A solo classic Nightwing tale with guest appearances by Tim Drake as Robin and the Batman. Dick Grayson is in England where he becomes the target of a fanatical group looking for the ultimate sacrificial victim.
I dnt own characters in the story.
Dark and brooding as the menacing gargoyle upon which he perched, Nightwing ignored the seductive charm of the ancient city which lay before him, and instead focused on the destructive force of his own anger and frustration. Earlier in the day he had locked horns with one Inspector Sebastian James of Her Majesty’s Scotland Yard. James, a middle aged Briton cloaked in false authority, was a pompous ass masquerading as a detective whose skills were at best amateurish. Bruce Wayne would have called him an ‘badge carrying obstacle to justice’. Nightwing, the Batman’s former partner, could think of other names more fitting, but none that would lower his blood pressure or help him work with the man on a daily basis.
At first everything had followed normal procedures. He had endured the official introductions, borne the obligatory exchange of information, and even enjoyed the stake-out and the shake-down which resulted in the capture of seven international cut-purses and the return of most of the dozen or so missing items which had drawn him to London in the first place. Congratulations at that point had flown like champagne. But later, when he had brooked the suggestion that something was wrong, that he very much doubted seven men could have managed nine robberies on three separate continents in as many weeks; Inspector James had insulted him and quite literally corked the bottle, cutting him off and out of any follow-up. Officially, the case was closed and he was expected to return to the States.
Unofficially, he was haunting the shadows and biding his time, waiting for the Inspector to show his true colors. Coddled bureaucrat or criminal insider, he was bound to make a mistake, and Nightwing would be there to watch him fall.
As he saw it, several groups of unknown individuals had to be working together toward an as yet undetermined goal. All of the stolen items had been Celtic in origin and included to date several gold torcs from Snettisham, an iron sword with a gilt-mounted hilt (still not retrieved) from Sternberg, and an early Le Tene bowl. Each crime revolved around the number three. Either three artifacts were taken at once, or the time of the robbery was set at three o’clock, or in one case nothing was stolen but three guards were slaughtered in a ritualistic fashion. In light of this seeming obsession, seven perpetrators just didn’t make sense. Twelve stolen objects. Nine robberies. Three weeks. It was a pattern impossible to miss.
But James had missed it or worse chose to ignore it. He had dismissed the American crimefighter’s suspicions as irrelevant, and with proper British civility had thanked him and told him to take his youthful fancies back to the States with him. Nightwing could feel the slow burn that had caused to ripple through his tense muscles even now. It had been hard enough to take when Bruce had treated him like a green kid.
But James? He smiled grimly. He had kept his cool, even though he had paid for it later with a severe headache and a bottle of antacid tablets. Thanking the Inspector, he had assured him that as far as he was concerned, there was nothing more to be said.
Taking a firm grip on the Night-line he had slipped around the stone throat of the grotesque beneath him, he swung out into the gathering darkness. The sun was just setting, and as a warm breeze ruffled his shoulder-length black hair he was reminded of other nights not so long past when a slight red and green figure had winged through the night sky at his side. He missed Tim. They had forged a close relationship while Bruce had been incapacitated and he missed his replacement’s calm wisdom. He looked forward to seeing the young man upon his return to Gotham. He would tell him about James and more than anyone, the Batman’s newest sidekick would understand.
But for tonight, he had other things to think about. Tonight, he would show the self-absorbed Inspector just how fanciful his notions were.
Tonight the bubbly would flow free.
Far below on a dusky back street paved with bricks and dashed hopes, a small cloaked figure hugged the tenebrous shadows of an old tenement building and raised a pair of high powered binoculars, turning on the night vision feature. In doing so, his hood fell back to reveal a middle aged face, replete with wrinkles and the obligatory dark circles from stress and lack of sleep, as well as a head of thick russet hair, the color of an old penny. Absent mindedly tugging at the lush folds of midnight blue velvet, the man kept his eyes trained on the crimefighter’s retreating form. It seemed impossible, but it had to be true. He had been trailing this same individual for some time and could think of no other rational explanation.
“Belinus be praised!” the man whispered fervently as he returned the glasses to their leather case. Moments later, trembling with excitement, he entered the appropriate number and waited for the signal to bounce off the satellite and instantly put him in touch with
“Wellesley Manor,” a voice smooth as a well oiled machine answered, “May I be of assistance?”
“Morgan, get your Master.” It was a command and not a request, and as such was obeyed without question and seemingly without haste. The red headed man grew impatient as seconds dragged into minutes until finally when a thin voice whispered a halting ‘Yes?’ he snapped, “Any word on our guest?”
The man on the other end hesitated and then responded negatively. ” but look, why don’t we forget about this? There are plenty of others who would do just as well ”
“No, they would not. I told you he is the one. You know why. Are you questioning my judgment?” The hooded man drew a breath and shifted the phone to his other hand, then he spoke slowly as though educating a dim witted child. “It has been predetermined. The minute he calls, let me know. If I could secure the other ,” he hesitated and glanced at the empty spot the midnight blue garbed hero had occupied moments before, “it would be better, but this one will do. It may be that one will take care of the other.”
“What?” the light voice inquired warily, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Be quiet and obey without question. You know the rules. You are placing yourself at risk. Is that what you desire?”
There was a moment of silence and then the other man responded, “No. I want to be saved.”
“Good. That is as it should be. You know what to do?”
Without warning the red head severed the connection and with a frown, pocketed the electronic device. His gaze narrowed, and grey green eyes returned for a moment to the leering aspect of the grotesque stone creature above him. Then with a nod and a practiced prayer traced across tight lips, he vanished into the night and the unholy embrace of the kingdom of shadows.
Early the next morning it was Richard Grayson ward and heir to Bruce Wayne’s multi million dollar empire who trod the bustling streets of England’s first city. He had been to this country before as both boy and man, and he loved its people as well as its complex ever changing history. Like Gotham, London rewrote itself on a daily basis. But what impressed him most enchanted was perhaps a better word was the mystical nature of the isle. It had long been regarded as a portal to another world, a lush green isle surrounded by restless waves which according to the source of your information alternately trapped or repelled a veritable army of sprites and demons.
Suddenly he laughed. Bruce would have disapproved of such speculation. For him little fell without the realm of reality and rational explanation. Dick Grayson knew better. His time as leader of the Titans had taught him nothing was impossible and even though mankind most often chose to ignore what it could not explain, there were dark forces at work in the universe. He was suddenly struck by the thought that it might actually have been Bruce who couldn’t see the rain for the storm.
Allowing himself a few moments to behave as a tourist, he had left his room at the Hilton and was headed for a quick tour of the Tate, when he heard a woman cry out. Instinct proved stronger than sense, and moments later he found himself hurtling down the street like a commando. Rounding a corner, he witnessed the tail end of a purse snatching. A small man in a leather jacket and jeans was sprinting for the shadows’ leaving an older woman dazed and shaken on the cobblestones. Practiced muscles tensed as he readied for the chase, but then a dark suited Bobbie flashed past him, already hot on the perpetrator’s trail.
He wasn’t needed here.
Humbled, he pivoted sharply intending to continue on towards the museum, but instead unexpectedly crashed into a reedy fellow who had come up silently behind him. Dick reached out a hand to steady the stranger, but before he could the other man lost his balance and fell with a thud to the rust colored pavement. He retrieved the man’s wire rimmed glasses and helped him to his feet with an apology. “Sorry, I wasn’t watching”
“No, no, it was my fault.”
The other man’s voice trailed off even as Dick realized this was no stranger. Like a sophisticated computer, his razor sharp mind began to process the information before him: Thin face, almost anorexic, prematurely aged. A decided squint hence the glasses and a thin scar that ran across his left cheek as if from a rapier thrust. Brown hair, hazel eyes. And a stupid lop sided grin.
“Grayson!” the Englishman almost shouted as he grabbed his hand and began to pump it. “By God, it has been a while, old man.”
Dick frowned. This was embarrassing. In micro seconds Bruce would have known not only who this man was but what he had ordered for breakfast the day before and who he had eaten it with. He, on the other hand, hadn’t a clue. Oh well, so he wasn’t a manicly driven self absorbed borderline obsessive.
No one was perfect.
Smiling sheepishly, he inquired, “Sorry, do I know you?”
The other man laughed nervously and shifted his size ten feet. “Is that why you dropped out of school? Mind like a sieve?”
School? Dick’s eyebrows brushed his dark bangs. What school? High school? But this man was obviously a product of the English Public school system. No, now he had it
“College, right? You were in the States .” Dick offered his hand triumphantly. “It’s Robert, right? Robert Wellesley. You sent me that letter back What was it? A month or two ago?”
“That’s me,” his old college acquaintance grinned idiotically, revealing teeth like a March Hare’s. “I had thought you were here to see me, so I rushed over after spotting you a moment ago. Obviously, that’s not it. I seem to have been about the last thing on your mind.”
“Sorry about that, Robert. I’m here on business for Wayne Enterprises,” Dick answered, quoting the usual profile, “Bruce keeps me busy. I was going to call you about that item you mentioned while I was here.” Sometimes, when he dared to think about it, it bothered him how easily a lie came to his lips. “Oh, the dagger?”
Wellesley grinned again, looking down at him, though his pale eyes never quite met the American’s. “That was an afterthought, though I still have it. I say, why don’t you come over tonight and see it? Do you still have time?” He paused and then added, “It is a rare piece, not often available for viewing outside of a museum.”
Dick hesitated a moment. If he remembered correctly from what Robert had written to him, Wellesley Hall lay four to five hours outside of London nestled in a lush wooded area near a small village known as Beltyn on the Wythe. Beltyn hugged the woods on the edge of the estate and provided a modest living for the few locals who still maintained ties to their ancestral Lord, but other than that, the old priory stood isolated and forgotten, a faded reminder of a less enlightened era. It wasn’t likely he would find his missing burglars there, but then again, Robert’s obsessive interest in Celtic artifacts might give him another angle. His time might be better spent educating himself than chasing after shadows. Last night’s patrol had been a waste.
“I guess so. I mean Yes, I do have the time.” Dick smiled broadly, “After all, it isn’t easy finding a gift for the man who was born with everything. I’ll pay you a visit after I check out in the morning, if you’ll be ”
“Why not check out now?” Robert laid a pale hand on his shoulder and suggested, “Come and stay at the Hall. Dad’s away and we must have oh fifty or sixty rooms to spare.” He finally met Dick’s eyes and held them, his own light nut brown ones curiously intense. “You can spend the night and then leave as planned. It’ll give us a chance to catch up on the last few years.”
