Dark Man, Dark Knight ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ by Andrew Nellis bs904@freenet.carleton.

ca copyright 1997

Where was it? She stopped and listened, unconsciously dropping into a combat crouch. She had lost track of it somewhere in the Egyptology exhibit. Nothing. All she could hear was the even throbbing of blood in her own ears and the quiet shushing of the air conditioning ducts. She moved like a liquid shadow, flowing from darkness to darkness. The lithe muscles of her gymnast's body coiled and uncoiled beneath the velvet and lycra bodysuit that clung sensuously to her bare skin beneath it, her softly-clad feet padding silently with machine-like precision over the icy marble of the floor. Though her face beneath the mask was rigid with terror, her iron control kept her breathing calm and regular. Glancing by habit at the sightless eye of a security camera, she began to wonder if the watchman had noticed anything yet. He would be receiving the static image she was piping through the security network, but surely he must have realized by now that the timelock was frozen. She was well off her schedule, had planned to be long gone before the timelock discrepancy was noticed. She half-hoped a large squad of police might even now be on their way. Police she knew how to deal with. Hell, she thought, right now I'd even be happy to see... Him. Him. He would know what to do. Nothing frightened Him. Ever. She stirred herself into motion again. She knew there were two primary exits open to her, and a number of secondaries. She discarded all but the primaries at once as taking too long. That left the skylight by which she'd enetered, and the loading dock. The watchman's office was by the loading dock, but the whole dark, gothic mass of the museum's six floors lay between her and the skylight. She would rather face a watchman than whatever that, that... thing was. The door marked 'authorized personnel only' came into view. Her velvetgloved hand touched the handle lightly and twisted. Unlocked. She eased the door open and slipped soundlessly inside, wishing she still had her whip. She had lost it to the thing that stalked her. She cursed as she realized that the door to the security room, which lay halfway down the hall between her and the the safety of the loading dock, was half ajar, painting a rectangle of bright light on the darkness of the corridor. With any luck, she thought, the watchman would be asleep. If not, well, it would be his own hard luck if he thought he could stop her. As she glided to the door and peered in, she saw the watchman slumped in his chair in front of the closed circuit televisions. She gave a faint smile of relief and was about to continue forward when suddenly she stopped. There was something wrong. Something about his posture, the slackness of his body disturbed her. Get out! shouted her mind, but her curiosity drew her. And we know what killed the cat, don't we, she told herself grimly as she crept up behind the watchman. Alarm thrilled through her when she got close enough to see the horrible

angle at which his head hung. She spun to run from the room, and her eyes widened into white saucers of terror when she saw what lurked in the doorway. Her screams echoed through the dark halls of the museum for a long time. * * *

"Gimme the green, gramps, or I'll cut you bad!" The old man cowered back against the rough wall of the alley, shrinking from the sly, vicious grins of the toughs that surrounded him. "Please," he begged, a tear rolling down his wrinkled cheek. "I need for medicine. For wife. I not tell no one." The bully-boy with the buck knife sneered, showing a mouthful of decaying teeth. "Hey boys, I don't think grandpa understands me. Where you think I ought to carve him a lesson?" The old man cowered as the gang called out suggestions. Rico!" "No man, cut off his balls!" "Cut off his ears,

Rico, intent on his sobbing victim, didn't notice the form that detached itself from the shadows of the alley until one of the gang tapped him on the shoulder. "Rico. fear. Hey, Rico. It's... Him," said the thug in a voice whispery with

Turning from the old man, Rico squinted at the large form that stood like a statue, cloaked in darkness that seemed to caress it like a lover. "What you worried for," said Rico, turning his knife so it glinted in the faint yellow sodium lighting from the streetlight at the mouth of the alley. "There be six of us and there's just one o' him." When the dark form spoke at last, there was no mistaking the cold hatred in his voice. "I've heard that before," he said icily. "Teach me a lesson, Rico." Rico flexed his powerful arms, a shark-like grin on his face. "You picked the wrong man to mouth off to, man. I ain't afraid o' you. Maybe you got the locals psyched, but I ain't no local. You gonna wish you never messed with Rico." Tossing his knife from hand to hand, Rico advanced on the man in the shadows. The other five toughs looked at each other, but drew courage from their numbers and their leader's confidence. With shaky grins, they closed on their opponent. Three of them never even saw the movement that dropped them. One instant the shadowy form was motionless, and the next it was a speeding blur of darkness. A fist caught one in the temple, turning the motion with ergonomic efficiency into a backhand that caught another under the chin. One booted foot lashed out with force enough to piledrive the third into the wall with wet snapping sounds as ribs gave way. Not one of the three stirred after they fell. The remaining two lunged from opposite sides, hoping to trap their target between them. With grace that made it look effortless, the dark warrior leaned backwards and placed a gloved hand behind each of the thugs' heads.

His massive pectorals flexed and their heads were pistoned together, making an almost comical colliding-coconut 'clunk.' Both slumped to the damp pavement, unconsciousness. "Now," he said, narrowing his eyes as they shifted to Rico, who stood with open-mouthed astonishment. "I believe you were about to teach me a lesson." "I, uh, I give up man, don't hurt me," said Rico, dropping his knife and taking a step backwards. "Pick it up," hissed the angry shadow, hunching his shoulders into his cape and raising his fists. "I gave up! I know my rights, you can't touch me, man," said Rico, looking desperately over his shoulder, judging the distance to the mouth of the alley they stood in. "I'm not the police, Rico. I'm still waiting for my lesson."

The cold, raw fury in his voice terrified Rico. In desperation, Rico made a lunge for his dropped knife, and felt a boot catch him under his chin, snapping his head back and tumbling him backwards. "Get up," he growled at Rico, who lay sprawled on the pavement. Rico leaped to his feet, taking a wild swing at his tormentor's head with a big ham fist. The punch never connected, forced aside by a strong forearm. Three jabs in rapid succession made a shattered mess of Rico's rotting teeth and flattened his nose across his cheek. Rico fell over, a fine spray of blood from his face arcing through the air. "Please, please, no more," blubbered Rico unmanned entirely, curled in a protective strangled 'urk' as a powerful hand lifted face drew even with Rico's, so close Rico through torn and bleeding lips, ball on the ground. Rico gave a him bodily to his feet. A cowled could feel the man's hot breath.

"This city is mine, Rico," he hissed through his teeth. "When you get out of jail, remember that I'll be waiting for you. I'm everywhere, Rico. I am the night. I am Gotham. I... am... Batman." One of the Batman's gloved fists drew back, then snapped forward like a triphammer. Rico felt a brief instant of pain; there was a flash of something like lightning across his vision, and then there was only merciful blackness. Batman released Rico's shirt, letting him collapse forward into the grime of the alley. He rubbed the knuckles of his fist. He had felt that even through the knuckle guards under his glove, but he knew he had heard Rico's jaw shatter nicely. Rico would be doing his eating through a straw for a good, long while. The old man was staring at Batman with a look of horror on his face. Batman sighed. "Are you alright, sir?" The

"Don't hurt me," said the old man, more frightened of the Dark Knight than he had been of the muggers. He had heard of this Batman, the man who had for unknown reasons made himself the avenging angel of Gotham City. He was the terror of criminals, a vigilante who haunted the alleys and rooftops, a man who could not be broken and knew no fear. In his grey, skintight battle

togs, pointy-eared cowl, and enormous shroud-like cape, he looked less like a man than some kind of demon. Batman held out a hand, palm up, in a gesture of peace. He might have said more, but at that moment he looked up at the narrow slice of sky between the two buildings that bordered the alley. He turned to the old man. "The police will be here shortly. I have to go." Pressing a button on his utility belt, the Batman strode out of the alley. A sleek car that looked like it might be more appropriate on a launching pad than a city street pulled up to the curb. When the door hissed pneumatically open, the old man was surprised to see there was no one at the controls. Not pausing to look back, Batman climbed in. The car accelerated forward in a squeal of rubber and the man was left alone in the alley, surrounded by the unconscious forms of his erstwhile robbers. As he waited patiently for the police, the old man glanced upward. A white oval of light painted the silhouette of a stylized bat on the bottom of a low-flying cloud. The Batman was being summoned. * * *

The papers on Commissioner Gordon's desk fluttered briefly, and he leaned back in his chair. "Can't you use the door like an ordinary mortal?" Batman closed the window. "Hello, Jim. What's up?"

