Chapter 7: The Berliani
In the Batcave, the cats which supported three dishes of scented oil regarded each other with the cold, lifeless eyes of statues from their respective corners of the JLA transporter. A few feet away, Batman, Superman, and Jason Blood regarded each other without much more warmth from their positions around the conference table.
To a hero like Superman, who battled galactic threats and homegrown menace on a regular basis, bad news about a foe’s capabilities was part of the job. Still, Lex Luthor was a special case and the thought of Luthor commanding magic, one of the few forces in the universe that could affect him, was very much a fright. When Luthor acquired a Kryptonite ring, it posed a serious threat, and Kryptonite, while deadly, was at least predictable. But magic, there was no telling what a mind like Luthor’s might conjure with power like that at his disposal…
Batman wrestled with his own dilemma, similar to Clark’s yet unique. No one knew what had become of Lex Luthor after he resigned the presidency in disgrace, and all efforts to find him by conventional means had been unsuccessful. Now they had new intelligence: it was possible—it was likely—that Luthor had access to magic. If he was experimenting as his counterpart in at least one alternate reality was doing, it suggested a new and more effective way to locate him. Jason said an experienced wizard could sense when the lines of magic shift from their normal patterns and the signature of a neophyte like Luthor would be easy to spot. He had no doubt that he could find Luthor with the simplest of spells… It was… it was obviously the best strategy from a practical crimefighting perspective, but the idea of MORE magic, after the moonstone and the witch orb and a vortex still churning INSIDE the floor of the Batcave, with Selina off god-knows-where through that magic portal… the very idea of allowing even more magic into this process… As much as the strategist told him it was necessary, the crisis before them was severe, time was of the essence, and, given the forces they were dealing with, Jason’s magical assistance was both timely and appropriate, the emotional man could only see that he’d allowed the tiniest chink to remain unplugged and now a flood of magic was pouring through it, uncontrolled and uncontrollable…
Jason felt wronged. Bruce’s inflexible hostility to anything remotely mystical was familiar by now, and if that hostility had become more pointedly antagonist in the last few days, the reason was certainly understandable. Superman’s reaction to the Luthor development was also understandable; you couldn’t expect him to rejoice at the news his deadliest enemy was dabbling in the magical arts. It was all perfectly understandable, but Jason still couldn’t help feeling persecuted. He himself had done nothing, absolutely nothing. He hadn’t lobotomized any villains, wiped anyone’s memories, made magical forces available to Lex Luthor, and he certainly never raised a finger, magical or otherwise, against Selina! On the contrary, he’d gone to considerable trouble to protect her, and at the moment she was the only participant in the whole affair he could stand. And yet he, Jason Blood, innocent bystander, had somehow been appointed spokesperson for the magical arts, defender of its right to exist and scapegoat for all those who abused it. He abhorred Zatanna’s reckless excesses as much as they did, but any time either one of them pronounced the word “magic” they did it with this oblique snarl aimed directly at him…
“Alright,” Superman said finally. “I’m not much happier about it than Bruce is, but I really don’t see that we have a choice. If Luthor is a part of this, we have to find him. If his dabbling in magic gives us a way to find him, we do it.”
Superman was equally piqued at Bruce. He might not be a strategist of Batman’s caliber, but Superman knew his enemy and he could see how this all came about. As president, Luthor would have had intelligence on all the big research being conducted. He had a fixation on Bruce Wayne; what Wayne had Luthor had to have. He wouldn’t have cared about niche research like this string theory that couldn’t even produce a decent bomb; he wouldn’t have even noticed it until that name caught his eye among the underwriters: Wayne Foundation. That’s why Lex Luthor had magic to use against him, because of Bruce…
Batman touched his glove to the edge of the mask above his eye and rubbed as if massaging a headache.
He’d moved beyond piqued into flat-out pissed. He told Clark specifically not to come to the house. Ignored. He told him specifically not to worry about the anomaly in the study. Ignored. That last stunt not only wasted time, it gave Selina an opening she wouldn’t have otherwise had to go sphere-hopping again. It would be so much better if they were running a single operation, not each doing their own thing this way. Clark should see that. Clark, the married man—Didn’t he realize how hard Selina was to control in the first place? Was a little cooperation too much to ask from a friend and an ally???
“Alright,” he growled finally. “Does it have to be here? Couldn’t you at least take it outside of the house before you conduct—whatever it is you’re going to do?”