Dick weighed his options and then agreed. He would gain little by another night passed in the hotel. “Okay, but just for one or two nights. I have an important appointment in Gotham on Thursday.”
The heir to Wellesley Hall faltered a moment and then asked, adding a bit of a wink as an afterthought. “Someone special waiting?”
Dick laughed. “Yeah, but it’s not what you think. He’s thirteen years old and I have to help him with his homework.”
“And how shall you be spending the evening, Master Timothy? Shall I prepare a snack or the Kevlar?”
Tim Drake laughed and ran a hand through the thick shock of black hair that crowned his young head. He pushed away from the computer keyboard and swiveled in his chair to look at Alfred where he was studiously employed repairing yet another ding in the Batmobile’s highly polished exterior.
“Just the snack, Alfred. Tonight’s a night for Holmesian research. If I want to be prepared when Dick returns, I’m going to have to bone up on the ancient Celts.” The boy yawned and stretched, his muscles rippling in the faint amber glow of the monitor. “He’s going to take me to the scene in the first of a series of robberies he’s been investigating. He expects me to be able to identify seventy five different types of torcs on command.” He laughed softly and then sobered, “He’s not happy with the way the investigation has been going.”
“And he wants your expert opinion?”
Tim grinned. The question wasn’t meant as a joke. “Yeah. I’ve done a lot of research on this kind of stuff, some of it for school, but I really got into it after that episode with Maxie Zeus. A lot of criminals seem to have a real fascination with mythology.” He turned back to the computer screen. “Weird, huh?”
Alfred’s eyebrows shot up but he kept his lips tightly shut. Since the young man posing the question was junior partner to a man who drew power by hiding behind the mask of a bat, it seemed somehow inappropriate to comment. “And now some perpetrator has chosen a Celtic theme?”
Tim tapped the screen before him where it displayed a digitized version of the morning’s London Times. “I think so. I haven’t told Dick yet, but this pattern of three he’s noted is significant. Three was a holy number, and some of the items stolen have had ritualistic connections like the torcs.” The boy flipped the pages of a thick tome that rested near his elbow. “You know, when ancient Rome was in its glory, the Celts were still painting themselves blue and running into battle screaming like Banshees to inspire fear in their ” He hesitated, remembering who he was talking to and smiled sheepishly.
Alfred flared his nostrils and sniffed. “I assume it was as effective then as now, young sir.” Retrieving his tray of paint and fixatives he nodded to Tim and started to ascend the stairs toward the hidden entrance to the Batcave. As his foot hit the second step, a shrill tone pierced the air, an indication that the Batcave’s private line had been activated. Tim eagerly activated the speaker phone as Alfred moved closer to hear his Master’s voice.
“Batman,” Tim said quickly, “what’s up?”
“Nothing much.” The sonorous voice emerged from the other end of the phone line somewhere in Gotham. Glancing at the board Tim noticed his partner had taken pains to mask his whereabouts. “I just called to let you know I’ll be out of touch for a few days.”
Tim frowned. He glanced at the Robin suit in the glass case behind him. The one that had belonged to the Batman’s deceased partner, Jason Todd. “Do you need me? I can ”
“Not for this, Tim. It’s important you keep up with your studies .” There was a pause and then, “Are you still going with Dick on Thursday?”
The boy smiled. How could he have forgotten? Time with Dick was always special. “Yeah. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Pay heed to what he has to say. He has a great deal to offer.” Tim could hear the Batwing roar to life as his mentor finished speaking, “And Tim ”
“Take the patrol tonight, but take no unnecessary chances. Remember, I’m trusting Gotham to you. The city is your one and only concern until you see me at the end of the week. Understood?”
Tim swallowed hard, and only just managed to avoid answering, ‘Yes, sir!’ Instead he simply replied, “I understand.”
“Good. Tell Alfred to keep the cocoa warm. Batman out.”
That was it. Clipped and curt as usual. Tim sighed. Being Robin to Bruce’s Batman was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him, but understanding the man was another matter entirely. He was glad Dick was around to help. He had to be the only other person alive who understood how hard it was being the partner of the great and mysterious Dark Knight.
Beside him Alfred stirred and cleared his throat.
“Well, Alfred,” the boy said standing and stretching, “looks like it’s just you and me and Gotham City.”
The Englishman nodded. “I shall prepare a doggy bag.”
Just beyond the edge of a dark stand of trees, there was a grove, untouched by men’s hands since ancient times. Within its dark embrace gods were worshipped with savage rites, its natural altar heaped with hideous offerings and every tree sprinkled with human blood. Wild beasts would not lie down nor birds perch within its dark heart, but men came.* They came to feed their own unnatural desires. They came with malevolent intentions, with ancient incantations upon lips trembling with fear and awe.
But still they came.
To their voices which rose this night in ghastly chorus beneath a blood red sky was added that of the rain swollen stream that gurgled nearby, its dark water pouring like blood from a sacrificial altar. Enraptured and encouraged by the unchanging sound, the men knelt at its bank, petitioning the one whose worship they gathered for; entreating the dark spirit to rise from the ebon waters, seeking his approval and aid. Promises were made, vows exchanged, and then as silently as they had come the adherents departed, fading into the ranks of mute trees which stood watch over this revival of the ancient rites long forgotten by the greater majority of the short lived race of men. Just beyond the disconsolate vale, the Wellesley’s ancestral home brooded, dark and menacing.
Several miles away a roaring fire warmed the cavernous chamber Dick Grayson waited within, though its cheering light was unable to erase the chill or reach into the impenetrable shadows which masked the vaulted ceiling with its sculpted hounds and meticulously carved wooden supports. The night before Robert had accompanied him as he canceled his hotel reservation and they had shared a quick snack to tide them over before traveling to Wellesley Hall, arriving just as the moon rose, painting the centuries old stone walls a scarlet red. Wellesley Hall had been built in the twelfth century by monks and Robert’s family had seen the births and deaths of eight centuries of lords and ladies within its walls. Upon their arrival his host had disappeared claiming prior commitments, and he had been given a brief and mostly silent tour of the Hall by the taciturn butler. Less than an hour later, he had been deposited in this spacious room with an untouched glass of brandy at hand to ward off the cold and any sinister spirits which might cling to the place.
Crossing to a massive fireplace, he placed a hand on one of the stone creatures that stood out in high relief, and stared into the crackling flames. His sixth sense was still ringing from the trip down. They had passed dozens of the ancient standing stones that dotted the English landscape on their way to Robert’s home and they along with the ghosts who occupied this ancient structure were setting his hair on end. There was something here. Maybe even an answer to the questions which puzzled him. Later, he would find an appropriate time to pump the future lord of the Hall. Perhaps after dinner.
Turning away from the intense heat, his eyes fell upon a group of frames neatly arranged on the top of a highly polished cherry end table. In the largest one, a troubled young man with a shock of tow hair, stared out at the world as though challenging it to fall short of his expectations. As he wondered what had occurred to transform that boy into the withered creature he had been reintroduced to this day, something in the youthful Robert’s eyes called to mind another boy who was probably waiting to hear from him. It was just after three thirty in Gotham and that meant Tim would most likely be in the cave. Pulling out his cellular, he dialed the number known to only five people in the world.
The answer was punctual as always. “Good afternoon, Master Richard, and how are you faring this day?”
“Great, Alfred. London is fascinating as usual. Is Tim there?”
“Master Timothy is at the computer terminal as usual. If you will wait a moment, I will transfer the call.”
Dick smiled. Quietly efficient. Always competent. Alfred was the grease that kept the gears of their crimefighting machine running smooth though he doubted the older Englishman would have appreciated the metaphor. As he waited, he picked up the photo of young Robert and stared at the disquiet youth. He hadn’t known him well. After all, his own college education had lasted two semesters at most. Robert had been in his Medieval Lit. class and they had found common ground in Dick’s interest in Alfred Pennyworth’s homeland. He had been, even then, something of an enigma; seemingly laid back and disaffected one moment and then afire with whatever cause had taken his fancy that week. Dick had put it down to his aristocratic upbringing. Now with the scars his own soul bore he realized there had probably been more to it.
Brought up short, he exchanged greetings with the boy and then said, “I’ll be home as planned tomorrow. It’s a late afternoon flight, so I’ll arrive midday your time. Are you two still planning to pick me up?”
“We’ll be there with bells on.”
Repositioning the photograph, Dick glanced up to find his host watching him. “You really don’t have to do that, Tim.” He paused a moment to listen further and then admitted defeat. “All right. You win. See you there Thursday.” He glanced at Robert. “I’ve got to go now. Bye.”
As he placed the cellular in his inner breast pocket, the other man moved into the circle of light cast by the fire, his face a mask. “Your young friend?”
Dick grinned. “Yeah, his name is Tim Drake. He’s a friend of Bruce’s. His father owns the estate next door. I’m taking him to see the Celtic exhibit at the Gotham Museum of Art. Have you seen it?”
“Only the greatest traveling exhibit of the artifacts of the Celts ever mounted,” Robert said warming to the subject. “Not only have I seen it I’m a part of it!” His smile broadened with the first real feeling Dick had seen, “I have several pieces in the jewelry exhibit. They were unearthed right here on the estate.”
As he proceeded to talk about the discovery of the ancient treasures and they headed for what Lord Wellesley laughingly referred to as the ‘treasure’ room, Batman’s former partner found it curious he had not seen the familiar name in the list of contributors. Certainly he would have recognized one of his former classmates. Perhaps it was just as well Bruce’s passion for ancient weapons had given him an excuse to make this visit. Still, he found it remarkable that Robert had remembered his passing reference to his mentor’s hobby well enough to contact him after four or five years. Apparently he had made more of an impression on the British Aristo than he had realized.
They walked the long corridors of the ancient dwelling until they reached the east wing. Once there, they veered off to the right into a small antechamber connected to one of several large living rooms. Once inside Robert stopped him, a thin hand to his chest. “Call me a romantic, but I think modern lighting kills the effect of a great piece. Wait here.” He moved to turn off the electric lights, which looked as though they had been recently installed, and then struck a match, using it to ignite a small sailor’s candlestick that rested on a narrow table.
“Come on. It’s towards the back.”
