DCM Vertigo


Return of the Gods

Dark Knight of the Soul
by Black Condor

Batman was trapped, for now.

He was stuck in a holding cell at the Hall of Justice on Halloween Night, while his teammates battled a demonic outbreak on the streets of New York City. Only Jarvis the butler had been left behind to watch over him. The Avengers League knew their resourceful teammate too well to leave him all alone in the Hall of Justice, even if it was only with Jarvis. The butler had specific instructions to signal the Leaguers to come to his aid if Batman tried anything funny.

Jarvis got up from where he was paging through War and Peace and walked over to the cell. He tapped on the durasteel bars to get Batman's attention.

"Master Batman," Jarvis said politely. "I'm getting a bit peckish, so if you don't mind sir, I will go get something to eat. Perhaps Master Batman would also like something to eat?"

"How can you eat at a time like this, Jarvis? All Hell is breaking loose outside! If you would let me out, I would . . . "

"I'm very sorry, sir, but I received specific instructions to do nothing of the sort. Captain America said that you were not to be released until they determine that you are behaving normally once more. Now, if you will excuse me, sir, I will go get you something to eat. Master Batman, although you are our prisoner, you have not stopped being our friend."

As Jarvis left, Batman shrugged his shoulders and stared out of the bars of his cell. The other Avengers Leaguers had imprisoned Batman because the demonic influence rampant across the city had taken hold of him. He had almost killed Brainstorm, a villain that the Avengers League were fighting.

Batman was a little bit calmer now, but he was still trying to quiet the voices inside his mind, voices that were screaming with hellish rage and fury. These were the voices that had made him attack Captain America earlier. He would have never done that unless he was under the influence of something else.

He was, and it was a tiring battle, fighting the demonic need to strike out or to bellow in rage at his imprisonment. Even with his escape artist skills, Batman could not find a way out of the cell. Given enough time, though, he would.

Batman decided to sit on the plain cot that was in the cell and rest for a while. It was one of the few times that Batman had ever consciously made an effort to relax since he had first put on the Dark Knight Detective's cape and cowl ten years before.

Usually, all of his nights were spent chasing criminals, and most of his days were spent running things at Wayne Enterprises. Bruce Wayne was a driven man, and his frequent insomnia kept him edgy and irritable, but also full of ferocity.

But a moment's rest now, when Batman could do really do nothing but sit here in this cell, would not hurt him.

Almost as Batman drifted off to sleep, he was aware of another figure in the cell with him.

"Who are you? How did you get in here?"

"So many questions, all at once!" the red-cloaked figure answered. "I am someone who can give you what you want, Batman."

Batman got up from the cot and scrutinized his visitor. "You look like a caricature of the devil or something with that long cloak and that magenta skin . . . I remember your name. It was in the Avengers League files . . . "

"Yes, I am Mephisto. Oh, well. I never thought I could truly fool the Dark Knight Detective for long."

"What do you want with me, demon?" Batman asked in a tone that usually brought out the truth from the weak-minded criminals with whom he was used to dealing.

"It's not a matter of wanting anything from you, Batman . . . but of giving something to you . . . "

Batman's eyes narrowed.

"Oh, to some I may be the devil, but to others I can bring very great things . . . " Mephisto said. He swept open a hand and a portal in space and time opened in the wall of the cell.

"A way out of here. Better than staying cooped up, I guess . . . " Batman commented audibly.

"More than that. A way to get what you want most. Follow me, Batman."

Mephisto started walking into the portal. Batman figured that he would follow, even though his best instincts told him that his new acquaintance's motives were not pure.

When they came out of the other side of the portal, they ended up in a very dark and dank place. Batman's keen eyes told him that they were underground, in a heavily reinforced bunker of some sort. The bunker was big enough to hold a fair amount of people. Batman could see at least ten muscular, mean-looking men busy cleaning automatic rifles and counting bullets. Standing amongst all of them, supervising their work, was a figure that Batman knew very well.

"The Black Assassin! How did we get where he . . . "

"Never mind that," Mephisto interrupted. "I sense that he is important to you somehow . . . "

"We have history."

"I thought so," Mephisto responded. "That is why you have been pursuing him so much as of late. But you never manage to catch him, do you?"

