standing behind Batman, saw his cape shiver without the breeze. She turned an edge of the fabric with her foot and saw his hand tremoring.

Batman knew there would be a giant bat. But a bat the size of a dog would be a giant bat. A bat the size of a car would be a giant bat. This was a different kind of giant bat. He owned buildings smaller than this bat.

As it flapped closer, its shadow covered the floating study and a great measure of surrounding water.

“Can we at least hide behind something?” asked Zatanna.

“Be still,” said Shadowcrest. “I will do the speaking.”

Ten feet above the study, the bat flicked its claw open. Lord Faust bounced to the floor. The bat then landed on a nice billiards table, crushing it.

Bats do not perch. To land, they fold their wings and lay forward. The giant bat did just that, knocking over half of the study in the process. One wingtip nearly decapitated Zatanna, but she ducked, clutching her hat to her chest.

Shadowcrest bowed to the bat and said, “Your eminence, I-”

Shut it,” said the bat, “I’m ‘ere for ‘im.” It nodded at Batman.

Batman hesitated, then he slowly walked forward, stopping ten paces from the bat’s head. He palmed a batarang.

The bat snorted and creased its ears. “Yes. You’re the bloody malaker.

“You know him now, mighty Barbatos?” asked Faust.

Barbatos rolled his eyes. “I don’t know ‘im from a bar of soap, ya drongo. Quiet.” He sniffed. “Not a mage. Novel that.” He sniffed again. “Hm. So who are you?

I’m Batman.

Barbatos chuckled. “Strewth. Not many’d say that to my face. I make decisions on bats ‘n bat-wise matters, aye? Seems you’re in my bailiwick. So who called you a batman?

I chose it.

You love bats?

Bats terrify me.

Bats terrify you?” Barbatos circled his claw at Batman’s outfit, “Then what’s all this about?

I wanted to share the feeling.

Ha!” Barbatos’ laugh spittle covered Batman’s chest. "Ah, bloody ripper, mate. You’re a loony git, but I can work with that. More people should be scared of bats.

“M- Magnificent one!” said Faust.

Quiet. Me and this batman are having a conversation. Now tell me, how are you giving all the blokes ‘n sheilas the message to pay bats more respect?

As he spoke, a regular-sized bat flittered out of the sky and began hissing in Barbatos’ ear.

Hold up,” said Barbatos, “What?

The regular bat hissed some more.

Really?” Barbatos slowly glared at Batman. “All the time?

The regular bat squeaked.

You!” Barbatos growled. The rush of air forced Batman to step back. “You’re the cavern monster.

I-

Lights. Plumbing. Air ducts. Scores of powered tools.” Barbatos spit. “Three separate generators? Who needs three separate generators?

“Yes!” cheered Faust.

Barbatos stretched a wing in frustration, launching shelves into the sea. “For four hundred years, you humans have built over every good habitat in a day’s flight from Gotham Bay. Every tree and nook turned to cement. It's bloody stressful to adapt to a city, innit?"

He waved the wing for emphasis. "The last natural home was one very nice cavern system just outside town. Big as you wish and vacant as the moon. Then two years ago, some cretin decided to get his jollies by setting up a bundle of loud machines that run at all hours.

Barbatos jabbed Batman with his snout, knocking him flat. “Do you have any reckoning the hundreds of pups you disturb with yer racket? They can hear yer echoes half a mile into the cavern.

Barbatos opened his other wing and flapped in place, launching more shelves into the sea. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t tear yer limbs off.

Batman was dazed from being struck to the floor. His vision swam, and noises seemed distant. Still, he managed to roll onto an elbow.

If you kill me, it will only get worse.” muttered Batman.

How?

Batman struggled to his feet. “The bats must know another man visits that cavern. If I disappear, I can't tell him to stop the machines. We have plans to expand.

Is that a threat?

It’s an opportunity. I should have been more considerate to the bats. I apologize. If you let me leave, I can unplug the machines. I won’t turn them back on until I can design them to run quietly. And I can feed the bats. Twenty gallons a week. Insects, fruit, everything they like. The colonies will never be hungry again.

How do I know you're as good as yer word?

Because we might meet again. And bats terrify me.

Lord Faust kicked over a vase and shouted. “Doggerel! Polysemous pap!”

Barbatos looked at Faust. “What are you on about?

“You can’t trust him! He’s but a congeries of vespertilian rodomontades and too clever by half!”

Barbatos glanced at Batman. “Is that true? Do you lie?

Constantly,” said Batman, “But not to you.

“And not under oath,” said Shadowcrest, “While Lord Felix of Faust has broken parlay this very night.”

The air of the study suddenly chilled. The hairs on Barbatos’ back bristed. He closed his eyes and sniffed. With a start, he turned and landed just before Faust, nearly crushing him. “You ugly little twerp.

