Here it is: the conclusion of the saga of the Dream Knight! I hope you enjoy reading it even half as much as I enjoyed writing it. In this chapter, everything will be resolved, and the Dream Knight will come to know the true nature of his existence. Or will he?
Disclaimer: I do not own any DC characters.
Chapter 7: Enlightenment
That these heroes are nearly always wanderers is a psychologically clear symbolism. The wandering is a representation of longing, of the ever-restless desire, which nowhere finds its object, for, unknown to itself, it seeks the lost mother… But the myth of the hero, however, is, as it appears to me, the myth of our own suffering unconscious, which has an unquenchable longing for the deepest sources of our own being…
- C. G. Jung,
Psychology of the Unconscious
Bruce is dreaming.
He is alone in a dark, cavernous room. The silence is punctuated by the distant, familiar dripping of water and the hum of the electric light before him, which illuminates a single display case. The case holds a red and yellow costume, tattered and stained by young blood.
He stares into the display case, his retinas adjusting to the light, until the dim lighting of his surroundings becomes total darkness. The costume is the only thing in his world now, and he kneels before it, staring at it with desperation in his eyes like the petty criminals do in the face of justice.
He closes his eyes then, and the young man is there. He is always there, bloodied and dead in his arms.
Bruce shudders, then opens his eyes once more.
No, he thinks. Not this time.
There is a hand on his shoulder and he turns around. The figure before him seems to be almost luminous in the semi-darkness, with the blue of his costume, the red of his cape, and the distinctive "S" logo seeming to generate light of their own.
"You are not supposed to be here," Bruce says. "You're dead. I watched you die. How is it that you are here, in my inner sanctum?"
"I'm just passing through," says Kal-el. "But I have something to show you. Follow me."
Bruce follows the superman away from the bloodied uniform into the elevator leading up into Wayne Manor. Kal-el leads him up stairway after stairway into the highest loft in the manor. There he opens the window and climbs onto the roof, with Bruce following close behind. Kal-el stops on the roof, staring at the twinkling lights of the Gotham City skyline.
Bruce recognizes the skyscrapers, remembers the labyrinth of iron and glass through which he ran night after night. He says, "This is my city."
"Yes," Kal-el replies. "Gotham City. But it is not the only one."
Bruce nods. "There is also the other Gotham, the one ruled by the Shadow King."
"And there are many others. Even I cannot count them all. Perhaps they are infinite."
Bruce and Kal-el stand in silence for a moment, gazing at the city in the distance. Then Bruce says, "I have to go back to that other Gotham. They need me there. There's a whole roomful of people who need me. Robin needs me."
"Yes," Kal-el agrees. "There are many who need you. And I can help you one last time. I will evaporate my body and nullify the Joker's poison. His victims will escape the hall; it is up to you to save your friends."
Bruce nods in understanding, staring silently at Gotham. Then he asks, "Where do you come from?"
Kal-el is silent for a moment. "Where do you think I come from?"
"I suspect that even if you tried to explain it to me, I still wouldn't understand."
"That is probably true."
Bruce hesitates. "That woman I met. Lois Lane. Did you really love her?"
"With all my heart. Letting go of her was the hardest thing I have ever had to do." He turns to Bruce, and there is something different in his face. The stern, proud features have softened, and the ageless eyes, full of wisdom, now show profound emotion. "Do you love Selina?"
"Yes." He breathes deeply. "I do love her."
"Then take my advice. There will always be evil in the world, and there will always be need for a champion to stand against it. But allow yourself to experience happiness; it is fleeting and must be savoured."
Bruce does not answer him. Staring at the city, he says, "I have to go back."
* * *
"What's the matter, Brucie? Got nothing to say?"
Bruce looks up at the Joker, staring him in the eyes. Around him, amid the smoke of the burning room, the maniacal laughter of the poisoned aristocrats ceases. The Joker, surprised, looks around. "What's the matter? Why'd everybody get so serious all of a sudden?"
"It's over, Joker," Bruce says sternly. "Release Robin."