Gordon removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. He was not looking forward to this. "I have some bad news. At approximately ten-fifteen p.m. this evening, officers reported to the Gotham Historical Society. The watchman had missed a call-in, and he wasn't answering the phone." While he spoke, Gordon opened his desk drawer and took out his well-used and much-beloved pipe. The ritual of cleaning the bowl, packing and tamping the tobacco helped him to relax and he continued. "We found him dead, broken neck. The security office was a shambles, blood everywhere. There were no wounds on him, so the officers had a good look around. It took a while, but we found a woman curled into a packing crate." "Dead?" asked the Batman. Gordon lit his pipe and sucked at it gratefully. His doctor had expressly forbidden it, but tonight he needed it. "No. She was alive. Barely. Don't ask me how, because I don't know. She couldn't have had much blood left in her. The shape she was in, it might have been more merciful if-" Gordon paused. "Batman, the officer who found her is a fifteen year veteran, and the sight of her alone made him vomit. I don't know who could have done such a thing." Batman was staring out into the lights of the city through the window and remained silent, so Gordon went on. "She's at Gotham General now. The doctors don't think she'll last the night. Her name is Selina Kyle. Catwoman. I'm sorry Batman, I know how you feel about-" Gordon turned to observe how Batman had taken the news, but the only things to be seen were the open window and the fluttering curtains. "- her."

Gordon puffed on his pipe and decided that he would not be in the shoes of whoever had done this for all the riches in the world. * * * "I'm sorry,

There were two policemen at the door to the intensive care unit. Batman, no one gets in. Those are my orders."

The second officer said nothing, watching his young partner with a certain amount of grim amusement. Well, he thought, the kid would learn. Batman's face remained impassive. His eyes flicked over at the young officer and their gazes locked. The officer swallowed. "I have my orders," he repeated.

Batman continued to stare. "I, uh, I mean, um," said the officer, darting a quick look at his senior partner, who was conspicously counting the tiles in the ceiling. "Sorry," said the young officer, his voice cracking. He stepped nervously aside. Batman walked past him, through the door, without having said so much as a single word. "Why didn't you help me," growled the officer to his senior partner. "No one, and I mean no one, tells the Batman where he can or can't go. You'll learn, junior. Besides," he said, lowering his voice and casting a meaningful glance at the door the Batman had just passed through, "they say Catwoman is more than just another costumed crook to him, if you catch what I mean." Batman stood at the side of the bed, looking at the tiny body swathed in bandages and sprouting a wild profusion of tubes like glistening plastic tentacles. Her face, what little he could see of it, was a crazy quilt of purple bruises and deep, bloody gouges. Removing one of his blue gauntlets, Batman stroked a finger over her swollen cheek. Her skin was cold and flaccid, as if all the life had drained from it. A doctor came through the door and Batman turned away. asked the Batman, his voice tight. "Is she in any pain?"

The doctor looked curiously at the huge, muscular vigilante who seemed to fill the little room with his bulk and exuded a constant aura of frigid menace. "She's sedated. Brain scan activity is negligible. She's comatose. Could be shock, but it could also be brain damage." "What are her chances?" asked Batman quietly. "Not good. Batman, to call her injuries life threatening would be a major understatement." He picked up the chart at the end of her bed and began reading. "Massive trauma to the arms, legs, and torso. Extreme exsanguination. Severe concussion. Leaking cranial fluid. Punctured lungs. A list of crushed and broken bones that reads like an anatomical shopping list. We put over seven thousand stitches in her just to hold her together in one piece. She's hovering on the edge of complete renal failure. Frankly, I can't understand why she's still alive. Her will to live must be phenomenal."

Batman's hands clenched into fists. of the injuries?"

"What can you tell me about the cause

The doctor ran his hand over the back of his head. "I can't think of anything outside of a rapidly-moving bus that could do damage like this, especially to a trained athlete like Miss Kyle. There was no time to run a rape kit when we got her so we don't know if there was any kind of sexual assault. The wounds on her arms and legs, incidentally, are consistant with defensive injuries. She put up one hell of a fight." Batman, his face impassive beneath the mask, turned to the doctor. "Do what you can for her. If she wakes up, or if... if anything happens, contact me through Commissioner Gordon's office." He strode from the room. The two policemen watched as Batman came through the door, took a few steps down the hospital corridor and stopped. He turned back to the officers. "Who found her?" The older man gestured. "I did, Batman. After the way I reacted when I first saw her I asked for duty here to make up for it. I threw up like a first year rookie. But Batman, I've never seen anything like it. God, it was horrible. Her whole body looked like hamburger, just pieces of flesh everywhere. I don't know, I think there were bits missing. I couldn't tell, it was that bad. It was like something chewed her up and spat her out. You find the animal that did this, I won't be real upset if he never makes it to trial. You get me?" Without a word, Batman turned and left. * * *

"It ain't 'cause I like ya that yer gettin' in here, Bats," said DetectiveSergeant Harvey Bullock. "You vigilantes gimme a pain in the keister, ya really do. But the Commish, he says ya get in so ya get in." Batman glared at the corpulent detective and swept past him, ducking under the yellow crime scene tape that blocked off the loading dock of the museum that belonged to the Gotham Historical Society. "Save the mean looks fer the baddies, Bats," called the detective. "I ain't impressed." Inside was a hive of activity as police scientists took photographs and measurements from the area that served as both loading dock and storage area. Down the hall, Batman could see more activity in and around the door to the security office. "This is where we found the broad," said Bullock, pointing with a big sausage finger at a wooden crate about two feet on each side. The top was open, the lid leaning against a wall nearby. "We figger she musta got away an' climbed in there ta hide. There's a trail o' blood from the security room ta the box." Batman bent to inspect the crate. The inside was covered in gore. the scratches and gouges in the wood on the outside. He noted

Bullock followed Batman into the security office, shouldering past the technicians who thronged the hallway. Several of them nodded politely to Batman, no stranger at crime scenes. The chair in the office was empty, the body having been declared officially dead, photographed, and sent to

the Gotham Morgue for autopsy and analysis. The office was a wreck, with broken glass from shattered monitors gritting underfoot. Large splashes and spatters of blood covered the walls and parts of the ceiling. The sheer carnage was apalling. "The televisions, what ones wasn't busted, was showin' the same pitcher over an' over again," said Bullock. "She musta cut inta the security cameras. The skylight was open up on the top floor. Real slick job. We still don't know what she was after. Possible that she scragged the guard, but I'm bettin' against it. Ain't her style." Batman leaned over the control panel and flicked each switch on it one at a time, in sequence. Monitors, the unbroken ones, snapped on and off. Once, a dial tone was heard from a speaker. After working every switch on the panel, Batman glanced around the room, then looked up at the blood-spattered ceiling thoughtfully. A uniformed police constable walked over to Bullock and muttered something in his ear. "Hey Bats," said Bullock, beckoning with a meaty hand. "We been waitin' fer the director o' this joint to show up. The old geezer's coolin' his heels in his office. If yer done playin' boy detective here, we can go have a little chat with him." The director's office was on the main floor, but on the other side of the museum. The lights throughout the building had been turned on, and Batman looked carefully at the display cases as they crossed the floor. He had been here many times, of course, but as Bruce Wayne, playboy billionaire and philanthropist. In fact, he made sizeable yearly contributions to the Gotham Historical Society through the Wayne Foundation. A white-haired man with glasses rose to his feet as Bullock and Batman entered the office. He wore a conservative blue suit of English cut, and a school tie Batman couldn't quite place. "This is really quite unusual," said the man in a cultured voice that bore a slight northeastern accent, "quite unusual." Bullock heaved his bulk into one of the green armchairs in front of the director's desk. Batman remained standing with his back to the director, examining a number of curios on the shelves and cabinets that lined the walls of the office. "I'm Detective-Sergeant Bullock, an' the guy with the ears is Batman, in case ya didn't know him from the funny-books," said Bullock. "And I'm Dr. James Armitage, director of the Gotham Historical Society. I must say this has all come as something of a shock to me. I understand that the night watchman was killed, and we suffered a robbery from Catwoman." "That's what we wanna know," said Bullock. "One o' the things, anyway. You had a look around yet? You seen anything out o' place, somethin' missing?" "I won't know for sure, of course," said Armitage, fiddling nervously with a fountain pen, "until the staff does a complete inventory. But from a quick examination, I see nothing obviously disturbed. All the most valuable artifacts, in any case, I have accounted for. Thank heaven for small mercies." "Do you have a list of exhibits?" asked Batman, without turning around. The

question made Armitage raise his eyebrows and look to Bullock. shrugged.