“I can,” Jason said coldly, “but seeing as the dimensional instabilities are centered around your house, Bruce, I think it would be more effective if I did it here. Ideally, I’d like to go upstairs to the study where we conducted the initial seeing. Whether it helped ignite the spark or not, Selina and Etrigan both saw the spark in it and—”
“Yes, yes, alright, fine,” Batman spat.
“There is no need for you to be present,” Jason went on mildly. “You could stay here and monitor the transporter in case Selina returns.”
Batman looked towards the transporter and grunted. He was aware he was being “humored and handled,” but was prepared to allow it. Selina really might return at any time, and her last trip had provided crucial intelligence about Luthor. There was no telling what she might learn this time, it could even be something to render the magical Luthor-hunt moot.
Alfred walked briskly into the lobby of the Battenkill Inn, kicked the snow from his boots and warmed himself in front of the large, welcoming fireplace.
“Been out for another walk then, Mr. Pennyworth?” the observant landlord asked.
Alfred merely nodded, fearing his teeth would chatter if he tried to speak.
“Keeps you young, don’t it; the brisk mountain air.”
Rather than encourage this friendly banter, Alfred grunted in a dismissive fashion—and then scolded himself for the lapse. He would be a fool indeed if he did not recognize the curt grunt as Master Bruce’s—as well as the sentiment to take all your well-meaning attentiveness far, far away so I may focus my attention on this present dilemma.
The innkeeper meant well, Alfred knew. They all thought he was a great walker, so devoted to their scenic mountain trails that he had extended his stay to go on hiking through the beautiful countryside for another week. In fact, he was pacing. He began pacing the day Miss Selina called telling him to extend his trip but refused to say why. Then Master Bruce called with a few more details that were more alarming than Miss Selina’s silence. So he’d started to pace, but that quaint little room with the quilt and the canopy bed and the needlepoint rug was not quite conducive to a properly energetic pacing. So he’d taken his coat and set off on the mountain trails. But however vigorously he walked, he could not drive the agitation from his body.
Whatever was meant by “dimensional anomalies,” they were occurring in Wayne Manor, which was his responsibility. They were occurring while Master Bruce and Miss Selina were in residence, and capable though Batman and Catwoman may be to deal with such matters on their own, they were still his charges while they lived in that house. The very idea that he was banished—for his “safety” (not five minutes after Master Bruce assured him the anomalies posed no physical threat)—it was more than any well-trained gentleman’s gentleman could bear.
And yet he was ordered, by both master and mistress, to remain where he was.
When they reached the study, Superman watched, helplessly baffled, while a Hawkman chimera picked his severed wings off the Aubusson rug, revealing a sticky, reddish-black bloodstain. Hawkman followed the other spectral Leaguers out the door, just as he had before, and Superman knelt to touch the tacky goo clinging to the carpet fibers just as it vanished into nothingness right under his fingers.
He looked up at Jason in horrified wonder, and Jason managed a kindly nod meant to convey a sympathy he did not feel. He pulled a small, low, claw-footed table from the wall and set it in the center of the room where it had been placed for the first seeing. He retrieved his silver bowl and the bottle containing the water of Avalon from the shelf where they had been placed for safekeeping once the anomalies began. He set them up just as before, then positioned his hands over them, closed his eyes, and began murmuring a mantra from a language long forgotten. Superman watched in fascination as wisps of glowing mist rose from the water in the bowl and took the form of a rotating ball between Jason Blood’s hands. The mist whitened here and darkened there, taking on a deep bluish tint, and Superman saw to his astonishment the very image of the Earth as seen from space. A yellow glow appeared at the southernmost tip of Africa, and suddenly the words “finis africae” seemed to pop into his mind, although he hadn’t heard anything.
Jason Blood sighed, his head tipped backwards, and his arms dropped to his sides. The mist slowed its rotation, losing form, and spiraled sluggishly downward into the water.
Jason opened his eyes and met Superman’s. “Finis Africae,” he pronounced. “The end of Africa.”
“It’s a start,” Superman noted—as the sound of girlish giggling erupted outside the study door. He turned to see Jason staring out the doorway in horror. Selina was there, a Selina that Clark recognized immediately as an apparition from an earlier point in the timeline. He knew this from the yellow ruffles she wore and the two bottles of champagne tucked under her arm. She lead a trio of women, each with their own open bottles from which they drank as the procession continued down the hallway: Dinah Lance, in aqua ruffles that weren’t any more flattering than Selina’s yellow; then Lois in a respectable paisley dress; and finally Harley Quinn in a short, tight, shocking pink outfit that looked more suited to a nightclub than a wedding reception.
