Chapter 9: Knights of the Breakfast Table
The dawning of the next day at Wayne Manor brought both relief and trepidation. They’d bathed, thoroughly, and then curled up together, too exhausted to talk, make love, even to dream. Selina would later reflect on how rare these dreamless sleeps were for Bruce, but the source here was simple weariness. He’d been relentlessly focused on this case day and night since the dockside and by now, even with his formidable stamina, Batman was running on empty and the triple confrontations of the night before had been his body’s trigger to rebel and demand a little shuteye.
Selina had an odd, listless night by contrast. She hadn’t dreamed, it was true, but she had woken in the twilight hours to a cloying, nauseous feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach. She still felt deeply exhausted, though the ache in her muscles from hauling Otis about had subsided. Bruce was fast-asleep, and she envied him. She was also worried about him, but with the threat intensifying from moment to moment there was precious little time they could take to rest.
She, and Alfred, had insisted however that they make their first discussion of the day at the breakfast table instead of the cave. Nonetheless, the topic had quickly turned to the case, and the setting had proven advantageous, with the two of them – soon joined by a hologram of Oracle - sitting around the trays of coffee and exquisitely prepared French toast like the Knights of the Round Table at a war council.
“Let’s go over what we know about our enemy.”
Bruce tapped his fingers against his lips, staring with focused intensity into his coffee mug. The text of Dracula sat open beside his tray.
“From the book we know his weaknesses. Sunlight destroying vampires is a Hollywood invention. It won’t harm or kill him, but it will deprive him of his powers, especially his ability to shapeshift, during the daylight hours. We can’t afford to assume, however, that he won’t move about freely in the day if he feels the need, or that the sun will deprive him of his strength and speed. We have to be prepared to confront him anywhere he might show his face.”
“So sunlight will limit him but it isn’t the weapon of destruction decades of pop culture has ground into us.” Selina picked up, tapping her finger on her coffee mug in turn. “Fresh cloves of garlic or Christian iconography will repel him and may be used to seal him out of a building. I don’t know about you honey, but I’m not exactly a devout churchgoer and if these things run on actual faith, we may be screwed if we try to use them without knowing for sure. I say we stick with the garlic.”
Bruce chuckled, taking a small sip of his coffee before nodding. “Agreed.”
The hologram-Barbara spoke ::We also know that he can’t enter a private residence without being invited, but once the first invitation has been given, he’s free to come and go and may employ all of his powers to do so unless sealed out by one of the previously mentioned methods.::
“If I might request, sir,” Alfred spoke up from the background, where he was diligently tidying the room, as he tended to when unobtrusively keeping tabs on what his Master was doing, “that such precautions be put in place at the Manor, since this supernatural foe may well target one or both of you should he discern the identity of his opponents.”
“I’ll look into it.” Bruce replied, troubled. The likelihood of Dracula discovering that Batman was Bruce Wayne should not in theory have been any more or less likely than another Rogue doing so. But Selina was also working the case and her identity as Catwoman was, thanks to the show, common knowledge, as was the fact that she lived with Bruce Wayne. Another troubling factor was the possibility that if they did seal the Manor against vampiric intrusion, should the Count pass by he might start wondering just why playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne was so crazily prepared for a vampire attack. He might chalk it up to Catwoman’s planning, but that wouldn’t make it any less dangerous. The risk was still there that the very act of protecting their home might alert Dracula to the identity and location of his adversaries. And while Alfred would certainly not be tricked into inviting him in, he wasn’t immune to mind control.
:: He can’t come into anywhere that isn’t public uninvited, he can’t cross running water except at high or low tide unless he’s sleeping in a box and someone else is taking him. Garlic and crucifixes repel him, sunlight prevents him from changing forms and using his other powers, and he has to sleep in his native soil to recharge them. That’s a lot of limitations we can play on. ::
“Indeed.” Bruce murmured, and Selina could see from his expression that he was conjuring new protocols as they spoke, “Let’s move on to what he’s capable of.”
:: I’m hoping Van Helsing was exaggerating about him having the strength of twenty men. ::
“He wasn’t.” Bruce attested grimly. The dents in the Batmobile’s door proved that.