Bullock just

"Yes, we do," replied Armitage. "Do you mean our complete archives, or only those things we have on display?" Batman was silent a moment. "Just those things that an interested person would have known were here with research materials available to the public." Armitage rose and opened a steel filing cabinet. "This would be simpler if my secretary were here. She's the only one who knows how the filing system around here -- ah, here we go." Armitage pulled a thick sheaf of papers from a folder and handed them to Batman. "You know," said Armitage, "this is all rather strange. My dear pater, rest his soul, told a story about something like this, but-" The director petered to a stop as Batman gave him a sharp glance. happened before?" asked Batman. "This has

Flushing, Armitage cleared his throat. "Ah, no. I'm sorry, I tend to ramble somewhat when I'm upset. Just a story dear old pater used to tell when he was in his cups. He was a professor at Miskatonic University, you know. A ghost story, something about a book and a goblin or some such. It's not a tale I'd give much credence. Just something to frighten the children with at Hallowe'en." Batman nodded brusquely and left without further comment. growled Bullock at the Dark Knight's retreating back. * * * "Yer welcome,"

"Good evening, Master Bruce," said Alfred. Batman took the glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice from the proferred salver and gulped it down. With efficiency that comes of long experience, Alfred Pennysworth collected the empty glass, set the salver down, and assisted Batman in removing his cape and cowl. Having butled for the man who was the Batman for so many years, Alfred could tell at a glance that his employer was tense. Every line in the handsome face, every taut muscle in the corded shoulders spoke eloquently to one who knew the Batman as well as his butler did. "Difficult night, sir?" Batman grunted as he walked to the complete gymnastics area of the Batcave and began to work out. He knew he had work to do, but he also had tension he needed to sweat away. Mind and body both must be in perfect condition to satisfy the demands of being the Dark Knight. "Someone hurt Selina," said Batman, going into a series of backflips on the uneven bars. "Oh dear," said Alfred, placing the cape and cowl in the laundry bin and selecting new ones from the wardrobe against one wall. "Not badly, I trust." Launching himself from a particularly tricky series of flips, Batman flew

through the air and snatched hold of the hanging exercise rings. "The doctors don't think she'll make it. They're wrong. Level two, Alfred." The butler pressed a button on a console near the custom-designed Nautilus machine. With smooth whirring sounds, long steel poles extended and retracted at random in the gymnastics area. Now sweat began to bead on the Batman's forehead as he leaped from apparatus to apparatus, dodging or swinging on the poles as they emerged. "Level three," he commanded. The poles moved with greater speed, making chunking noises. Equipment swung smoothly on tracks to position themselves farther apart. Batman's motions became all sinuous grace as he slipped away from obstructions and twisted in mid-air. "Level four." The moving poles became a blur of motion, pistoning with bone-breaking force in all directions. Exercise equipment began to move randomly, changing their configurations with every passing second. Sweat poured from Batman's body as he leaped and dodged. "Level five," rasped Batman, gritting his teeth. Alfred pursed his lips in disapproval, but pressed the appropriate button. He hadn't realized just how upset Master Bruce was. The gymnasium went from merely hazardous to lethal. The poles, now moving almost too fast to be seen, were topped with sharp spikes. Scything blades honed razor sharp swung from side to side. Exercise equipment tracked and pursued their quarry, seeking to crush him between them. Bloody impalement and death were microseconds away in all directions, and the Batman was a leaping, rolling, spinning dervish, his breath coming in gasps and heaves. Glancing away from the timer, Alfred pressed the large red button on the panel. Everything stopped suddenly, poles and blades sliding neatly into hidden compartments with a faint 'snick' sound. "Fifteen seconds, sir." "Thank you Alfred," panted Batman, doubling over as he regained his spent breath. He wiped his dripping face with the fluffy white towel given him by his butler and let it hang around his neck. A second glass of orange juice was offered and accepted. He didn't know how Alfred had procured it without leaving the Batcave, but Batman was well used to such almost magical efficiency from his butler. Alfred stood unobtrusively to the side, fresh cape and cowl to hand in case it should be needed. "Will Master Bruce be going out again this evening?" Batman crossed to the huge brushed-steel construct of the Batcomputer and sat himself in the chair before it. "Not for a while. I have some work to do here." "Very good sir," said Alfred, quietly retiring to the mansion above the Batcave. He knew enough not to hover, that he would be summoned if he was needed. Batman pulled the sheaf of papers given him by Armitage and flattened them in the hopper of the great computer. Rubber rollers fed them one at a time into the input slot, scanning the contents into memory. As his fingers began passing over the keys, an almost imperceptible hum grew, giving the impression of vast idling power waiting to be unleashed. The computer was unlike anything seen outside of NASA, custom built by Connection Machines to Batman's exacting specifications. It was orders of magnitude more

powerful, more intuitive than the old Cray that had served him so well for so many years. A basic analytical framework built itself under Batman's fingers. He could have used voice recognition to input the commands, or indeed, left the computer to puzzle out the purpose of the records on its own; he preferred to do it manually, if only to keep things straight in his own mind. The display panel, nearly three feet across, flashed with colour as the computer regurgitated a vast trove of qualitative and quantitative analysis about the museum records. There was not a database in existance safe from the pryings of the Batman's computer. The information contained within the computer itself almost obviated the need for external contact in any case. The problem, then, was not acquiring data - rather, it was sifting the staggering amounts of information for something useful, and that required judgement beyond even the mighty capacity of the Batcomputer. Batman's fingers poised over the keyboard. His mind narrowed to a blinding pinprick of concentration. His fingers descended and the real work began. Sort by date of acquisition. Sort by estimated resale value. Sort by Lloyds of London's insured value. Group by geographical significance, by historical significance, by cultural significance. Make statisitcal comparison of mass, age, materials of construction. Cross-index with other known archaeological finds. Cross-reference all results in a geometrically expanding number of permutations. A sandwich appeared as if by magic beside him. Two hours later it was replaced, untouched, by a fresh sandwich. Something niggled. There was something, somewhere in the tangled morass of data that stood out. Human instinct meshed with electronic thought. The screen flickered with meta-analysis. The Batman's brow furrowed. Something, somewhere. There. Right there. The screen froze at a keypress, as Batman leaned forward in his chair. A chart graphing the number of mentions in archaeology journals on one axis, date of discovery on a second axis, and date of respective literary mentions on a third. A dimple in the chart, like a missing tooth in a mouthful of jagged fangs. The graph disappeared, drowned in a cascading series of informational windows. Object reference number 20-0652-7 in the Gotham Historical Society archives. Description: puzzle box, thirteen inches by seven inches by five inches, jade, condition excellent. Mesopotamian origin. Unearthed in 1962 at a privately funded dig in the ruins of the ancient trading city of Ur. Donated by the BGE Corporation two months previous. Insured value less than three thousand dollars. There were only two references to the object in any archaeological journal, and those were in the Gotham Historical Society's own quarterly publication, several weeks after the acquisition. And that's what stood out. Every unique artifact in their collection which had been discovered for a similar length of time had many more references, and at earlier dates, than this one. It fit, but he didn't know what it meant. He knew that whatever Selina was after, it would have to be a recent acquisition, and one that would draw her attention. Even a cursory glance through the museum's exhibits, however, revealed many objects with values hundreds or even thousands of times that of the puzzle box. And Selina was no amateur - she hunted big

game. Still, his instincts told him this object had been her target. He needed more than intuition, though. He needed information to verify it. Batman checked the time. It was still several hours before dawn, and he had time for one more stop. * * *

The doors of the Acheron Club were open, as Batman had known they would be. Inside, the lights were dim, and the club was empty. Almost empty. Near the rear of the club, in a leather-upholstered booth, were three men in formal evening wear. All three men turned to look at the hulking shape that filled the doorway, then stalked down into the club. Two of the men rose from the booth. Two very large men. Batman stopped in the middle of the dance floor and looked to the booth. "Club's closed," came the laconic voice from the third man, still seated. "I have questions," stated Batman simply. He crossed his arms over his heavily-muscled chest and stood like a mighty redwood, as if daring the foolish to move him. "Easy way or hard is fine with me, Depew." 'Diamond' Dick Depew sighed heavily. "You know, of course, that I'm going to ask my men to remove you. Purely for form's sake, you understand. Grubor, Boursy, show the Batman to the door." The two bruisers grinned and reached inside their sports jackets. "No guns!" yelled Depew. "I'm not quite stupid or suicidal enough to go drawing guns on the Batman." Before either of his opponents could take more then a step, Batman was in full motion. Reaching into his utility belt, he pulled out something sleek and vaguely bat-shaped. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the batarang sailing at Boursy's lanky target. Not even waiting to see the result, Batman turned to deal with the second man. Grubor was short and squat, but powerful, with massive shoulders. Tufts of curly fur-like hair sprouted from his ears and from the collar of his dress shirt. The thick hair matted on the back of his hands gave him the appearance of a homicidal hobbit. With lumbering steps, he closed with the Dark Knight. The side of Batman's hand landed solidly on the nerve cluster on the side of Grubor's neck, but the thick layers of muscle helped to deflect the impact and it elicited only a pained grunt. Grubor's arms came around to grab his shrouded opponent in a bear hug, but Batman was no longer there. Slipping easily from the shorter man's embrace, Batman landed a solid left to Grubor's kidney, then a kick to the back of his knee, and finally a right hook that crashed into the side of Grubor's head like a cannonball. A puzzled look passed over Grubor's ugly face for a moment, and then he toppled forward with a thud. Not even breathing hard, Batman recovered his batarang from beside Boursy's unconscious form. An angry purple bruise marked the place where the batarang had impacted with Boursy's forehead.

