Chapter 16: Dark Knight Toccata
I dreamed of something rumbling, booming in the distance. Deep, resonant, bouncing around behind my ears and filling my chest with its vibrations. It seemed to echo out into the whole world. I’d gone to sleep with silk sheets caressing my bare skin in a warm bed that only faintly smelled of garlic, but as I flitted in and out of consciousness I became aware of disconcerting sensations; a damp, stony scent, and cold nibbling at my cheeks and nose, and a familiar presence tight against my skin, covering me head to toe…
My catsuit. I was wearing it, and I had no idea why, or how, and I couldn’t remember changing. And the tickle against my skin was the wind, but I had gone to bed with the windows closed against the cold autumn air. The smell in my nostrils was rain. And the sound in my ears was the sound of thunder.
As it boomed again, I snapped awake, to see a narrow silhouette standing with its back to me, framed like an Expressionist shadow against a vast night sky cut by frequent veins of lightning. Hands clasped behind his back, turning his head alertly to each new crack of thunder like he was having a conversation with the storm.
A tall thin man dressed in all in black.
“…Dracula,” I whispered before I caught myself, and he turned to look at me over his shoulder. I saw the points of his ears, the long flowing black hair drawn back, and his face – sharp, predatory, a goatee framing too-red lips.
People say they can see the cat in me. Something about the way I move, the shape of my eyes, the way I smile. This man was a wolf, in all the old, cruel, Red Riding Hood senses of the word. It was in the edges of his face, in the white points of his teeth just visible past his lips, in the mirror-like eyes that caught the red in the lightning and didn’t let it go.
It was the same wolf I’d felt buried in the man I had danced with a few hours ago. But it wasn’t the same man’s face. I hoped I was dreaming; it seemed too surreal, to wake up to this, after everything we’d been through. How?
“Did you enjoy my masquerade?” he asked, and I grimaced; somehow hearing his voice broke the dream and brought me to stark reality.
“Is that what you call it, Count?” He was real and I was here, in my cat suit, on the roof of the Wayne building, sitting on an incongruous chair at an incongruous dining table that didn’t belong in the middle of Bruce’s private helipad, “Because given the choice I’d have taken a date with Hugo Strange over…this.”
He smiled at me, and without a word he glided forward and his spidery fingers produced a bottle of fine vintage red from out of nowhere and poured into a crystal goblet on the table.
I watched the red liquid slosh into the glass with a sick feeling in my stomach.
“You must forgive that I do not join you…” he began, mockingly.
“…But you never drink wine,” I cut him off, trying not to let him see me thinking over all the ways I could get off this rooftop. Then something hit me.
“So why are there two glasses?”
Dracula chuckled, “This,” he tapped the second glass with a ping like a distant church bell, “Is not for me.”
Then he turned without further explanation and stared back out into the storm, expectantly. I heard him whispering under his breath, saw his fingers shifting in sinuous, careful motions, and I realized he really was communing with the storm, guiding it, commanding it. The swollen grey clouds stretched to the horizon in every direction, but they were knotted thickest and blackest right above our heads.
I mulled over the fact that he was obviously waiting for Batman. That meant I was bait. Despite a heavy lethargy, I felt my fingers flare the claws a little at that thought. Bait. Bait. It was one thing if I chose to put myself in that position as I had at the ball, but I was nobody’s fainting damsel. Nobody’s. Undead bloodsucker or not, mind control abilities or not, already had his fucking teeth in my neck and tasted my corpuscles or not, Catwoman is not someone you position helplessly on in a tower window of the Gothic castle, standing silently in that flowing white nightie to draw the strapping arch nemesis into your lair. No sir, you bring Catwoman into the equation, you get CATWOMAN. Not some empty vessel.
The Count knew that. He had to know, too, that this was a declaration of war, but he’d risked it anyway, and I couldn’t see the reasoning behind it. If it was Eddie, I’d be looking for logic. Asserting his intelligence, proving he was smarter, and therefore the better man. If it was Joker, then random and chaotic—if we were lucky—and trying to make a point if we weren’t. Trying to prove one of his insane ‘social theories’, or whatever. But Dracula, Dracula was about something else, and I didn’t know him well enough to figure out what it was.
I’d have loved to unravel him with my silence, the way we cats usually do when someone makes the mistake of letting us be scenery. There’s a lot to see when they think you’re not looking. But Dracula brought me here, he wasn’t going to simply forget I was there, drop his guard and allow me to read his game. I needed another approach—which was just as well. Passive and silent didn’t fit my mood. Cats also know when a ball of yarn needs a little pawing to make that first end of thread show itself.
“So, Vlad,” I prompted, fidgeting in my chair. I was not restrained physically, but I felt heavy and lethargic, weighed down somehow, and I knew I wasn’t drugged. The bastard was doing it with his mind, as expected. I’d have to play the best hand I could.
“I’m guessing that was you at the ball, but not you, so I guess you dressed some minion up and mind controlled him and had Joker shoot him and drop him off a rooftop…”
“And since you’re still here, they’re all still… vamped, if that’s the word. It was all a charade.” I shook my head, “Robin, the Rogues, the attack on the ball… all a sick joke from beginning to end?” A beat passed, and I gave him a defiant little smirk, “It’s a little Rube Goldberg for a fifteenth-century warlord, don’t you think? If you wanted to get to me, or to Batman, you had some good shots, I’ll admit. But… then you just went theatrical. Made it overcomplicated, like they always do. Now, whether you know it or not, you’re screwed. My question is, why?”