As they crossed the narrow room, the heir to Wellesley Hall continued to speak, his tones reverent and low. “You have to imagine how it was . Picture the ancient fires lit in honor of Belinus, Lugh or Taranis; hear the murmur of devoted voices, the hush of an expectant crowd. Try to conjure the image of the ceremonial dagger raised high above the victim’s head.” He swallowed hard, his eyes on his American friend. “Imagine the holy flames glinting from its polished metal skin.” Robert paused as he laid his hand on an ornate reliquary. “This is it.” He lifted the lid and raised the light high above the box so its golden flame would strike the ancient weapon, revealing it in all of its dark and terrible majesty.
A sudden intake of breath drew Dick’s attention to the box’s interior.
The dagger was gone.
A banquet had been hastily planned that night in honor of their American guest. Robert had thought to cancel it, but had refrained when Mrs. Morgan the Welsh housekeeper had wept silent tears thinking all of her efforts would be for naught. The other guests arrived as scheduled around eight p.m., but were forced to wait close to an hour as Nightwing’s current nemesis, Inspector Sebastian James, interviewed the son of the current owner of Wellesley Hall. Eventually he was released to Mrs. Morgan’s custody and they both took their places at the table. Even so, the meal was subdued. Robert was nervous and ill at ease, and Dick preoccupied as his well trained mind raced, full of possibilities.
“Have you heard, Robbie? That American super-bloke, Nightwing, has been seen in the area.”
Hearing mention of his alter ego shifted Dick’s attention back to the middle aged man who sat across the table from him puffing on an expensive and offensive cigar. His name was Earl Petherington, the aging son of a local landowner whose family had a pedigree only half as long as Robert’s. Still he styled himself a laird and with his silver white hair and bristling sideburns, the like of which would have made Prince Albert envious, he looked the part. He was more sure of himself than Robert would ever be.
“Word has it he’s been investigating this very thing the theft of valuable antiquities that are Celtic in origin.” He paused to send a noxious cloud of smoke spiraling up toward the hapless stone hounds. “Perhaps you could enlist his aid ”
Robert shifted uncomfortably in the upholstered chair that headed the table and mumbled into his wine, “I doubt that would be possible. Besides the Inspector doesn’t think the two could possibly be connected. The other matter is settled. This has to be an isolated crime.” He leant forward hastily, accidentally tipping over his glass. Rich red liquid rained over the hand worked tablecloth like spattered blood. As he sopped at the stain with a silk napkin, he coughed self consciously and added, “After all, my pieces went untouched in Gotham.”
“Captain James is an ass,” the other man said directly, still puffing his cigar. Dick smiled in spite of the air pollution. He couldn’t agree more.
“William!” The fourth member of their party raised his voice in mock protest, “How dare you speak ill of our men at the Yard? What will be next? Violent overthrow of the government? The Prime Minister bound and gagged?” The two men laughed as though sharing an inside joke. Dick took a sip of his own drink, carefully monitoring the by play. There was more to this than met the eye. “But really, Robert, don’t you think that it was most likely some punk out to make some quick money?”
“It’s doesn’t fit the profile,” Dick interjected, offering an opinion for the first time since the subject had turned. “I saw the security system you had in there. I assume it was disconnected since you said there was no damage. That would take a real professional.” At the men’s astonished looks he added quickly, “Bruce has a great many valuable items. Wayne manor has more wires than the White House Christmas tree.”
After a moment, Robert cleared his throat. “Well, now . I really do feel as though I have egg on my face. I shut it off.” As Dick gaped, he continued, “They were coming to effect repairs today. I didn’t think one night would hurt. My collection is not that well known. All published items have a false name associated with them. I’m not in it for the fame.” He paused, took a quick sip of wine and then added, thoughtfully, “I suppose someone could have found out, and while I was busy with you ”
“Perhaps a member of your staff,” the bewhiskered man suggested boldly, “anyone you can ”
“No, Earl,” Robert protested quietly but firmly, “I’ve known them all of my life. There’s only Mr. Morgan and his wife, and a few others who come here during the day, the gardener, the groomsmen . They wouldn’t ” He fell suddenly silent as one of the men in question entered to clear away the empty dishes.
Silence reigned for a moment, then William Templar, a slight blond man of thirty five or so suggested suddenly, “I say. Can we see the scene of the crime? It’s all so terribly exciting, don’t you think? Never been this close to robbery and skullduggery before.”
The pale Englishman sighed and looked to Dick for help. His American visitor shrugged. “You better humor them, Robert, or you’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Yes, humor us, Robbie,” the thick set Earl Petherington repeated parrot like, blowing another ring of smoke toward the expansive buttresses. He pushed away from the table and raised his thick set eyebrows. “Are you coming, Dick?”
“I’ve seen it,” he replied, excusing himself politely. “I’ll just wait here if you don’t mind.”
“Suit yourself,” Templar countered and then added in a stage whisper, “Bloody Americans no stomach for adventure.”
Dick waited until the others were out of sight and then headed for the chair by the fire where he had left his leather jacket and the small but powerful phone nestled deep in its interior lining. He meant to call Tim to put him on the scent of this newest theft and to see if in the time he had left the boy could dig up any pertinent information on Robert Wellesley and his cronies. Arriving at the timeworn wingback, he reached for the phone only to find it missing. Nonplused, he was still standing, jacket in hand, several minutes later when the others returned.
Startled, he pivoted to find the trio regarding him with interest. “Looking for my cellular. I seem to have misplaced it.”
Robert came to his side. “Perhaps it’s in your room. Would you like me to send Morgan to look for it?”
Something in the nobleman’s manner aroused his suspicions, but he kept it from his voice as he replied, “No thanks. He has more than enough to do. I can simply use my number and call on yours.”
“No can do, old man.” Robert’s finely tapered fingers spread wide, “The Hall’s phones are out. Something to do with the overhaul of the security system.”
Deep within his civilian guise, Nightwing frowned. What had Alice said?
Curiouser and curiouser.
He had checked his room. The phone wasn’t there not that he had expected it would be and so when he rejoined the others near the stone fireplace, his mind was only partially aware of their conversation which seemed to center around local history and loss of ancient cultures and tongues. He couldn’t help but wonder what was going on here. One thing was for certain, it wasn’t the random theft of a single iron dagger by fastidious drug addicts. Perhaps he’d have to call Tim and delay his departure until Friday. They could still catch the exhibition on Saturday the museum was open until nine.
He heard his college acquaintance draw a sharp breath and then, unexpectedly, a round of applause. Pulled back to his surroundings, he noticed that Morgan, the butler, had entered the room and stood before them, his aged hands reverently clasped on either side of a dun colored earthenware dish that held a simple flat cake, or perhaps some sort of shortbread. Templar and Petherington had risen to their feet and were still clapping as Wellesley made way for the butler to take center stage. Seconds later he smiled sheepishly at Dick’s puzzled expression.
“Egod, Robert, whatever made you think of reviving this custom?” the older man asked as he rose from the wingback to snuff the remainder of his third cigar on the Spode.
“I don’t know. Sentiment, perhaps. Mum’s been gone several years, I just decided it was time.”
Dick frowned as he continued to stare at the unimpressive lump of dough. “And what custom would that be, Robert?”
“It’s called a ‘guest cake'”, Templar explained, stroking his narrow chin. “Robert’s mum used to bake one every time someone visited, in honor of the guest. You take your pick. There’s one that’s marked. If you choose that one, it means luck for the house and the land.”
Robert smiled, fiddling with his wire thin glasses. “I was told it’s an old custom of the Wellesley’s. Though I’m not certain Mum didn’t just invent it.”
Dick shrugged as the man servant held the less than appetizing looking dish before him. “Who am I to argue with tradition?” He selected a thin triangle of what turned out to be an unleavened sweet bread and looked up to find his host and the other two guests watching closely, their faces comically grave. Abruptly he realized they were waiting for him to do something else. “Now what?” he asked.
“Turn it over,” Earl answered before Robert could open his mouth.
He did as he was told and was surprised to find a burnt thumbprint impressed on the underside of the piece.
The middle aged Englishman clapped his hands and William Templar actually danced a short jig. “That’s it,” he shouted, as excited as a little kid on Christmas Day. In spite of himself, Dick smiled at the insanity. He had done something right.
“Take a bite,” Robert said suddenly from near the fire, his hazel eyes alight with the echo of its dying embers, “the ritual won’t be complete until you’ve tasted it.”
Placing the dry crust between his teeth, Dick suppressed a sudden shudder. Something right?
Or something wrong?
The American returned to his room to sit lotus fashion in the center of an ancient Jacobean bed which occupied the greater part of the small attic compartment. Hours later, deep in a meditative state, he failed to hear footsteps that passed catlike behind the thick oak door, and still later, when he roused himself, was unaware that something rotten was afoot in Wellesley Hall.
Looking at his watch he decided it was time, and arising, shed his civilian clothes to assume the dark mantle of Nightwing, former partner of the formidable Batman and ex leader of the New Titans. He had been tempted to carry out his investigation as Dick Grayson, but had decided against it. It would be hard enough to explain Nightwing’s interest if he was discovered. Fortunately, Inspector James’ involvement gave him a convenient excuse.
Seemingly one with the shadows that haunted the ancient dwelling, Nightwing carefully crept down the central staircase and headed unerringly toward the treasure room. Moments later he stood before the hand tooled reliquary where he used a small pinpoint flashlight and his well trained senses to probe the immediate area for clues. First he checked for prints. Not surprisingly, there weren’t any. Then he switched his attention to the disabled security system. Robert had said he had shut it down for repairs. Holding the compact ‘light between his teeth, he inspected the wires with both gloved hands.
They had been cut.
Just as he was about to check into this paradox more closely, a slight movement outside the room’s central window caught his attention. The moon was high overhead and beyond the heavily leaded glass panes, it shone with the brilliance of a midnight sun. The clock in the hall was just striking 3 a.m. and about the last thing he had expected to see was a small group of strangers casually strolling across the front lawn. Intrigued, he quickly extinguished his light and crossed to the casement, pressing close to the shadows of the great dark drapes that partially obscured the view. Once there, he gripped the heavily woven fabric and moved it aside cautiously.
If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn he was dreaming. A curious group was silently and deliberately making its way past the great house, their grotesque shadows cast upon the pallid earth by the risen moon and the flickering light of several tall torches which sputtered in the wind. They wore cloaks and, between them, bore some burden. From his vantage point he couldn’t tell whether live or dead. Leaning forward, he pressed his hand against the now unprotected glass and squinted, trying to see if anyone or anything struck him as familiar.
It almost proved a fatal mistake.
