“That didn’t take long,” remarked Catwoman as she sprinted down an empty corridor behind Batman. “So much for stealth.”
“He’s improved his systems.” Ahead of them a door opened, and a half-dozen armed men stepped out into the corridor. “Let us pass. We are not your enemy.”
Without a word, two of the men fired as the others brought their guns up. Batman dived for the floor and rolled to the side. Catwoman leaped up, kicking off from the wall as she neared the ceiling. Nothing to grab onto up here, she thought as she twisted and kicked at the opposite wall. More shots were fired as a pair of batarangs whipped down the hall. One of them struck a rifle as it fired, the bullets crashing into the side wall and ricocheting wildly around the corridor. Catwoman dropped back to the floor, somersaulting toward the group of armed men. She bowled into two of them, and the three fell in a tangled heap.
Batman jumped up, coming down next to one of the gunmen. His left arm shot out, fist smashing into the man’s face. His right hand latched on to the barrel of a rifle, pulling hard. It came free from the man’s grasp, and he whipped it around to club the man’s head before tossing the gun behind him. A burst of fire from a rifle was cut off by another thrown batarang.
Catwoman found herself on her back, with one of the men she had landed on laying unconscious by her side, the other straddling her and swinging his gloved fists at her head. One, two, three blows struck her in quick succession, snapping her head back on the stone floor. She brought her left leg up, hooking her ankle around his neck, then reached up, grabbing the front of his uniform. Pulling her leg back down, she yanked the man back and hauled herself up into a sitting position. She brought the butt end of her whip down into the man’s stomach, driving the air from his lungs. That gave her an opening to untangle herself from him. She stood and cracked the whip over her head. The end snaked out and wrapped around the gun of the last armed man standing. She yanked back, and the gun flew up out of his hands. She brought the whip around, sending the rifle flying into the man’s head. She smiled as he dropped to the floor. Turning, she saw Batman punch the man whose gun he’d just knocked away.
“That was short and sweet,” said Catwoman with a grin.
“Let’s not get cocky,” replied Batman as he gathered up the weapons. He placed them in a pile, took a capsule from his utility belt, and dropped it in the pile. There was a burst of intense heat, and the weapons warped into useless hunks of metal. “Come on.”
Batman turned the next corner and discovered a giant of a man blocking his way. He stopped, shifted his feet, and brought his arms up, prepared for a fight.
“Quickly, follow me,” said Ubu in a hushed voice. “He is in the control center.”
“Then you weren’t lying. Your master is dead?”
“For now. Come!”
Three times, Ubu convinced armed search parties to stand down and let them pass. A few of Ra’s’ followers joined them. One of them jogged next to Catwoman. “Do you serve your masked master in the bedroom as well as in battle?” he asked.
“Be happy we have a common enemy. I call no man master, and I’ve maimed men who suggested otherwise,” she answered without turning toward him.
Another uniformed warrior nudged him. “Don’t even think about it, Chung. I saw what happened to one who tried the last time she battled the Master. She doesn’t kill, but Khalid discovered that there are worse things than dying.”
Batman and Ubu burst through a door into the control chamber. Most of the consoles were unmanned, their occupants sent out to defend the complex. In the center of the room, the Joker spun in his chair.
“Why am I not surprised? All the way around the globe, using tools and schemes designed by one of the few minds that can fool even you, and you still find me within hours of triggering the communications scramblers.” He stood up, his hands spread to his sides. “I gotta tell you, I’m impress — urk!”
A second batarang whirled through the air, striking just above the first that had slammed into the Joker’s stomach. As he sucked in a deep breath, Batman leaped over a pair of tables and landed atop the white-skinned criminal.
“What are you waiting for?” screamed the Joker. He looked around at the half-dozen remaining henchmen in the control room. “Kill them! Or I destroy the last remains of your master!”
“Too late, Joker!” came a voice over a loudspeaker. Batman and Ubu both recognized Talia’s deep-throated voice. “My father lives, he — AIIIEEE!”
“The Pit!” cried Ubu, turning toward the door. “The Master is in the madness of rebirth!”
Batman looked around. “Can you take care of the Joker?” he asked Catwoman.
“Don’t be silly,” she purred, unlimbering her whip. “Go save the bitch.”
“Down here!” yelled Ubu. “The chamber of the Pit is just ahead.”
Batman raced ahead of him. “Stay back!” Through the stone door, he could hear the sounds of stone breaking and wood splintering. He waited until it sounded like the focus of the sounds had moved away from the door, and he swung it open.