Dracula laughed quietly and lowered his hands, and the storm seemed to settle with them.
“To show that I too can play your game,” he said, “And win.”
He walked over to me, and I felt the lead heaviness leaving my body, and to my horror, as he lifted his hand, I found myself rising out of my seat to meet him, like a puppet on a string.
“And then to teach you a different game,” he murmured.
“At the ball, I told you I wanted to know what to do with the Dracula your world has imagined. Tonight, I have created and destroyed him for you. Were you pleased?”
“I was,” I said, but it came out as a shaky whisper. I couldn’t move my arms and legs, couldn’t reach for my whip, couldn’t do anything but fall into those cold emotionless eyes…and the feeling of helplessness knotted my gut, “Now, not so much.”
“I am what remains,” he purred, “And as I have remade myself, so I shall remake your world into one to welcome Dracula with open arms.”
“That’s it? World conquest?” It was getting harder and harder to speak, to think. A kind of cold numbness spread through me, dulling everything else, “The tried-and-true? That’s all?”
“Not all, dear lady,” he said, and touched my cheek. His fingers were cold, the flesh of a corpse, and up close he smelled like rain on ancient stone and damp grave earth and a faint rusty bitterness. Blood. Death. A shudder went through me. “Not all,” he said again, and his fingers slid under my cowl and pushed it back from my neck.
I couldn’t say anything. I felt his lips on my brows, my cheeks, on my own lips, then on my throat. My head tipped back against my will and the cold points prickled and then burst into pain. I fought just to get the gasp out; my mind was thrashing and flailing and screaming but my body lay limp as a doe in the jaws of a wolf, and I hated every moment of it because I knew what he was doing to me, and I hated it even more when I felt the tingle of blood loss spread along my limbs and caught my body relaxing, responding to him. The pain in my throat receded and I felt – cold. The coldness grew until I thought it would devour all of me.
Then, Dracula let me go.
I sucked in a breath and went to my knees, catching myself with my hands on the damp tarmac. The Count had turned away again, but he ran his hand through my hair in an affectionate, far-too-familiar way that made me want to retch.
“Get it over with,” I said through clenched teeth, “I know you’re going to so just…just do it.”
“You misjudge me, my lady,” he said, turning back to me with a devil’s victorious smile. I saw him lick my blood off his teeth in an almost-feline way that made it even worse. “This…” he stroked my cheek and tipped my face up to look at him, “Is not for me.”
“It doesn’t matter what game you’re playing,” I hissed at him, trying not to let the shudder I felt at that awful corpse-touch show, “It’s already over.”
“Yes,” said Dracula, “It is.”
Then his ear perked, and I heard a soft rustle I’d learned to anticipate on many other rooftops, in countless museum vaults and alleyways and gallery halls. I felt the air shift in his direction the way it does when he arrives.
Dracula gestured. I felt my body sink beneath that heavy leaden control again, and I saw beyond Drac’s shoulder, the pointy-eared silhouette of Batman standing on the edge of the rooftop looking like a gargoyle spat out of Hell.
Dracula turned to meet him.
“Welcome, Mr. Wayne,” he said.
Batman said nothing. I’d thought him intense when Tim was in danger but this – he was a singularity. There was a black pit of pain and anger deep down in him that had opened with two gunshots in an alley and fuelled the wrath the criminals feared. He had battled it, used it, controlled it, made it serve him instead of commanding him and he’d turned it into a weapon for good. But those rare times when I saw him like this, I saw into that pit and I saw what he was holding back and my heart broke for him.
“Some wine?” Dracula said, gesturing to the bottle and glass behind him.
Batman’s fist creaked in response.
“As expected,” said the Count, “Then, shall we to business?”
“I have no business with you,” said Batman, “And you have no business with my city, or with Catwoman. Let. Her. Go.”
“I’m afraid that is impossible, my friend.” Dracula said softly, “For both of you are now bound to me. I have supped of her blood twice now, and once of yours.”
I saw Batman’s haggard eyes and I knew he was aware of it. Drac had bit him. He must have come into the Manor, somehow, bitten Bruce and then taken me from my bed to lure him here. I felt my knuckles stretching my gloves.
The Count did not smile as he continued, “Each of you carries the sentence of death and undeath in your veins. Its only cure is my destruction.”
“Not your game,” said Batman, “You could have killed us both, or made us completely undead, but you didn’t.”
“And Robin is no longer a vampire,” Batman growled, “So Plogojowitz bit him at your command to throw us off your scent when you killed him. Ivy, Joker, and Quinn are still infected, but you haven’t turned any of them permanently either…”
“Yes,” Dracula repeated.
I was angry. Hurting. Hurting more that he was hurting Bruce. I cut to the chase; “What the hell do you want with us?”
Dracula smiled faintly. I felt the power that had been pinning me down lift me up, drag me toward Batman, and then release me. I tottered, gained my bearings with the grace natural to a cat, and in a flash my whip was out and slashing the air for Dracula’s face. Even with his speed he didn’t see it coming and it sliced a wicked gash across his forehead.
I saw the surprise in his eyes and caught an admiring mirth in his chuckle. I hissed at him.
“Well-played, my lady,” he said.
“Can’t say the same for you,” I said, stepping beside Batman and giving him a little glance that said we were in this, together, to whatever end, “You’re done everything possible to piss off the most dangerous costumed couple on the planet. Are you aware of that fact?”