His attention riveted on the scene unfolding on the lawn, he almost missed the light footfall behind him. Rounding quickly, he thrust out a midnight blue clad leg and was satisfied to hear his would be assailant crash to the parquet floor. With a dark gloved hand he reached down and firmly grasped the man’s shoulder, prepared to flash his mini light in his eyes. It was then he heard the scuff of wood on stone. Swiftly, he leapt clear of this new threat and somersaulted to his feet a yard or so beyond the freshly opened window. If the man had meant to strike him, he would have been safe. Instead, pale moonlight glinted off of polished steel and his ears registered the sharp retort of a small weapon. A projectile struck his left shoulder, and in the instant he realized that it was a dart and that he wasn’t dead, blackness exploded through his brain and he slumped to the floor unconscious.
The cold impersonal light of the moon outlined two figures, one rising, the other standing astride the prone hero who lay silent, his breathing shallow but steady. With a harsh laugh, the one who had fired the projectile swept toward the floor and with one deft movement, removed the crimefighter’s mask.
The other man drew a sharp breath. “I would never have suspected.”
“I told you I was right. Belinus does not lie.” He pocketed the dark mask and shoved the senseless man with the toe of his boot. “He has been sent.”
“B but he’ll be missed. He isn’t just another derelict or drifter. He’s the son the ward of a powerful man.” An ashen hand stretched out to grip the arm of the other man’s coat. “You can’t just…”
“Accidents happen.” The voice was stern. Unbending. Its’ owner knelt beside the vanquished American and, firmly grasping his raven hair, turned his head so his pale white skin lay exposed like a lamb to the slaughter.
Tim looked at his watch. Again. Dick was late. And not only was he late, it seemed he was missing.
It had started as a routine day. Up at dawn with four or five hours of sleep, a quick ‘hello’ to his Dad who was off to the health spa for the next week or two, then a dreary but necessary day at Gotham High, and finally a mad dash to Bruce’s, so he and Alfred could make it to the airport on time.
Then the plane had been late. Expected at five, he was told it would now be at least six thirty before it arrived. After informing Alfred of the delay, he had killed most of the time playing video games in the lobby and then at six twenty returned just in time to see the sleek airliner drop out of the clouds like a great silver bird. He waited patiently as the passengers disembarked one by one, and then impatiently as the cabin door was sealed and the plane taxied out to be refueled.
Where was Dick?
Faster than the average thirteen year old should have been able to, he sprinted through the corridors, hopping long lines of timeworn plastic chairs to arrive at the desk just as its attendant, a plain mousy woman hiding behind an authoritative pair of horn rimmed glasses, was going on a break. Clearly his inquiries did not have what it took to make her a happy camper.
No, there was no one left on the plane.
No, there was not anyone by that name even on the plane.
No, she would not contact the pilot or the airport in London.
Perhaps he should go and ask his father or his mother if he had gotten the wrong flight?
Simmering, he had returned to Alfred where he waited outside with the Bentley.
Alfred studied his expression and sensed a familiar fire. “Trouble, Master Tim?”
Frustrated, the boy passed a hand through his dark hair and gazed back at the teeming terminal, which suddenly seemed very empty.
“Yeah. I don’t know how I know. But we’ve got trouble.”
Consciousness was slow in returning.
How long he had lain senseless in the dark, he had no idea, but upon waking he realized he was in a cell without windows, most likely below ground. Even though he was stretched out on a narrow cot, the cold damp had managed to seep into his muscles making them ache. He was restrained, his hands tightly bound behind him with the same rope running down his back and ensnaring his feet. Closing his eyes he brought to mind the disciplines the Batman had taught him and almost succeeded in ignoring the blinding pain that shot through his brain with each steady beat of his heart. At least he was alive and, given time, knew he could work his way out of his bonds. With luck, he’d be ready for anything that came through the door.
As he slowed his breathing and relaxed his muscles in preparation, he put his mind to the task of solving the riddle of his assailants. Had they mistaken him for a common thief or known who he was? The presence of the dart gun seemed to indicate the latter â€“ almost as if he had been expected. And if that was the case, then had Robert been among them or one of the others? Earl Petherington’s words and actions had been decidedly suspicious.
Feeling sweat trickle partway down his forehead, he realized at least his mask was in place. He hadn’t been exposed or Bruce compromised yet.
With satisfaction, he felt one of the ropes give a little, allowing him to shift so that he was able to slip a thin sliver of metal from the dark band at his wrist. Moments later he was sitting upright, and after a second, his hands were free. Quickly, he bent over to unbind his booted feet, only to be unexpectedly overcome by an attack of vertigo. Straightening up, he leaned against the wall as the world momentarily spun out of control.
What had they hit him with?
He took a deep breath and then carefully lifted his feet onto the rumpled bedding in order to loosen the rope before tossing it into a nearby corner. After that he stood up slowly, using a rickety table nearby to keep his balance. Thankfully, it seemed his head had cleared and so, quietly, with the grace of a panther, Nightwing crossed the damp flagstones to examine the lock on the cell door.
“Piece of cake,” he whispered to himself, a wicked smile twisting the corner of his full lips. He’d seen more secure locks on refrigerators. Unfortunately, no sooner had he set to work then he heard the clash of keys and harsh voices. Hastily, he returned to the uncomfortable cot, careful to position himself so it would seem he had never moved.
Almost immediately the cell door creaked setting his head off again, but he ignored it. As it opened, he shifted subtly so he could see his visitor darkly reflected on the silver disk he had palmed from his kit. A trembling hand held a lantern aloft as a familiar voice called softly, “Dick? Are you here?” The golden light increased as the guard on the lantern the man held was drawn back even further. It fell across the captive figure that lay motionless, its face to the wall.
“Oh God,” the man whispered, horrified. “If they’ve harmed him .”
Faster than the eye could follow, Nightwing sprang from the cot and pressed the cloaked figure against the cold stone, the razor sharp disk at its throat. The lantern fell with a thud, landing near his feet to cast weird shadows about the room. He could hear the aristocrat’s breath coming fast in short ragged gasps. If he didn’t do something soon the man would hyperventilate and be of no use at all.
“Robert,” he said slowly in his best imitation of the Batman’s intimidating rasp, “do you have something to tell me?”
Robert Wellesley stared at him like he was a demon reborn. He stuttered pathetically, his mouth dry with fear. “Dick, is is it really you?”
Nightwing’s eyes narrowed, but there seemed little point in denying what was obviously common knowledge. He growled menacingly, “How did you find out?”
Wellesley gulped and swallowed hard, seeking to steady his already frazzled nerves. He sat down, his pale skin blanching impossibly white. “I think I might faint.”
The crimefighter nodded and moved, swinging him onto the bed as he exchanged places, ending near the door where he could keep an eye on the corridor. Unexpectedly, he found he had to steady himself as his head swam yet again. Ignoring it, he fixed the quivering nobleman with his eyes.
“No one is here. They’ve gone to the stream for the ceremony,” Wellesley asserted. “I . I was supposed to check that you were still out.”
Nightwing moved closer. He realized he was trembling. “Robert,” he whispered, “what’s going on here? How do you know who I am?”
“It it wasn’t me. It was him. The shaman.” At Nightwing’s look, he added quickly, “You have to believe me. I don’t know his name. No one does. We’ve never even seen him unmasked.”
A mask bestows power on the one who wears it, the one who is concealed, Nightwing thought, Bruce had told him that. This ‘shaman’s’ power was complete. His own compromised.
“He followed you. You Nightwing were the intended victim, but not such an easy one to catch that’s why there was a contingency plan. Soon enough he put two and two together. You show up in the country, so does Dick Grayson. You come to London, so does he. Your appearance in the treasure room was just the icing on the cake.”
Wellesley paled at the word and fell silent.
The crimefighter frowned, “What about the cake?”
The aristocrat hesitated and then offered an explanation. “It’s the eldritch way to select the sacrificial victim. Belinus chooses them and they choose the burnt piece.” He paused. “You’ve heard of Beltaine, haven’t you?”
“Beltaine?” Nightwing thought for a moment and then it came to him. “May Day. The only major pagan festival not christianized by the church. It was considered too heinous.” He frowned and added softly, “I believe it was characterized by human sacrifice .”
Robert nodded. “In order to appease the gods, a worthy one is chosen and offered. This is done in times of great potential danger and uncertainty, to assure that things go the way they are supposed to.”
“And I’ve been chosen?” Nightwing was incredulous. “Why me? Britain has its’ own nobles .”
For the first time Wellesley looked at him with something akin to awe. “But you are a warrior prince.”
“Warrior prince? What does that ” He stopped short and motioned for silence. Footsteps rang in the hall. Someone was coming.
His captor rose and crossed to the door. Gazing down the corridor , he said quickly, “It’s only William. He knows about as much as I do. We’re both novices at this.” His face grew sober as he momentarily turned from the door to face his former friend. “Look, if I’d known it would go this far, I wouldn’t have well, I thought it was all symbolic.” He motioned to Nightwing on the cot. “You had better lie down. He’s bringing food.”
The crimefighter did as he was told, only taking a moment before he obeyed to whisper, “You have to help me, Robert. If you let him think I’m still tied up I can ”
The other man nodded briefly, his lean face sober. “That’s why I came. I was going to free you. This is wrong.”
Climbing onto the cot, Nightwing asked hesitantly, “Does he know?”
“Know what?” Robert met the American’s deep blue eyes and then shook his head. “Your identity? No. Only the shaman and I know that. He made sure I knew. Don’t ask me why. He believes the gods sent you here that you’ve been chosen .”
“And you? Do you believe that?”
Wellesley paused and then answered, his voice subdued, “Perhaps.”
A moment later William Templar entered the dark cell and found everything as he had expected. The prisoner lay face down on the cot. His jailer stood beside him, lantern in hand.
“He’s still out,” Robert said, “put the tray on the table and then follow me. We can still make the ceremony if we hurry.”
William grunted his assent and did as he was told. Without another word his confederate moved past him, leaving the door wide open on his way out. As soon as Robert was clear, Nightwing swung into action. Seconds later the cloaked man lay helpless on the floor, bound and gagged.
“Let’s see how you like it,” he tossed off as he pulled on the man’s bonds one last time before sprinting into the corridor.
Curious shadows danced within the narrow confines of the centuries old passageway and the light from the torches seemed to ebb and flow like a moon driven tide as he stared at it. Unexpectedly his knees gave way and he found himself on the cold flagstone. Damn! Leaning against the wall, he passed a hand over a feverish brow and searched the gathering darkness for his reluctant liberator.
He was nowhere to be found.