Batman said nothing. The Prince of Lies could feel the hatred coming from Batman, and he marveled at Batman's wrathfulness.

"You know, we are on another plane of existence, Batman, much like that of your garden-variety poltergeists and ghosts." Mephisto chuckled. "The Black Assassin cannot see you, but you can see him. You can even touch him, if you so desire. And if you were to put your hands around his neck . . . "

"I could strangle him, and he would never know what happened."

Batman had been waiting forever for the moment when he could at last face one of his parents' killers. Once he had finally remembered who had killed his parents in that alleyway all those years ago, he had been replaying the moment over and over again in his mind where he would meet the Black Assassin, the Hag, and Justin Hammer, and bring them to justice.

But now, the Hag was dead. And Batman had brought Hammer to justice, with no tangible results. Batman yearned to walk down the rotted stairs of the bunker and kill the Black Assassin, to make him pay for his crime.

But something inside Batman held him back.

"You hesitate, Batman?" Mephisto asked. "Perhaps I should show you the other one whom you pursue with a vengeance . . . the one whose greed and wrath have made him quite a place reserved in my domain . . . "

Mephisto opened up another portal to show the fortress of Hammer Island.

"Justin Hammer," Batman said with a grim smile.

"Yes. After all of that effort you, Iron Man, Batwoman, and Robin went through to bring him to justice . . . "

"He got off on a technicality."

"And he's planning revenge against both you and your friend Iron Man now. But right now, he's asleep. You could sneak up on the old man in his sleep and kill him. He's going to die soon, anyway. It always amazes me how you Earth people hasten death with your cigarettes and alcohol . . . as if you were rushing to meet me in my realm."

Batman looked hard at the sleeping figure of Hammer. Hammer slept restfully, which meant that the evil deeds and schemes that he perpetrated daily did not trouble his tainted soul.

Batman wanted to take revenge against his enemy.

He walked across the lushly appointed bedroom where Hammer was sleeping, with its rattan chairs and beautiful tropical plants. Batman was so close to Hammer now, so close to the man who had killed his parents.

"You want to kill the crotchety old villain in his sleep. He deserves no less for the dark deeds he has done." Mephisto put his finger on his chin, his mind clearly scheming away. "I will give you the power to kill Justin Hammer, if you will only do one small favor for me . . . "

Batman knew that with a demon like Mephisto, there would be a catch. "What's the favor?"

"You are a good leader, Batman, and the most excellent human there is at fighting. Join me, and lead my demon armies in this conflict on your Earth. You have the ferocity to lead them to victory, and I will augment your abilities so that you can be a true Bat Warrior."

Mephisto opened up a portal to a possible future, where he showed a demonic Bat Warrior leading a formidable army of demons. A grim smile was on the Bat Warrior's lips, as he drove his army forward across a burning landscape.

"Isn't this what you really want, Batman? Total mastery of fighting . . . rulership over the night . . . and revenge?"

"You may be the Devil," Batman chuckled, "but you sure don't know everything there is to know about me. I won't spend the rest of eternity as your lackey, Mephisto."

Only a devil-may-care hero like Batman would have poked the Devil himself in the chest as Batman did now.

"You . . . you're behind this, Mephisto. You are behind this whole chain of events and all of these demons running loose on the Earth, aren't you?"

Mephisto smiled. It was hard even for a demon to keep the truth from Batman.

"I am. And I am offering you the chance to be a general in my army. Do you accept?"

Before Batman could respond, the place in which they were standing began to shimmer and fade.

"What is this?" Mephisto shouted. "Someone is interfering with my power?"

Both Mephisto and Batman reappeared in the cell.

"There you are, Batman," J'Onn J'Onzz said. "Your mental imprint was very faint, but I knew I would find out where you were if I tried hard enough."

Mephisto frowned. He knew that Batman would not accept his bargain, and neither would J'Onzz. If the time ever came where he could turn the Martian's soul to the path of evil, he knew it would be most pleasant.

"Very well, then, heroes. Your feeble efforts against my demons will come to naught. I will show your Earth the power of the Materioptikon!"

And with that, Mephisto disappeared.

"Were you concentrating enough on his mental pattern to be able to track him, J'Onn?"