Selina had pulled the book over to her while Bruce and Barbara were talking, and added her two-cents. “Okay. So Dracula’s ridiculously strong and fast, Croc meets Flash, he can shrug off wounds that would hurt or kill anyone else because basically the only vital organ he has left is his heart. Book says he can ‘grow and become small’ – the part with Lucy has her slipping through a knife-wedge crack in a wall. He’d make a hell of a thief. Basically there isn’t a security system on Earth that could keep him out if they didn’t think smearing garlic on the windowsills was as worthwhile a precaution as a motion sensor. Even your pals in the Justice League never added that.”
Bruce shot her a mild glare, but she continued unconcernedly.
“He can summon fog and control storms, can control certain types of animals. So… that’s now Croc, Flash, Weather Wizard, and Aquaman. He can turn into mist or into…elemental…dust…on moonbeams…what the hell? They never put that one in the movies. He can turn into a wolf or a bat-”
“Several bats.” Bruce muttered under his breath.
“The guy is a powerhouse. He’s inarguably the most potent vampire in Victorian literature, and if that has any bearing on the real thing, that means he’s more powerful than your average real-life vampire by far. My question here is, why is that? Who the hell is this guy, and how did he get to be such a cut above the rest?”
A glowing ball of light had joined them at the breakfast table. A round of startled jumps and a quiet “My word!” from Alfred, and all eyes were turned to the hovering sphere that positioned itself just next to Barbara’s hologram.
Bruce’s eyes were instantly narrow and he stood from his seat, fingers pressed to the table, tension building around him like a thunderstorm.
~Bruce. Please excuse the intrusion. I know I promised Selina I would not interfere unless asked, but the situation has grown urgent. I could afford to wait no longer and I am afraid that I have not been entirely upfront with you.~
Selina couldn’t withhold a quiet groan. “Jason, this is why we have the cell phone, remember?”
~I feared waking you unexpectedly~
“Trust me, I really would not have minded. This, I mind.” Not because the light-balls bothered her in the slightest, other than being a little unnerving when they appeared so suddenly, but Jason had the absolute worst timing in the world and she had asked him not to do this, because Bruce was reacting in the exact way they all knew he would.
“This is my house, Jason Blood.” Bruce said quietly, but the Bat-thunder in the air around him was growling and the Bat-clouds turning an ugly black. “And I thought I had made my feelings clear about the intrusion of magic into my home.”
~Forgive me. Please. I must tell you things urgently before I embark on my own battle. I will not interfere with your investigation, but as Gotham is also my home I must do whatever I can to protect it from the threat of Dracula, with or without you. I would infinitely prefer to work with Batman and his allies but if your distaste for my methods is so great, Bruce, then I regret that I can only provide you with information and my best wishes for your success. I will, nonetheless, do what I must.~
My God, Selina thought, He really IS as stubborn as Bruce. She would have to nip this in the bud before Bruce got started. She cleared her throat.
“Then with us it is. You were saying something about a Scholomance? What exactly is that?”
Bruce bristled with contained fury; it was like watching a sentient bomb trying not to explode. But as the intel started flowing, he managed to hold it in. Selina, for her part, masked a sigh of relief.
~It is mentioned in Stoker’s book that as a living man, Dracula was a student at a clandestine school of magic in the Carpathians known as the Scholomance. A school where only ten students are ever admitted at a time, because the Devil himself is the teacher and every tenth student’s soul is taken as his payment. This is not a fantasy. The school is real and I – I and Etrigan – were present when Dracula attended it.~
"I'll be damned,” Selina stared at the orb from which Jason’s voice was echoing “You did go to college with him!”
~In a manner.~ Jason’s voice sounded strained. Selina glanced to Bruce, who was still standing, glaring silently, making her aware that when this was over, someone was going to pay for this violation of his home turf and for agreeing to Jason’s input without waiting for his answer, but he was at least going to listen to Jason’s information before laying down the law.
~In order to combat evil one has to know the enemy. Intimately. My struggle against the forces that seek to corrupt humanity, Bruce, is just as complicated as yours, maybe more so. A demonologist by definition is one who studies demons, not one who battles them, and my…position with Etrigan has left me uniquely placed to do so. One who delves into their world is forced to play their games by their rules, and they are deadly games indeed. One of those games led me to enroll in the Scholomance, to find out just what kind of black magic was being taught to those ten sorcerers and for what purpose.~
“And that’s where you met Dracula.” Bruce graveled, finally speaking. Alfred was busying himself with something in the background and Oracle had fallen silent, listening. Selina, nonetheless, felt an uncomfortable and distinctly feline sensation crawling up the back of her neck. Raised hackles.