“Indeed,” said Dracula, bowing cordially to the both of us, “And I apologize for the discourtesy. I would have preferred not to have…infected you,” Dracula said, as though our choice of wording amused him to no end, “But I had no illusions that you would come to me of your own free will. It was necessary to give you some incentive to accept my offer.”
“Offer?” snarled Batman, “You invaded my city, murdered its citizens, spread a contagion, infected my enemies and my allies with your disease. The only offer I will hear from you is your unconditional surrender.”
Dracula raised a hand passively, “Hear me…”
“No,” I snapped, “not really inclined.” And even I was surprised at how cold my voice came out, “You made a lot of mistakes coming here, but sinking your fangs into my neck, that was the worst. There’s no going back for you. If you think we’re going to listen to you when you expect me to become your ‘Bride’…”
“Far from it, my dear lady. You were never to be my Bride,” said Dracula, smiling at Batman, “You are to be his.”
It fell into place, piece by piece. The ball, the costume, the wine, my cat suit, the Rogues, the Robins, even the dead vampires Cass had found at the church. It all began to make sense, and when I saw it all, I felt sick to the stomach.
“You can’t be serious…” I said, looking between Batman and the Count.
Dracula gave the ghost of a smile, walking toward the edge of the roof, with all of Batman’s rage—louder and blacker and stronger than the storm—following him. Then he turned his white face to the giant Wayne emblem on the tower pinnacle just above where we stood.
“A man always builds highest what he values most,” said Dracula, “Tell me, my friend, what did your father wish to honor when he built this grand castle and named it for himself?”
Batman said nothing and I squirmed inside because he was heaping more fuel on his own pyre and he just…wouldn’t…stop. Bringing Bruce’s parents up was about the worst he could possibly-
“Not arrogance,” the Count continued, when Batman didn’t speak, “No, from any other man perhaps, but not from Thomas Wayne. I have much read of him. A great man. A man of peace. He used his name so that the name of his beloved family would become a symbol for his people to rally behind, did he not?”
“Hope,” said Batman, finally, “He wanted to give them hope.”
“How like the father is the son,” Dracula said, shaking his head, “I know well this beating heart,” He tapped his lifeless chest, “For my father, whom you call Vlad Tepes, sacrificed everything he had and everything he was for Wallachia, as did his father before him. That is what makes a prince! A voivode is not his throne, nor his castle, nor his armies, nor his titles. He is the land. His blood is its blood. And the blood is the life.”
He turned with a sweep of his arm to the glittering carpet of Gotham beyond us…and his smirk was gone. Replaced by something I almost thought was sincerity.
“You are voivode here, Bruce Wayne. Gotham is your kingdom. No other could defend it with such passion and conviction. Even if I overthrew you, killed you, took it from you, it would never be mine as it is yours.”
“Then leave,” said Batman.
“I intend to,” said Dracula, “When I have enthroned you and your queen as the vampire lords of Gotham.”
Batman fell silent and looked at me. God, the darkness in him; it was this gaping wound that wouldn’t close. Dracula hadn’t made it, hadn’t even come close, but he’d reopened it and rubbed salt in it and he was dancing right on the edge of it. Unleashing that beast had toppled supervillains a hundred times stronger than the Count, had brought down forces that had the whole JLA against the ropes. Dracula was many things but I couldn’t see him as suicidal. He had to know…was he just too arrogant to care?
“Bad move, Count,” I said simply.
“I’ll give you,” Batman said quietly, “One more why. Then I finish this.”
“The darkening of the world is inevitable,” said Dracula, “And I am but a part of it. You can struggle against the tide for a lifetime, perhaps. But already your mortal bodies grow weary…you have put them through the kind of punishment that would kill a lesser man, a lesser woman, a thousand times over. And the price of Time is steep…”
“Stop right there,” I said, “We get the immortality speech from Ra’s… a lot. And it’s crap. It was crap the first time and crap the thousandth time. If it’s all you’ve got, save it.”
“Ra’s al Ghul is a fool who thinks you fear death, as he does.” Dracula chuckled, “I know better. It is not death you fear. It is what will happen to your city after you are gone.”
“You are more like him than you think,” Batman said quietly. I couldn’t read his expression.
Dracula reached down and dipped his fingertip in the untasted wine. He rubbed the red smear between his fingers and looked back at us.
“When the time comes for Batman,” he addressed Batman directly, “When he can no longer do as he must, what then, my friend? Will you force one of your young princelings into your cowl and cape? Would you have another shoulder the burden? This burden?”
Batman stood like a mountain in a tsunami and bore it in silence. He’d let Dracula beat on him and I couldn’t predict whether he’d shrug it off, give it the quiet smolder of slow but infinite hate, or if he was about to go supernova. I readied my whip to give the Count another one, just to shut him up.
“Vlad, you really might want to stop there-”
“You alone are Batman,” he said, his eyes snake-like, hypnotic, fixed on Batman’s own. I suddenly knew why Batman hadn’t moved; the bastard had mind-controlled him when he released me, “And only you can be. Gotham City will die with its dark knight. It is as inevitable as the dying of the sun.”
Mind-controlled him when he released me.
I stepped to block his line of sight and cracked my whip again, “I’m warning you…”
Mind-controlled him when he released me.