In the chamber, the floor was awash in brightly glowing liquid. The elevated wall around the Lazarus Pit was broken in several places. The racks of robes and implements were scattered throughout the room. At the far end of the room, Ra’s al Ghul stood over his daughter’s crumpled form, his eyes ablaze with rage.
“What did you do to me?! Why does it hurt so?!” He brought his clenched fists down on her.
Before Talia could answer, Batman was between her and her maddened father. “Leave her be, Ra’s! The Joker is the one who did this to you!”
“Joker? No, you are the one destined to kill me!” Ra’s’ right hand smashed down on the side of Batman’s head, hard enough to fill his field of vision with stars. “You have plagued me for years — now die!” A second blow knocked Batman to the ground. He rolled away as Ra’s leaped at him. The maddened genius landed, then jumped again. Batman brought one arm up, swinging his forearm in an arc. It caught Ra’s across the face, sweeping him to one side.
Batman rose to his feet and warily circled his foe. “Talia, get out. I’ll keep him occupied until the madness passes.”
“You won’t last that long, Detective.” Ra’s charged, arms extended. Batman sidestepped, but not far enough. They fell in a tangle next to the Pit. Ra’s wrapped his hands around Batman’s neck and forced his head toward the bubbling chemicals. Batman bucked his body upward, trying unsuccessfully to throw the older man. Once again, he heaved his body, and he felt Ra’s shudder as something struck him. Ra’s fell to one side, and Batman rolled over to struggle to hands and knees. He turned and looked up to see Talia standing with the remains of a wooden chair in her hands.
“I am sorry, Father, but I could not allow you to kill him!”
“Allow me? You allow me nothing!” screamed her father. He grabbed one of the pieces in her hand and pulled, sending her crashing to the floor.” In his madness, he didn’t feel the small globe strike the floor by his feet, but he did feel the explosion that followed, sending him flying over the Lazarus Pit and into the opposite wall.
“Just stay down, Ra’s,” growled Batman as he got to his feet.
“Never!” snarled the Demon’s Head, jumping on to the wall of the Pit. “Now, die, Batman!” He jumped, knocking Batman back to the floor. He started walking toward the caped crusader, murderous intent in his eyes.
“No, Father!” cried Talia. “Leave him — AUUGGGH!” Talia was pulled up from the floor by her hair and tossed across the room.
“Out of my way, child!” He kicked out with his left leg, catching Batman in the ribs and lifting him from the floor. He kicked a second time but found his foot caught in a grip like iron.
“That’s enough, Ra’s!” Batman lifted, forcing the older man back and over. Struggling to his feet, Batman kept hold of the foot and twisted. “Don’t want to injure your body so soon after your rebirth, but I will if I have to.”
“No, no, I — enough, Detective.” Batman looked his sometime foe in the eyes and saw that the fire of madness had been replaced with the cold light of sanity. “I am, so to speak, recovered.”
“Thank the heavens!” muttered Talia, brushing her hair out of her face. “I was not sure if you would be properly restored, with only your head to immerse in the Pit. And yet you arose from the Pit so quickly.”
“Only my head? That explains why there was more pain than in times past. As for the time, I have noted that with each immersion in the Pit, I return more quickly,” said Ra’s, stroking one of the tufts of hair on his jawline. “The last I recall was the Joker with — ah, yes, the saber.” He looked at Batman. “What has become of the clown?”
“Catwoman was dealing with him while Ubu led me down here.”
“Then let us find them and finish this affair!”
“Just you and me, Catwoman. I’ve wanted to do this again for years.” The Joker rose from the spot where Batman had left him on the floor.
“You’re different,” declared Catwoman, studying him. “You’re, you’re–”
“Sane?” answered the Joker for her. “Not exactly, but close enough. And I remember how you fight, what you’ve done to me, and what you won’t do. And I know you won’t kill me. But I have no compunctions about killing you!” He punctuated his last word with a knife thrown at Catwoman’s chest. She dodged to the side, and the knife flew by, striking the wall behind her. When it struck, it exploded, throwing her forward. She rolled with the impact, letting it carry her toward the Joker. Her whip snapped out, cutting a deep crimson line across his chalk-white face.
The Joker reached toward his belt and pulled out a pistol. “No toys anymore, kitty!” He fired three shots in quick succession. One of them hit, grazing her leg. Several of Ra’s al Ghul’s followers moved back against the wall, uncertain which of the combatants they should help. One of them made up his mind, firing his submachine gun at the Joker. The clown-faced criminal turned and fired, dropping the gunman where he stood. Catwoman took advantage of the distraction, jumping forward over another desk and landing on the Joker.