“Great one, please,” sniveled Faust, “‘Tis poor manners to kill your summoner! You don’t want to be one of that sort, do you? Word gets around.”

Barbatos seemed to consider this. “True.” He seized Faust in his claw and beat his wings hard to climb. Once he reached a height that cast a shadow over the study once more, he pitched his claw and tossed Faust over the horizon. Barbatos wheeled around and looked back at the study.

Oy, miss. You in the hat.

Zatanna pointed at herself.

Barbatos nodded. “This yer home he’s stealing?

Zatanna swallowed and shrugged. “I guess."

Well, you’ve a lovely home ‘ere miss. I’m grateful for the hospitality.

“My pleasure.”

Be a good lass and spike his head on the gate for me, would you?

“Okay.”

Right. And Batman.

Batman watched him silently.

Make it one hundred gallons,” said Barbatos. “The bats will know.

Batman gave a half-nod.

And you’ll keep scaring folks while dressed as a bat?

I guarantee it.

Y’know, you don’t really look like a bat. The nose. The ears. A weak caricature, honestly.

I’ll take that under advisement.

Eh. Long as the derros get the message, I guess.

Barbatos took three hard flaps, then tucked his wings and burst into a thousand shrieking bats. These bats flew off in all directions and quickly faded to dust.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Never summon something stronger and more powerful, especially when he can be bought by the enemy
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Nitram: You -are- beautiful. Anyone tries to tell you otherwise kill them.
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Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 13: Harm and Healing​


When the giant bat disappeared, Batman stood another moment then fell to his knees. His chest shook so rapidly that he couldn’t finish a breath. He began to pitch forward as he gulped for air, almost hitting the floor. He pushed back to his knees as the spasms relaxed. He took shallow breaths that wheezed through his teeth. When his arms stopped trembling, he held his face in his hands.

Zatanna was near and took an uneasy step closer. She had never cared for someone ill. What was the right bedside manner for a violent mute calculator suffering a fit? Batman’s head was bent in some hidden agony, and his upper back was so tense that she could see ridges of muscle pressing through his cape.

She leaned over and asked, “Hey, what’s the matter?”

Batman didn’t answer. Zatanna reached out to get his attention. No sooner had her fingers brushed his shoulder than he flinched and drove his elbow backward. It caught Zatanna under her ribs and she fell to the floor, clutching her side. Zatanna scrunched her face and began to whimper.

Batman stumbled away on all fours until the floorboards curled into cuffs that snared his arms. The cuffs shot up on two wooden stalks, lifting him ten feet in the air. Batman hung limply by his wrists, incoherent and struggling to breath.

Catwoman was further away when Batman’s episode began. She had been busy watching the sky for other magical beasts and didn’t realize Batman was struggling until Zatanna spoke. Catwoman rushed to help and saw Batman flinch. She watched Zatanna crying on the ground as Batman was pulled into the air.

Catwoman shouted at Shadowcrest, “Don’t hurt him, he didn’t-”

Shadowcrest interrupted, as calm as usual, “I won’t hurt him, hysterical sniveler. The boy meant no harm. I’m not a mindless hound.”

“Then do you mind putting him down?” asked Catwoman.

“When his impairment passes.”

Catwoman decided this was the best she could hope for. She knelt and tried to comfort Zatanna. “Aw, you’ll be all right. It was just a little tap.”

Zatanna blinked away hot tears. “That really hurt,” she sniffed. “I thought, I thought being thrown around in the hall hurt, and, and Abdiel hitting my ear, I thought that hurt."

Catwoman, patted her hair. "It's okay."

"And when when you shoved me into a wall at the casino, I thought that hurt. But that really hurt.”

“Yeah. Sorry,” said Catwoman, “C’mon. Up and at ‘em.” Catwoman gently pulled Zatanna to her feet. “No laying around when the next flying monster shows up.”

“Why do people hit each other? Does it feel this bad every time?”

“You get used to it.”

Zatannna picked up her tophat. “I don’t want to get used to it.”

“Here’s to hoping.”

Catwoman plucked the handkerchief out of Zatanna’s tuxedo pocket and dabbed at her cheek. Zatanna nodded thanks and took the handkerchief to dry her eyes. Catwoman noticed that the end of the fabric was tied to another handkerchief in the tuxedo. She pulled it out, finding another at the end. Catwoman continued to pull in rising disbelief until she was seven handkerchiefs deep, looking at a pile of fabric in her hands with no end in sight.

When Zatanna’s eyes were dry, she tugged on her cufflink and the chain of handkerchiefs quickly spooled back into her tuxedo. Catwoman looked at her. Zatanna only winked.