“You will deny me, of course,” slow, stalking steps circled us. We were the prey. I tried to whip him again but he was ready this time; he blurred to one side without skipping a step and kept coming toward us. Crack. Crack. He blurred away each time and kept talking. His stare never left Batman, “…so I have taken the choice from you. Now you must break the rule that is your heartbeat, and destroy me…”
“ENOUGH!” I roared, and went for him. Dracula blocked my arm, and I felt a fire go through me that defied my fatigue, my blood loss, everything. My claws slashed his coat. My boots cracked against his cheek. He went back, but he was still speaking, relentless, his voice like a demon’s chant in our ears. But I couldn’t shake that thought: he’d let me go when he took control of Batman. So his control wasn’t absolute or unlimited; with subjects as strong-willed as the two of us, he could only keep one of us under his thumb at a time…
And that wouldn’t be enough.
Then he open-palmed me in the gut and I felt the rooftop hit my back and I saw stars shooting in the corners of my vision.
“Destroy me,” Dracula whispered, “And return to your rotting husks, bound for the grave. Or become as I am, blood of my blood, for it is the final bite that seals the bond of vampire and child. If you do not slay me here, you will die, and rise again as my slaves. That is no fate for a voivode and his princess. To the man who embodies the rule of Justice and Order for Gotham as Vlad Tepes did for Wallachia, I offer another choice. Take it from each other, and you shall be equals, my children.”
I fought to my feet, but the thing he’d left in my blood was awake, writhing, gnawing at the inside of me, and I was fighting myself as much as him…because I knew what the hunger in me was hungering for.
“Consummate here your wedding of the blood,” Dracula said, “and rule the Gotham night for all eternity.”
“NO!” I snarled at him, and with a cruel smile he turned again on Batman, and stalked lazily toward him with hand outstretched.
“Take what I have given you. Your vilest enemies heel like dogs at my command. But I have left the final kiss for you, so that they will be yours, and bound to your will. Think! They who preyed upon your city shall become the agents of your Purpose. You will have the city of peace your father dreamed of. And the price, for its people, but a small monthly tribute of blood. And I shall leave you to your kingdom, for there is much more for me to do, my friend. Very much more.”
His clawed hand stretched toward Batman, and I saw him leaning, pulled like a marionette, slowly, slowly, to take it.
“What say you?” said Dracula.
I fought the vampire’s control enough to take a step, then another. I looked up just in time to see it.
Batman’s hand fell, and he laughed.
Bruce Wayne doesn’t laugh often. He’s a serious guy. I don’t think even Alfred had heard him laugh much before…well, us. Now, he laughs. Still not often, but he does. It’s a gorgeous laugh, understated, but warm and real and full of him. I’ve also heard Bruce Wayne laughing out of Batman’s mask, on very rare occasions, and when that happens, it’s creepy as hell, because it doesn’t belong there.
But this wasn’t Bruce laughing. This was Batman laughing. Batman laughing is rarer still and terrifying. Joker heard it once and couldn’t raise a chortle of his own for weeks.
“I say,” said Batman, “That I’ve heard that joke before.”
Dracula’s fingers curled and his eyes went glacial. And I saw something almost as scary as Batman laughing; I saw Dracula’s rage. The wrath of a will that had conquered Death itself. Irresistible force, meet immovable object.
With me in the middle. Right where I belonged. From there, I could tip the scales.
“You shall find a key difference between myself and Ra’s Al Ghul, my friend,” the Count said, “I make an offer only once.”
His talons shot for Batman’s throat; but the black cape flicked and Batman’s hand came back up. Dracula recoiled with a kind of harsh barking sound like a whipped dog and I saw a glint of metal in Batman’s grip.
A crucifix. It seemed to grow larger and larger in my vision. For me it held only the association with Christianity a not very religious 21st Century girl would bring to it; but for the piece of Dracula he had left in my blood, it burned like the sun. It hurt to look at.
“Put that down!” Dracula snarled. His command went through me and I saw Batman’s hand shaking – smoking through his gloves – but his willpower held. He took a step forward. Dracula took a step back.
“It isn’t the wielder’s faith, is it Count?” he said, “It’s the symbol itself. The shape. It triggers something buried deep down in your psyche by a mortal lifetime of conditioning. A psychosomatic response.” A step forward. A step back. Dracula’s face was twisted like a beast, but he couldn’t look directly at the cross. “I bet the modern vampires you despise aren’t affected at all. It’s you, and your bloodline, because it was drilled into your father when he was alive and you took his memories.”
Dracula’s eyes went narrow and his lips twitched up over his teeth.
“’A man always builds highest what he values most,’” Batman quoted like it was an incantation. “What was the highest point in every village you ever saw as a living man? What made every peasant genuflect and cross themselves? ”
“I command you,” Dracula said, with one of his imperious gestures, pointing a claw out into the glittering void of Gotham, “Throw it away!”
Batman stopped, wrestling with himself and with the Count’s compulsion, but he did not budge.
“No matter what you do,” he continued, “You can’t break it. Your undead curse has frozen it into you, like the garlic and the running water and all the other limitations you can never escape.”
“Throw. It. Away.” Dracula thundered again. I saw Batman’s arm shift to the left and then back. He was fighting it, and I was fighting it. I saw my whip where it had fallen from my hand when Drac hit me. I couldn’t get closer to Batman because of the cross, but I could do something…
“Free will,” Batman said, looking Dracula straight in the eye. Challenging him. “Van Helsing was right. You don’t have it. You think yourself so much smarter and better than them, but all your powers, all your schemes, all your plans…it’s all to feed the Thirst, isn’t it?”
He thrust the cross in Dracula’s face, and the Count bared his dagger teeth.
“Same dog,” said Batman, and he smiled, “Longer leash.”