“Robert?” he called quietly. His head was swimming but he ignored it, forcing himself to move. Several yards ahead a narrow window slashed the dark stone like a knife thrust, allowing a thin slice of moonbeam to play off of the slick surface of an ancient circular stair. Without warning, a dark figure moved into its path, eclipsing the light.
“Robert, is that you?”
“No, Mr. Grayson, it is not Wellesley.” The voice was pitched low to disguise it. That meant he knew the man. “You are as resourceful as I had been told. But I’m afraid your timing is off. You will not escape tonight.”
Nightwing thought to duck, but his reflexes failed him. With sickening force a Teflon tipped dart ripped through his Kevlar enforced costume, delivering its narcotic payload. He touched the projectile with his fingers meaning to draw it out, but before he could the drug took effect and he pitched forward onto the stone cold floor.
“Yeah thanks. No, there’s nothing else. Bye.”
So the phones were out at Wellesley Hall. Running hands through the spiked peak of dark hair that topped his head, Tim Drake tried not to panic. He and Alfred had disembarked at London’s Heathrow airport scant minutes before and already the mystery had deepened. Once he had accepted the fact that Dick was missing really missing and not just wrapped up in some case he had talked Alfred into a quick trip to his former charge’s New York City digs where they had discovered the letter from Robert Wellesley. With nothing better to go on, he had taken that as the starting point of his investigation and tried to call the Englishman from the states before they left. Then the line had been busy.
Now it was dead.
Glancing back at Alfred where he waited near the rental car, he tried to smile reassuringly. The ex patriot didn’t approve of this impromptu visit to his native land. For one thing, they hadn’t been able to get Bruce’s permission. For another, he questioned Tim’s compulsion, comparing his unfounded insistence that “Master Richard” was in trouble to the likelihood of scientifically proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster. The boy frowned and shoved his hands deep in his pockets. He couldn’t help it. He knew Dick was in danger. He would explain it to Bruce somehow later. Even though he had left Gotham unguarded… At least he wasn’t taking any chances… not in Gotham anyway…
Yeah, right. Bruce would buy that. More likely he’d ask for the suit back. Still, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but Dick’s safety. Sometimes you just had to go with your instincts.
Returning to the car, he nodded at Alfred and then hopped in. Unexpectedly the steering wheel caught him in the chest and he winced, as much at his own stupidity as the pain.
“Are we preparing to drive today, Master Timothy?”
Chagrined, the boy slipped into the passenger seat on the left side in the Country and said, “No, thank you, Jeeves. Just warming the seat for you.”
Alfred slid into place, his face carefully neutral.
At least once during the day he was held captive Nightwing battled his way toward consciousness, and even though his eyes remained closed, he was certain he was awake for sights and sounds assailed his ears. Curiously, he was able to see the vast army of whispering willows that filled the grotto he was being led through, their shifting silhouettes cast by the light of a pale circular moon, and he was marginally aware of a distant howling, like the mating cry of a companionless wolf. Enraptured, he moved forward, his booted feet sinking deep into the dew wet grass, until he came abreast a great standing stone. The wind rose suddenly as he halted, blowing the raven black locks on his forehead so they brushed his eyelids. As he hesitated, a voice called his name. Inexorably drawn by something he could only identify as a primal need, he pressed forward until his bare hands rested against the monolith’s mottled skin.
It was cold.
Cold as the skin of a dead man. Cold as the icy shard that speared his spine as his eyes opened to show him a crimson tide that ran as from an open wound. He blinked and looked again only to realize that the blood was his and that it was his life ebbing away, pouring out in a living river that rushed headlong toward the stream that whispered and beckoned nearby.
And just beyond the looming rock a dark figure hovered, ebon against the bloated moon. Demon eyes gleamed and a blue black blade dripping blood rose high above his head. Nightwing stepped back and looked up to meet a different set of eyes.
“You have failed me,” the Batman said, his voice cold as the touch of the stream.
“How dare you die!”
The blade came down and Nightwing screamed.
A guard stirred. He rose to examine his prisoner.
The American was still unconscious, but moaned deep in the throes of a narcotic night terror. He could almost find it in his heart to pity him.
Almost. But then he remembered the honor that would be his the following night and a smile lit his face.
The gods moved in mysterious ways.
The ancient hinges creaked as the great oaken doors opened onto a wild night. Rain pounded, casting slim missiles of wet earth onto the flagstone walk, and the wind rattled the multi paned windows as though it would tear them apart to reach the dry warm world inside the ancient priory. A slight teenager stood silhouetted against the intermittent lightning strikes, his black hair plastered to pale cheeks, water dripping from his inappropriately thin clothing. His teeth were chattering.
The man servant who opened the door regarded the pathetic creature dispassionately. When at last he spoke, his tone was indifferent. “May I help you?”
“My car broke down,” the boy began, seeking shelter beneath the eaves, “I’ve been walking for nearly an hour.” He sniffed and asked politely, “Do you have a phone I could use?”
“The phone is out,” the servant replied, “you will have to seek aid elsewhere. My Master ”
The youth’s face drained of what little color it had left. His blue lips quivered and he seemed to sway. “You don’t have a phone? I thought such a large house…even out here…”
“I did not say we had no phone. I said, it is out of service. You will have to go elsewhere.” The butler frowned and his icy blue eyes narrowed, “Aren’t you a bit young to be driving alone?”
If the boy heard the question, he ignored it. Tears welled up in his eyes and ran down his cheeks mixing with the rain as he protested meekly, “But you have to help me. I can’t … I don’t even know the way back …” A spasm ran the length of his thin frame, his eyes rolled up in his head, and seconds later he fell to the ground; a cold, wet, unavoidable heap.
Gwillam Morgan stared at the small still form and for just a moment, contemplated closing the door. The he sighed and yelled.
Tim Drake awoke to the scent of bay leaves and the comfort of several thick woolen blankets that, while they itched, were blessedly warm. He might have pretended to faint, but the rain and the cold night had been all too real. Stifling a sneeze, he shifted in the arm chair, freeing his hands just as a small stout woman bustled into the stone and brick kitchen humming an unfamiliar air.
“Oh, and are you awake then, lad?” she asked, stooping to ruffle his unruly hair. “We thought perhaps you’d gone to sleep for good.”
“No I mean, yes, thank you, Ma’am. I feel better now.” He started to throw off the coverlets and rise, but she held him back.
“Do you now? And what exactly was a child of your tender years doing out alone in such a storm? The car was broken down, my Gwillam said. Surely you can’t drive?”
“My servant was driving,” Tim extemporized, “we had an accident. I was thrown out of the car and must have wandered away. I got lost. I didn’t know where I was until I saw your lights and then there was that awful man at the door ”
“Gwillam?” she laughed. “He couldn’t turn away a stray dog. He just looks fierce. Besides, we have two lads of our own not far from your age.” She handed him a bowl of the rich thick soup and a silver spoon. “He’s gone to look for your vehicle. He should be back soon.”
Tim accepted the bowl, but tried again. “My servant will be worried sick ”
“And sick it is you’ll be if you don’t take a moment to work off a bit of the chill you’ve taken. Eat hearty or ” She paused as a light chime sounded. “What now?” She sighed and rubbed fat hands on her apron. “That’ll be the Master. I’ll have to see to his needs. You stay put, young man.”
The boy waited until she was out of sight and then made certain his backpack had been carried in with him. After that, he pressed his miniature wrist communicator and whispered, “You there, Alfred?”
The man servant’s voice came through, clearly relieved. “Master Tim, you’ve been quite a while.”
“Long story. First I thought the butler was going to leave me on the stoop and then I was handed over to a woman who thinks I’m her surrogate son. You better give me an hour more.” He looked around and found a convenient spot to slip the soup into. His stomach was empty and it smelled great, but he had to get moving. “As soon as I know anything. I’ll call back.”
“And Master Dick?” There was real concern in his voice. “Any news?”
“No sign yet, but I’m hopeful ” He heard the heavy footsteps accompanied by a cheerful whistle. “Gotta go, Tim out.”
Mrs. Morgan bustled into the kitchen. She seemed disheartened.
“Trouble, Ma’am?” Tim asked dutifully, thinking perhaps he would learn something.
“Nothing you need bother about, lad. The Master is in a bit of a snit today, that’s all. He hadn’t expected visitors. He’s in a hurry to be away and my Gwillam hasn’t returned yet.” She said nothing more, as if that cryptic statement explained everything, but went back to preparing the food for the coming day.
‘So he doesn’t want me here,’ Tim thought, ‘let’s see if the little lost boy can get anything else from the obliging Mrs. Morgan.’ But how? If she’d just ask the right question
“And what brought you out in such a storm, lad?”
Tim smiled secretly. Bingo!
“I was looking for my brother,” he lied easily, even though he knew it to be true in spirit if not in blood. “I was told he came this way. He went to college with Sir Robert Wellesley and was going to visit him.” Dropping the spoon into the empty bowl, he remarked innocently, “Maybe you’ve seen him? He looks a lot like me: black hair, blue eyes. About five foot eleven. He’s American too. His name is Dick Grayson.”
“Oh, my!” she said, her plump hands flying to her face, “You mean that handsome young man who was visiting here the night of the robbery? But lad, he’s been gone since Wednesday. He packed his bags, sudden like, and then vanished into the night. The Master thought ” She caught herself and fell silent.
“So this is Wellesley Hall?” he added for effect before saying, “You can’t mean Sir Robert thought Dick had anything to do with a robbery? He wouldn’t ”
“Oh, no, lad,” she lied kindly, putting on a bright front for him, “Sir Robert said he was very wealthy and wouldn’t need to steal. He guessed something had unexpectedly come up. Gwillam said the young gentleman had an important call to make, but couldn’t find his phone.” She frowned and turned back to her work table, “The ones here haven’t been in service since the break in.”
Cutting into a large head of cabbage with a vengeance, she went on to explain in detail how the Master’s prize dagger had gone missing and how the Yard had come and asked them all a lot of impertinent questions. No, she hadn’t seen anything. No, she hadn’t heard anything. No, she couldn’t imagine who would have done such a thing. There had only been herself and her husband and the Master’s American friend here that night.
Tim thought furiously. Could the robbery have been connected with Dick’s disappearance? He had to contact Alfred. Unfortunately, Mrs. Morgan was just warming to her subject.
What could he do to distract her?
“Mrs. Morgan ?” He interrupted her and employing his best little boy voice asked sweetly, “Could I please have some more soup? It was really good.”