Soon Shadowcrest lowered Batman and released him. His posture and breathing were entirely normal, with no hint that he had nearly fainted a minute ago. Catwoman and Zatanna were there to greet him.

“She’s fine,” said Catwoman, knowing his first question.

Batman made a fractional nod, unable to look at either of them.

Sorry,” he said.

By now, Zatanna was mostly annoyed that he wouldn’t look her in the eye.

"It still hurts," she said grumpily

Batman had just been headbutted by a bat the size of a hill, he was recently bludgeoned by a dozen chair legs, and in the past week he had endured three fist fights and a dog bite. He acknowledged her pain with another nod. “Sorry.

“What happened to you?” asked Zatanna.

Nothing.

Catwoman gave him a look, but he refused to elaborate.

“Hey,” moaned Abdiel from across the study, “Help?”

Batman raced over and inspected him. Most of the furniture nearby had been crushed by bat wings, but Abdiel and the big plant were untouched. Abidel was very pale, and his eyes were unfocused. Batman checked the plant’s pitcher and found it had collected a frightening half-pint more blood than intended. He was astonished that Abdiel was awake. Batman ripped off the plant’s sucking barbs and bandaged Abdiel’s arm. The bag of volume expander was empty, so Batman removed its needle. He slowly fed Abdiel a cup of water.

Perhaps the volume expander had done its job. Perhaps Abdiel’s enormous mass made him even more rugged than anticipated. Perhaps it was a medical miracle. But Batman wondered, not for the first time, just how tough they built a mage. He was weak, but he would pull through.

Zatanna sat nearby, watching his recovery and lending a hand when she could.

Catwoman couldn’t have cared less. She wandered around Sarkoth’s nurse, its petals now a tender pink. Zachary’s body floated inside, and a steady boil of bubbles disturbed the goo around his wound.

“Hey, Shady,” Catwoman muttered to Shadowcrest, “What happens now that the boogeyman's gone?” She glanced at Zatanna. “With her dad, you know,” Catwoman ran her thumb across her throat. “How do we break the news?”

Shadowcrest shook its head. “The caretaker Giovanni lives.”

“So Faust was bluffing.”

“No. Faust lives as well.”

Catwoman's jaw dropped. “Faust is alive?”

Batman and Zatanna turned.

Zatanna cried, “He just had a plane crash without the plane!”

“He has not crashed,” said Shadowcrest

“Don’t tell me he’s flying again.” Zatanna jumped to her feet, searching the horizon. “Is he coming this way?”

“No,” said Shadowcrest. “Well, yes. But not as you fear.”

Catwoman palmed the handle of her whip. Zatanna looked around for her battle axe.

“Rest,” implored Shadowcrest. “The heave of Barbatos was far too mighty for Lord Faust to glide away. He has already passed one edge of the Emergent Sea, but the sea has no end, so he now arrives from the other direction.”

A tiny blur passed overhead like a comet. They heard the faint peep of a scream far above them.

Shadowcrest watched the blur pass. “The loop will continue so long as he flies, but Faust will shortly reach his apogee. Then he will descend and crash.”

“So then he dies?” asked Catwoman.

“No,” said Shadowcrest.

Batman laid Abdiel on the floor and stood. “He'll hit the surface like a rocket. If he's that resilient, how has anything injured him?

“He is not as strong as you imagine. Remember, he will land in water.”

I know,” said Batman.

“Water is not solid,” explained Shadowcrest.

It will be like pavement at that speed. The surface tension-” Batman paused to calculate.

“What is surface tension?” asked Shadowcrest.

Batman hesitated and frowned. He paced to the edge of the study and stuck his hand in the surf. Then he found a fallen marble bust, lifted it above his head, and heaved it down into the water. The bulky sculpture barely caused a splash, sinking at the speed of his toss until it gently decelerated. The water was not behaving like regular water.

Batman vibrated with annoyance. “Nevermind.

“It seems Barbatos was merciful,” said Shadowcrest, “Or he wished us the honor of coup de grâce. Beings of his majesty are inscrutable.”

“What happens when Faust lands?” asked Catwoman. “Can he swim in that getup?”

“I suspect he will travel to the nearest island and design a new plan of attack,” said Shadowcrest. “As I have said, the Emergent Sea is home to many threats. These will tire and delay him. Meanwhile, I am hurrying to bring my guardians in from the halls. Take heart that the strategic balance has shifted. Faust can no longer wait in safety.”

“You mean you won’t have to die?” asked Zatanna.

“No, Faust’s subversion continues. I still cannot risk its success, but he cannot avoid me in the meantime.”

“So your little pets will finish him off,” said Catwoman.

“We shall see. Many defenders were crushed by Barbatos. Others will sink in open water. And the rest must fight through the same threats as Faust to reach him.”

“You can’t get the chess pieces to leave your toys alone?”