I picked up my whip and crept toward Dracula’s back while he and Batman were locked in their battle of wills, but as I raised my hand to strike I saw a cunning gleam in the Count’s eyes, and he turned his attention from Batman to me. I felt his will crash down on me like an avalanche. My whipping arm shifted direction against my will, lashed out, and tore the crucifix from Batman’s hand. As it spun away into the night and vanished, I saw Dracula’s face melt back into its devil smile.
“A crucifix?” he said, “I expected more.”
Then his face went cold and he glanced at me. His voice whispered two sharp words into my mind, into my soul – Kill him.
The shadow he had planted in me woke up screaming, twisting my thoughts and feelings. All the love I felt for Bruce, the passion, the intensity of my emotions diverted until I hated everything about him; his voice, his body, his smell, everything. All I could think about was my claws tearing his throat and his hot blood splashing on my tongue. I was on him in a heartbeat and he was defending himself and I completely lost control. My limbs were moving, beating him savagely with all my years of combat training against all his years while Dracula played us like a chessboard for one. I heard myself snarl and felt fangs in my mouth, and I saw red eyes flashing in Batman’s cowl, and white knives glittering in his mouth, and I knew Dracula had won.
Dracula stalked around us, controlling us against each other, whispering words into our minds. He stoked the fire of our emotions, but he had bitten me twice and his power over me was stronger. Inside myself I grappled with the vampire thing, fought it, kicked it, bit it, screamed NO into its face and demanded it get the hell out of me. But I couldn’t stop myself from tearing into Batman, and he was only half-resisting.
For all I knew him, and for all he knew me, there were parts of us that had always been holding back. We’d hurt each other on those rooftops, in those alleys. But no matter how many bruises we gave each other, it had always been a sparring match. We’d never, ever, been fighting to maim, to kill. I didn’t even really know how to kill, because Catwoman never has – and while Batman doesn’t kill because it’s a nigh-religious edict he has placed on himself, Catwoman doesn’t kill because I’m not a murderous psycho. Now, against my will, I was fighting just like one. But something of Batman was still in control of his body, and he could not use the same force against me.
He faltered. I felt my claws tear into his chest and felt him go down beneath me. He was on the edge of the rooftop, his head and shoulders hanging out into dizzying space, and I had him pinned.
Behind me, I heard Dracula’s voice.
“Now you see that there is nothing you have that I cannot take from you.”
Batman turned his head, stared down, down. His eyes met mine. Then he grabbed me, twisted beneath me, and threw me off the roof.
The difference between leaping off a skyscraper and falling off one is indescribable to anyone who has not experienced both. I’m here to tell you, one is exhilarating, the other is…not.
Somewhere on the way down my flailing claws caught rope and wood and I found myself swinging wildly from a window-washer’s platform, hundreds of feet above the bleating horns and growling engines and hissing rain of the street. The rope creaked and the wind howled around my ears.
God damn you, Bruce, I thought, knowing he’d seen it and thrown me off trusting I’d catch myself, WARN a girl next time.
A noteworthy thing about cats; a cat will turn up its nose at a plate of food it was meowing plaintively for a moment earlier. A cat will demand to be let out of a house only to want back in five minutes later. Give a cat what it seems to be asking for and you’re as likely as not to discover it’s already changed its mind.
But give a cat an opportunity at your own peril. We don’t waste those.
As I came over the edge of the rooftop, I saw Dracula and Batman circling each other like a pair of alpha predators preparing to duel over territory. The Count evidently thought he had the upper hand; but he was smart enough to know Batman had plenty of tricks up his sleeve he might pull if his enemy went for a quick kill. He was stalking him slowly, taunting, trying to tease him into revealing his hand, and it was his caution, I realized, more than his overconfidence, that would give us a chance.
Drac, like Eddie, was too smart for his own good. He was so fixated on Batman, preparing for anything he might pull, he wasn’t paying attention anywhere else, and once more, he’d counted me out of the game.
Big mistake. Another. Big. Mistake.
Dracula suddenly chuckled in the back of his throat and blurred forward, his body breaking into a cloud of bats briefly as it did; Batman went into a defensive stance but the bats flapped around him and coalesced into Dracula behind his back. A blinding strike of his claws sent Batman tumbling, and by the time he was on his feet the Count was there again.
“You cannot tell me,” he taunted, “That the great Batman is helpless without a humble crucifix? What is next, a silver stake? A sprig of wolfsbane?”
Batman gritted his teeth and his hand went to his belt. A glass canister slipped out of its protective casing and flew straight for Dracula’s face, but the vampire caught it in his hand. He grimaced at the clear liquid sloshing around within.
“Holy water? Hmph. I shall not ask how you acquired this,” With a contemptuous flick of his wrist he tossed it aside, and it smashed against the concrete not far from where I hid, “It is twice the sin to steal from the House of God. Is that truly all you have?”
I saw that little twitch come to the corner of Batman’s mouth.
Dracula’s smile returned, “Of course. The Batman would not be limited to such clumsy superstitions. Do me the courtesy, dear friend, of telling me what manner of defeat you intended for me, since you would under no circumstance allow me to be destroyed.”
I saw the glint of victory in his eyes. He’d forced Batman to pull his trump card, as the Count would see it, and was now stalling, calling his bluff. He’d have known Batman would turn to technology rather than faith or folklore for a weapon, but Dracula’s inexperience with modern tech would mean his only way to learn what he was up against was to ask his enemy to explain it to him. Amazingly, Batman seemed to be playing along.