“Dick and Barbara’s wedding,” Clark explained as Selina growled something like “Mrs. Wayne, my ass,” while Lois and Dinah clinked their bottles together and repeated “Missus Wayne meowlass.”
“I see,” Jason said with polite detachment. “Perhaps we should return to the cave without further delay.”
Finis Africae turned out to be much more than “a start” once Superman and Jason told Bruce of their findings. He opened what he called “an existing data-analysis matrix” Oracle had created when Luthor first vanished. They’d been using it for months, he said, to try and locate the former president. Now he could add Southern Africa to the parameters. In less than a minute, the screen filled with data, which Batman skimmed with satisfaction.
“The King David is a luxury hotel in East London, Wild Coast region of South Africa,” he announced. “Six weeks after Luthor resigned, they were hiring two new chefs, a chamber maid, and a waiter.”
Superman chuckled. “Meaning Luthor stole half their staff away when he moved into the area.”
“Precisely,” Batman answered as a printer sprung to life. “Those are the names of the former employees. We go to East London, find their families, find out where those individuals are working now, and we’ve found Luthor.”
Jason Blood agreed to monitor the transporter while Batman pursued the Luthor lead with Superman. The vortex churning beneath it made him uneasy, consisting as it did of his own magic intermingled with Etrigan’s. He’d had little time since the cataclysm began to wonder what the future held for him—assuming he had one. If they prevented the crisis spark from nullifying existence, it meant a future without Etrigan. The idea was almost incomprehensible. For fifteen hundred years, give or take, his soul had been knit to Etrigan’s. Now that the bond was broken he was, technically, free of the demon. It meant liberation beyond his wildest hopes and dreams, but Jason was long past the ability to feel happiness, or even satisfaction, at this release he once dreamed of.
What did it really mean? It meant Etrigan was free. Could Jason really live content in a world where Etrigan ran free? He had grown accustomed to living on while all those he knew and cared about died: from illness, from injury, from old age, in war and in peacetime. Claire… Nicole… Lilyaene… how many others? Warm and alive for time, then ash, nothing but a memory for the rest of eternity. He’d grown used to it. But the scale of the dying and the cruelty, the depravity if a monster like Etrigan was free to kill and maim and conquer as he wished… Could Jason really live comfortable and at ease in a little villa somewhere knowing that was going on in the world?
By the same token, could he re-bind himself to Etrigan? If it were even possible to remake the magical bond that nature herself had dissolved, would he be able to willingly imprison himself again? Now, with full knowledge of what he was getting into?
He thought of Etrigan setting himself up as Lord of the Americas, a throne made from the ground bones of those who tried to oppose him—Bruce’s corpse undoubtedly, and Selina’s, possibly Superman’s, Flash certainly, Green Arrow, Hawkman, Black Canary. How many of those mortal children from that recurring shadowplay in the study would stand against a demon of Hell, blinded by their “superpowers” into thinking they had any chance against the power of the cosmos?
The controls of the transporter began to light and flicker as a bitter irony curled Jason’s lips into a mirthless smile. If they were right, the Bruce Wayne of however many dimensions was making war on magic because he thought it robbed his Catwoman of her right to choose. But Jason—now that he was freer than he had ever been, it seemed he had no choice at all.
The vortex below the transporter suddenly sprung up like a geyser through the floor of the transporter, bathing the chamber in a whirlpool of purple light, which then spun bluer, greener, yellower, and white before it dissipated, revealing Catwoman standing with a dazed and weary expression. She steadied herself against the side of the transporter, tore off her glove and, from the look of it, scrutinized the ring on her finger. Then she regarded him with quizzical recognition.
“Jason?” she said skeptically.
“The man, the myth, the legend,” he replied gamely.
She gave a sickly grin and stepped out of the transporter.
“And is… Bruce (?) around?” she asked cautiously.
“He and Superman have gone in search of Luthor,” Jason informed her. “Not Doctor Luthor,” he added hurriedly. “They’ve gone in search of the former president, Alexander Luthor, bald man.”
She breathed, clearly relieved.
“Okay, well, in that case, meow.”
“While Bruce is out of the picture, we should perhaps take advantage of this opportunity to speak freely,” Jason suggested.