“Crudely put, but no, I cannot”

“I hate this place,” said Catwoman, “No offense,” she added to Zatanna.

“None taken,” said Zatanna. “So what now?”

“Our final preparations are still reconnaissance and armament,” said Shadowcrest. “The first is unchanged. The second I must reconsider.”

Most of the armory had been wrecked or launched into the sea, so this seemed like quite an understatement.

“Reconnaissance, right,” said Zatanna, “How long until the plant is finished?”

“I believe the time is ripe,” said Shadowcrest. “Little mystic essence remains in the blood. The healing has nearly stopped.”

Batman peered over the opening of the plant. He struggled to see the wound through the streams of bubbles. “Tell me more about this sap. If he has an open wound, why isn’t he bleeding now?

“The sap staunches blood flow until it dries."

"How long will his sedation last?

“Once Zachary Cehennem is free of the plant, he will wake within five minutes. But he will not feel pain for hours.”

Will he feel anything? Will he be numb?

“Sensations will quickly return, all except pain.”

Hmm.” Batman looked at Catwoman. Are you willing to help?

Catwoman crossed her arms. You’re kidding.

Fine. Then stay out of the way.

Ignoring her spiteful response, Batman looked aside at Zatanna. “Zatanna, when he wakes, keep him calm.

She nodded, clearly uncomfortable with the responsibility. “I can try, I guess.”

Talk to him. Tell him what he wants to hear. If he becomes upset, he may move and hurt himself. Avoid drawing attention to me or the surgery.

“You’re hard to ignore.”

Are you ready?

“Yes?”

Batman did a final check of the makeshift surgical suite which the house had constructed next to Sarkoth’s nurse. He removed his armored leather gloves and slipped on a sterilized cotton pair.

Shadowcrest, when I bring Zachary to the table, can you bind him?

“If you wish.”

Leave me access to his midsection with a ten inch radius around the center of the wound, let him move his head, hands, and feet, and restrict his circulation as little as possible. Otherwise, keep him still. Also, give him a blanket or some warm covering and block the wind.

“It will be done.”

Batman pulled down one of the pink petals and leaned into the mouth of the plant. He lifted Zachary out, soaking his arms and chest in sap, and laid him on the operating table, a dinner table covered in parchment paper. Zatanna stood at the head of the table, biting her fingernails.

When Batman removed his hands, a wave of belts and sheets flew to the table and tied Zachary down. A wool blanket with a gap cut out of its side floated down from above, covering him snugly. A section of floor bent upward into a wall, shielding them from the breeze.

Batman held a small flashlight and a scalpel. Before he could lift the scalpel, he felt Zatanna’s hand on his arm.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked.

His instinct was to face away. The less she saw, the better. But he looked at her.

Are you?

“Yes.”

Then yes.

“Okay. Whatever happens, thank you.”

Batman lifted his scalpel and made the first cut.
---​
Zachary woke.

His whole body tickled. There was a bad itching around his hip, but he had trouble scratching the itch. He quickly discovered that he had trouble moving his arms at all. He felt like he was in bed, but there was fresh air on his face. This was all very strange. Zachary wasn’t too worried. Being a mage meant sometimes waking up in strange places with parts of your body acting strange or missing.

He opened his eyes. The world was blurry; like there was slime covering his face. He groaned and blinked, trying to shake it. Then his world went dark as soft fingers wiped the slime away. He blinked again and saw Zatanna Zatara’s face. Behind her was a clear sky. He looked into her eyes, trying to make sense of things.

“Zatanna?”

“Hi, Zachary,” she said, holding his hand. “How do you feel?”

“I’m not sure.” He paused, trying to recall any memories before he blacked out. “Wait, how’d you know my name?”

“Abdiel told me.”

“That idiot.”

“Don’t worry. I know you’re not real cops. You’re my cousins. Isn’t that great?”

“Where’s Lord Faust?”

A blur passed overhead like a comet. He heard the faint scream above them.

Zatanna smiled insincerely. “He’s far away, Zach. Can I call you Zach? Zachie?”

“You can call me Zach, I suppose.” Zachary tried to look around, but she cupped his chin to keep him focused on her.

“Zach, Shadowcrest saw Faust attack you and saved you just in time. Everything’s okay. You’re going to be swell.”

“What do you mean ‘going to be’?”

“Uh.” Zatanna looked away. Somewhere out of sight, another woman snickered.

“Am I not swell now?” Zachary tried to lift his head. “Why am I not swell now, Zatanna? What’s wrong?” He glimpsed a dark figure bent over his hip before Zatanna forced his forehead down.

“I meant you are swell. Slip of the tongue.” She smiled harder.

“Zatanna, what is that huge thing beside me?”

“Uh. A decorative statue.”

“What?”

“From France.”