"Good help is so hard to find," lamented Depew. better ask your questions."

"Alright, I guess you'd

Batman tossed a single sheet of computer print-out onto the table. He knew that 'Diamond' Dick was the biggest dealer in illicit art in the city. If anyone knew anything about the puzzle box, it would be him. Depew picked up the print-out, put on his glasses, and glanced at it briefly before tossing it down again. "If you know about this, why are you asking me?" A grim satisfaction possessed the Batman. again. "Humour me," he said. His instincts had been right

Depew shrugged. "It's your dime. There's a standing offer of two million for the box. Don't ask me why. It's not worth a tenth that. Collectors can be funny sometimes, though. They get a bee in their bonnet and they have to have something." "Who's the collector?" asked Batman, folding the print-out again. A bemused look crossed Depew's face. "Well, I don't suppose it would do any harm. You can't prove anything anyway. The president of Black Goat Enterprises is the one with the sweet tooth." That name, there was something familiar about that name. Of course, thought Batman with a flash of realization. Black Goat Enterprises... BGE. But that made no sense at all. Batman frowned. Depew looked alarmed. "Hey, I told you what you wanted to know."

Batman stalked back across the club and paused in the doorway. He turned back to the man in the booth. "Get out of the racket, Depew. Or I'll be back. And next time I won't be asking questions." A shiver passed over Depew as he watched Batman's flowing cape disappear through the door. He began to think about retirement. * * *

There were certain things, mused Bruce Wayne, that were easier for a billionaire to do than for a costumed vigilante. He sipped at the Perrier on his desk as he went through the portfolio in front of him. It had taken his agents less than an hour to assemble a full dossier on this Black Goat Enterprises. It was a slim dossier, but Wayne admitted that there really was not much to know about the corporation. It was less than a year old. It was funded with off-shore money coming from Cairo and Algiers, funneled through a number of holding companies in the Phillipines. It was not listed with the Gotham Stock Exchange, and did negligible business in the United States, despite a staff numbering over a hundred, with branches in Gotham, Keystone City, and Metropolis. Its headquarters were based in a manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Gotham, where the company made a small number of components for the computer division of Lexcorp. The president was a more interesting matter. C.C. Black, home address unknown. Nationality unknown. Salary of one dollar per year. No one in

the company had ever met the president, nor heard of anyone who had. Wayne's financial wizards had included a breakdown on possible avenues of takeover, potential trade opportunities, and an estimate of BGE's net worth. Their conclusions were unanimous, that this corporation was surprisingly well protected, that any takeover would be messy, and it would cost far more than could be recouped. They rated the usefulness of BGE as an economic interest to be fair to poor. Wayne turned his chair and stared out the window of the Waynetech Tower, thinking. Fifteen minutes later he lifted the receiver of his telephone and began making calls. * * *

Donning his cape and cowl, Bruce Wayne completed the transformation into Batman. The day's efforts had been a complete failure. All attempts at making contact with the mysterious C.C. Black had been politely but firmly rebuffed. As a man of considerable stature in the business community, Bruce Wayne was not a man to whom many people said 'no.' Where business acumen failed, the Batman would not. Polite aides and secretaries were no defence against the Batman. After ascertaining that there had been no change in Selina's condition, Batman entered the cockpit of the Batmobile and roared out of the Batcave onto the streets of Gotham. He would do his nightly patrol - nothing could be permitted to interfere with that - and then he would pay Black Goat Enterprises an uninvited visit. Two hours and a generous tally of battered thugs and robbers and would-be rapists later, the Batmobile prowled the private access road that led to the BGE headquarters. The roar of the engine became a subaudial rumble as Batman switched the Batmobile into stealth mode, permitting him to drive it almost to the front gates before he climbed out. Razorwire fencing surrounded the whole grounds, which were well-illuminated by spotlights. Batman placed the small black box he carried on the ground, its glass mouth facing through the fence. He stepped well back and pressed the button on the radio control in his hand. The box made a dull 'crump' sound, and promptly collapsed into a half-melted pool of molten plastic and steel. Beyond the fence, a whole section of lighting flickered and died. Batman nodded approvingly. In the old days, he'd have had to spend hours searching out security devices, disarming them one at a time, and there was always the risk of missing one. With the directional electromagnetic pulse generator, he could knock out all unshielded electronics along a narrow wedge instantly. The walls of the building itself would be enough to stop the relatively weak pulse, but then, he hadn't wanted to lay waste to the entire factory. The razorwire hardly slowed the Batman as he scaled the fence and dropped to the other side. A short sprint took him across the wide, green expanse of grass, darkened now with ample shadow to hide in. The passcard reader beside the steel side door presented little difficulty for Batman's electronics suite. He took the trouble to temporarily disable the simple magnetic door sensor with a piece of tin foil so the open door would go undetected on any night watchman's panel.

Inside, Batman eased the door shut and slipped the starlight goggles over his head. As he switched the set on, the whole darkened interior of the building seemed to light up with garish colour that had a decidedly green tint. The colours, of course, were computer generated for the sole purpose of helping to distinguish between objects. The normal monochromatic green of the twin starlight scopes tended to blur everything together. Even if there were hidden security cameras, Batman knew it was too dark for them to see anything beyond a moving shadow. Infra-red cameras or motion sensors would pick him up, of course, but he doubted they used anything so sophisticated here. Carefully, he picked his way through the maze of corridors to the exective offices. He had studied the blueprints, and could have made his way by feel alone if he had to. The simple mechanical lock on the office door took only seconds for Batman to pick. Finding no sensors, he entered. Once inside the suite of offices, he found that there were no locks. It was assumed that anyone who had made it this far had a right to be there. Starting at one end, Batman began a systematic search for files and records. Though there was a computer on each desk, he ignored them. He had broken through their almost nonexistant network security with the Batcomputer, only to find that their databases contained nothing of any real value. Not even the payroll was available. Apparently, they did not trust computers, with some justification. The president's office was stark, presumably unused, though there was a desk and a chair and a computer. It gave no hints about the personality of the person whose office this was, beyond a brass name plaque that read, simply, 'C.C. Black, President.' Batman unclipped a palm-sized box from his utility belt and switched it on. LEDs blinked into life, and a needle swung in jerky arcs on the gauge mounted on its face. He began to wave it in long sweeps against the wall and floor. A more sensitive version of a stud detector, the device revealed beams and girders, easily identifiable by their length. Nothing else. Batman switched to a different office and began again. The third office he checked had a definite feminine touch to it. Nothing so obvious as flowers or doilies, but the exquisite taste of the furnishings, and the esthetic sensitivity showed in the placing just-so of every object, gave evidence of a palpable femininity. The needle on the device jumped as Batman waved it under the desk, near the floor. Moving it in widening circles, he determined that it was centralized, and thus not a beam. Under his probing fingers, a patch of carpeting a foot square lifted away to reveal the face of a sophisticated electronic floor safe. Batman reclipped the device to his belt, and pressed the suction-cupped sensor of his electronics suite to the door of the safe. It took no more than ten minutes for his nanocircuitry to crack it. The safe bleeped once, quietly, and surrendered to superior technology. The door of the safe swung open as Batman lifted it, revealing its assorted contents. Ignoring the stacked hundred dollar bills and gold bullion, he pulled out the sheaf of papers from inside. Legal documents, contracts, and confidential memoranda comprised most of it, from appearances. Batman tilted the starlight goggles up, and pulled a penlight from his utility

belt.

He would have to risk some light to read by.

Batman's face became tight-lipped and grim as he crouched behind the desk, reading the papers. The fact that C.C. Black had been responsible for the donation of the puzzle box to begin with was not surprising. What he had not expected was the name found repeated throughout the documents, a name that he had seen and heard all too many times in the past. C.C. Black was better known to the world as R'as al-Ghul. Some combat instinct alerted Batman to the presence behind him. Leaping forward like a suddenly uncoiled spring, Batman rolled lithely to the far side of the desk. The bullet which had been aimed at the back of his head embedded itself in the carpeted floor instead. The silenced gun made an asthmatic coughing noise. The gun tracked towards him, but Batman was already moving. Using the top of the desk as a platform on which to brace himself, Batman brought his legs around in a jump kick that sent the pistol spinning from the would-be assassin's hand. Deprived of the gun, his opponent went into a fighting stance and performed a flawless palm-strike to the Batman's midsection. Batman grunted as his rock-hard abdominal muscles spasmed involuntarily under the blow. A closed-fist strike at his throat followed, which was blocked by Batman's massive forearm. In the confusion of the near-complete darkness, Batman decided to go with the basics. He lashed out with a right cross that powered aside his opponent's attempt to block. His fist smashed with stunning force into something meaty and solid, sending his opponent crashing off the wall and down to the floor. There was no further movement. Knowing he had already been discovered, Batman groped for the tensor lamp on the desk. The lamp clicked on, revealing the shambles the room had become, and his opponent sitting on the floor, back leaned against the wall for support. There was no surprise in Batman's voice. "Talia."