“Upstairs,” Selina answered, removing her mask. “I could use a drink, something stronger than tea.”
“That was a waste of time when we do not have time to waste,” Batman growled, marching furiously out of the service entrance of the King David Hotel in East London.
“They might have kept forwarding addresses or something,” Superman protested. “It was worth a try before we go bothering their families.”
“If they’d kept that kind of information, it would have been in their database, it would have been in the downloads. We would have known back in the cave how to proceed. The fact that it wasn’t made the families the most promising source for—”
“It just seems so rude, so intrusive—”
No more was said until they reached the summit above a quiet, residential community.
“These aren’t henchmen, Bruce,” Superman said pointedly. “These are good, decent, hardworking people. To go to their families—”
“I’m not talking about punching anybody’s grandmother, Clark. I’m saying knock on the door, smile your best public relations smile, and ask as politely as you want where their son is.”
“You really think that’s going to get us an answer?”
Batman stared at him flatly.
“I’m absolutely certain that it won’t.”
While Jason prepared a highball, Selina had gone upstairs to her room and returned with a small, red-leather box. She opened it, took the sapphire from her finger, and placed it carefully around a finger-size oval raised in the white felt lining. She set it gently on the table in front of her and stared at it. As she sipped her drink, she briefly told Jason the story. How Bruce and she agreed on a one-night separation the night of the MoMA opening, how he slipped the empty box in with her things before she set off for the penthouse, how he enclosed a taunt rather than the ring, declaring it to be the prize if she ‘earned’ it in the course of the party.
Then she grew quiet, reliving the conversation that followed. “Marriage, Selina? I don’t know if I’ll ever want to be married. I may never be capable of that kind of… vulnerability.”
She had accepted that what they had now was all there would ever be. It was quite a lot, considering how they started. Selina didn’t believe for one second that Zatanna’s magic was involved in what had happened between them. Nevertheless, it was a pretty magical progression: from “Breaking and entering is a crime in this city” to “I’ve always loved you.”
It was a lot, from where they started to have reached this glittering pink gem in a Cartier’s ring box. It was. And if there was an alternate world where they went further and had a baby together, there was also one where she—she paused to gag on the thought—where she actually wore those horrific goggles. So as far as Selina was concerned, the “reality” of these alternate realities was suspect at best and she could dismiss the couple with the baby as easily as she did Poison Ivy on the patio… What she could not dismiss quite so easily was one of these “pink sapphire” worlds that seemed so close to her own history, these Bruces who were so like hers that they shared that same look, the searching vault eyes, the cold agonizing silence before they’d pronounce that “No” with I’m-Batman finality… one of them had given her a diamond instead of a sapphire that night. One of them said “Will you marry me” instead of “Those words that mean love and commitment to everyone else, to me they’re two bodies in an alley…”
And it was one of them, so like her own Bruce, that employed a Dr. Luthor to go poking into her past because he thought Zatanna used magic to change her.
“Would you like another?” Jason offered, lifting the decanter.
“Sure,” she answered dully.
“Selina, I’m sure the experience of dimension-hopping is unsettling, but if I may intrude on your musings, I think we really must discuss what I learned about The Berliani.”
She looked up at him, and Jason was struck by the felinity of her expression—weary, irate at being pressed when she was clearly tired and not wanting to be bothered, and yet resigned to the bothering for what more could one expect from a non-cat. He wondered how he ever came to doubt Selina Kyle’s feline nature.
“Berliani,” she repeated. “That’s the name that Zatara mentioned? ‘The fire of the Berliani comes again.’ You found out what it means?”
“I did,” Jason nodded. “It’s quite a tale. And it makes me wonder if any success you have dissuading these alternate Bruce Waynes from the ritual will have any effect in the end.”
He set down his glass, took a breath, and assumed a story-telling posture.
“There is a legend among magic-users,” he began as if reciting a story in the exact words prescribed by some ancient ritual. “There was a monastery built at a place called Berliani in the north of Italy just after the fall of Rome. They were custodians, it was said, of secret knowledge they had salvaged from the libraries of the Caesars when the only civilization they had known fell to chaos. Manuscripts of dark magicians from as far away as India were collected within their walls. Black and terrible knowledge that had been scattered throughout the world, never meant to be brought together in a single place—or a single mind—or a single soul. It was said the ‘monks’ of this monastery were monks in name only. For appearance’s sake, they lived as a Catholic cloister, but they were no holy men devoted to prayer and study. They were a commune of terrible wizards whose lust for power was matched only by their wanton depravity.