The unseen woman snorted. Zachary struggled to understand what was going on. Nonsense was a regular part of mage conversation, but Zatanna had no practice as a mage.

“Why does my side itch so much, Zatanna?”

Zatanna held a quarter in front of him. “Hey, Zach, how would you like to see a magic trick?”

Zachary wondered why she had ignored his question. He was almost certain he asked a question, but it was difficult to remember.

“Zatanna,” said Zachary wearely.

“Get ready. You’re in for a treat.”

She passed the quarter dramatically between her white gloves, then she placed it on his forehead. The little circle of metal was cold against his skin.

“Now don’t move,” she warned, “On three,” Zatanna extended a paper wand. He felt her tap the coin. “One, two, three, presto!” She gave it a final tap, and the cold metal feeling disappeared.

“Huh?”

“Stick out your tongue,” said Zatanna.

Confused, Zachary obliged. As he opened his mouth, he noticed a weight on his tongue. Shocked, he spit.

Zatanna was ready with a napkin and caught the quarter. She held the napkin open like a trophy. “Ta-da. You can’t spell pizazz without Zatanna.”

Zachary silently mouthed some letters. “That isn’t true. And where’d you learn to do that?”

“I’m a magician, remember?” She tapped the wand against her tophat.

The unseen woman called out, “How’s it feel entertaining a murderer?”

“Who said that?” asked Zachary, trying to lift his head to look.

Zatanna forced Zachary’s head down again. “So what do you think, Zach? Pretty neat, huh?”

Zachary smacked his lips. “Eugh. My mouth tastes like copper.”

“Yeah, I stopped using this one in the stage shows.”

Zachary rolled his eyes.

“What?” Zatanna asked.

“Your whole profession. It’s such a shame.”

“Why?”

“Instead of learning real magic, Uncle Giovanni wasted your time having you learn these tricks.”

“They’re not tricks!” Zantanna paused to consider her words, “Well, they are. You know what I mean. It’s a decent line of work. I entertain people.”

“Your father’s done you wrong, Zatanna. You’re thinking all backward. It’s rotten enough he kept you from learning magic-”

“I do magic,” Zatanna insisted.

“-You could have had a nice, normal life. As nice as a mundane can live, anyway. Instead he stuck you with all this frippery.”

“What do you mean?”

“Life on the road. No family, no friends. For starters, you’d be a lot happier if you were busy with womenly things.”

The unseen woman laughed. Zatanna asked, “Womenly things?”

“You know: babies, vegetables, baby vegetables.”

I’ve finished the sutures,” said a man’s voice nearby.

Zatanna let out a deep breath. “Thank God.”

“What was that?” yelled Zachary. He lifted his head again. This time he wasn’t stopped, and he finally recognized the demonic white-eyed man in the cape who attacked the brothers in the front hall. Zachary shouted and tried to run, but he realized that he was tied to a table.

“I wouldn’t struggle,” The laughing woman appeared and poked a familiar claw into his chin. “You might pull a stitch.”

“Zatanna,” Zachary cried while trying not to move his jaw, “Help!”

“The Mistress has helped you more than you deserve, Cehennem.” Zachary looked up and recognized Shadowcrest standing above his head. “You may even live.”
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 14: More Things in Heaven and Earth​



The life of a mage was full of surprises, and Zachary Cehennem quickly overcame his shock at being tied to a table by scary people. He decided that he had one problem.

It wasn’t that he felt terrible; he could walk it off later. It wasn’t that he was tied to a table; he knew escape spells. It wasn’t that he was surrounded by brutes in animal masks; if he could seize the element of surprise they’d be pushovers.

His problem was that he was trapped by Shadowcrest, an all-powerful ghost wearing the skin of the man who killed his family. He would have better odds reversing a waterfall with a bucket than challenging a house spirit.

Hopelessness brought a certain serenity. Once Zachary decided that his captors were not about to eviscerate him, he felt brave enough to ask, “What happened?”

“Murder Merlin betrayed you, you twit,” said Catwoman.

Zachary remembered Faust’s searing beam cutting open his side and cringed.

Batman held down his shoulder with a bloodstained surgical glove. “Stop moving.”

Zachary looked at Batman. “Are you part of Zatanna’s stage act?”

Zatanna stepped in. “That’s Batman.”

“Does he work for a bat?”

“Common misconception. But he’s right, Zach. You need to relax.”

Behind her, Catwoman stared at Zachary and licked the length of a claw.

Zachary flinched, so Zatanna pressed on his other shoulder. “I mean it. No quick moves. You’re hurt.”

“Hurt how?”

A blanket and several sheets suddenly unwrapped from his torso. Zachary glanced down and saw a gauze pad stained dark red over his hip. His eyes widened in fear. “What is that? Why don’t I feel that? Why is my side numb?”

