Nightwing awoke at some indeterminate time later with an aching head to find himself bound in a wider cavern. He saw around himself a dozen women, all of whom wore versions of Duela’s old costumes. He also noticed them working with different types of excavation equipment. Trying to open the old mine. Why? Something’s wrong here. This not just a case of a bunch of crooks digging for lost gold and paying for their gear by theft, he thought.
“Puzzled? Is your widdle bat-brain sore?” cooed a woman who entered from above and laughed shrilly. This time there was no doubt. He was facing the real Duela Dent. She was slim again and wore her old Harlequin costume, but it was her. He caught sight of Lori among the other women wearing the Card Queen costume. Catgirls, Scarecrones, and Joker’s Daughters mingled in a weird and startling scene.
“Duela? Why have you done this? You had Terri turn these girls bad and then sent them out dressed as your old identities to rob. What is it you are trying to unearth?” he said.
She smiled, laughed, and turned a quick cartwheel. She had an uncanny agility. “Robin — mind if I call you Robin for old time’s sake? — Robin, you’ve almost solved it. I did get old Terri to work her mojo on these chicks. I took Lori to get back at you. It’s not like I could have easily snatched Starfox, or whatever her name is! I wanted to hurt you, so I took Lori. I dressed them all in my old gear for giggles. I mean, why pull a crime without having a few laughs?” she said as she caressed his cheek.
He worked his bonds frantically as he talked. It was the old stall them while freeing yourself plan. Batman had used it countless times. “Duela, the money it took to whip up those fancy gimmicks could have paid more than the possible ore in an abandoned mine shaft,” he said.
She laughed wildly. “I don’t want ore! I want to rip open a certain magical portal that happened to be under this old mine. Eons ago, it was a gateway to Limbo. Now I want it opened so my daddy can come home!”
Nightwing twisted one hand free and said, “Your daddy? Two-Face was never your dad. He’s not your father. He claimed he was, and you told us that, but I see that was false. Somehow you clouded my thinking back then, or I would never have bought that tale.”
Harlequin said, “Right, old chum! Holy brainwashing! Daddy touched Two-Face’s mind and made him believe he was my father for that one case in which we met. He also slowed your own reactions, so you were defeated by Card Queen back at the city last night. He also made you and your Teen Titan pals not see that I was telling you a tale when I claimed to be a chip off the old Dent!”
Nightwing snapped his bonds and said, “This Daddy you want to free from Limbo who can affect people’s thinking from afar is the Antithesis! He hates me with a passion!”
Harlequin smiled broadly and said, “Right-o! You may be long on pants, but you’re not short on smarts! He took me as an orphan with mental problems and made me pull off the whole charade of posing as the daughter of various super-crooks in order to meet you, and he taught me how to make the gear I used. He did this from his Limbo. Weakened minds are open to his touch. He did it so you would come to accept me and think you had solved all my secrets. I became a Teen Titan, and he wanted me to do so all along, so once I was accepted I could betray you and destroy all of you. You would suffer the most, since you were the one who brought me in the group. Old Speedo and Flasher did not want me. He does hate you so very much!”
Nightwing waited and then said, “We broke up before you could work your plan, or did you shake off his control?”
She shrugged and said, “Half of one, six of another! You cats went splitsville, and I did recover enough of my sanity to run into normalcy and put on the pounds. Still, he finally reached me enough to urge me to go to the wedding of Princess Donna, and from that moment on he has formed a tighter hold on me. He had me do all you deduced in order to hurt you, lure you here, and free himself. When I shatter the border between realms, he’ll be here, and, oh, won’t you be sorry!” she giggled.
“Not if I shut down your human battery of hate!” he said, hurling his magnesium flare, which exploded in the path of a woman who sat in the shadows of the mine. She gasped and rubbed her eyes as he charged forward past the army of women. All of them were blinking and groping for sight as he had expected due to their mental connection to Terri Bergstrom. She had been the medium through which the Antithesis had generated his control on them all. Nightwing gently clipped her on a pressure point, and Terri fell stunned. With her mind temporarily at rest, her psychic hold broke, and the women tried to understand where they were and what had happened.
Lori shook her head in concern and fear, as did the others. Even the Harlequin sputtered for words and answers. “Nightwing? What happened? How did I get here?” she said slowly.