"Yes . . . a mind, if one could call it a mind, as demonic as that one stands out like a scream in a quiet night!" J'Onn then closed his eyes and turned his mental powers upon Batman.

"I sense that the darkness that had taken over your mind has passed." J'Onn pressed the button that opened the cell. He picked up Batman's utility belt and handed it to him.

Batman walked over to his fellow Leaguer. "Yes. I'm myself again. I've seen Mephisto's way of doing things, and I know I never want to travel down that path again."

"If I concentrate hard enough, we may be able to track Mephisto to where his base is in the city," J'Onn noted.

"All right, then!" Batman said. "I'll call the Batcopter and we'll track that demon!"

The Batcopter screamed through the New York City sky. Down below, various demon attacks were taking place. The radio that Batman had tuned into the police band reported that the Super-Unit Police were doing what they could to help stop the demons.

"Here," J'Onn said emphatically. "This is where Mephisto is. Land here."

They landed the Batcopter on a rooftop near the U.S. District Court Building in Manhattan.

"Shield," Batman said into a communicator in his gauntlet, and an invisible electrical force field generated itself around the Batcopter.

The heroes were getting ready to leap across the rooftop to the U.S. District Court Building when a scream from below caught their attention.

"We have to help whoever that poor soul is," J'Onn insisted. He grabbed Batman in his strong Martian arms and flew him down to the street level. J'Onzz dropped the Masked Manhunter when they came within a safe distance of the ground.

Before them was a stubbly, obese demon with an ivory horn on his nose. His mouth was drooling over a businesswoman that he was going to feast on.

"The Avengers League!" the woman shouted.

The demon tightened his grip on her.

"Leave ye humans now, I say,
for this female I must slay!"

He opened his slavering jaws and prepared to chomp the woman into two bite-sized pieces.

"He speaks in rhyme!" J'Onzz marveled.

"Good for him!" Batman commented sarcastically. "Let's keep him from eating that woman for a late-night snack!"

Batman threw a Batarang and clocked the rather slow-moving demon on the back of the head. This was enough to make him release his grip on the businesswoman, who ran away as fast as her legs could carry her.

"Fools you are to fight me so,
now to Hades you will go!"

The demon breathed a sulfurous stream of fire at Batman. Batman's cape protected him. J'Onn caught a little of the blast, though.

"You okay, J'Onn?"

"Yes. Just give me a moment."

The demon snarled as an invisible figure leapt onto its back and began striking it.

"Unseen foe upon my back,
feel my fiery breath attack!"

The demon spewed flame out of his mouth in every direction, attempting to barbecue his unseen foe. The demon reared his horned head, attempting to gouge his unseen attacker. But the demon's efforts were not enough to avoid being pummeled by the invisible figure.

Batman used the distraction to take a capsule from his utility belt and throw it at the demon's face. A sticky plastic covering spread itself over the demon, covering his mouth. The surprised demon writhed in pain and confusion.

"J'Onn, it's now or never! Hit him with all you've got!"

J'Onn took off, and used his Martian flight and speed powers to plow into the demon with amazing force. The demon fell back into a brick wall, and the falling bricks pelted him as J'Onn nimbly flew away.

Batman and J'Onn's unseen helper suddenly turned visible.

"Looks like we got that demon good!" the cloaked figure shouted.

Batman and the Martian Manhunter looked at each other in slight confusion. Was this the legendary hero, The Shadow?

Batman spoke softly to J'Onn. "I had heard about there being a new Shadow running around, but I know this kid is not the one from fifty years ago."

The Shadow walked over to speak with them. "Yes, I am the Shadow. And I'm a lot more powerful than you think I am."

J'Onn was suddenly distracted, and he turned his head and closed his eyes, as if to focus on something the others could not possibly see. "I can sense Mephisto very strongly now. If we don't catch up to him soon, I think we can count on Earth being permanently plunged into Hell!"

Batman looked the new Shadow over. "Well, if you want to help, kid, come along with us. Don't get in the way now."

And so the three heroes raced to sneak into the United States District Court building to stop Mephisto.

Next: Will the Shadow, Batman, and the Martian Manhunter be able to stop the powerful Mephisto and his Materioptikon? Find out in Return of the Gods #6!