Shadowcrest said, “I brought you to a Sarkoth’s nurse.”

“Sarkoth’s nurse. That’s a healing plant, right? If it did its job, then why are these sheets bloody?”

The plant couldn’t finish the job,” said Batman. “I had to operate.

“You did surgery on me? With knives and twine and all that?” Zachary groaned. “Now I know you’re not a mage.”

“He isn’t a surgeon either,” said Catwoman.

Zachary looked between them, waiting for someone to laugh. “But I’m going to live, right?”

Zatanna gave Batman an insistent nod. Batman struggled to sound positive. “It’s not impossible.

“What did you do?”

The procedure was … the good news is that a human only needs one kidney.

“What?” Zachary tried to sit up. Batman and Zatanna held him down.

Most of the vaporized tissue grew back with only a few lesions, but your liver and renal arteries were unfinished. I stitched them, so you won’t bleed out, but you should visit a hospital before your blood begins to toxify.

“How long until that happens?”

A few hours.

Catwoman yawned. “Like he’ll last that long.”

“Catwoman!” said Zatanna.

Catwoman tutted. “Don’t lie to the man in his last minutes.”

Zachary protested, “This guy just said I had hours.”

Catwoman shrugged. “For blood poisoning, sure, but Faust will definitely kill you first. And I’m still undecided.”

“What’d I ever do to you?” asked Zachary.

“Oh, we’ll get to that. But Shady has a few questions.” Catwoman planted a hand on the table. “Play nice, and I might let you keep that other kidney.”

“Uncharacteristically germane, miss,” said Shadowcrest. “Zachary Cehennem, your life was forfeit. We resurrected you to report on where Lord Faust was hiding and what he might be planning. The first question has since become moot-”

“Speaking of,” said Catwoman, “Where is the old bird?”

Shadowcrest peered to the horizon. “He struck water three leagues hence. There a sea serpent carried him under the waves until he slayed the beast. He then reached an atoll with the intention to rest. His intention has been stymied; at present, he is fleeing from hundreds of large crabs shaped like rooks.”

Zachary asked, “Sorry, why are we on an ocean?”

“It’s a chessboard,” said Zatanna.

“As I was saying,” said Shadowcrest, “Zachary, we have kept you on this mortal plane to reveal your treacherous lord’s plan.”

“How can I help?”

“Before I plucked you from Lord Faust’s clutches, you and he were conspiring inside the keystone chamber. What did he say to you?”

“He-” Zachary glanced between Batman and Zatanna. “Can I get up?”

Slowly,” said Batman as they released him.

Zachary’s final bindings slid off. He felt no pain, but the heavy numbness in his side was a sickening, hollow feeling. He gingerly rose and shifted his legs over the side of the table. Then he turned his head and saw his brother deathly pale and limp on the floor.

Zachary made a furious noise and fiery orange nimbuses flashed along his forearms. Before even Batman could move, Catwoman strangled him from behind with the hard handle of her whip. She tugged down hard, slamming him back on the table. Catwoman leaned over, forcing her weight through his windpipe.

A moment later, Batman caught Catwoman around the waist and threw her across the floor. She tumbled roughly but rolled into a wide-legged crouch. Zachary wheezed, his face puffy and ruby red.

Zatanna rushed to Catwoman’s side. “Are you okay?”

Catwoman ignored her. There were two bloody gloveprints on her hips and a graze on her jaw. She rose from her crouch as she glared at Batman, a look that for once said nothing.

He returned a glare that said the same.

Zatanna folded her arms and scolded Batman. “That was mean.” She looked at Catwoman. “And what the heck were you thinking?”

“Not now, dear,” said Catwoman without looking away from Batman.

Zachary continued to wheeze. Batman didn't break his stare with Catwoman but quietly said to him, “Your brother gave you his blood, Zachary. He’ll be fine. Don’t threaten us again.

Still gasping, Zachary twisted his head. After a moment, he noticed Abdiel’s eyelids shift. Zachary’s face bent into something like shame. Batman decided that Catwoman had stopped her assault and looked down to inspect Zachary’s dressings.

Zatanna clapped sarcastically. “Catwoman wins the staring contest. Are you two hunky-dory now?”

“Their hunky will remain dory, Mistress,” said Shadowcrest. “I shall discipline the next outburst, captive or escort.”

“Don’t worry about us,” said Catwoman with frigid sweetness, “We get on like a house on fire.”

“And do you have anything to say, mister?” asked Zatanna to Batman’s back. He didn’t respond.

Zatanna huffed and planted her hands on her hips. “Do I have to do the dance of the seven veils to get his attention?”

Catwoman eyed her outfit. “I think you’d run out at three.”

“What?”