"Beloved," said Talia, dabbing at her bloodied, split lip with a finger. "Once more you escape death at my hand." She wore a silk bodysuit of faded pink, the shimmering material resting upon this curve and that, accentuating the smooth, rounded flesh beneath. The black leather boots she wore reached almost to her hips. Her dark hair fell in a cascade from her shoulders, framing the heart-shaped beauty of her face, marred now by a smear of blood that dribbled from her crimson lips and down her perfectly-formed chin. As always at the sight of her, Batman felt a wrenching deep inside him, as if something important were being broken a little at a time. Though he tried, Batman could not entirely keep the softness from his voice when he spoke. "I should have known that R'as al-Ghul would be involved. And where he is, so his daughter." Talia climbed shakily to her feet. Batman did not draw away when she pressed herself against him. "I hunger for you, knight of darkness. Why do you not join us? You know Father loves you as a son. He would make you lord of the world if only you would let him."

"He's mad, Talia," said Batman, embracing her, nearly enveloping her in the bulk of his own body. "His resurrections from the Lazarus Pit have taken his mind. Where once there was greatness and noblity, now there is only evil and insanity." Talia lifted her face, pressed her lips against his. She tasted of honey and the salty tang of blood. Batman's gloved hands pressed against the soft sideswell of her breasts. A sudden sharp, burning pain shot through Batman's back, just below one shoulder blade. The heel of Batman's hand slammed into Talia's jaw, flinging her bonelessly against the wall. Grunting, he reached behind and pulled out the slender knife, the tip of which was buried in his deltoid muscle. It had penetrated only an inch or so, but Batman realized that it might have sunk home up to the hilt if not for his puncture-resistant cape and the awkward angle at which the knife had gone in. He threw the bloody knife aside with a snarl and curled his hands into fists. "Yes, beloved, strike me," said Talia, staggering upright, her throbbing jaw distorting her words. "Beat me with your mighty fists." Her voice was deep and husky with need. Batman forced her roughly to the floor, though with more gentleness than he'd have been inclined to show anyone else who stabbed him in the back. With quick efficiency, he bound her hands behind her, and her legs together, with strong, thin nylon cord. Talia seemed to enjoy the whole experience. "Take me, my love," whispered Talia into Batman's ear as he sat her into a chair for some measure of comfort. "I am helpless before you. Does my body not please you? Do you not wish to partake of the pleasures of my flesh?" Whatever thoughts ran through the Batman's mind, they revealed themselves only in a slight hesitation before he gathered up the papers which had been scattered across the floor in the struggle. These he thrust into a pouch in his cape. How long did he have? Batman knew that either they had been waiting for him, or he had tripped some alarm. It was unlikely that Talia alone would be his sole opposition. Did he dare risk the time to question her? He had already taken too long, but he would have no better opportunity to obtain information. He looked at Talia and his frown deepened to a scowl. "What is R'as' insane plan now," growled Batman. "When Father emerged from the Lazarus Pit this time, he had... changed," said Talia. "He is so much more than he was before. I do not know where his spirit travels while the husk of his body lies dead in this world. Such is not for mere mortals to know. Somewhere beyond death he has acquired great power, power enough to make his dreams a reality. He has taken the mantle of the Dark Man, and by that name does he now wish to be known." Batman was silent for some time, deep in thought. "Father has left a servant to prevent your escape," said Talia at last, as Batman switched off the lamp and turned from her to leave. "If you would live, do not leave the way you entered." Batman stopped at the door. "Talia-" he began. Unbidden, his memory of

Selina in her hospital bed, broken like a tiny, fragile bird which had been stepped upon, floated before him like a spectre. He stiffened and left without completing whatever his first thought had been. Once more the suite of offices became garish with splashes of colour as Batman pulled down the starlight goggles. At the door through which he had entered the suite, he stopped and listened. At first he could hear nothing, but as he waited, there was a faint rasping sound, like something heavy sliding across the floor. He backed quietly away from the door. The building's blueprints flashed across his mind, as clear as if he had held them before him. These offices, he knew, were in the very interior of the building. No windows. Evidently the offices had been placed with security in mind. Entering one of the empty offices, Batman hopped atop the desk and lifted a styrofoam square of false drop-ceiling. Inside was just a little more than two feet of clearance, and this was filled with tangles of plasticwrapped wiring and bare pipes. It would be a tight squeeze, but he thought it would be enough. Batman grabbed an elbow of piping and heaved himself up. As he had known from the blueprints, the top of the false ceiling stretched away in all directions like a checkered plain, dotted with fluorescent lighting units, unobstructed by the cosmetic walls beneath. In the strange, unreal colour of the starlight goggles, the pipes and wires had the unwholesomely biological appearance of veins and intestines, as if he were about to crawl through the gut of some enormous organism. After carefully replacing the square of styrofoam, Batman paused to get his bearings, then set off in the direction of the employee entrance, which he judged to be closest. As he crawled slowly forward, the thin metal slats which supported the drop ceiling sagged dangerously under his weight. Five minutes later he had covered a hundred feet, which put him well beyond the edge of the office suites. Batman felt a tiny shift as a bolt connecting a drop-ceiling support strut to the cement overhead sheared away under the stress of his passage. An instant later, the strut sprang free with a cracking noise that thundered like a gunshot in the silence of the factory. The drop-ceiling beneath him sagged, and Batman was forced to roll quickly aside to avoid falling through. Batman froze, and there was an instant of complete silence. far too close gave a cry that sounded like -- "tekeli-li!" Then something

Scuttling on all fours like a crab, Batman gave up all pretense of stealth in favour of speed. Behind him, a drop-ceiling panel exploded into pieces as something huge and heavy slammed into it from beneath. A second panel shattered to his left, as something slammed into it with enough force to pulverize concrete. The whole drop-ceiling shook violently under the assault. Batman propelled himself forward with his legs, in a shallow dive. Ten feet farther on he went crashing through the drop ceiling as the panel he had leaped from disintegrated under a third sledgehammer blow. Landing armsfirst on the floor below amidst a shower of gypsum and styrofoam, he went into a shoulder roll that broke his momentum.

Batman was sprinting down the hallway in which he found himself even before the door beside him bulged outward, then exploded out of its hinges under monstrous pressure. Left turn. Through the double doors. Right turn. Batman's mind traced a path through the labyrinthine corridors. Something huge, something monstrous, something terribly, horribly fast pursued behind him, bellowing its enigmatic cry of "tekeli-li!" The thing was faster than him, Batman knew, but had more trouble cornering around the winding corridors. Without slowing, Batman slammed his shoulder into the steel door that stood between him and the vast, cavernous space of the factory floor. The door crumpled and flew off its hinges. Huge, iron towers of machinery lay silent around him like the cyclopean masonry of an ancient, forgotten race. Unholstering his grapple gun, Batman pointed at a distant girder hanging beneath the ceiling three stories up and fired. The explosive charge made a dull boom, propelling the grappling hook over the beam. Something massive thundered through the doorway, and Batman thumbed the 'emergency retract' button on the gun. A powerful electic motor whined, and Batman was jerked violently into the air by the gun in the direction the grappling hook had taken, nearly dislocating his wrists in the process. The single backward glance Batman allowed himself gave him a glimpse of something huge and amoebic, pseudopods stretching vainly towards his rapidly departing form. Batman crouched atop the girder, hunched into his cape for concealment. As he rubbed his aching wrists and tried to ignore the wound in his back which had started bleeding again, he scanned the room with his goggles. Nothing moved. There was a loud clunk, followed by a rising hum. Klieg lights began snapping on in sequence along the ceiling. Before the tide of light could wash over him, Batman lauched himself into space, dropping ten feet to the top of the nearest piece of machinery. The machine vibrated under his feet and the air began to fill with the clanking, groaning, and sinister pneumatic hissing of automated industry. The starlight goggles went completely black in the wash of glaring, shadowless light, and Batman was forced to remove them. The creature, he now suspected, must possess some level of intelligence beyond that of a guard animal. Certainly no dog would stop to turn on the lights. Somewhere on the far side of the huge room was the employee entrance, Batman knew. He could see no sign of the creature, but the hairs on the nape of his neck bristled. He was being stalked. He could feel it. Batman's powerful legs bent and uncoiled, sending him flying across the seven feet of space that separated him from the top of a nearby plastic forming machine. The metal boomed like a drum under his feet as he landed, and only his insulated soles kept his feet from blistering in the heat that rose from the surface. Taking time only to glance for danger, the Dark Knight leaped again, landing heavily on a steel strut over the surface of a metal-stamping machine that shook under the impact of its pneumatically powered hammer. A thick pseudopod like the trunk of a tree suddenly flicked out from above to encircle the Batman's chest in a crushing embrace. Above him! The damn thing had climbed into the girders! Batman cursed silently as he struggled to free himself, knowing he had greatly underestimated the intelligence of

the thing.