“For thirty-nine years, they had practiced their dark sorcery, when a traveler came to their gate bearing parchments and artifacts unlike any ever seen. Whether they came from China, the new world, or from Krypton, we can only speculate today; all we know is the monks of Berliani had never seen their like. They vowed to do anything to obtain these treasures, and the traveler’s demands were very trifling: he asked only to be made abbot, to be supreme master of the monastery and lord of all its riches and power. Wild with greed, the monks killed their present abbot and feasted that night on his flesh. His heart, they cut out and gave to the traveler, who consumed it whole in order to absorb the victim’s power into his own.
“The act was so vile, it is said, the godforce itself rejected it. The Universe, the Universal Is, decided this new unholy magick that would grow by feeding on another was not to exist. So, like an immune response, it acted simply and unconsciously to… remove it… from existence.
“The new abbot, now called The Black Abbot, began directing the magicks of the abbey in new ways. He sought to master the Music of the Spheres. At his behest, the wizard-monks conquered each of the four elements in turn. For a decade, they devoted themselves to no other pursuit but to isolate the purest essence of each. At long last one monk was successful, and the Earth element was theirs to command. More years passed and another wizened old mystic isolated the essence of Air… then another, and the Water element was conquered as well… but still the Music of the Spheres was unattainable. It taunted the Black Abbot in his dreams, filling his mind with its melody and an unquenchable thirst to possess it. He spurred his subjects on to unheard of feats of magic, but another decade passed and the fire element still eluded them. Without that, they were no closer to their goal.
“The Black Abbot consulted the darkest magicks of the abbey and conjured a deep spell of ecstasy and an even deeper spell of torment. He gave his monks a potent taste of each, and promised the one as reward for success and the other as punishment for failure. For another seven years they toiled, and each night were doled out their portion of bliss or anguish in proportion to the day’s success. At the end of this time, a novice who had not yet been granted the title of wizard came upon the method in an ancient Macedonian scroll. That month, under the next full moon, the essence of the Fire element was obtained.
“But nothing more. It was inadequate, and still in his dreams the Music of the Spheres taunted the Black Abbot. His thirst turned to hunger and then to lust. The answer burned within him. They needed a fifth—the unknown fifth element. The Black Abbot, by now gripped by a madness beyond anything known, determined that the missing element was Innocence. They needed, so they thought, to distill an essence of Innocence. They found a peasant family poor enough and desperate enough to sell their daughter. They used their magicks to impregnate this girl, creating a child of the four elemental forces themselves. No one knows what became of the mother, but the child they raised as a daughter of the abbey. She was educated as no female was at the time, but not in the academic sense, rather in art and music. Her plainsong, it was said, could draw life from wilting plants in the garden. She was Innocence and Beauty and Gaiety personified. And when she turned 16… they sacrificed her. They sacrificed her with no more thought than they would slaughtering a boar for their Samhain feast. They cut out her heart and boiled it into an elixir they believed to be the power of powers, the essence of the Universal Is.
“The Black Abbot consumed this potion—and died on the spot. It is described that simply in the scrolls, he consumed the potion and he died. No narrative of writhing or death agonies, he simply ‘consumed it and died.’ The monks thought at first he must have transcended to a higher form—until the wailing began. The girl, for 16 years she had lived among them thinking herself a beloved daughter. Not one of them, hardened and murderous wizards though they were, could pretend they did not recognize her voice. She had become the Music of the Spheres, and the Music could not be silenced. She wailed until each of the wizard-monks had taken their lives, and when the last of them was dead the wailing continued until the very stones of the monastery crumbled to dust.”
“What a cheery little anecdote,” Selina observed.
Batman’s interrogation methods exploited the particular emotions, mostly fear, his presence provoked. Superman’s did too, but in his case, the feeling elicited was usually awe. In a place like Beacon Bay, East London, the awe-of-Superman-standing-on-your-doorstep approach rarely failed to produce results.
But at the home of Clive and Ansa Nahoon, parents of John, former sous-chef at the King David hotel, the reaction was exactly what Batman predicted: Nothing. Polite nothing, apologetic nothing, but nothing just the same.
“Sorry, Superman, but we’ve been sworn to secrecy. You wouldn’t want us to break our word, would you?”
He tried for fifteen minutes before giving up. At last he rejoined Batman on the summit, but before he could even report his failure, Batman held up a portable datascreen.