Catwoman stretched her jaw and checked for loose teeth. “Hey, Torquemada Townhouse. Weren't you about to interrogate the wizard?”

Batman finished checking the gauze pad. “Tell me if you feel wetness or pooling here.” He shed his blood-soaked surgical gloves to don his leather gauntlets. “If your sutures have ripped, I’ll have to close the wound another way.

Zachary nodded. When Batman stepped back, half of the surgical table folded upward, forcing Zachary into a sitting position. His breathing had nearly calmed, but a reddish crease remained across his throat.

“Now,” said Shadowcrest, “Zachary, what did Faust say to you in the keystone chamber?”

Zachary scratched his head. “Not much.”

“What exactly?”

“I asked for his help to rescue Abdiel. He told me to wait outside. Then he hit me from behind. You know the rest.”

“And was he corrupting the keystone?”

“Yes! I noticed that. I didn’t think it was possible. He wasn’t trying to destroy the estate at all. Is that why you were able to rescue me? Because he broke parlay?”

“No,” said Zatanna, “Your brother slugged me.”

“Huh? No, no, that- That doesn’t seem like him at all. I’m so sorry. When he wakes up, I’ll whip some manners into him, believe me.”

“You pressed a gun in my face.”

“For a good cause.”

“Focus,” commanded Shadowcrest, “Both violations of parlay transpired in short order. Did Faust discuss his further plans at all?"

“No. He had promised to destroy you. We never would have made a deal if we thought he wanted to steal this place. The whole point was to remove any traps our uncle might have hidden here, and a new owner doesn’t guarantee that. Destruction was the only option.”

“This is not helpful. Did he offer any hint of his strategies?”

“Well, it was his idea to wait until last night to catch our uncle. And he said it was important to take Zatanna with us tonight. Not sure why we needed her for the portal when we had Uncle Giovanni, but Faust was adamant. Beyond that, he barely told us anything. Faust isn’t fond of questions.”

“He didn’t mention a plan to summon Barbatos, King of Bats?”

“Who? No.”

“Disappointing,” Shadowcrest turned to Zatanna, “Mistress, I’m afraid this was fruitless. Let us discuss armaments-”

“Hold your horses,” said Zachary, staggering as he tried to stand, “I don’t know exactly what Faust has in mind, but I know his habits. I've researched him. And no offense to buildings, but I’m an actual mage. If you want to fight a mage, you could use my advice.”

Zatanna was unimpressed. “You wanted to kill my dad.”

“Still do. But the mean cat lady is right: Faust is the real threat.” Zachary swallowed, but continued, “Uncle Giovanni and I will have a reckoning, but not tonight. I swear to submit this to parlay, that I will bring no deliberate harm to your father until I leave this house.”

“And you’ll do your best to save him?”

Zachary grit his teeth. “I’ll take any obvious opportunity to free him, if doing so doesn’t endanger my life or yours.”

“So mote it be,” said Shadowcrest.

“So mote it be,” he replied.

Shadowcrest made an indifferent noise, “If you tolerate your cousin’s presence, Mistress, his council may have merit.”

Zatanna bit her lip and looked around. Zachary seemed earnest. Batman and Catwoman were avoiding eye contact with anyone. She shrugged. “Fine.”

“You won’t regret it,” said Zachary.

“Too late,” said Zatanna.

“You were a lot friendlier a minute ago.”

Zatanna pointed at her tophat. “I’m a performer.”

“Take heed of my final lesson,” said Shadowcrest, loudly. “For I have scant minutes remaining.”

“Hold on,” said Zachary. “What do you mean by ‘scant minutes’?”

“Faust’s corruption has nearly taken me,” said Shadowcrest, “If forced into in his service, I would doom the Mistress. I will destroy myself before I let him succeed.”

Zachary scratched his head. “That’s new.”

“What?” asked Zatanna.

“A house spirit always tries to keep its dynasty alive. I never imagined a day when that meant pulling its own plug.”

So Faust won’t expect this?” asked Batman.

“Doubt it. Half the value of an estate is the spirit. He wouldn’t work this hard to steal the danish if he thought he’d lose the jelly.”

“Artfully put, twit,” said Shadowcrest. “The Emergent Sea’s obstacles will occupy and tire him. Let us prepare to finish the-”

“Zachary, you’re alive!” said Abdiel.

The others turned and watched in varied degrees of astonishment as Abdiel, still feeble and pale, struggled to his feet. Before anyone could speak, a bust of Winston Churchill flew into his gut, knocking him back down, while a heavy towel wrapped around Zachary’s face.

“No!” said Shadowcrest. “No more prattling. No more sentimental asides. I will speak. You each will listen and obey. The next interruption pays in fingers, and my rates are usurious.”

The towel on Zachary fell to the floor. Abidel remained seated. No one spoke.