The Joker cackles. "You could say I've already released him! Set him free from the mortal coil!" His expression darkens. "He's dead." And he laughs again.
Bruce steps forward, staring at Robin's battered, motionless body. Gordon and Selina stand back, watching cautiously, their hands on their weapons. "He's alive, Joker."
"Ha ha ha! I doubt that. You killed him, Bruce! You allowed this to happen. He's dead because of you!"
Ignoring the madman, Bruce says to Robin, "Stand up. We need to go."
The Joker continues to cackle, but Bruce focuses upon Robin, extending his hand to the boy. Slowly, weakly, Robin stirs, and his eyes flutter open. His strength returning, he reaches forward and takes Bruce's hand, climbing to his feet.
The Joker stops laughing. "What? No! That's not how it's supposed to happen!"
"You've been beaten, Joker. If you want to live, I suggest you leave this place. Don't ever let me see your face again."
The Joker's eyes flit back and forth, laughing nervously. Then he lunges at Bruce, swinging his bloody sceptre. Bruce seizes it in mid-swing and throws it aside, catching the Joker by the throat. Pulling him in close, he snarls, "Get out of my sight. Next time I see you, I might not be so merciful."
He throws the clown to the floor. Sputtering and choking, the Joker gasps, "Don't you understand? You can never get away from me. We're the same."
"We are not the same," Bruce says, moving towards the Joker, who scrambles away.
He turns to Robin. "Are you alright?"
There is a glazed look in Robin's eyes, and he struggles to remain on his feet. "I know who you are!" he says to Bruce in a shaking voice. "You are the Dream Knight! I understand now!"
"Shh," Bruce hushes him. "We'll talk about that later. We're running out of time."
There is a procession moving towards the exit of the mansion now, hurrying to escape the flames. There are guests, who shuffle as though sleepwalking, and among them are the assassins Kal-el incapacitated. They, too, have returned to their feet and now seek refuge from the fire.
A beam from the ceiling crashes to the floor, sending a cloud of sparks into the air. Bruce turns to his companions. "We need to go. Where is Alfred?"
"I know where he is," Robin says, standing on his own now. "But can we get him in time?"
Bruce removes his multicoloured cape and hands it to Robin. "Take this. Its magic will protect you from fire. Go quickly; we'll meet outside."
Robin nods, dons the cape, and rushes through the nearby door into the hallways beyond. Selina puts a hand on Bruce's shoulder and says, "Come on, let's get out of here."
And they follow the crowd through the doorway out of the burning building and into the courtyard beyond. The flames intensify as Wayne Manor burns behind them in the twilight. After a long moment, Robin and Alfred emerge, running, both shrouded in Bruce's cape.
"Good work," Bruce says to Robin. To Alfred, "Glad to see you again, old friend."
Alfred smiles. Robin removes the cape and holds it in front of Bruce. "I guess you'll be wanting this back?"
"No," Bruce says. "Keep it. Gotham will still have need of a caped crusader."
Robin examines the cape, smiling in spite of himself. Gordon asks Bruce, "What are you going to do?"
He replies, "I am going to defeat the Shadow King once and for all."
* * *
They walk slowly towards the Shadow King's castle on the outskirts of Gotham, a procession made up of Bruce, Selina, Alfred, Gordon, and Robin, followed by an ever-shifting crowd of followers.
After escaping Wayne Manor, Bruce had addressed the survivors. The assassins were gone, leaving the aristocrats milling in a confused cluster. Once they learned that Bruce was the true heir of Gotham, they had fallen to their knees and pledged allegiance to him, swearing they would join him in his march on the Shadow King's castle. But as he glances behind him, he realizes the crowd has thinned. He is not surprised.
Nevertheless, as they march, they encounter more citizens of Gotham. The Joker had been right about Gotham; when Dent died, pandemonium ensued as the city's inhabitants rose up after years of oppression. But the response from the League of Shadows never came, and the uprising gradually became a destructive riot. Still, as Bruce and his entourage pass through, many fall in step and join the march upon the Shadow King's castle, sensing change in the air.