He straightened, and his hands went to his sides. Near the belt, but not pulling anything from it; letting Dracula eye his potential arsenal without knowing which he would go for.
“The key is your vulnerability to sunlight,” Batman said quietly, “Since it reduces your powers without destroying you. I thought that if I could build some kind of containment chamber I could confine you, like a cell for a mortal criminal.”
“Criminal,” Dracula laughed, “So that is what you think of me. How novel. Continue.”
Batman narrowed his eyes, circling the vampire as Dracula circled him, “Of course, I didn’t have time to build it, so I thought about what I might already have in existence that could be used against you.”
“Truly, you must have great resources at your disposal, my friend.”
“I also have a friend. Meta-human, like you,” Batman said, “Superhuman strength, speed, nigh invulnerability. In a way he’s your polar opposite. The sun is the source of his power.”
“Perhaps one day I shall meet this man,” said the Count, “I would relish the opportunity.”
Batman gave a little twitch. He didn’t flick his eyes to me, but I knew he had just become aware of my presence, and that was my cue to move. My eyes went to the shattered holy water bomb; I saw that part of the curved glass remained intact, and still held liquid.
My whip on its own couldn’t hurt Dracula, and he knew it. Good.
I crept out of my hiding spot behind the air conditioner vent, picked up the broken piece of glass, and poured the holy water over my whip.
“I doubt that,” said Batman, continuing his verbal duel with the Count. Each was stalling, now, measuring the other’s strength, waiting for that moment of weakness, that window for the fatal strike, “I already had a system of orbital satellites set up for his benefit. Should an enemy find a way to drain his strength, I could use the satellite network to bounce condensed beams of solar energy from any position around the Earth and aim a beam of concentrated sunlight straight at him.”
I saw that tiny pause in Dracula’s padding footsteps. That little hint of doubt that didn’t make it to his inscrutable smile. He narrowed his eyes, and looked up into the storm clouds above his head. He laughed quietly.
“It would need to be a truly powerful light, and a great deal of heat, to cut through my storm.”
“I figured you might use your weather powers to even the odds,” Batman said, “And I realized I would need to heavily modify the satellite above Gotham in order to weaponise it.”
“Even you with all your wealth and science could not have arranged an expedition to space in such a short time,” said the Count, “You’re bluffing.”
Batman lifted up a small black controller with a flashing red light on it.
Dracula’s smile faded.
“Fascinating,” said Dracula, “Give it to me.”
Batman’s shoulders tensed. I saw his fingers twitching over the device, then his feet dragged forward one after another. Dracula had been concentrating on him for some time and didn’t need to split his attention between the two of us; Batman couldn’t resist. His footsteps went closer, closer, and his hand stretched out…
Dracula calmly took the controller from him and held it up to crush it into powder in his grip -
And this time, I didn’t miss.
I whipped Dracula in the back, and his spine arched and a snarl went up out of his throat as my lash opened his coat and left a smoking line along his body. My second lash hit his wrist, and the precious controller went flying. He rounded on me, and I felt his rage bearing down on me like a tidal wave. But it gave Batman the chance to go for the controller. Drac saw it, too, but I wrapped the whip around his neck and yanked him toward me.
During our dance, I’d thought how I couldn’t tell strong he actually was. As if some part of me knew this moment was coming. Now that it was here, it didn’t matter. That poisoned whisper—Kill him—those nightmare moments where the love I feel for Bruce couldn’t hold back what this monster put inside me…it broke through now. I felt it surging through my arms and fingers as I twisted that whip around his throat. If it was Superman himself trying to stop me at that moment, we would have had a fair fight, and for two—four—five steps backwards, Dracula’s balance was Kitty’s bitch.
Batman’s fingers closed on the controller just as Dracula threw off my whip and slashed at me with his talons. I rolled away from him and came up with a wicked grin.
“Gotcha,” I said, as Batman came up with the controller in his hand.
“Do not mock me with your baubles,” the Count sneered at us both, “It is not possible. You’ve had no time, no chance!”
“You’re right, I haven’t,” said Batman, “But my friend can fly in space.”
He pressed the button. Dracula snapped his head up to the heavens above him just in time to see the clouds part in a wall of steam, as a beam of searing light shore through them and struck the Count full in the face.
The howl that went up from him was something completely inhuman—and very, very satisfying. I don’t know what Batman had expected – what I had expected – to see his powers drain, to see him reduced to a mortal state where he might be subdued, captured like anyone else – but what we got was much worse.
The storm clouds around the sunbeam went black and pulled in on themselves like an injured snake. Lightning slashed down and scorched the flanks of the Wayne building. While Batman and I shielded our eyes from the sudden light, there was a horrifying roar, a smoky smell—that gave way to a nauseating stench of fur and leather burning. Then something that used to be Dracula staggered out of the light. I saw the shadow of gigantic bat wings, a muscular shape twice the height of a man – a face that would give Manbat nightmares – then the huge claws seized Batman and the monster took off with him.
I barely had time to react. My whip went around the thing’s ankle and then we were flying – all three of us – Dracula’s huge wings beating above me – I could see his flesh was burned, half-sizzled away by the sunlight in some places, and he had Batman clutched up in front of his face, fighting to get free. We were hundreds of meters above the city, all I had to hold onto was a whip and it was slipping in my fingers. My legs swung in space, and the drag was too strong for me to pull them into a better angle. When I looked down, all I saw was a blur of familiar streets and rooftops scrolling past. We were moving out into the older part of the city, and the Count was climbing in altitude -
I swung forward and grabbed his leg. Claws kicked near my face. I hung on for dear life and used my weight as best I could to pull him down.