The constant flow of words stopped and a smile broke across her broad face like sunshine on a still lake. Wednesday night’s excitement momentarily forgotten, she took the bowl from him and turned to lift the lid from a steaming kettle. “When my Davyd was a little boy, this potato chowder was his very favorite. You know, you remind Me ”
She had turned, steaming cup in hand, but the upholstered chair was empty and her unanticipated charge was gone.
Once out of the window, Tim quickly scaled the side of the house and then peeling off his civilian guise, assumed the identity of Robin, partner to the mysterious Batman. As the wind whipped through his hair, he drew in a deep breath, feeling the Kevlar sheathing expand and contract over his chest. He always felt more alive in the suit, and sometimes that frightened him. More often though, it exhilarated him as it did now.
“This is the life.”
Ducking behind a trio of tall chimney stacks, he stashed his empty backpack and then peeled a dark green glove back to expose his communicator. Ignoring the gentle rain that pelted his exposed skin, he used it to signal Alfred.
“Robin,” the youth corrected.
The man servant didn’t miss a beat. “Master Robin, I was about to contact you. I was, ah, forced to move several miles away from my last location. A rather human dog came to close to catching my scent for my liking. Unfortunately, I am not entirely certain where I am.” He paused and then added as though embarrassed he had not asked it first, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Alfred, although I think escaping Wellesley’s Welsh housekeeper may rank up there with eluding the Joker or the Riddler. Then again, they can’t cook.”
“Pardon?” Alfred asked, bewildered.
Robin laughed. “Never mind. What is important is that I’m positive Dick was here, or is here. There’s something screwy going down. Wellesley definitely didn’t want me around.”
There was a moment of silence and then the familiar voice asked quietly, “And what are your plans?”
Tim frowned. He didn’t have any yet. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll ” Suddenly he fell silent. To the North, well beyond the out buildings of the estate, a blaze had erupted. Several seconds later he heard the muffled sound of a blast. Quickly calculating the distance he figured it to be a quarter or at most half a mile away. “Did you hear that, Alfred?”
The butler’s voice shook. “No, but I can see it. Three, maybe four miles from here through thick woodlands. I can’t be certain.”
“I’m going to head for it.”
“Master Robin… Tim. Need I remind you of your instructions ”
Robin swallowed. Bruce wouldn’t like it, but Bruce wasn’t here. Dick was and he was in trouble. “I gotta help, Alfred.” After the butler’s strange behavior and then Wellesley’s. They had to be linked.
“Meet you there. Robin out.”
“Tim!” Alfred’s concern echoed through the link.
Robin was gone.
Half a mile away and about ten minutes earlier, Nightwing awakened, once again bound hand and foot. As his keen eyes adjusted, he realized he was no longer in the bowels of the Hall, but lay trussed like a calf on the bare wooden floor of an abandoned cottage. Long out of use, its windows were boarded shut, and dust and cobwebs clung tenaciously to every shadowed corner. Wishing to examine his surroundings more closely, he shifted his head sharply to the right and was surprised as his vision blurred yet again and an incredible wave of nausea swept over him. For a moment everything went black, but then the sensation passed and he could see again. From what little light filtered through the chinks in the window coverings, he could tell it had been hours since the dart struck him.
What had they hit him with?
Closing his eyes, he braced himself and rolled quickly into a sitting position. After waiting a moment for his head to clear, he looked about, seeking a means of escape. It was difficult to see. Other than the constricted rays of the waning moor, only a single slim taper illuminated the sparsely furnished room. Shivering and disoriented, he almost missed the package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string nestled close beside the broken leg of an overturned stool.
It was ticking.
His heart in his throat, Robin flew through the tightly interlaced trees surrounding the estate. He hadn’t known Bruce or Dick long and yet it seemed he had known them all of his life. From the day he had attended the circus and unexpectedly watched Dick’s parents plunge to their deaths, to the day he had tracked him down after Jason Todd’s untimely demise to tell him the Batman needed him, needed Robin, he had watched and loved them. He believed in their mission, understood their passion and their pain, and now he shared them as well. Bruce the Batman had chosen him to take on the mantle of Robin after he had deduced their secret identities and saved them from a duel death at the hands of their old enemy, Two Face. Bruce trusted him. And now, here he was, disobeying orders or at least reinterpreting them just as Jason had. But it was necessary! He knew it. Bruce would just have to understand.
Clinging to a branch, he paused to draw a breath and suppressed a shudder. Jason the one who died had probably thought the same thing.
Five minutes before Robin’s moment of introspection, his predecessor, now known to the world as Nightwing, had felt the first ripple of panic. Fighting it, he closed his eyes and ears against its source the doleful ticking of a small timing device and sought to draw upon the inner strength his lengthy training had bequeathed him. Several minutes later, sweat rolling down his fevered cheeks, he gave up. Bruce had always warned him that drugs would alter that essential balance, the one needed to banish pain and fear in even the most extreme circumstances, and so he had stayed far away from them. It was a shame his mentor had forgotten to tell him what to do when the hand that drove the needle home belonged to someone else.
Concentrating instead on his bonds, he realized with triumph that he had been restrained by an amateur. His hands were bound free of his torso; his feet tied independently. In less than a minute he could be free. Then and only then would he worry about the gift wrapped like a piece of butcher’s meat that someone had left him. Nightwing winced.
Bad choice of words.
Moments later, utilizing the sharp broken corner of a table, he cut the cord between his ankles and regained his feet. Quickly looking about, he realized he was trapped. Strips of wood crisscrossed every access, substantially secured by nails the size of small daggers. A wicked smile flashed across his handsome face. So much the better.
He felt like breaking something.
Glancing at the poorly concealed bomb, he decided there was nothing he could do about it. It would simply have to fulfill its natural function and explode.
Tongues of fire kissed the dried and rotting timbers of an old caretaker’s cottage as Robin hesitated high in the shadowy trees that fringed the clearing, unexpectedly mesmerized by their feral beauty. Without warning, a portion of the roof caved in with a sound like a clap of thunder. Startled into action, he moved swiftly, alighting silently several feet in front of a door battered a weathered green. Smoke rolled out from under it and the paint curled from the extreme heat.
It must be an inferno inside.
Dropping to his knees he took a second to examine the ground before the small cottage. Someone had passed this way recently, two men, carrying a heavy load. His blue eyes went to the structure that blazed before him as yet another section of the roofing caved in, fueling the fire below. If Dick was inside
“No,” he whispered to himself, horrified at the prospect. He knew Dick was a pro. He’d survived the machinations of the Riddler, the Joker and countless others. He couldn’t be dead…
but Jason was dead.
Bile rising in his throat, he headed for the smoldering door and kicked in what was left of it, Kevlar boots shielding his tender skin. He quickly surveyed the flaming interior of the cottage, but realized with a sinking feeling that even if Dick was inside, he wouldn’t have been able to tell.
Passing a gloved hand through black hair dripping with sweat, he pivoted and called desperately, “Dick? Dick? Are you here!” The Batman would have chided him, said he was unnecessarily placing himself in danger, but he didn’t care. This was for real. Life and death.
Some things even the best training couldn’t overcome.
Deep in the heart of the wood Nightwing paused. He had escaped the cabin just as the bomb went off. As he paused to consider what its presence mean, he cocked his head, certain his ears had discerned a sound that was human rather than elemental in nature. Someone was nearby. He knew he should run it was probably his captors but he found he could do little more than hug the bole of a large gnarled oak and wait for his sense of balance to return. His brain was dull. His perceptions distorted. The wind was withering and, even though the intermittent rain had ceased, he was thoroughly soaked and chilled to the bone. He found it hard to believe this nightmare was for real, and knew that disbelief born of exhaustion could make him reckless.
Rubbing his forehead hard, he took a deep breath and wished again he had time to practice the healing rituals he had been taught. But he didn’t. He had to keep moving. Someone was out there. A guard maybe, or perhaps Wellesley’s curious man servant. Someone… And in the shape he was in, he wasn’t sure he could have tackled Mrs. Morgan, let alone her husband.
Pushing off of the tree’s rough skin, he turned unexpectedly into the visage of Hell. A grotesquely carved mask stained blood red hovered in the air, obscuring the face of the lean fleshly specter who faced him, torchlight illuminating even stripes of red and blue body paint that alternately spiraled down his heaving chest only to terminate somewhere below a primitive loincloth in a spurious imitation of the Celtic Tree of Life. The phantom’s hair was skinned tight against his skull and plastered a bright yellow from crown to the tip of a twenty inch tail. His large hands dripped blood. Jolted, Nightwing stumbled back from the apparition, forgetting the silent sentinel whose battered bark had withstood the onslaught of several hundred years that waited close behind. The rushing form of one puny human meant less than nothing. Within seconds of striking the tree and sliding to the wet grass, his prone form was surrounded by other brightly arrayed phantoms bearing torches and chanting praises to their god.
As Nightwing felt their callused hands grasp his tired flesh and he was hefted to their shoulders and borne towards an indeterminate fate, he somehow doubted very much God had anything to do with it.
Robin continued to work his way steadily through the thickset trees. By chance, he had caught a glimpse of smaller flames moving just beyond the ruined structure as though the fire had given birth and its offspring were wandering far from home, and he had taken to the relative shelter of the lush foliage to pursue their erratic course. He couldn’t be certain they had anything to do with Dick. In fact, he couldn’t even prove Dick was anywhere near.
Still, it was the only game in town.
Reaching for another sturdy limb, Robin somersaulted out into the night, hot on their trail.
He hadn’t realized he had passed out. Now, as he came to, Nightwing’s awakening senses told him he was in real trouble. This time he had been bound by an expert and, though his feet were free, this time it would take more than a bit of sleight of hand to escape the leather thongs that were cutting into his upper arms and stopping hi circulation. Even so, he strained against them as before his clouded eyes, spectral figures spun in and out of the firelight, their painted bodies blurring in a kaleidoscope of movement.
Abruptly one of the figures separated from the concourse of brightly hued savages that danced demonically before him. Cloaked and hooded, it appeared as a dark stain upon the vivid canvas of color and light, and in its hand it bore a glistening blade. Blinking back tears, he thought he recognized the form of the one who had accosted him outside of his cell. Still dazed and unable to move, he could only watch helplessly as it drew near, resonating primacy and power.
“He has proven himself worthy yet again! The time is come!” The man’s voice boomed above the rising wind and the rhythmic chanting, “Light the wheel!”
Nightwing turned his head and instantly regretted it. Images coalesced, running together like a tilted water color, but he fought it, refusing to give in.
This time he won.