Robin falls in step beside Bruce. "Thanks back there," he says, "for saving my life."
"I couldn't let you die," Bruce says to the young man.
"Well, I mean, technically…"
"No," Bruce interrupts. Then he looks into the young man's eyes. "I am impressed, though, that you've figured it out."
"That I know what it means that you're the Dream Knight? Yeah, well, not to blow my own horn or anything, but I'm a pretty good detective, I think. I honed my skills against Two-Face and his criminals, and it wasn't too much of a stretch to shift from the criminal world to the… I guess you'd call it the metaphysical."
"I'm impressed anyway," Bruce tells him. "How do you feel about it?"
"I think I'm handling it better than you are," Robin responds. "No offence."
Bruce exhales slowly, then says, "You're right. I've gradually pieced it together myself, but I still don't feel like I completely believe it. That this is all a dream."
"So what are you going to do about it?"
He pauses. "I don't know yet. For now, we confront the Shadow King."
They are drawing near to the tall, ominous black tower that is the castle of the Shadow King. Torches burn within its windows and on its walls, illuminating it against the night sky.
There is a large town square in front of the castle walls, and a large crowd has gathered, holding torches and chanting angrily. Within the crowd, dark figures move. As Bruce and his procession approach, they stop chanting suddenly, face Bruce, and fall to their knees. One of the black-clad figures emerges from the crowd; a female assassin of the League of Shadows, wearing the armour of the black bat. She walks towards Bruce and genuflects before him.
"King Bruce Wain, the Dream Knight of Gotham, we pledge our allegiance to you," she says. "My assassins and I have felt the power of the Superman, our true master. We have renounced the Shadow King and will now serve the House of Wain once more as the Justice League."
So they're on our side now, Bruce thinks, relieved. Looking down at the woman, he asks her, "Are you the captain of these warriors?"
"Yes," she says. "I am called Huntress. And it was we, the Justice League, who rallied these citizens against the Shadow King."
He regards the mob, then the castle. "Where is the Shadow King?"
"He has barricaded himself inside his castle with his few remaining loyal assassins. He knows that his time has come. We are ready to storm the castle. All we await is your order."
And suddenly, Bruce becomes aware that all eyes are upon him – the crowds with their indistinct faces, the kneeling assassins and the Huntress, Gordon, Alfred, Robin. And, as ever, Selina's green eyes that see into his soul. There is an unnatural silence in the square, and the full moon shines from a clear sky as if even the world itself was watching him.
Gordon moves closer. "I think you should say something."
"What can I say?" he whispers.
"I don't know," he says, glancing at the multitudes. "But you're the leader here. You have to say something."
The sheriff backs away, and Bruce takes a deep breath.
"People of Gotham," he says in a loud voice, "our long night is over. For too long, we have lived in fear. We have lived in fear of the darkness, of the streets of a city that is rightfully ours. We have lived in fear of a madman whose mindless, all-consuming quest for 'justice' has made us prisoners in our own homes. But no more.
"Years ago, my parents were murdered. I loved them. We all loved them. And their death has left a void in our hearts which may never be filled. But today, the heir of Gotham, the son of the house of Wain, has returned, and together, we will continue their work and fulfill their dream of a peaceful Gotham, a prosperous Gotham, a free Gotham!"
There is cheering from the crowd. He looks from face to featureless face.
"So join with me, and we will defeat the Shadow King. And I say this to our oppressor: listen closely, because you have until dawn to surrender yourself." He pauses for a moment. "Do you hear me? At dawn, we will come for you!"
There are murmurs within the crowd. Huntress steps forward and says, "My liege, you must know that the Shadow King will never voluntarily surrender himself. He and those loyal to him will fight to the death!"
Bruce nods. "That may be the case. Even so, we will demonstrate to him that we are capable of mercy. We are not like him!"
More cheering. Bruce raises his hand, and there is silence once more, all eyes fixated upon him.