It had probably been watching him from up there the whole time.

The strength of the thing was unbelievable. Batman's ribs creaked under the pressure, and the pain was a blaze of white-hot agony. He felt his feet leave the strut as the pseudopod retracted, drawing him up. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Batman reached into his utility belt and extracted three small capsules. After squeezing the capsules in his fist to activate the phosphor, he slapped them against the liquescent flesh of the rapidly thickening pseudopod that threatened to crush the breath from him entirely. When the capsules exploded into actinic white light, hissing and sputtering, Batman was ready. The thing whistled shrilly like an enormous tea kettle from somewhere above, and Batman felt the grip around his chest slacken as the pseudopod spasmed. Flexing his chest and prying at the constricting band of alien flesh around him until his tendons stood out in bas relief, Batman shouted incoherently as he gave a final, brutal effort to free himself. The pseudopod slipped, and he was free! Batman fell awkwardly onto the conveyor belt of the stamping machine and realized he was staring up at the impact face of the hammer. He snapped his head forward, avoiding having it pulped by a fraction of a second. The great amoebic thing roared its cry of "tekeli-li!" and toppled from its perch to the floor below, shaking the foundations of the building. Before the thing could draw itself up from the splatter-shape it had assumed upon the floor, Batman was running, dodging between rows of machinery. Not once had he lost hope, nor did he do so now. His face was a grim study in sheer determination. He could hear the thing rolling and ambulating wetly behind him, colliding jarringly, every time it had to corner, with steel that screeched and buckled. Rounding an automated soldering machine, Batman spotted the window at the end of the long steel-bounded alley. The glass was thick and frosted, probably security plate, but he knew he would get no better chance. The horribly liquid slurping sound of his pursuer was almost at his heel. Simultaneously tapping a button on his utility belt, Batman drew out several small spheres, which he tossed over his shoulder. The gas bombs went off in a series of loud chuffs, spewing out a hell's brew pharmacopia of chemicals. He didn't expect it to stop the thing, but he hoped it might slow it down. "Tekeli-li, tekeli-li!" the thing called with urgency. Evidently it had also seen the window. It rose like a wave of blackness, preparing to crash down on its prey. Batman leaped, landing on a desk directly below the window. Without slowing, Batman leaped again, tucking his head down and curling himself into a protective ball within his cape. The flesh of the alien creature slammed down like the fist of an angry god, shattering the heavy wooden desk into splinters, but the Batman was already streaking like a catapulted boulder at the window. The glass was two inches thick, and designed to withstand the rigors and vibrations of an industrial complex. Batman's hurtling body shattered it into glittering shards of razor-sharp death that followed him like the tail of a comet as he flew out into the cool night air of the employee parking lot. Batman spread his cape like wings, letting the semi-rigid vanes within it snap into place. He sliced through the air, the cape giving him enough

lift to glide him past the jagged spears of glass that fell in a deadly rain to the pavement. Dim red headlights like a demon's eyes flashed towards him, with the ground-shaking roar of a turbo-boosted engine behind it - the Batmobile had answered its summons. Allowing the cape to sail him the extra few feet, Batman landed hard on the hood of the Batmobile. His fingers scrabbled for and found purchase on the cowling. "Emergency evasion," he shouted. Like a djinn of legend, the onboard computers heard, and strove to obey. The Batmobile left a curving patch of rubber on the pavement as it slid into a bootlegger's reverse, nearly throwing its rider aside. The wheels of the Batmobile shrieked as they spun, rocketing the car forward in a haze of burnt rubber and spent aviation fuel. Spread-eagled as he was on the hood, Batman could see the bulk of the amoebic monstrosity pouring out through the broken window in pursuit. In the open, it rolled forward with astonishing speed, matching and surpassing that of the fleeing Batmobile. "Accelerate," shouted Batman over the deafening roar of the engine. The Batmobile lurched as afterburners activated in a blaze of bright blue flame. The pursuing creature began to fall behind. With its speed passing two hundred miles per hour and continuing to accelerate, the Batmobile became briefly airborne as it hit the mangled remains of the gate it had crashed through on its way in. Fingers wrapped in a death-grip on the cowling, Batman managed to keep from being thrown as the front end slammed violently to earth, slowing but not stopping the single-minded retreat of the tanklike vehicle. As the Batmobile howled back down the access road, Batman got his last sight of his pursuer as it rolled to a halt at the broken gate. He watched as slits appeared in its black, glistening flesh, which transformed into maws like hideous parodies of a human mouth. Their frustrated wails of "tekelili!" could be heard even over the sound of the engine. The Batmobile vanished into the night with its cape-shrouded rider. * * *

Alfred put the last stitch in place and swabbed his work with an alcoholdipped cotton ball. "Thank you Alfred," said Batman, rising from the medical table. How many stitches, he wondered, had Alfred given him over the years? Thousands, certainly. Possibly tens of thousands. He rolled his shoulder, satisfied. As he had suspected, the stab wound was minor, though it had bled heavily. Stripping the last of his bloody, sweat-caked costume off, Batman showered thoroughly and accepted a smoking jacket from Alfred. He stepped into the elevator that took him up to the mansion from the Batcave and completed the transformation from Dark Knight to playboy. Bruce Wayne studied the thick, leather-bound books in the glass-panelled book-case in his library. These books represented the most valuable in his collection, though he rarely read them. He had, however, anticipated the day that he might need them. Choosing an armload more or less at random, he retired to the overstuffed leather wingback chair in front of the fireplace. He selected one of the books and glanced at the cover. Der Vermis Mysterius. A whipoorwill called somewhere out in the darkness, and

he began to read. Many hours later, with the rising of the sun, Bruce Wayne put down the last of the books. The book-case was empty, and books lay piled haphazardly around him. There was an ominous kind of tension in the room, as if the air was filled with something inimical that hampered his ability to breathe. "Master Bruce?" Alfred stood in the doorway, carrying a silver platter laden with a proper English breakfast. Wayne turned to the normally unflappable butler, who took a step backwards involuntarily. Wayne's eyes were pits of blackness in which glowed with the knowledge of things forbidden. "Master Bruce!" "It's a little much to read all at once," said Wayne in a papery whisper that sent chills through his butler. Wayne closed his eyes and passed a hand over his face. The first ray of sunlight penetrated the big dormer window, and some of the tension in the room dissipated. When he opened his eyes again, Wayne looked haggard but human. "Hints, Alfred," muttered Wayne. "There are hints here and there, passages that I think might apply. I can't know for certain until I read the book many of the others refer to." Alfred pushed aside a precarious pile of books and set down the tray. "I think, perhaps," he said, glancing at a woodcut on the open page of one of the books and looking quickly away, "that there are things it is better not to know." "The night," said Wayne, his eyes hooded, "holds no terror... for the Dark Knight." He needed one more book, and he thought he knew where to find it. * * *

Bosley turned out the light and locked the supply closet. He yawned and rubbed at his eyes. A long day and longer night, but the floors had needed a good waxing. He examined his handiwork as he did his final rounds, making sure all the doors were locked. The floors gleamed. The students and professors at the university might not appreciate his work, he thought, but he knew that if he let the floors get dull and scuffed they would be complaining soon enough. At the library, Bosley paused. The doors were locked, but he thought he saw faint light seeping under the great brass-bound oaken portals. Someone must have left a light on, he told himself, ignore it. His sense of duty warred with his desire to get home and warm up a TV dinner in the microwave. With a sigh, he reached for the large ring of keys that dangled from his belt and fitted the appropriate one into the lock. The doors opened silently under his push, and Bosley noticed several things at once. First, the manuscript vault was open, where all the most valuable books were kept. Second, a reading lamp on one of the tables had been switched on. And thirdly, the biggest man he had ever seen was hunched over a large, heavy tome in the circle of that light. The man wore a cowl with long pointed ears, gloves, and an enormous cape that wrapped him like a shroud. At Bosley's interruption, the strange intruder's head turned slowly on its bull neck to look at him.

Bosley cleared his throat. he said.