Soon he was able to distinguish movement, and then more slowly, specific objects. Across the darkly glistening stream, a man carrying a torch drew near a great dun colored structure that was roughly circular. He watched as the brand was thrust into its center and flames leapt into the night sky. Seconds later, either the energy generated by the fire or some unseen device set it spinning like a whirling dervish.
“Come, Lord Belinus, come!” the one known as the shaman called out as he raised the dagger high, his rich voice caressing his intended victim. “Accept this sacrifice offered in your name that our homeland might be preserved from the wiles of the enemy!”
Nightwing attempted to rise, but found that he couldn’t. His senses dulled by the continued administration of drugs, he had failed to note the cord thin as fish line that lay loosely about his shoulders. Now, as it was drawn tight, he realized they meant to strangle him. Involuntary panic gripped him, but then, just when it seemed he couldn’t draw another breath and stars began to explode within his mind’s eyes, he felt the cord slacken. The hands that held the rope were trembling.
Making an intuitive leap, he managed to rasp, “Robert? Robert, is that you?”
There was no answer, but the thong was no longer cutting into his skin. He could breathe again. Obviously the recalcitrant heir to the Wellesley fortune had been given a chance to redeem himself. The crimefighter whispered desperately, “Cut me loose, Robert. Give me a chance. You don’t agree with these men. You don’t.” He gasped as the garrote tightened once more.
“Shut up! Shut up, Dick! I can’t help you. If I do Belinus will know. I’ll be ” Robert hesitated. He looked first at his hands, which had become instruments of death, and then at the insanity that filled the grotto. Tears fell from his eyes, striking Nightwing’s fevered skin.
“Dear Lord I’m already damned.”
Robin embraced the dark sanctuary of the leaves and stopped just short of entering the clearing. Before him a giant wheel rotated slowly, throwing flames of fire into the ebon sky, it eerie light reflected and magnified by the rain swollen waters that churned about its base. Wild men cavorted in a fevered frenzy before the wicker structure while nearby their chosen victim, bound and garroted, awaited the knife. He recognized it as a scene straight out of Julius Caesar’s journals.
Or straight out of Hell.
Holding back for fear of making matters worse, he gasped as the man who seemed to be the ringleader shifted so that the flickering light fell across their captive’s upturned face and glinted off of a familiar suit of midnight blue and gold. He had been wrong. It wasn’t Dick who had been bound and carried here, but
The Batman’s former partner was relieved to feel the cord grow slack upon his throat once again and a cold piece of steel press against his bonds. Behind the painted mask sweat ran, but a voice firm and resolute whispered, “When I give the word, you must run for the woods. You’ll have to disappear. If you try to fight, they’ll overwhelm you. He’s shot you with a ritual drug and you can’t afford to trust your senses. You have to ”
“Wellesley!” a stentorian voice thundered as an ominous shadow fell across the pair, “Prepare the sacrifice!” The shaman pointed a reddened finger at the quaking aristocrat. “Remember your eternal soul hangs in the balance.”
Robert met the hellish eyes that sought to rule him and slowly but deliberately removed his mask. “I’ve only just realized that,” he replied calmly, and then with one last quick movement, he severed Nightwing’s bonds. “Now, Dick now!”
Nightwing braced for it and then sprang, striking the leader in the chest and knocking him to the ground. Robert stepped forward, raising a quivering hand as though in a final blessing. “Run, you fool! Run!”
From his safe haven in the branches above and across from the battlefield, Robin prepared to leap to his friend’s aid, certain he could handle the seven or eight frightened adherents who clustered together, baffled by this unexpected change in plans. Before he could a single shot rang out, startling him. He checked his downward flight, dark green gloves grasping at leaves before he found a sturdy branch. As he held his breath, he once again turned his attention to the scene below. The man who had held the cord at Nightwing’s throat lay motionless, his naked chest stained a brilliant red. Between him and the panting crimefighter the leader paused, his hood and mask pulled aside to reveal an unruly mass of copper red hair. In his white knuckled fist he held a smoking museum piece from the early twentieth century that seemed curiously out of place in the primeval glade.
It was pointed at Nightwing’s heart.
“Your end won’t be so swift, American. You must be sacrificed so we can live, and must die by the ancient customs to satisfy our god. You already died once tonight,” he added enigmatically, “don’t rush the second, or the third and final time.”
Nightwing closed his eyes and fought for breath. Before looking up at his assailant he had to collect himself. If he was going to survive, he would have to pretend to be disoriented and confused until he was certain he had the upper hand.
Dear God, he thought, if only it were a pretense.
As he raised his eyes, a frown creased his dirt stained forehead. Even in the fading light cast by the scorched remains of the fiery ring, he recognized the man who towered over him.
“Inspector James,” he said slowly. It all made sense now: the disregard for his theories, the casual dismissal. “It’s been you all along. You brought me here planned this. What madness is this?”
The law officer laughed. “I’d love to tell you, American, but Belinus wouldn’t allow it. Pick him up,” he ordered brusquely, waiting as two of the quaking men moved to do his bidding. They avoided looking at the body of their fallen comrade as they gripped Nightwing’s arms and forced him to his feet. “Now, take him to the stream.”
Robin stiffened, paralyzed by indecision. He looked at the gun. It was still trained on the crimefighter’s heart, and who knew whether the bullet’s were Teflon coated or not. Then he examined his friend’s body language. Something was wrong. If Nightwing had been himself, he would have escaped before this. These guys were obviously amateurs. He had to help, and yet, the Batman would kill him if he He stopped, choosing his words with better care. No, not kill him, but he would skin him alive if he survived. Still, what else could he do? Nightwing Dick would surely die if he didn’t move.
He had no choice.
As he prepared to jump, a new source of light suddenly burst upon the scene, momentarily causing the neo pagans to freeze in their tracks like frightened deer. It was accompanied by a steady roar, one which he quickly recognized as the rev of a motorcycle’s engine. Taking advantage of the momentary confusion, he took flight, aiming for the center of the big man’s back. He only prayed Nightwing would guess what he was up to and act accordingly.
The object of his concern was making his own use of the unexpected distraction to break away from his captors, and looked up at the last moment only to find a grim and determined red and green figure flashing out of the shelter of the tenebrous trees. It took him a moment to recognize his sometimes partner, but then, faster than lightning he dropped to the wet ground as the youth’s feet struck the shaman and the gun went off. Robin rolled with the impact and regained his footing just in time to see Alfred emerge from the woods astride a dark motorcycle. He marveled momentarily at the man servant’s resourcefulness, but was distracted as the fallen leader grasped at his black boot. One swift kick followed by a powerful punch neutralized that threat. Satisfied with the outcome, he turned to look for Nightwing and was surprised to find that, other than the two fallen disciples, they were alone in the glade. Apparently the others had no stomach for a fight they couldn’t win.
He noticed Nightwing was standing under his own power. The crimefighter was moving haltingly toward the man who had been shot, and as he did so, Robin turned to acknowledge Alfred’s presence as he entered the glade. He hadn’t moved six feet forward when the older man’s expression turned from one of elation to pure terror. He gestured frantically and sputtered, “Master Dick!” Robin whirled just in time to see the leader of the cult, bloodied but not beaten, rise to drive a dagger into Nightwing’s flesh.
“No!” he screamed, already on the run. But the warning came to late. Powerless to stop the events that were unfolding, he watched as Nightwing jerked spasmodically back from his assailant only to tumble with a faint cry into the swiftly flowing water. Tears welling in his eyes, Robin watched him disappear as an indescribable rage boiled up within him. He moved swiftly to take out the self proclaimed shaman, bloody dagger and all. James pivoted suddenly, his twisted visage triumphant.
“It is completed now as was commanded! Death by fire death by the sword and final death by drowning. I have done as you wished. Come now, Lord Belinus, come. Favor your servant with your presence . Come!”
Robin’s fists balled in anger and he took a step toward the fanatic, but at that moment a forbidding figure arose from out of the ash and smoke near the great wheel, and a voice cold as the grave issued from a throat not quite human. “Sebastian James,” it rasped, “I have come. Kneel before me.” The voice was resonant though soft as the whisper of dry skin on stone. Even so it echoed across the ebon swells. “Kneel I say!” Paralyzed by the unexpected sight Robin stood riveted to the spot as the dark shape floated across the water, stopping when it reached the sandy shore. Its approach was swift and silent, like the Angel of Death passing among the firstborn of Egypt.
James prostrated himself before the dark form, enraptured. Moments later, when he dared raise his head, he asked, “Mighty One. Have you come to reward me?”
There was a pause, pregnant as a summer sky before a storm. “I have come to see you get what you deserve.”
Robin’s masked eyes widened as the familiar tone registered upon his stunned senses and a black clad toe shot out of the darkness to clip the man roundly on the chin. James’ head fell without a sound. The tall figure shoved again with the ball of its foot, and then satisfied he was unconscious, reached up to remove the hood it had ‘borrowed’ from a witless sentry who now lay firmly bound somewhere in the woods where the local police could find him the next day. Robin breathed a sigh of relief as he recognized the familiar cape and cowl, though the minute he did, a tsunami sized wave of grief and guilt washed over him. Suddenly his knees became like water and he began to tremble like the thirteen year old boy he was.
Batman signaled Alfred forward and across the waters and then turned to his young partner. Stiffly, he placed an arm about the youth’s shoulders, steadying him.
“B..Bruce,” he confessed horrified, his face buried in his hands, “I failed you. Nightwing’s dead. I couldn’t save him I tried, but .”
The Batman winced, hearing an echo of his own pain. Only an echo, and yet still too much for a child to have to bear. “Tim,” he said quietly, “Tim, look at me.”
His young comrade raised his head to meet his mentor’s eyes, tears clouding his own.
“Dick isn’t dead.”
Robin’s gloved hand shot out, gripping the older man’s. “What! But I saw him fall, saw him go under . What do you mean, not dead?” As the words formed, dark shapes shifted behind them, slipping free of the shadowed night. Tim looked to find the silvery moonlight first touch Alfred’s sober face and then illuminate his companion. The younger man was pale as paste but obviously very much alive, and slowly but surely the pair were making their way across the stream utilizing the same shallow passage the Batman had moments before. The jubilant youth pulled free to run to his friend’s side. As they embraced the Batman waited, his rugged face sober beneath the mask, and only when Alfred signaled that all was well, did he allow his tense muscles to register the same sense of relief the boy so openly and easily expressed.
Perhaps the gods or at least one God had been in this dark grotto this night.
There had been no time to spare. If Tim hadn’t He closed his eyes and allowed himself one second of sheer panic. Then he was in control again. Releasing a breath he hadn’t known he held, he moved to join them.