"So join me as we bring about the new Gotham. Join me here at dawn. And those among you who are warriors: keep watch of the castle tonight. The Shadow King will not escape. We shall have our freedom!"
And there is a great cheer. Bruce allows himself to smile, then turns to Gordon.
"Very inspiring," Gordon tells him as the crowd begins to talk amongst itself.
"Thanks," Bruce says. He stares at the sheriff for a moment, then says, "Gordon, I'm going to need a chief of Gotham police. I need someone to co-ordinate with this so-called Justice League and make sure this doesn't become another reign of terror. And I think you're the man for the job."
Gordon's eyes widen. "Me? I mean… are you sure?"
"You're a man of integrity. You're the best person for the job, in my opinion. And with Harvey Dent gone, the people need a lawman they can trust. And I don't think they'll warm up to this Justice League easily."
The sheriff pauses. "I… I'll have to talk it over with Barbara… but I would be honoured."
Bruce bows his head. "It has been a privilege to know you, Gordon."
There is a moment of silence, and Gordon asks, "Are you going somewhere?"
"I need to meditate," Bruce tells him. "To prepare myself to confront the Shadow King."
Gordon nods. "Godspeed."
Bruce scans the crowd and spots Alfred and Robin. Meeting his eye, Robin steps forward.
"Nice speech," he says.
"Thank you." He glances at Alfred. "Robin, I want you to take care of him."
"Where are you going?"
"I need to meditate. I may not see you before I enter the fortress."
Robin nods in understanding. "And you might not see me afterwards either."
"I am not certain," he says.
"Alright," the young man responds, grinning slightly. "Good luck with whatever it is you have to do. Me, I'm just interested to see what happens next. It's going to be an awfully big adventure."
Alfred's hand is on Bruce's shoulder now, and Bruce faces the kindly old man. "Alfred, thanks for everything," he begins.
"Don't thank me now, Master Bruce, for we shall meet again soon."
"I hope so," Bruce says.
"I am certain that we will," Alfred tells him. "Now, get some rest, because I suspect that the most difficult part of your journey lies ahead. The Shadow King will not be easily overcome."
"I will," Bruce says. "Thanks to both of you."
He turns around, and Selina is there.
"Come with me," she says.
* * *
Selina takes him to a high castle wall, and produces a grappling hook and tosses it over the top of the wall. They climb over and find themselves in a courtyard, with the castle proper looming nearby.
She walks forward, taking a path that follows the outer wall, circling the castle. Bruce eyes the darkened courtyard suspiciously, wary of assassins.
"They won't trouble us," Selina says without turning around, as if reading his thoughts.
"How do you know?"
"They're waiting for us. For you. They want you to go to them."
Somehow, he knows she is right, and he continues to follow her until they reach a row of trees. They are behind the castle now, and it looms above them ominously.
Selina pauses, and Bruce asks her, "What is this?"
"It's a garden. The royal garden. It was planted by your parents. Come, let me show you."
She leads him through the trees, and soon they are in the garden. Beautiful trees surround them, and night-blooming violets grow in the grass below. There is a fountain spouting gently running water into a pond, and the full moon reflects on the rippling surface. A beautiful gazebo with wrought-iron railings stands to one side of the pond. There is no sound except for the water, and no light except for the moon and stars.
"The Shadow King kept this place well," Selina observes.
"It's beautiful," Bruce whispers.
"I've visited this place before," Selina tells him, "long ago. I thought you should see it before you… before you confront the Shadow King."
There is a sadness in her eyes. Bruce steps closer to her. "We're confronting him together."
She says softly, "No. I can't."
"What?" Bruce asks incredulously. "Why not? I need you, Selina."
She casts her eyes downwards. "Do you remember when we first met?"
"Yes," he says. "Of course. We met in battle."
"I had been having dreams about you. Before we even met, I'd had dreams about a man in mirrored armour. The Dream Knight. So, after our first encounter, I went to the Oracle. And she told me that I would meet the Dream Knight who would confront the Shadow King. She told me that he would need me, that he wouldn't be able to complete his destiny without me. But she also told me that when the Dream Knight had to face the Shadow King alone, or else he would fail to complete his destiny."