~Yes. As a result, I am privy to certain knowledge concerning Dracula’s past that almost nobody else ever had, and certainly nobody alive today would have. When I met him he was a young man, shrewd, ambitious. Brilliant, but hungry for power and unafraid of the price. It was to be expected of one like himself, who felt already connected to the world of the demonic, and believed he had nothing to lose.~
“This doesn’t sound very much like Vlad the Impaler. He was a prince, and the driving purpose throughout his entire life was to hold onto his throne, from what I’ve read.” Selina leafed through the pages of the book before her, noting for the first time how the Stoker vampire’s monologues were vague and jumbled on the topic of his history, alluding to but never directly connecting to the life of Vlad Dracula, the man upon whom he was frequently thought to be based. “He was also a devout Christian knight right up until his death. What would make him take up devil-worshiping and sorcery?”
~You’re correct, Selina. Well read. The reason it doesn’t fit is because Count Dracula is not the man you think he is. He is not Vlad III Tepes. He is Vlad’s firstborn son.~
That had everyone’s attention. Jason went on.
~When he was a youth, just after his return from imprisonment in Turkey, Vlad fell in love with a beautiful Szgany gypsy woman. Their affair was…illicit, to say the least, as gypsies were and still are considered to be dirty thieving scum at the best in that part of the world, and Vlad was a prince of Wallachia and soon to be married to a girl of appropriately high birth. The truth of course is that the Szgany and their ilk were, and still are, an ancient and highly-traveled people and the keepers of many secrets lost to the rest of the world. The dark-eyed woman to whom Vlad lost his heart was also a powerful witch.~
~They were careful, applying all of her arts to ensuring that she did not conceive, but conceive she did. Vlad was furious, but he loved her, at first, too much to have her murdered, and feared drawing attention to himself, so he simply exiled her entire tribe to neighbouring Transylvania as soon as he had risen to the throne. Yet the lure of his first son was too strong, and he returned to her in secret to witness the birth.~
~The son was born with a caul on a full moon night under an inauspicious star. A pack of wolves serenaded his entrance into the world. He was born with his eyes already open, with fully-developed teeth and fingernails. Every superstition these people had concerning ill-omened children destined to become a vampire, witch or werewolf played out that night in succession. It was a different time, then, and Vlad Dracula was a man capable of the most sadistic cruelties ever conjured by a human mind. His response was instant. ~
::I don’t want to hear this.:: Barbara, being of the three the least hardened to violence, murmured through her hologram.
~Then I will say no more than that he had the infant buried alive and the mother executed in…a horrific fashion. She cursed him as she died, but he did not feel the effects until many years later. She had opened Vlad’s eyes, you see, to the world that exists within and around our own, and after her death he became as vehement a nemesis of the demonic enemies of Christ as he was of the mortal enemies of Christendom. He hid among his famous impalements and tortures the deaths of thousands of vampires and other supernatural monsters, masking them as political purges aimed to weed out his rivals and enemies. He all but exterminated the vampire population in Eastern Europe, and drove most of the survivors into Styria and Greece. It is ironic that the world now remembers him as a vampire, for Vlad Tepes was in truth the greatest vampire hunter who ever lived.~
“But you’re saying his son became the vampire Dracula…the son that he buried alive?” Selina spoke up, casting a glance across to Bruce to check his temper. He had calmed. The story was too bizarre not to give his entire attention to.
~Yes. It is my theory that the child had demonic blood on its mother’s side, or that perhaps a demon of considerable ranking possessed Vlad on the night of conception. I have never identified the demonic father of Count Dracula, but his unusual physical features, his natural aptitude for black magic – it all suggests him to have been born of a union between a mortal and a demon of Hell. In any case, the child did not die when he was buried alive. He lay dormant and grew to adulthood in the womb of the earth itself. It was only when his father was killed on the battlefield, when his mother’s curse came into effect, tearing Vlad’s soul from his body and imprisoning it within his son, giving him all of his father’s knowledge, memories, and skills…~
::Oh my God.:: Barbara hissed over the com.