“Good. Our chief challenge is this: the seneschal and regent Giovanni is tied to Lord Faust by a cardial chain. If Lord Faust dies, if the chain is broken, or if Faust wishes it so, then Giovanni’s heart will stop. The Mistress has decreed that Giovanni is indispensable.”

The group eyed each other. Zatanna was the most tense of all. They said nothing.

Shadowcrest continued. “I have two solutions. First, while I do not know how to nullify a cardial chain, the annals of magic are vast, and such knowledge may exist. One solution would be to seek how to do this. The second and more practical solution would be to discover how Giovanni may live without a heart. In either case, the Mistress must first study here for several years until she has grown into a capable mage. When the time is ripe, she may seek such hidden knowledge and employ it. ”

Everyone except Batman wanted to say something, but no one spoke.

“Of course, Lord Faust poses a more urgent obstacle. But the cardial chain merely deters against death. I know of a spell to instead cast Faust into endless slumber. Then the Mistress could seek a permanent solution as she wished. Come.”

Shadowcrest crossed the study and the others followed. It observed the few shelves still standing.

“The great heart of this arsenal has been crushed or cast into the sea, but these remains should suffice. I will arm you when we return.”

Shadowcrest reached the one wall that hadn’t disappeared beneath the waves and stood by its giant roaring fireplace. Then he walked into the fireplace and vanished. Abidel was the first to follow. He stuck out his hand and flinched. But then he stuck out his hand again, held it for a moment, and walked through, disappearing in the smoke. Zachary followed, then Batman, then Zatanna. Catwoman rolled her eyes and entered last.

The fire was as hot as a sauna, but no hotter. Catwoman didn’t choke on the updraft of soot, and her shins passed through the piled logs without resistance. Many steps later she finally walked out of the smoke and found herself in a big room that seemed very much like the backstage of a theater. It had electric lights and scuffed wooden floors. There were props everywhere - props for a magic show.

Zatanna was bouncing between cages and racks for handsaws and mirrors and fireworks. She made a noise like a gasp that never ended.

“Do not be distracted,” said Shadowcrest. “We are merely at the entrance.“

It reached the back corner of the room. There was a trapdoor open in the ceiling. An angled wooden ladder descended from the dim hole.

Shadowcrest looked across the group. “The spell of slumber is hidden in a path above. At the end of the path is a room I may not enter. A part of the path is terribly narrow and serpentine: a normal person would never make it through. There is only one charm that will set the path straight, and Giovanni wears it at all times. However,” Shadowcrest turned to face Catwoman, “I believe a woman of your talents could cross unaided.”

Catwoman froze. Then she opened her mouth, then closed her mouth, then raised her hands. She wiggled her fingers. “Do I get to talk now, or did you want a down payment?”

“Speak.”

“You are out of your mind.”

“Young lady, I promise you will find it richly rewarding. That is your motivation, no?”

Catwoman let a long breath out of her nose. “I just need to slip through a tight space?”

“Yes. The challenge only spans several paces. The rest of the path is but a matter of walking.”

“Fine.”

Zatanna ran up and hugged her. “Thank you.”

Catwoman faked a smile in return. “Don’t get into any trouble till I get back.” Then she whispered, “Carry something sharp in case those cousins get out of hand.” She stepped to the ladder and grabbed a rung. Before she took the first step, she glanced over at Batman. He was watching her coolly and said nothing. She shook her head and began to climb.

When Catwoman climbed above the trap door, it shut below her.

“Great,” she said to no one.

At the top of the ladder, she found herself in a square hallway of pink marble. It was somehow much brighter than the dim of the ladder chute, though she couldn’t spot the source of the light. The hallway seemed to continue infinitely ahead and behind her, branching at intersections every few dozen yards. She slowly walked forward, her shoes clicking on the marble.

Without warning, Shadowcrest appeared in step beside her. It took all of Catwoman’s self-control not to flinch. She gave Shadowcrest a sour look. “What?”

“There is no spell of slumber,” said Shadowcrest.

Catwoman stopped. “What?”

“The only option is to kill Faust. The father cannot be saved, and the daughter's good intentions must not interfere.”

Catwoman lived a life of constant lies, big and small, but she was amazed at this duplicity. “Then why am I here? Not because I'm flexible.”

“I do need you to retrieve something. But it is your moral flexibility that interests me.”

“Meaning?”

“ I believe you are willing to kill. At the end of this path you will prepare a weapon.”

“Sure, I’ll kill Faust.”

“Good, but he is not enough. Giovanni keeps a prisoner here whom I cannot see.”

“Are you saying you want me to take the weapon from them?”

“I’m saying this weapon requires a sacrifice.”
Stewart M
Padawan Learner
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M »

This was a duplicate post was made by accident.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar »

Well well well... plots within plots.
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