Bruce is stunned. He stares at Selina. If this is a dream, he thinks, will she be there when I wake up? And he cannot bring himself to think about the answer.
Instead, he takes her hand, saying, "Stay with me tonight, then. I will return after facing the Shadow King."
"Will you?" she asks, staring into his eyes. "Will you return?"
He takes a deep breath. "Yes. I will return to you, and we'll be together. I love you, Selina. I could never leave you."
And he pulls her close, and she kisses him deeply. They remove each other's armour and lie in the garden, making love in the pale moonlight among the grasses and violets. He promises her then that he will never leave her, that he will take her as his queen, and that they will live all their days together in Gotham. And as they climax together, he realizes that he is deeply happy, and that he truly cannot live without Selina.
* * *
"I had a dream just now," Selina whispers, lying her head upon Bruce's shoulder as he stares into the night sky.
He wraps his arms around her warm body. "What did you dream?"
Her eyelashes brush against his skin. "I dreamed that we were dancing. Except that it wasn't really you, and I don't think it was really me, either. But we were dancing together in our armour. Your armour was different – it was black, like the assassins' armour, with a black mask. I told you to take your mask off, but you wouldn't do it. And I tried to touch your skin, but it was all armour. I could tell that you were hurt. I could see it in your eyes. They were like a child's eyes, a child who's seen something terrible. And I knew then: the armour, the mask, the weapons – it was all to protect the child inside from being hurt again.
"I knew then that you couldn't love me, even though you wanted to. You couldn't love anyone. You'd been able to love once, but it had brought you so much pain that you could never open yourself up again. And so you hid behind your mask, and I saw you steal a glance outside the window into the night. I knew that's where your mind was – out in the night, fighting all the evildoers in your head."
He says nothing, but holds her more tightly.
"I know you have waking dreams these days. And I've wondered whether this could all be a dream."
Bruce says, "If this is a dream, I don't want to wake up. I'd rather live in a dream with you than be awake without you."
"But what if it isn't real?"
"Selina," he whispers, "you said once that what you feel for me is real. And I know that what I feel for you is real. It's more real than anything I've ever known. I can't let it go."
She puts her hand on his face. "Bruce, I'm afraid of what the Oracle said. She said if I was there when you confronted the Shadow King, you wouldn't fulfill your destiny. What if your destiny is to end the dream?"
He feels a tear run from her face and land on his shoulder. He says, "I could never do that. I'd sooner not be the Dream Knight, if that's my destiny."
They are silent for a long time, and then she says, "But you are the Dream Knight. You can't escape it."
"But it's always been my choice," he whispers, swallowing hard. "The Oracle said that."
"Maybe," she says softly. "But I think you must make the choice to be the Dream Knight. It's who you are. Just like in my dream – you wanted to love me, but couldn't escape who you were."
"I am not the man in your dream," Bruce protests, and his eyes begin to moisten as he recalls the Oracle's words. She had told him, it is always your choice, and you will find it the most difficult choice that you will ever make.
Difficult, he thinks, and cruel.
"I cannot do it," he says. He looks into her green eyes. "Selina, let's go somewhere. Some corner of Gotham that we can call our own. Some place where nobody will know who we are – where it will just be us."
She holds him tightly, and after a long moment, tells him, "No. You have to face the Shadow King. You have to be the Dream Knight. I can't let you do otherwise."
"No," he whispers, his voice wavering.
"Remember," she tells him, "you belong to me."
They are both crying now, and Bruce cannot bring himself to speak any more. They hold each other in the silent darkness for a long time.
Eventually, he realizes that she is asleep, and her breath becomes regular once more. The moon hangs above, and darkens for a moment as a cloud of bats flies across. He breathes deeply, inhaling the fragrances of the garden. It is strange and alien, overwhelming his senses, causing the grasses and flowers of the garden to swirl in shades of green and violet.