“Got it,” he announced. “They called their son as soon as you left. Cell tower in Gonubie.”
“What? How?” Superman gasped.
“I knew Luthor would have left instructions to be notified if anyone started poking around—especially you. I intercepted the call, traced it to a cell tower in Gonubie.”
Superman raised a disapproving eyebrow.
“Which gives us what—a couple-hundred square mile area to search? Looking for one person?”
“Actually, it’s a five-hundred foot tower and African wireless companies don’t have the broadcast restrictions American ones do. According to the company’s specs, that tower has a coverage radius of about twenty miles—so it’s more like thirteen-hundred square miles.”
“Do you know how long it will take to search a radius like that to find a single individual,” he asked archly. “Even for me, that’s hours.”
“If you were looking for an individual,” Batman replied flatly. “Luckily, you only have to find the house.”
“And how am I supposed to pick out the one house that Luthor’s…” Superman paused mid-question as realization dawned.
Batman’s lip twitched slightly as he answered Superman’s unfinished question. “All you have to do is a quick flyby scanning of the buildings. Luthor’s will be the only house in thirteen hundred square miles that’s covered in…”
They finished the answer in unison “…lead-based paint.”
“What a cheery little anecdote,” Selina observed.
“Magic can go too far,” Jason declared. “It would please Bruce very much, for that is the lesson of the story. Magic can go too far, and if it does… an immune response on the part of the universe will remove it.”
“I don’t understand,” Selina said. “That’s what we’re dealing with? Jason, I don’t understand. We had a theory; it was Bruce. It was these Bruce/Luthor teams concocting their rituals to see if Zatanna’s magic changed me. I’ve seen them. I found two of those Bruce Waynes. It happened just like we thought. That has to be what silenced the strings. How does this Berliani thing fit in?”
“We’ve assumed this was a chance occurrence, Selina. Multiple Bruce Waynes happen to arrive at the same conclusion and act in such a way as to light the spark. But Zatara’s warning indicates otherwise. ‘The Fire of the Berliani burns again,’ he said. Magic gone too far, HIS magic gone too far and triggering an immune response. Bruce is a, a white blood cell, if you will.”
He stopped as Selina smirked at the phrase. Sensing that she was squelching flat out laughter, Jason paused a moment for her to compose herself, and then continued.
“Selina, think: when the crisis began, the seeing, the spark, what was the first thing to be dissolved by this smoldering flame of unexistence? It was the bond between me and Etrigan. The first thing it did was destroy the first magic it encountered. Think, the fire of the Berliani… Zatara’s magic, inherited by Zatanna, is inherently unsafe,” Jason went on finally. “She has used white magic, a positive force meant to work in harmony with nature, to lobotomize a man who was already captured and helpless. She used white magic against an ally when she changed Bruce’s memories. And she used white magick against Flash’s old adversary the Top to change his moral makeup. There is simply no way to reconcile that with ‘acting with nature.’ To make white magic behave like black magic should not be possible. No magic-user could use that force in that way. But Zatanna did, because she merely speaks the result she wants without any thought to the power being called or the way it is used… It is inherently unsafe. And this is the result. She somehow crossed a line, just like the Berliani, that was so utterly wrong, the Universe’s immune system has acted, through Bruce, to remove it.”
“And take the rest of existence with it?” Selina exclaimed. “That’s a bit over the top isn’t it? I think the expression is ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’”
“It’s not a conscious act,” Jason shrugged. “It’s not a divine punishment like famine or flood. If I’m right, it’s simply a… what I’ve already said, an immune response, no more deliberate or punitive than a fever raising your body temperature to burn away an infection.”
Selina fingered the edge of the box thoughtfully.
“So if all I’ve done is stop a few white blood cells—”
“The immune response will send more,” Jason declared. “Until the disease is wiped out.”
“You’re saying I’ve WASTED all this time!” Selina exploded. “There was an OWL, Jason, there was an Owl-Man—with a dog collar! And I was naked at one point… and as if that’s not bad enough, one of them… prntlyskmetomryhm,” she murmured, all the breath suddenly dropping from behind her voice.
“I’m afraid I didn’t catch that,” Jason noted blandly.
“Apparently asked me to marry him,” she pronounced through defiantly clenched teeth.
Jason merely raised an eyebrow.