“I don’t usually take pleasure in hitting people, Joker. For you–” Drawing a hand back, Catwoman drove her fist into the Joker’s stomach and followed with a solid punch to his face. She backhanded his face, snapping it to one side. “For you, I’ll make a big exception.” As he dropped to the floor, she drew back her booted foot and kicked. Hearing the snap of a rib, she drew back and kicked again. This time, he let out a scream when she kicked the injured side. Her next kick was directed toward his head, smashing into his jaw. He slumped to the floor.
Catwoman looked around. “Anyone got some rope?” she asked before looking down at the blood flowing from her leg. “Oh, hell, so much for this dress,” she said, ripping a strip from the bottom to bind up the wound.
“Where is he?” roared Ra’s al Ghul, stepping into the control center. “Where is the damned clown?”
Catwoman looked up from her wounded leg. “Back here, on the — what the hell?” She looked around. “Where did he go?”
The half-dozen members of Ra’s’ staff looked dumbfounded. “He was just here a moment ago, he — look at the clock!” The one who had spoken pointed at a clock showing Greenwich time. “I looked at that when you knocked him out, and it said sixteen-twenty. But it is now sixteen-thirty-five!”
Batman pulled a small device from his utility belt and looked at it, then at Ra’s. “You had some kind of paralysis gas device in here?”
“Yes, in case of attack. Talia and I are, of course, immune.” The older man looked puzzled for a second, then realization dawned. “He must have known and set it off somehow.”
“He must not have been unconscious, then,” said Catwoman. “Maybe we can still track him down in the compound.”
At that moment, there was a shrill beep from a console. “I think not,” said Talia. “That is the hangar alarm. He has stolen one of our aircraft.”
“I’ll find him eventually. Or he’ll find me.” Batman walked over to Catwoman, followed by Talia. “You’re hit,” he said, kneeling next to Catwoman.
“I’ve had worse,” replied the feline femme fatale. “I’m just sorry that pasty-faced fool got away from us.”
“You should have killed him,” replied Talia matter-of-factly. “That should be sufficient to show you, beloved, that I am a better mate for you than this pathetic costumed interloper.”
Catwoman’s hand flashed out, her claws slashing across Talia’s face. “Forget it, bitch! He’s got a woman who is far better than you or I, and if you do anything to disrupt that, I’ll forget that I swore never to kill!” Four welts raised up, thin trickles of blood running down Talia’s lovely features.
Talia raised a hand to strike back. “Why, you impudent–!”
“Stay your hand, daughter!” Talia looked at her father, shock in her eyes. “She is right. Leave her be.” He turned toward Batman. “Detective, you and your companion have my gratitude. But now, I must ask that you leave. I must tend to my own house. Have you transportation?”
“I do. And for now, I’ll leave you to your affairs. But I want one thing: who was your man in Wayne Industries?”
Ra’s gave him a name. “A small price to pay,” he added.
Several hours later, Ra’s al Ghul sat in his private study. There was a knock at the door. “Come!” he barked.
Ubu stepped into the room, bearing the saber that the Joker had used to kill Ra’s. “Here, my Master,” said Ubu in a low voice as he knelt and handed up the weapon. He knew what to expect next.
“You have served me long and well, my Ubu, as did your father and his father before him. But this day, you betrayed me to my greatest adversary. You know the penalty for revealing our location to the Detective.”
“I do, my Master, and I ask one favor of you: that my death be quick and painless.”
Ra’s stood and paced around the kneeling giant. “You have earned that right. Your actions, while forbidden, proved necessary to the survival of myself and all that I have worked toward. You, more than any who work with me, recognized the necessity of giving yourself over to my command. To further our work, you took action that you knew would result in your death, by my hand or by the hand of the Joker if you had been found out. Yet you did so without hesitation.” He stopped in front of Ubu. “You have, in this act, surpassed the service of your forebears.”
“It is my duty and my honor, Master. I hope that I have trained my sons properly, that they would do the same when fate calls upon them.”
“I have little doubt that they shall, Ubu. But we will will not find out anytime soon.” Ubu’s eyes widened, unsure whether he understood his master’s words correctly. “Rise, my Ubu. There is much to be done. Starting with relocating our operation. I think the location in Yemen will do.”
“Yes, my Master. By your will, I live to serve you!”