Poison, he realizes. Poison gas.
He realizes now. The dream is so vivid, so real, that its unreality is the punch-line of the most cruel joke ever told. The Joker has poisoned him, and everything he has experienced has been a hallucination caused by the gas.
At that moment, he understands the task before him. Gently, softly, he rolls out from the sleeping Selina's arms. "Om mani padme hum," he recites softly to himself, focusing his thoughts upon donning his armour. As the dawn begins to break, he walks methodically out of the garden towards the Shadow King's fortress. He does not even allow himself a glance back at Selina, for he knows that his resolve will surely melt away.
* * *
It is not hard to break into the Shadow King's fortress. He moves silently through the corridors and up the staircases of the empty castle. Briefly, he wonders how to find the Shadow King, but then thinks to himself, this is a hallucination. I will bring the Shadow King to me.
He turns a corner, and there is a large, ornate door, and he knows the Shadow King is behind it. He closes his eyes, recites a mantra, focuses his qi, and opens the door.
The chamber is large, with a high ceiling and Gothic-style architecture. A window on one side of the wall overlooks the city of Gotham, and two empty thrones stand in the back of the room. An ornate chandelier hangs from the ceiling, the walls are lined with bookshelves containing leather-bound tomes, and the floor is covered by a fine red carpet. The Shadow King sits in the centre of the room in the lotus position, his head bowed. He appears to be less a person than a three-dimensional shadow, dark and foreboding. Four assassins stand in front of him, and in a corner, the Joker is chained to a wooden chair, bruised and unconscious.
"Kill him," the Shadow King says to his assassins, his voice deep and otherworldly.
The assassins draw their nunchaku and move swiftly towards Bruce. He holds up his hand and says to them, "You cannot harm me. You are not real."
The assassins vanish.
"Impressive," the Shadow King says. "You have gained enough awareness about this world to have some control over it. You are much like your friend, Kal-el the superman. But as he died by my hand, so shall you."
"I am not afraid of you," Bruce declares, wondering whether the Shadow King is capable of making good upon his threat. No, he thinks to himself, the Shadow King is no more real than his assassins.
"On the contrary, Dream Knight," the Shadow King says, "I am quite real. I am the master of this world, but am greater than it. When I came to this world, it was chaos, but I brought order to it. I will not suffer you, or anyone else, to unmake what I have made. Know that I am perfectly capable of destroying you."
Fear and doubt flash through Bruce's mind, but he focuses his thoughts and takes a step forward. "I must fulfill my destiny. Your reign of terror will be brought to an end."
"We shall see." The Shadow King rises to his feet, and his pitch-black cape billows in the windless room. He towers over Bruce, huge in stature, and the cape and horned mask give him the appearance of a great bat. Pale, white eyes with no pupils stare out of the inky darkness of his face. Yet his movements are graceful, and he assumes a ready stance, holding out his hand and beckoning Bruce to come forward.
Bruce assumes a defensive stance, wondering how he can possibly fight this monstrosity. Every iota of the Shadow King's being radiates strength and power. But he breathes deeply, remembering Kal-el's words: He is darkness. He is a man who sought to use against evildoers their own subconscious fears – the night, the unknown, the supernatural. In doing so, he lost his own humanity to these forces, and made himself a living archetype, enslaved to the fears he sought to harness.
If I do not fear him, Bruce thinks, he has no power over me.
At that moment, the Shadow King attacks with blinding speed, swinging a massive fist at Bruce's skull. Bruce dodges, seizing the Shadow King's arm and attempting to use the momentum to throw the Shadow King to the ground. The Shadow King falls forward, contacting the floor with an open palm, and, impossibly, flips forward, lands on his feet, and spins around in a roundhouse kick. Bruce dives backwards as the kick passes millimetres from his chin. He lands with his hands and feet on the ground, facing upward, and rolls to the side as the Shadow King brings his hand downward in a powerful, open-palmed chop. There is a crashing sound as the stone beneath the carpet breaks under the force of the Shadow King's blow.