He shouted, “All of you, get out now!” The women fled as one. They were confused, but they understood his forceful tone of command.
Harlequin waited and said, “Daddy’s still here at the back of my mind. He hates you! He wants me to kill you!” She rushed toward the agile youth, who dodged and caught her in his arms. He hesitated. She was not responding to his gentle words, and force could only do so much. He decided to try a ploy that would never have occurred to his mentor. He kissed her.
She began to weep and followed him out of the shaft. “It’s OK. I’ll help you find peace of mind. Just trust me. We’re friends. I’m going to be there for you,” he said softly.
As they filed down the slope, he stopped and set an explosive pellet at the entrance to the shaft. Seconds later, rocks cascaded down to bury the hidden portal beneath tons of rubble. I’ll have Zatanna seal that up more securely. I’d wager it was all the mystical energy in the air during some aspects of the Crisis that allowed the Antithesis to exert control on Duela and then Terri, he mused.
Terri was shocked by all that had occurred. She was as innocent of malicious intent as any of the women. Lori and the rest had been nothing more than pawns chosen to fund the mine work through crime. Duela was more victim than villain as well.
“Nightwing, I can’t remember much,” Duela said, sobbing as she spoke. “That terrible force from beyond made me do all I did years ago. Oh, I liked being with you and the rest, but my motive was always to get close to get revenge for him. I didn’t want to, and I didn’t even recall that all the time. I was sick. I really thought I was a Dent at the time. I don’t even know now if I’m speaking for myself or if he is guiding me.”
Nightwing thought of young Tara Markov. She had joined the Titans in order to betray them as well. She had also been mentally ill. Could the Antithesis have been behind her actions and madness, too? He said, “Let me take you to some friends who can help you with your emotions. Lilith and Raven can both be of use to us. Maybe even Donna’s purple healing ray can help.”
She hugged him and prayed she had finally found peace of mind. “The Antithesis made you get in shape again after the wedding. You look really fit. Any chance you might become a crime-fighter on your own?” he asked.
She smiled gently. “Who knows? I feel free, but I can’t say if my feelings are real or not.”
Later, after he had explained much to the local authorities, he left the lovely Lilith Clay to minister to the troubled minds of both Duela Dent and Terri Bergstrom. Apparently, since she had learned her own origins, Lilith was no longer vulnerable to Terri’s negative mental energy.
The redhead in a short tunic and sandals shook her head. Her expressive face showed concern. “Nightwing, I think they will both recover from their ordeal. I hope so. They have suffered much, but each has hidden strengths upon which to draw,” she said. Nearby watched her ever-present lover Azrael with a look of jealousy and concern.
Nightwing nodded. “Thanks, Lilith. I want to help them. I’ve walked away from friends before, and I won’t repeat that pattern again.”
That night in New Carthage, Frank McDonald was reunited with his niece. Lori had been thrilled to return home, and she had fought to forget her time as a slave to the darkness Terri had brought forth from her own troubled heart. She also received a visitor that evening.
Dick Grayson fumbled for his words. “Lori, I came to see how you were. I have a lot to apologize for, and I don’t expect you to forgive me. I just want to explain. I am sorry about how I left. I ran from you and my studies and never let you understand why. I was spoiled and selfish and wrong. I know my leaving hurt you. I am afraid it left you vulnerable to all that happened to you since then.”
Lori stared at him coldly. “You did hurt me. You broke my heart. I’ve wondered a thousand times what I did or said that drove you away. You always had so many secrets and lies. Why come back now?“
He took her hand and said, “Because I want to work through this with you. I can’t justify what I did, but I can say I’m sorry, and I can hear your feelings, and maybe we can find some healing. Please?”
She nodded, and they talked during the night and into the morning. It was not easy, but it was helpful, and Dick left feeling that, while he had lost her love, perhaps he had restored their friendship.
Dick Grayson rode out of New Carthage in the early morning hours and thought, Now, since I’ve reconciled with Bruce, revisited the circus, settled things with Lori and Duela, and rejoined the New Titans, all I need to do is figure out where I stand with Kory… and perhaps visit one more old friend in Gotham City. Relationships sure aren’t as easy to handle as Cluemaster and the Flamesplasher Twins, he thought with a smile.