~…that Count Dracula awoke and rose from the grave, as it were, for the very first time.~
“That’s why he has to sleep in his native soil. He was literally born from it.” Bruce fairly snarled, turning from the table to stare at the wall as if he could glare through it and see the Count even from here. “That’s why he so callously disregards human life. He was never really human to begin with. He is a monster born out of lies and murder and he’s in my city right now and you did not see fit to enlighten us with any of this until this moment. Why?!”
~You haven’t exactly made it easy to talk to you, Bruce. Frankly, since the incident with the cosmic spark, you've treat me with all the hospitality I would expect if I were visiting a 12th-century French village dressed as a leper.~
A low growl rumbled in the back of the Bat’s throat. “You’re here now. You’re talking. I’m listening. I want to know everything you know about this enemy. No secrets, no games.”
~I was unaware that I was ever foolish enough to attempt mind-games with Batman. But I thank you again for hearing me out. To continue, Dracula was not yet a vampire when we studied together at the Scholomance. He and I were…friends.~ The strain returned to Jason’s voice. ~I think I knew better than anyone what it felt like to be someone who had evil coursing through his very veins. I tried to talk him out of continuing his studies, but he was relentless. He pursued his purpose as single-mindedly as someone else I know.~
~Except Dracula derided the human species as a whole. His father’s memories and his own experiences simply added up to the belief that humans were either useless sheep or conniving wolves, prey or predators, and that given the choice he would rather be the greatest wolf of them all. He was totally without mercy or compassion even then. I couldn’t stop him from going ahead, and after the schooling came the soul-lottery. He was the tenth student.~
~The Devil who ran the school was a very nasty prince of Hell with a list of aliases thicker than a phone book. He laid claim to Dracula’s soul, but Dracula actually managed to find a loophole in the contract and forced the Devil-prince to cut a deal with him. Perhaps it was his heritage coming into play, but however it happened, he, alone of any tenth student in the history of the Scholomance, walked out of that school. But he didn’t walk out of it alive.~
“That’s when he became a vampire.”
~Yes, and since then he’s sporadically popped up in history, sowing horror and death every time he does. He is a walking Biblical plague. Most vampires have to share their blood with a victim to create a new vampire, and doing so weakens them permanently, so they don’t do it often and it keeps their overall number down. But Dracula is so virulent that every person he bites will automatically come back as a vampire if they die by any cause whatsoever, and every new vampire he makes actually makes him exponentially stronger. His time at the Scholomance gave him the weather-control, the shapeshifting, and dozens of other abilities other vampires don’t have, and he passes them on to his offspring like a genetic trait. He has been destroyed multiple times, but he can be resurrected just as easily, and he has in the past employed a worldwide cult of devoted idiots to do just that every time he falls. Even I don’t know how to kill him forever.~
A beat hung in the air. Batman, brow knotted, stood brooding intensely, Catwoman went stiff-backed as a cat sensing something wrong in the air, and Oracle’s hazy projection slumped in her chair, head bowed in thought.
~Now do you understand why I consider him such a threat? He is not Bela Lugosi in a cheap theatrical cape. He is powerful, he is smart, and once he’s marked you as his enemy, he won’t hold back. I hesitated to tell you all of this because at first, frankly, I didn’t believe it was really him. Professor Van Helsing destroyed him in 1892, five years before Stoker’s book was published, and he was very thorough in disposing of the vampire’s remains. I told you what I could and then went out myself to confirm it. I've since discovered that he's been very busy.
~He's bitten several people so far. If someone is bitten by Dracula or one of his line, they’ll rapidly become sick. Stoker drew out the process in the book for the sake of drama. In reality, one bite is a death sentence; the victim has about a week, assuming the vampire doesn’t come back for more and nothing else kills them in the meantime. During this time they begin to show symptoms of vampirism and are fully capable of infecting others. They’ll be stronger, faster, and crave blood, but they’re only ‘half’ a vampire at this stage, and theoretically, they can be saved, usually by destroying the vampire who made them. If they die, however, for any reason, their corpse will rise the next dusk as a fully-fledged, completely Undead vampire with all of the requisite powers. By that point it’s too late; they’re already dead, and the only ‘cure’ is to release the undead spirit inhabiting the corpse. This is done, as you know from the movies, with a wooden stake and a sharp blade.~
Bruce Wayne’s expression did not change, but his skin grew several shades paler.