Bruce takes advantage of his adversary's momentarily open defences and dives forward, bringing his elbow down towards the back of the Shadow King's head. But the Shadow King is fast, and lunges at Bruce, knocking him off his feet and lifting him into the air. Frantically, Bruce pushes himself away from the Shadow King, landing hard on his side. He gasps for breath, and the Shadow King is upon him, seizing him by the throat and lifting him into the air.
The Shadow King laughs a deep, terrible laugh as Bruce struggles to pry open his adversary's iron grip. "Fool!" the Shadow King booms. "Did you think it was possible to defeat me?"
Fighting to remain conscious, Bruce raises his arm and brings it down hard, using the scalloped blades on his gauntlet to slash the Shadow King's arm. The blades break off into the Shadow King's arm, and he howls, dropping Bruce to the floor.
Bruce has less than a second to regain his composure as the Shadow King tears the blades from his arm, leaving a black, wispy trail where the wound was. This promptly re-coalesces into the Shadow King's arm, and he charges at Bruce, thrusting an open-palmed strike at Bruce's head. He dodges, but the Shadow King is quick with an uppercut with his other arm, which Bruce barely deflects. He jumps back as the Shadow King brings his knee towards Bruce's gut. But the Shadow King is impossibly fast, and he has landed a heavy blow across Bruce's jaw before he can react. Pain explodes in Bruce's consciousness, and he begins to fall. Desperately, he whispers, "Om. This is a dream."
Time seems to stop for a moment, with the Shadow King's fist still in mid-swing and Bruce falling to the floor. The pain is still there, but he knows it is not real and ignores it. He reaches forward and catches the Shadow King, whose movement is now so slow as to be almost imperceptible, and swings his legs in an arc, catching the Shadow King's ankles and sweeping them out from under him.
Then, time returns to its normal flow, and Bruce and the Shadow King crash to the floor. But Bruce is up first this time, and brings his fist down towards the Shadow King's face. A hard, scaly grip catches his arm, and suddenly the Shadow King is the giant reptile from Ivy's jungle. With a roar, the reptile seizes Bruce's chest, uses its tail to help rise to its feet, and hurls Bruce across the room, tearing his breastplate off in the process. Bruce sails through the air across the room and crashes into a bookcase, breaking it. He falls to the floor, and books rain down upon him.
He looks up in time to see that the Shadow King has transformed into Grandfather Freeze. He unleashes a blast of ice at Bruce, who rolls out of the way at the last instant. Dodging another blast of ice, Bruce springs towards his quiver of boomerangs, which lies spilled on the floor. He seizes one, rolls, and hurls it at the chain for the chandelier above the Shadow King's head. The chain breaks, and the chandelier drops, but the Shadow King has become the Joker's harlequin dancer and leaps forward out of the way.
Bruce takes a moment to focus his qi, and out of the corner of his eye, notices a great book that has been frozen solid. As the Shadow King advances, now in the form of the man-bat of Bruce's nightmares, he takes the tome, spins around, and hurls it like a discus. It strikes the abomination in the head, and it drops to the ground. He takes a boomerang in his hand and charges, ready to finish the Shadow King.
The Shadow King faces Bruce, and now he is Selina. Her face is bloodied and bruised, and her eyes cut through him. He stops in his tracks.
"So you are going to do it, then?" she asks him, her voice quivering. "You are going to bring an end to this world?"
"No," Bruce sputters, choked with grief. "You are not Selina. You are the Shadow King."
"Bruce, please," she sobs, "I'm begging you. Let us be together. I love you. Please."
"I must fulfill my destiny," Bruce whispers.
"Bruce, let's go somewhere. Some place where nobody will know who we are." She stares at him, her eyes filled with hurt. "Where it will just be us."
Her words cut deep into his soul, and he falls to his knees, closing his eyes to stop the tears. He knows that it is the Shadow King, but cannot bear to see the likeness of Selina saying these things to him. I cannot do it, he thinks. I cannot end this dream.