"I, uh, don't think you're supposed to be here,"

The intruder glared at him, and Bosley was uncomfortably aware of how puny his own work-hardened muscles were in comparison to this hulking behemoth. "Just making an observation," continued Bosley quickly. He looked closer at the man. "Say, aren't you-" The glare became a furious scowl and Bosley swallowed. "Right. Don't forget to turn out the light on your way out," said Bosley as he closed and locked the library doors. At least, thought Bosley as he hurried for his car, no one could call being head janitor at Miskatonic University dull. The Dark Knight turned his attention back to the Necronomicon and began reading again. * * *

The private Waynetech jet accelerated down the runway of Miskatonic Airport and lifted gently into the sky. As soon as they achieved their cruising altitude, Bruce Wayne eased his seat back into a reclining position for some desperately-needed rest. He had one more stop to make before he returned to Gotham with the terrible knowledge he had gained from the words of the Mad Arab. His sleep was haunted with visions of aeons-old stone cities of nonEuclidean geometry, and inhuman voices that called from the darkness between the stars and the deepest, watery depths of the unknowable sea. * * *

"Secure and interdict," said the Dark Knight as he climbed from the softlygrowling Batmobile. It gave a chime of acknowledgement and prowled out into the street, sensors and weapon systems tracking everything that moved. The ugly mass of the Gotham Wax Museum loomed above him like a gargoyle in the moonlight, its crumbling stone exterior making it look leprous and unclean. It had been closed for years, a victim of recession, and was slowly falling into irreversible decay. According to the papers Batman had taken from the safe at Black Goat Enterprises, however, it had a new owner: R'as al-Ghul. Batman pointed his grapple gun at the roof and fired. The grapple caught on a cornice, and he climbed quickly, hand over hand. The lock holding the door on the roof shut was rusted and corroded. Batman burned it out with a small application of thermite. Stairs led down into the building. The stairwell opened into a large room that filled the whole top floor, lit dimly by recessed lighting. The light had not been visible through the boarded-over windows. Wax statues lined both sides of the room, each on a separate pedestal with a plaque listing important facts. Though he examined them closely before he entered, Batman could see no signs of life. Past presidents, astronauts, and military heroes smiled confidently at him from their alcoves, eyes staring and glassy. Batman crossed the room, each step stirring up a puff of dust from the carpet underfoot. A dark stairway like a throat offered itself for egress

to the floor below. After a searching glance over his shoulder, Batman accepted the offer and descended. The next floor was also dimly lit, revealing a maze of shattered displays, wax limbs and heads scattered about the floor like a bloodless charnel house. Batman stepped out of the stairwell, senses alert for danger. He knew he would find it - it was only a question of where. His foot bumped a heavy ovoid, and he looked down, bemused, to see his own waxen, severed head scowling at him from the floor. The floor creaked as if something heavy were moving across it. Batman stopped where he stood, preparing his muscles for any sudden movement that might be required of him. "I am pleased you have seen fit to join me, old foe," said R'as al-Ghul, stepping down from a pedestal, like a statue come to life. "It saves me the trouble of running you to ground." Batman half-turned to place his back against one wall, and saw the amorphous tonnage of the shoggoth - he knew it now for what it was - rolling like an evil tide from the stairwell. Behind it came Talia, dressed in an overlapping series of multi-hued veils that gave tantlizing hints of the flesh beneath through their translucence. She carried a prosaic but deadly looking submachine-gun. Any hope of exit had been cut off. "I regret," said R'as, extending his hand in a dramatic gesture, lifting his goateed chin to reveal the nobility of his aristocratic features, the aquiline nose, "that this shall be our last meeting in this life. You shall rise again in the Lazarus Pit, but you must first shrug off the fleshy coils that bind you. That is," he said, almost apologetically, "you're going to die." "And Selina?" asked Batman, his voice an icy monotone. "Ah yes, Miss Kyle," said R'as, smiling. "What an interesting young woman. It is my sad duty to inform you that she is, by now, most certainly dead." Batman's eyes narrowed, and a cunning look crept over his features. think so," he growled, with something like triumph in his voice. "I don't

"What do you mean," said R'as, suddenly uneasy. "What have you done!" he shouted, his face reddening. The Batman only glowered at him. * * *

The whisper of a shadow flowed across the floor Gotham General Hospital, bringing with it a pool of arctic cold. Its prey drew it like a beacon through the hateful light. It passed unnoticed between the two policemen at the door of the Intensive Care Unit, slipping beneath the door. Inside, a fat doctor in a rumpled white smock sat with his ample rear wedged into a chair beside a bed, picking his nose with great evident satisfaction. In the bed itself, the prey lay immobile, helpless. Save for the faint green radiance given off by the instruments clustered around the bed, the room was dark. The shadow fed on the darkness, growing and swelling like a cancerous tumor. Its hazy outline had nearly solidified before the doctor noticed

anything, for it was utterly silent. Dark as it was, its features were indistinct, but there were claws and wings and something like a long, black tentacle where there ought to be a face. "Holy crud," said Detective-Sergeant Bullock, hastily extracting his finger from his nose and wiping it on the white smock. At the sound of his voice, the creature turned its head, if indeed it was a head, in his direction. "Bats, this goddam better work," muttered Bullock with a tinge of panic in his voice. The creature raised its facial tentacle to lash at its prey, its claws poised to tear and rend. Bullock pulled a bulky-looking gun from his pocket, aimed into the centre of the thing, and fired. There was a loud crack, and suddenly the room was ablaze with unbearable white light as a military flare shot from the end of the pistol to embed itself in the creature's inky flesh. The thing gave a terrible, endless, inhuman shriek that scaled up rapidly into the supersonic -- and exploded. Bits of shadow-stuff flew around the room, most dissipating, but a few leaking out the door at the speed of darkness. The two policemen burst into the room with their guns drawn to find Bullock on his knees with his hands over his face and the flare gun lying smoking on the floor. In the instant before the glare had temporarily blinded him, Bullock had got a good look at the thing. "Jesus," he whispered, as the blue after-image began to clear from his eyes. "It looked just like my mother-in-law." The memory would haunt him for many sweat-drenched, nightmare-filled nights to come. * * *

R'as groaned and clutched his forehead. "Father?" said Talia, the barrel of the submachine-gun wavering. what's wrong?" "Father,

A frigid skurl of air whipped suddenly through the room, blowing Talia's long hair about her face. Shadows danced across the walls, and a highpitched keening filled the air. The shadows coalesced into a spinning vortex of darkness before R'as, hovering there a moment. With a quicksilver motion like a darting fish, the tapered cone of the vortex rammed itself into R'as' mouth, the rest of the vortex following an instant later. R'as swallowed several times in rapid succession and staggered backwards. The shoggoth quivered, making a wet, rippling noise, and the room fell silent. "The Hunter," said R'as, raggedly. "It wasn't hard," said Batman. R'as' face became bestial with anger, and he opened his mouth, but closed it again without speaking. The anger drained away and was replaced by a sly smile. "Very good, Dark Knight," said R'as. "For all the good it will do you. Your fate is no less sealed, though you may gain a few minutes' respite if you tell me how you accomplished it." "The signs at the museum were obvious," said Batman. "Obviously whoever "You've destroyed the Hunter."

or whatever - attacked Selina in the security office planned to kill her. She is a highly trained martial artist, and an expert gymnast, however, and put up more fight that her attacker expected. For some reason, her attacker left the room. There can be no other explanation for Selina having managed to crawl out to the loading dock. Certainly something strong enough to do that kind of damage to her would not have let her escape in the condition she was in. "I realized that there was only one thing that could not be done within the security office itself - turning out the lights. There is no light switch, either on the control panel or on the wall. I checked. I had to assume, then, that whatever it was was weakened by light. After searching for the light switch, whatever it was returned to find its victim gone. It followed the trail of blood to the crate within which Selina had hidden herself, but could not get in, though it left claw marks in the wood. It must have been severely weakened by exposure to the light in the security office by that point to be unable to get in. Evidently in its condition, it did not want to risk a confrontation with the arriving police." "Clever," said R'as, nodding approvingly. you." "I fear I may have underestimated

Batman ignored the interruption and continued. "Several things led me to believe there was a supernatural angle. The attacker's superhuman strength and weakness to light was suggestive. In addition, there were no footprints or marks of any kind in the trail of blood leading to the crate, though by the scratches I knew something had tracked her there. And of course the scratches themselves looked a great deal like claw marks. None of these were conclusive in themselves. It was you, R'as, that gave me the clues I needed." "I," asked R'as, raising an elegant eyebrow. "Pray tell me what I have told you, and what mystery you believe you have unravelled." Batman stared at R'as for a long time. The two men glared at each other with naked hostility. "I know the truth, R'as," said Batman evenly. "What truth is this?" asked R'as. "I grow tired of your silly games, Dark Knight." There might have been the faintest trace of uncertainty in his voice. "For one thing," said Batman, "your name is not R'as al-Ghul." "How strange," said R'as, grinning ferociously. to be printed on my driver's license." "That's the name that seems

"I traced your connection through the puzzle box," said Batman. "It became obvious the puzzle box was a phony. There is no record of it before you gave it to the Gotham Historical Society. There was such an expedition as you claim it was found in, but I'm willing to bet their records will show there was no puzzle box. It was all a ruse to lure Selina. By getting to her, you knew I would become involved. I'm your real target, after all." The grin had faded from R'as' face. "Very well, all you say is true. And what of it? Here you are, delivered into my hand as I had planned from the start." "It's more than that," said Batman. "After my tangle with your shoggoth

over there-" R'as gave a start, but recovered himself quickly. "Yes, I know it's a shoggoth," said Batman, his eyes blazing with a fierce hatred. "And what's more I know who you are. What you are. I've been doing some reading. I think you know the book I'm referring to." "The arab," hissed R'as, "has paid for his meddling. As will you." "You must have in the open. You the 'Dark Man' on my name. Well abide light, it

"That's yet to be seen," growled the Batman in response. thought you were clever, using a name like C.C. Black out knew no one would think anything of it. Calling yourself must have made you smile, knowing I would think it a play I know who you are. The names, the Hunter that could not all fit."