~Dracula may have already started to make at least one Bride. He's slower with those because he wants them to be perfect. He ‘kisses’ them three times before they finally die and turn completely.~
“Bride?” Bruce's brows arched “As in, the three vampire women he cohabits with in the book?”
Selina felt a knot in her stomach. With everything that had happened, after that first, gut-instinct decision not to broach the topic with him last night, she had completely forgotten about the Brides of Dracula – and the possibility that he would attempt to make her into one based on Catwoman’s reputation.
~Selina didn’t tell you?~
Bruce turned his gaze to the love of his life.
“No.” he said quietly. “But she is about to.”
The ensuing hours had involved an emergency call-around to every member of the Bat-family; Bruce was adamant that he would not expose any of his team to the possibility of being transformed into an undead monster and thus had Alfred, with a list of suppliers helpfully provided by Jason Blood, immediately sent out for provisions required – garlic, wolfsbane and hawthorne, crucifixes and rosaries, cold-wrought iron, silver nitrate. Dick, who was on friendly terms with parishioners in Bludhaven, made enquiries regarding Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox doctrines concerning vampires and demonic possession. He’d gotten some funny looks, but shrugged it off in his easygoing way as ‘helping his kid cousin with a term paper’. Tim had also played the term paper card with some of the local religious schools in Gotham and had spoken to two priests, a minister and a retired televangelist. They’d turned up a fair amount of information on the history of vampire attacks in the Americas and Europe; but nothing particularly useful had come of it, and they had hit a brick wall when they discovered that the modern Churches took things like handing out indulgences very seriously and wouldn’t bend the rules for anyone, but were just as skeptical about things like vampires as the average Joe in the street. There was little they could do to gain religious help short of calling Rome for an exorcist; and how would they explain that one without a possessed victim to treat?
Nonetheless, Bruce had called a Catholic prayer-aid supplier and ordered close to a hundred crucifixes. Soon, Wayne Manor would be festooned with them. While Bruce – and Batman – had never been deeply religious, he had seen far too many mind-bending supernatural events in his life, up to and including encounters with actual deities or beings that were close enough to count, to discount the possibility of an almighty God. His scientific conclusion was that, if Stoker’s book was not simply playing a strongly pro-Catholic stance, something about Christian religious icons fundamentally repulsed Count Dracula. The dilemma was whether this was caused by faith on the user’s end or Dracula’s own turbulent history and primal conflict with the Church. The difference was far from superfluous and would make all the difference in a face-to-face encounter; it was also impossible to know for sure without having tried it in a face-to-face encounter. Nonetheless, while he wasn’t going to go waving a cross at the Count without a backup plan should it fail, Batman, being Batman, wanted all of his bases covered.
Selina hadn't heard much out of Bruce since the news about Dracula’s Bridal ambitions had come out. It was of course quite possible that Dracula would never go after her; there hadn’t been any sign of him trying and it was plausible that from his perspective she might not top the list of ‘powerful, beautiful, and dangerous Gotham babes’. Plausible, perhaps, but she had to admit, she was Catwoman. The Count wasn’t going to choose Claudia Muffington as his immortal bride. But she wasn't half as afraid of Dracula as she was of Bruce Wayne; the lack of verbal backlash for her - justifiable, damnit, she'd been crawling around in a sewer - lapse of memory was ominous, to say the least, but at least it was an absence.
To take her mind off it she’d called Jason back (via the house phone, as she’d decided staring at the light-balls was giving her a headache) and spent nearly an hour on the horn with him, jotting down information on the Count, vampires, and their spread through medieval history and beyond in a small notebook. There were, however, holes in Jason’s knowledge; since the Scholomance his firsthand encounters with Dracula had been few and centuries between. He had very little idea what the Count’s current agenda might be other than ‘drink blood, make vampires’. He openly admitted that he couldn’t see the Scarecrow / Ivy connection and that Bruce was the better man for detective work of that nature.
The point was, they now knew exactly who Dracula was and what he could and couldn’t do. But they still had absolutely no idea where to find him or what his master plan for Gotham might be.
That didn’t, however, mean they were out of the game. A plan was brewing in the back of Selina’s mind. A way to lure him out of hiding and into a confrontation. With what they knew so far it was almost certain to be successful. There was only one problem…
Bruce would never go for it. And if it worked, what then? If they caught Count Dracula, what the hell were they going to do with him?
To be continued...