“Thank God, you’re all right!”, Tim said as he drew back from his friend, “I thought I saw ” He stopped short, mortified as he suddenly became aware of the blood that clung to the red breast of his costume. He looked at Nightwing and saw dark liquid seeping through the costumed hero’s fingers where he held them closely pressed against his side. He was breathing with some difficulty and obviously in pain. “Dick, you’re hurt!”
Nightwing smiled weakly as he freed himself from the batrope that had snatched him from the riverbank. “Just a flesh wound. I’ll be okay.” He looked sheepish and then shifted his gaze to the figure that hovered silently behind his successor. “Batman, I ”
The Dark Knight held his hand up for silence. “No words are necessary. That’s what partners are for. If I hadn’t come, you would have found a way clear…” Stepping forward he lay a hand on his protÃ©gÃ©’s shoulder and then placed its’ match on Robin’s. “Apparently you cast a strong shadow of your own, Dick. Strong enough to make this young man disobey a direct order.” He released Nightwing and turned to face his current partner, “Tim ”
The boy stiffened. Here it comes, he thought. “Batman, I’m sorry. I just couldn’t ”
Alfred cleared his throat and spoke from where he stood cleansing the gash in Nightwing’s side. “Sir, I am as much to blame as Master Timothy. I could have stopped him. It was just that he had such a strong feeling that Master Dick was in danger. Deadly danger.” He paused and looked at his old friend, “Some assistance was required after all .”
Tim’s eyes lit with what he thought was sudden understanding. “You mean you called Batman?” He turned to Bruce wide eyed. “That’s why you’re here? But how did you ”
“No, Tim,” the Batman held up a gloved hand for silence, “Alfred didn’t call me. My presence here is simply .” He glanced at the recumbent fanatic and took a deep breath. “Well, perhaps it was fate.”
He had arrived shortly before Robin had made his desperate bid, and had run into Alfred struggling valiantly through the closely packed trees and pelting rain in pursuit of his headstrong charge. Already aware of Nightwing’s plight but uncertain of the remedy until that very moment, he had handed his own method of transportation to the weary Englishman and then sent him ahead to create a diversion. If it hadn’t been for the gun, everything would have gone smoothly. The gun had surprised him. It didn’t fit in with James’ obsession with all things ancient and Celtic.
The man was even crazier than he had thought.
And so he had been forced to watch, powerless, as a gun was leveled at another he had dared to love. Dark images had clouded his mind’s eye, and momentarily the scene shifted until once again his dead parents walked the leaf covered pavement of Crime Alley . Only this time, when the shots sounded it was Dick’s riddled corpse that lay cold and stiff beneath the street lamp as a small boy, spattered in his blood, knelt and screamed with the sick realization that nothing would ever be the same.
And then Robin had swung from the darkness like a winged avenger, his youthful recklessness galvanizing him into action.
He would not hold another boy’s battered and bloody corpse in his arms.
He started, aware that Dick was speaking to him. Dick, alive and whole and staring at him with concern in his dark blue eyes as Alfred worked to bandage the younger man’s side. Immediately, he assumed the mask of the dispassionate Dark Knight, setting aside the pain and the endless possibilities as he had every day since he had buried Jason Todd.
His former partner sensed a familiar mood but pretended not to notice. Instead he asked, “So, what did bring you here, Bruce, if it wasn’t me? A sudden interest in Celtic memorabilia?” Nightwing fingered the tip of the ancient weapon used to wound him. He was almost certain it was the one he had intended to purchase for Bruce’s collection. Perhaps now it would end up in the Batman’s trophy room instead. “You wouldn’t believe ” He stopped short, growing pale and sucking in air. His eyes teared.
Alfred murmured a brief apology and promptly loosened the dressing.
“We should get you to a hotel and let you get some rest ” the Batman began. But the Nightwing shook his dark head.
“Not until you tell me what brought you here.” He grinned as Alfred frowned. “Then I promise I’ll go quietly. I’ll even let you drive me.” He turned to the Batman and finished, “Tim told me you weren’t with him. Why are you here?”
His mentor met his eyes. He seemed almost embarrassed. “It had nothing to do with rescuing you, and everything to do with your case.”
Nightwing shifted uncomfortably. It was his turn to frown as Alfred opened his ever present medical kit and injected a strong anti biotic into his bloodstream. “My case?”
“There were specifics about the robbery in London that connected with something I’ve been exploring on my own for some time now.”
“And that is?” Nightwing waited.
“Zealots. I’m afraid England has its’ own brand of paramilitary organizations like the militias back in the States. They believe their country and their way of life is threatened and one the brink of destruction, and they concoct all kinds of wild conspiracy theories to support those beliefs. This particular group happens to blame us America for all England’s woes. They disagree with our cooperation with their government and mean to end it anyway they can. This,” he indicated the grotto, the smoldering wicker wheel and the prone madmen, “was their prayer before the Holy War.” His voice was harsh, his visage stern. “I was hoping to take this group out before they got started.” He caught Nightwing’s eye and his smile was grim. “Guess I was a little late.”
“But why here?” Nightwing knew the admission had come from the heart and he was touched, though he would never admit it. “Why in England? And how is it linked to my case that was in Gotham?” As he spoke, he moved to lean against one of the grotto’s ancient trees as Alfred’s medicine kicked in. Combined with the adherent’s drugs, it was making his head swim. “I was investigating the theft of artifacts, not misguided jingoism ”
The Batman hesitated and then answered slowly. “Let’s just say an old friend asked me to step in.” An almost invisible shake of his head silenced Alfred where he stood silently at the younger man’s side. “And the items stolen weren’t only old and valuable, they were ritual pieces I’m sure you were aware of that. They’re of the kind used in Pagan ceremonies like this abortive one, to spill holy blood to ward off evil. I knew tonight was special and that they would gather somewhere near Wellesley’s estate to perform their beastly ritual. When I first came to England I learned their intended victim was to be an American. One of some power and position . If I had had any idea who their sacrificial lamb was to be ” He moved to place a hand on his former partner’s shoulder and sighed. “I would have been here sooner.”
Nightwing nodded, meeting his eyes. There was no need for further words.
After a moment Alfred sensed, as he always did, that intervention was called for. He did not need another soul to bandage tonight. “But Master Bruce,” he protested as if on command, “how could you have known it would be Wellesley, and why choose Master Richard?”
Batman, sensing Alfred’s purpose, drew his hand back and crossed it over the other gloved one. “The answer to both questions lies with Wellesley’s connections with the conservative party and the Prime Minister. Robert’s father is highly influential. Robert was closely associated with a certain Inspector James who is heavily involved in the Militia movement. My informant knows Wellesley’s father. Also, the Hall provided them with just the sort of secluded spot necessary for their dirty work.”
“But why me?” Nightwing asked softly, his voice growing fuzzy. “You still haven’t said why. Robert did mention something about my being a ‘warrior prince’ or some other such nonsense.”
“Tonight is Beltaine, May first. On this night of nights, in times of greatest need, a unique sacrifice is offered.” He hesitated, his thin lips curling in an acid smile. “I suppose, you should feel honored.”
Nightwing snorted. “Right.”
“The irony was James had chosen you, Nightwing, as heir to the great Batman, a warrior beyond compare, while Wellesley had picked Dick Grayson, as heir to the power and prestige of Bruce Wayne and Wayne Enterprises world wide.”
He whistled, “Talk about double jeopardy.”
Silence fell between them as they contemplated a tragedy narrowly averted, and in the interim the Batman’s thoughts returned to his young partner who had fallen silent. Robin stood nearby with his dark head down, his pale eyes focused on the trampled grass beneath his feet.
“And as for you, young man .”
Tim gulped. He wasn’t shaking anymore, but he doubted his color was any better than Nightwing’s. “Batman, I know there’s no excuse. I ”
A dark gloved hand called him to silence, and he immediately obeyed. “You disregarded my orders and that’s not good. But ” he added at the youth’s crestfallen look, “you do it infrequently and then only after careful consideration and great thought. Nightwing would most likely be dead now if you hadn’t been able to think for yourself, weigh the risks, and then take action.” He hesitated staring from one dark head to the other and then finished, “There seems to be a ‘connection’ between you two. One I can’t begin to comprehend ”
“Like two halves of the same soul,” Alfred added with the insight of a poet.
Tim stared at the Batman as he held out his hand. After a moment the youth grasped it firmly. “Well done, young man.”
Robin smiled brilliantly.
“Just don’t do it too often.”
Before Tim could think of a reply, Nightwing sprang to his feet and shouted, “Batman! Tim! Behind you!”
The Dark Knight turned to see the Cult leader rising again as though even Morpheus could not hold him. James struggled to his feet and finding a short sword one of his adherents had abandoned in the headlong flight, launched himself with murderous intent toward Tim’s slight form. Instantly, the Batman moved between them, but as he raised his arm to ward off the blow, a single shot rang out, echoing across the silent glen. Sebastian James fell before he had time to cry out, a bullet through the brain.
Near the bole of a great wizened tree, Robert Wellesley dropped to his knees and then with an agonized moan, pitched forward onto the ground. The gun fell from his limp fingers to settle like a snake in the wet grass. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Nightwing alone moved toward the still form. He knelt beside the bloody figure and then, as gently as possible, rolled the dying man over so he could see his face. Wellesley’s hand moved and he clasped the bloody fingers and held them tight. Looking into a face once filled with torment, he knew the aristocrat had found peace at last.
The heir to Wellesley Hall drew a breath to assure him, “Your secret is safe, Dick. No one else knows. I’m ” He coughed and red liquid spilled down his pale chin. ” I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. When I chose you, I thought it was to be symbolic the kidnapping of a wealthy man’s heir. I never .” He paused and then sighed again, the breath rattling in his chest, “No, that’s a lie. I may have fooled myself, but I knew I knew. I guess I was just looking for something to give my life purpose. I thought it was Belinus .” His voice trailed away and he grew very white and still. Then, suddenly his eyes blazed, bright and surprisingly clear. “I’m glad it was saving you.”
A moment later he died.
Nightwing released the cold hand and crossed it along with its bone white mate upon the man’s bloody chest, then he rose and walked away. There was no denying the power that resonated in the air, filling the ancient grotto as it had eons before. It was satisfied. The blood of a prince had been spilt.
He shuddered, all too aware that it had almost been his.
The Batman approached him, his new partner at his side. Nightwing met his sober look and read his thoughts.
“I hear you, partner. Let’s go home.”
The Batman nodded and moments later the blood soaked grotto resounded with its loss.