It seemed to work, and I saw the street growing larger, and then Dracula kicked me in the chest and I fell through the rain. I saw a grisly, spiky profile – a cathedral – my whip uncoiled in a frantic strike – and I found myself clinging to a gargoyle, my body swinging hard against the cold granite wall of a church.
Gritting my teeth, I climbed over onto the sloping roof, dislodged my whip, and saw the huge shadow of Dracula’s demonic form looming up high in the air. He still had Batman, and I saw him swat something out of Batman’s hand. It clattered on the rooftop near me.
Dracula turned and looked down at me between wingbeats. His awful face shifted into a sadist’s smile, and he kept looking at me as he lifted his claws and shredded Batman’s cape to ribbons. Then he flew higher above the church and lifted Batman up and I saw what he was going to do.
I don’t know what I was thinking. All I could see in my mind was Bruce’s body broken and bloody amid the jagged spikes of the cathedral towers. My hand went to the grapnel and as Dracula wheeled higher and prepared to throw Batman to his death, my only thought was to get him back down here. I shot the grapnel, heard it whistle, felt the distant thunk as it pierced Drac’s body. His shriek went above the thunder.
I didn’t have time to brace myself. I knew he’d yank me off the roof, I wasn’t heavy or strong enough to hold him. In desperation I tied the grapnel around the gargoyle behind me and ran – ran as if Bruce’s life depended on it, which it did – ran to catch him as he punched Dracula in the face and slipped out of his grip.
He was falling. Falling, and I was too slow to catch him. No grapnel, no cape glider, nothing but a human body plummeting through empty air. My whip went out, and around his torso as he plunged past the sheer wall of the cathedral.
His weight hit me like a ton of bricks. I fell forward, on my stomach, sliding across the cathedral roof. I hit the gutter and chunks of stone went flying past me and then I just…stopped.
I didn’t know if I had him or I didn’t. My world was a haze of pain and cold and wet. I looked down and saw a black shape dangling from my whip, and my heart lurched.
Then the shape swung toward the wall and its foot caught a ledge, and Batman was climbing up beside me, a strong arm around my shoulders, breathing hard. I saw his blood on the roof-tiles, mingling with the rain.
Our eyes met, then broke away as we heard an echoing scream, and saw Dracula, still tethered, flapping around in the sky like a giant paper kite spat out of Hell. He was berserk. I’d had a thought since that first hellish screech from the light beam, but now I saw it clearly; wounded animal. There is nothing more dangerous. There is nothing more deadly. He fought like the monster he was, slashing his wings and talons in all directions, trying to break free, but those ziplines of Batman’s can hold an industrial load. We saw his raw strength rocking the gargoyle he was tethered to - a gargoyle that, irony of ironies, was placed there to protect the holy place from evil.
“We have to cut the line!” Batman hissed, trying to push himself up, but as I put my arm around him to help him, a fork of lightning sliced through the heavens and went through Dracula – and went through the steel grapnel line and earthed through the gargoyle.
Dracula burst into flames. I felt my teeth go on edge as the gargoyle he was tied to cracked and fell and yanked the bat-monster down with it. Dracula fell like a blazing meteorite right into the highest spires of the church we stood on, the church on the corner of Lang and Furst, into them and through them. The gargoyle crashed through the main roof and Dracula plummeted after it. All we saw was his big black wings going down and a plume of dust and debris and smoke going up.
Battered, bruised, barely able to stand, we limped to the edge of the opening and stared down into the wreckage.
Far below, spread across the front pews and altar of the cathedral, Dracula’s demon-bat body lay broken, twisted, and smoldering. He was still moving, but there were bits of wood and iron sticking out of him everywhere, and I grimaced as I saw he’d landed on the big iron crucifix behind the altar.
It was stuck right through his heart.
Dracula looked up at us, and his wings shriveled and his body started shrinking back to normal even as it fell in on itself. His face went from young to old to ancient and was barely able to break out a final, bitter laugh as it stared at us.
“Well...” he called through the rain and ruin, “...played…”
Then he collapsed in on himself and crumbled into dust and brittle bones, and I felt the wriggling monster in my veins die with him. It whispered out of me and was gone, and I reached up to finger my throat and found the holes there gone, too. Batman and I slumped on the rooftop for what felt like aching hours of silence before we finally clambered down the broken beams to where he’d fallen.
Batman looked at what was left, and said nothing. I felt my stomach in my throat, staring at the vague lump of dust and ash in the shape of a man, staring at Batman’s grim, solemn expression.
Don’t do this, Bruce, I felt the cold spread through me, Please don’t do this. Please don’t do this. Please, please, please don’t do this. He was going to kill you! I had to do something to hold him down. I wasn’t trying to kill him, it didn’t even cross my mind, I couldn’t possibly have predicted it would end like this!
Did he see it that way? Did I see it that way? Had a crossed a line with him that I could never go back over?
Outside, we heard the mournful song of – not wolves. Dogs. A howl went up from every dog in the neighborhood, in unison. We stood and stared in silence. At each other, at Dracula’s remains. Above us, the storm clouds cleared, and I saw the light of dawn spilling down through the hole in the ceiling, filtering through the stained glass windows.
“He destroyed himself,” Batman said quietly.
I looked up at him.