“Yes… well,” he went on at last, “with respect to your complaint, I would have to say no, in all likelihood, you have not completely wasted your time. Even before the ‘tether’ Bruce requested, the vortex was created to transport you across infinite dimensions into those which are specifically tied to this crisis. The ‘tether,’ to be honest, Selina, was something of a placebo. Bruce was… well, he can be quite… that is to say—”
“I think I understand, Jason.”
He coughed. “Yes, quite, I imagine you would. In any case, you’ve experienced several worlds that are all connected in some way to this cosmic instability. If you’re able to see past this… eh, this relationship angle,” he noted, gesturing towards the Cartier box as if shooing a troubling insect, “you may be able to identify a common element which will illuminate the true source of the crisis and show us how to proceed.”
“The relationship is the common theme, Jason. Me and him, together, that’s the only thing running through all of these worlds.”
Jason looked uncomfortable and clumsily fingered his collar.
“Selina, I hesitate to raise a delicate subject, but if Zatara and therefore Zatanna’s magic is the root cause of this, if Zatanna used her powers to commit some ‘magical sin’ and your relationship with Bruce is the only common theme in these worlds you’ve seen, then I fear you must prepare yourself for the possibility that—”
“Zatanna did not do anything to me,” she interrupted simply. “You don’t have to hem and haw about it; I’m not Bruce and I’m not going to smack you around just for suggesting it. But Jason, I am telling you: the Master Detective got hold of a bad scent there. I don’t know about all Zatannas everywhere—God knows it’s the only possible explanation for flat-chested non-purple goggle chick from the Gotham Post up in the study… But I know, Jason, I know in that ‘here and now’ you made such a point of yesterday, that our Zatanna didn’t do a thing to me.”
“How can you be so sure?” Jason asked, struck by the serene confidence with which she spoke—and wondering if it could not itself be evidence of a spell.
In reply, Selina smiled a strange, secret smile… and Jason produced a mental pencil and drew a thick, definite line though his theory of magical cat-tampering. It was Claire’s smile…
“I can be sure,” she said with a charged finality. “You can trust me or not when I say I know what I’m talking about, but that’s all the answer you get.”
…It was Claire’s smile whenever she drank absinthe, when she smelled croissants, or saw a street artist. It was Claire remembering Paris. And it meant that, whatever it was that made Selina so certain, she wouldn’t tell him because it was none of his business, no more than he would tell her intimate details about his past with Claire.
“Fine,” Jason replied crisply. “In the interests of proceeding before the fabric of space-time erupts into a flame of un-existence, let us say that I’m satisfied with your typically female and feline assurances uncorroborated by any rational explanation whatsoever.”
“Meow,” Selina answered.
“Quite,” Jason continued. “But Selina, just because she didn’t succeed doesn’t mean she didn’t try—even in the here and now, Zatanna may have tried to use magic to change you.”
“Yeah, okay, point,” she said lightly, fussing with the ring box in a markedly feline fashion. Then she sighed. “I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve a cosmic spanking, Jason. But that Top guy in Keystone, she actually DID change him and that was years ago. That didn’t set off any Berliani disasters, did it? And this last AU I visited, it looks like she was giving out frequent flyer miles to half the Justice League turning their enemies around. So why is this happening now, and what makes me such a big deal?”
Jason looked grave.
“You ‘meowed’ a moment ago. I’m not joking. Selina, you are… ‘a cat’ in ways I do not fully understand. I was practicing magic for more than a millennium before Zatanna’s great grandparents were born, and I would not have the first idea how to alter the moral makeup of a cat. Your own little ‘Whiskers’ was explaining the feline canon just the other day: ‘Am I afraid of it? If so, run. If not, can I eat it? If so, eat.’ And so on. How would one begin to flip that around? The Top fellow you mentioned, in Keystone? It would be child’s play to change him. Taking someone from a minus-five to a plus-three is ethically repugnant, but it is POSSIBLE, you just add eight. Taking someone from… from, how to even describe it, from chocolate to Thursday is not possible! It’s nonsensical.”
“So what happens when magic is flummoxed by nonsense?” Selina asked. “You tell it to turn chocolate into Thursday right now, what do we get?”
“Nothing much,” Jason shrugged. “Certainly nothing of a Berliani nature. The best analogy I can make is if Bruce were to sing into that computer of his instead of typing into a C-prompt. Or if you typed a command into your computer to make a dog fetch a stick.”
“Then we’re still missing something,” Selina said, shaking her head.
“So it would seem,” Jason agreed.
To be continued...