"Now, Dream Knight," the Shadow King roars, suddenly behind him, "you will die!" And the Shadow King lifts Bruce off his feet and brings him down hard, shattering Bruce's spine on his knee.
The agony is overwhelming, and Bruce feels his consciousness beginning to dissolve. He closes his eyes, and amid the blinding pain, he sees the afterimage of the green eyes.
Selina, he thinks.
She would not allow me to let it end this way.
This is a dream.
All of the pain I feel is an illusion.
Nothing in this world can destroy me, for everything I have experienced is a manifestation of my mind.
He feels his being beginning to dissolve into blissful nothingness, but he wills himself back into the dream. His spine is shattered, but he focuses upon it, and it regenerates. The pain disappears, and he climbs to his feet, facing the Shadow King once more.
"No," snarls the Shadow King. "No! I cannot be defeated! This is my world! I am this world!" And he spreads his arms, and reality seems to twist and warp. The carpet writhes, and becomes twisting red tendrils which climb up Bruce's leg and ensnare him. But he closes his eyes and lifts his feet off the ground, entering the lotus position and levitating above the floor. A halo of light surrounds him, and the twisting room returns to normal.
Bruce says to the Shadow King, "I know what you are. You are a mechanism of my consciousness, born out of fear and grief. You seek to maintain order, but you are trapped here yourself, here in this place where my parents lived. You think me a frightened child, and you protect me, imposing order upon the chaos of the world. You are the Batman."
The Shadow King backs away, silently, the edges of his being beginning to twist.
"Let go," Bruce says gently. "It is over. The dream is done."
After a long moment of silence, the Shadow King says, "I… I understand now. You have not come to undo my work at all. You have come to bring about the ultimate freedom from chaos. The freedom of non-being. I see now what must be done."
He extends his hand, and a bookshelf on the far side of the room slides to one side, revealing a long corridor made of red brick. Then he turns his gaze to the Joker, who is still unconscious and chained to a chair. The chains disappear, and the Joker awakens.
"Follow him," the Shadow King says to Bruce. "He will lead you out of the dream."
And the Shadow King dissolves into a cloud of darkness. The room begins to blur before Bruce's eyes, fading, the colours running into each other.
"Heh," laughs the Joker, facing Bruce. "So you figured it out. It's all just a hallucination caused by a new brand of Joker gas. They always said you were the world's greatest detective."
Bruce returns to his feet and follows the Joker to the corridor, which twists into the distance. "You are not of this world either."
"Heh heh. Nope. I'm just along for the ride. Wherever you go, I'll go. No matter how much you abuse me, no matter how many times you lock me up, I'll always be back for more. I'm a part of you, Brucie." The Joker licks his lips.
"And I will always overcome you," Bruce tells him.
"Maybe so," the Joker says as they enter the corridor and begin to walk. "But I still get the last laugh. There'll always be more Gothams, more Jokers, and none of them will be any more real than any other. I don't think you'll like the place we're going near as much as this one. It ain't a nice place. But that Cat Woman you met here – she's a real knockout."
"She was a manifestation of my mind," Bruce tells the Joker.
The Joker chuckles. "Sure. But deep down, I think you know she's as real as anyone you'll ever meet."
Bruce is silent, trying not to think about her. Finally, softly, he asks, "Do you think I'll remember her?"
The Joker grins. "I dunno. Maybe you will, maybe you won't. I don't know which would be worse."
They reach the end of the corridor, and there is a simple, wooden door, and the Joker continues, "That's just you, though. You're a glutton for suffering. You live on it. It's what makes you tick."
"I'm not listening to you," Bruce says, opening the door. There is a great grey cloud before him, and in the distance, there is the silhouette of a great bat. The Joker laughs as they walk through the door into the darkness beyond.
So ends the story of the Dream Knight. Now that you're finished, let me know what you think! Drop a review if you have any comments, questions, criticisms, etc. And stay tuned – this was my first fanfic, but it may not be the last.