“This,” he gestured, at the broken roof, the bent iron cross in the middle of the ash pile, the cracked remains of the gargoyle embedded in the floor, and I knew he meant all of it – the lightning, the gargoyle, the cross. I wasn’t responsible for that. I had no power to have made it all happen in just that way. I saw clearly, then, that it wasn’t me, in truth or in his eyes, and the relief nearly broke me in two.
“An impossible sequence of events,” he said, “Yet it happened.”
“Act of God?” I blew out a sigh, ran my hand through my soggy hair, “Almost like…nature turned against him.”
“He wasn’t a part of it anymore,” said Batman, shaking his head, “He doesn’t belong in this world. He could only press his control on it for so long before it rebelled.”
“Well said,” came a voice, and Jason Blood strode into the church behind us, a frown cut across his face as he saw the pile of dust, “And accurate enough. Probably more than you know.”
“Jason,” I acknowledged him with a nod. I’d have loved to hit him with a catty remark, but nothing sprang to mind.
“You’re late,” said Batman.
“I came as fast as I could,” Jason said, with a dry little smile. “I’m not psychic, you know.”
Batman glared at him.
Jason looked at me, saw my arched eyebrow, and sighed, “I had my suspicions that he might pull an eleventh-hour stunt like this, but it took the unpleasant revelation that Joker, Harley and Ivy were still vampires to confirm it. They ambushed us, and by the time we drove them off, your team couldn’t reach you on the com. While they tracked the vampires, I followed the signature of Dracula’s weather magic. Though the, ah, signal flare you let off atop Wayne Tower was the biggest clue.”
“You knew he wasn’t dead!” I shouted at him, “And you didn’t tell us!”
“I suspected. I didn’t know for certain that wasn’t him on the hotel rooftop. I haven’t seen the man in four hundred years and he’s been known to change his appearance before,” he countered, “I expected you would have drawn the same conclusion.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” said Batman, turning away, “He’s dead. It’s over.”
“Well,” said Jason, “In a manner. Look.”
Batman stopped, and I stopped. I squinted and leaned forward in the dim light of the church.
Jason was right. Dracula’s ashes were moving, ever-so-slightly, particles of dust drawing together, swirling around, slowly condensing. It’s absurd, but my first thought was he’s like the god-damned T-1000, only…dustier.
“Oh for god’s sake,” I said.
“Dracula never really dies,” Jason said. “Destroying his body releases his victims and renders him incapacitated, but… Evil always seems to find a way back. The how and why of it, even I am not sure of,” Jason shook his head, “But if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that his will to exist is stronger even than Death itself. A remarkable being.”
“Your ‘remarkable being’ is about to pull himself back together and kill us all,” I pointed out, “Don’t suppose you’ve got a Hoover in your bat-belt, handsome?”
Jason chuckled, “No need. You have done the hardest part, and for that I cannot thank you enough. But I will take it from here.”
He leaned down and placed an ornate silver urn on the floor of the church, and as we watched he sprinkled a white powder that might have been salt around it in a complex circle, chanting as he did.
He opened the urn, and we saw a layer of dark soil within. Then he straightened, and began a rhyme; we heard an echo of Etrigan in his voice.
“Restless spirit, risen dust,
Quell your dark and wicked lust,
Rest here within this earthen womb.
Lie quiet in this silver tomb.”
There was a whisper like the sigh of a ghost and Dracula’s remains lifted from the floor in flakes and specks, swirling around as if caught in a wind. While we watched, the dust poured into the urn like a genie back into its bottle, every last particle, until not so much as a speck remained on the floor – only the shadow of giant bat wings burned into the stone of the church. All that Dracula had been went into the urn, and when it was done, Jason carefully replaced the lid and chanted a spell of sealing.
“There,” he said when it was over, and picked the urn up, “That should keep him out of the world’s hair for quite some time.”
“What will you do with him?” Batman asked, and I detected a hint of incoming Psychobat. I hoped Jason would choose his words carefully.
“In my centuries,” Jason said, “there have been many artifacts I’ve come across whose magic is too powerful to be defused or destroyed, but too dangerous to allow to remain loose in the world. I have something of a vault of them, and I believe there is a place for Count Dracula there.”
“Is it secure?”
“Bullshit!” I said. “Do you have any idea how many ‘secure’ vaults within five minutes of here I can be in and out of by sunrise? I say we have Spitcurl drop it into the sun, then when he’s feeling up to pulling himself together and getting his ash out of the jar, he’ll be in for one hell of a surprise.”
The pair of them exchanged looks like I was an Arkham case, but before I could remember the wattage of the sun to reiterate my point, Jason cleared his throat and said he was ready to “take his leave” because even in a deconsecrated church, Etrigan was giving him a headache.
“Jason,” Batman said, “Is my team safe?”
“They called me just before I arrived here,” Jason said, “They captured Harley and Ivy; Joker, alas, eluded them. They’ve reconnoitered at your cave. Everyone’s fine. Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin, Oracle,” he smiled, “Alfred has something of a hypnosis hangover, but he’ll be fine too.”
Batman nodded slightly. His eyes held the ‘thank you’ he would never give voice to, and Jason bowed his head in return.
It was all too somber. I knew the moment called for me to lighten the mood, say something carefree and feline about the bath and massage I craved and how Bruce was honor-bound to give it to me since he’d gone and thrown me off a skyscraper… But I couldn’t feel it. I just couldn’t. Too much had happened that I hadn’t had a chance to process.
“Let’s go home,” I heard, whispered just outside my ear, and felt the tattered cape wrap around me like velvet wings.
I pursed my lips, glancing back at the shadow of Dracula on the stones.
“Deal,” I said.
Six months later...