"The knowledge will die with you," said R'as, his face dark with rage. "Names have power," said Batman. "Or so the Book claims. Fine. I name you the Crawling Chaos. I name you the Black Man, the Dark Man, the Black Pharoah. The body of R'as al-Ghul may have been placed in the Lazarus Pit but what occupies his body now is not human. You," said Batman, his voice rising, "are Nyarlathotep, the Herald of the Gods!" "Father!" cried Talia. "It's not true! It's a lie, it must be!"

"Shut up, cow," snapped Nyarlathotep, his lip curling in a sneer. His voice, his posture, his whole appearance seemed to change, as if collapsing in on itself. "This whole, hmmm, charade has gone on far too long, oh yes indeed it has," he said, his eyes glittering with inhuman malice. All the nobility had fallen from his features like a mask, revealing a dissipated decadence and limitless capacity for cruelty. "This form I wear is, hmmm, good, but yours will serve me better, Dark Knight. Oh yes, it shall. You have pierced a child's game, but in the, heh, end you have lost. Your knowledge will not help you. You are mine. "As for you," said Nyarlathotep, turning to Talia, "while it would be, hmmm, amusing to rape you with your, heh, beloved father's body, I've come to the conclusion, my dear, that you aren't worth the sweat. You're really very stupid and tedious. Consume her." Talia screamed and brought up the muzzle of the sub-machinegun, but the shoggoth was faster. It rippled into motion, and an instant later, Talia's legs thrashed helplessly as they followed the rest of her body into the maw that gaped suddenly in the creature's flesh. The Dark Knight was not unprepared. Leaping forward, he pulled his hand from his cape, and drove his fist deep into the gelid flesh of the shoggoth, his whole hand vanishing up to the elbow. His leap carried him into the side of the creature, and he sank halfway into it before the shoggoth reacted. Pustules bubbled to the surface of the shoggoth and ruptured into a wild assortment of eyes and mouths. Each mouth yawned wide and a thousand deafening shrieks of agony filled the air until windows began to shatter throughout the building. The flesh writhed and contracted like a salted leech, and suddenly it was over. The shoggoth vanished in a burst of eye-

searing light, twisting away into dimensions foreign to human comprehension. Talia dropped unconscious to the floor. Nyarlathotep drew back, snarling, and pointed a finger at the Dark Knight. A curl of blackness like curdled smoke, and yet somehow serpentine, spewed from his outstretched hand. Batman spun and raised his fist - in which was clutched a piece of rough-hewn stone the size of a small dinner plate in the shape of a five-pointed star. The foul streamer of blackness disintegrated in the blast of scintillating light that burst from the eye scribed on the centre of the stone. "That pitiful relic has no power over me," hissed Nyarlathotep, his face a mask of hatred and fury. "You're lying," said Batman, stalking slowly toward Nyarlathotep, stone held before him. "There are quite a few of these Elder Signs around," said Batman casually. "I... borrowed one after reading the Book. There were several at the Smithsonian." Nyarlathotep stood his ground, but perspiration began to bead on his upper lip. "By the way," said Batman, stalking closer, "the puzzle box is encased in about a half a ton of concrete at the bottom of Gotham Harbour. With the Hunter gone, you won't be needing the Shining Trapezohedron. I'm guessing that's what was inside the box. You knew Selina wouldn't be able to resist opening it and summoning the Hunter." Nyarlathotep backed against the wall, his eyes darting between Batman and the stone, which coruscated fitfully, in Batman's hand. "There's nothing I can't grant you, Dark Knight" said Nyarlathotep. "Let's call this, hmmm, a misunderstanding shall we?" Batman stopped in front of Sign into a harness he had he had finished, he turned Nyarlathotep, portholes to Nyarlathotep, and carefully snapped the Elder strapped across his great barrel chest. After to stare into the terrible, alien eyes of the Chaos that ruled the centre of all Creation.

"Hurt me," breathed the Dark Knight, cracking the knuckles of his right fist. "Hurt me the way you hurt Selina." Nyarlathotep's face crimsoned with repressed fury. "You would dare to put a hand on the Crawling Chaos, on the Herald of the Gods Themselves?" "You're not human," said Batman, his voice barely a whisper. "But you're in a human body now, and I'm going to show you just how much pain a human body can endure." With the natural instincts of Ra's al-Ghul, a master combatant, Nyarlathotep drew back his fist at waist level and launched a vicious heart punch at the hulking form that filled his vision. His fist landed in the palm of Batman's hand with a sharp slapping noise, and was quickly enveloped in Batman's much larger fist. Batman squeezed and fine bones ground together, then snapped. Nyarlathotep unleashed an insane howl of pain. "Good," growled Batman, his eyes icy with unconcealed hatred. pain. This is for Selina." "You can feel

The lesson in sheer brutal savagery began. With scientific precision, Batman snapped his enemy's wrist, then bent his elbow back until the joint popped

with meaty tearing noises. Nyarlathotep screamed, and Batman shattered his collarbone with the edge of his hand. The Herald of the Gods turned to run, and Batman lauched a vicious side kick that crushed one kneecap, sending him to the ground. Grimly, Batman bent over his fallen foe and began what could only be described as butchery. He broke bones at will. He shattered teeth, staved in ribs, bent joints until they snapped. Ligaments tore, and tissue was ripped open under the jagged, splintered knife-edges of crushed bone. Piece by piece, bone by bone, limb by limb, the Dark Knight used his terrible skill to inflict the extremity of human suffering. In the end, Nyarlathotep's chosen body took on a curiously mashed appearance, as if it had been ground beneath the heel of a vengeful giant. Shock had seized his target, but the Batman was careful to avoid damaging the major organs. It was unthinkable savagery, but it was also precise and scientific savagery, based on vast knowledge of the giving and receiving of pain. Batman stood at last, his breath coming in gasps and his anger spent. His enemy lay in a spreading pool of blood and bodily fluids at his feet, limbs splayed in every direction save those that were natural. Nyarlathotep managed a ghastly grin around a mouth smashed into little more than a blood-caked hole. When he spoke, his words were nearly unintelligble and heavily slurred. "This has been an interesting experience, Dark Knight," he rasped, spitting out fragments of teeth. "But we both know it is useless. The stars will, heh, align. That which is meant to be will happen, and the Gods shall return to take Their place. You can't stop it any more than you could hold back the tide with your, heh, fists. I come to herald Their arrival." Batman's eyes were cold and flat, like a shark's. "Maybe," he growled. He placed a heavy boot over Nyarlathotep's Adam's apple. The Elder Sign blazed brightly. "But not in Gotham City." He ground down cruelly with his heel, and the Herald's arms flailed weakly. The cartillage in Nyarlathotep's throat snapped and cracked. He twitched once and then was still. A black cloud of greasy foulness rose from the corpse's nostrils, swept once around the room, and fled. * * *

Batman left Talia with the doctors at Gotham General, and made his way to the Intensive Care Unit. A doctor met him a corridor away. "We were just going to call you," he said solemnly. Batman's heart sank. "She's awake, and she's asking for you." Leaving the doctor behind, Batman sprinted down the hallway, shouldering past the two policemen on duty at the door without stopping. Inside, a nurse was adjusting an intravenous drip. She looked up at the visitor and frowned. "No more than five minutes," she said sternly. In the bed, Batman could see the bruises on Selina's face had turned a whole palette of sunset colours. She cracked her blackened eyes open briefly and smiled. She whispered something, and Batman loomed over her to listen. She repeated it in a papery, barely discernible rustle of a voice. "Eight more lives." For the first time in a very, very long time the Dark Knight's face broke

into a silly grin as the morning sun rose over the horizon.

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