NIGHTWING / BATMAN
THE PENTAGRAM COUNCIL—ORIGINS
Many thanks to my virtual friend, Ellen Fleischer, and my real-life buddies and fellow Batman fans, John and Kit, for beta-reading and giving their respective input on this chapter. Many thanks to Ellen Fleischer for being the awesome editor that she is!
Location—on the road
Dick Grayson's Point of View
"Incoming call from Bruce Wayne—Personal Cell…"
I looked at my cell phone and noticed that I already had four missed calls—all of them, most probably, from Bruce. I let out a sigh and tried to forget just how tired I really was. I told the car system computer, "Receive call."
"Dick," said Bruce on speakerphone, sounding cheerful and casual, "how's everything with you and AJ? How's the party?"
Making it sound as if nothing had gone wrong this evening, I said, "It was great. We're heading home as we speak. We'll need Alfred's expertise once we get there, though."
Bruce chuckled a bit. "Oh? Who needs it more—you or AJ?"
"AJ," was my reply. "He's sleeping right now."
I told him lightheartedly, "I'm the designated driver, Bruce. Not a sip—I swear."
There was warmth in Bruce's voice when he said, "Just checking, all right? I'll tell Alfred to make his special brew. Have AJ stay over for the night. That'll give him more time to sleep before Em joins us for brunch."
"Okay, sounds good. We'll see you guys in an hour or so."
Once the call ended, Asi said, "Hiding what happened tonight will not keep your family safe. Keeping them ignorant just endangers them."
"That's the pot calling the kettle black." I stifled a yawn and said, "I'll tell him, but it's not going to be that easy."
"I see…" Asi kept quiet and let me drive in peace.
However, I was anything but peaceful. I did my best to stay calm, but too many things were nagging me. I needed answers.
Glancing at Asi through my rear-view mirror, I broke the silence and asked, "Are you going to answer questions about what happened back there?"
Asi looked at the rearview mirror—his way of meeting my gaze. "Ask. If I cannot or will not answer, I will let you know."
This guy was really grating on my nerves. He reminded me of those coin-operated mystics that told your fortune for a quarter—always dependable for vague answers at best, and non-answers on most occasions. I shook my head in dismay. I really wanted to sock this guy. "I saw a lot of weird things back there, especially during the escape. So how do those things tie in with AJ and me? What do they want from us?"
"Weird things? For example?"
"Derek's eyes glowed red, and he was practically meta-strong. I saw this surge of electricity coming out of his hand. You came out of nowhere, from the mist. You and Derek know each other, or at least, Derek knows about you and what you do. They used something out of the ordinary to drug AJ. You happen to have the antidote for what they gave him, which meant that what you gave him was out of the ordinary, too."
"Sounds just about right…"
Again, I shook my head. "Why were they trying to get AJ and me? What's in it for you? Why did you help us back there?"
It was a while before Asi said, "Derek Anson wants you and AJ for a ritual. If he gets either one of you, it will be trouble enough as is. To have both of you in his clutches will be disastrous. I already warned Mr. Wayne and Mr. Ishino. Now that you two have escaped, Derek and Almagest will retaliate. No one in the Wayne or Ishino families, or in their immediate circles, will be safe."
"Ritual…?" I echoed, while keeping my eyes on the road. That word made me clutch the steering wheel more tightly, as I recalled the Teen Titans and our experiences with Brother Blood. I still held my feelings in check, when I added, moments later, "You make it sound as if we're dealing with some sort of demonic cult."
"For starters, you are right." Asi paused. "Outsiders would easily peg Almagest as a satanic cult and Derek its leader, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Almagest is more than just a cult. It has been in existence for a long time."
"Not as long as Almagest, but he has been around."
"So, what did we deal with, back there?"
"An organization that is adept in the occult. Almagest has been in existence for millennia, and Derek, for at least 200 years. They use the inverted pentagram as their symbol, but they are not Satanists. They do not worship Satan, but rather, an entirely different set of entities."
"If they're not Satanists, why use the inverted pentagram? Who do they worship?"
Asi paused again. "They use the inverted pentagram because they call upon dark forces to accomplish their goals. Derek, Almagest's leader, is mystically gifted to better serve those they worship. You and AJ have been marked for the ritual that will make their wishes come true. Your respective families are in grave danger… especially now that Derek did not totally get what he wanted…"
I blinked. After I shook my head to drive away the fatigue that was setting in, I asked, "Derek didn't totally get what he wanted? We got away, didn't we?"
"He touched you and AJ… tainted you. That starts the ball rolling in their favor." I could feel an intense look via the rear-view mirror when he quipped, "And do not tell me that I did not warn you enough about it. You are the one who chose not to listen the first time."
I blinked. "Damn. This guy reads minds, too?"
Asi sounded rather nonchalant. "You had your eyebrow raised just seconds ago. It does not take a mind reader to know what you are thinking."
I frowned and shook my head, still finding all of this hard to believe. "What did you actually give AJ?"
More annoyed now than ever, I pressed, "Which is?"
"Just as I said—alchemic panacea," Asi replied flatly.
"So you're telling me that Derek got something out of AJ and me back there… but not enough to satisfy him?"
"What does Derek really want from AJ and me?"
It felt as if there was a tight band of pressure around my skull when Asi told me, "Derek wants to bring back the primordial gods through AJ, through you, or through both of you. When that happens, your lives, wills, and souls will be lost to those who love you. If Almagest and Derek become even partially successful, it could change humanity's existence, as we know it."
"You make it sound so apocalyptic," I murmured with a dismissive snort. Yeah, I was putting up a front. Sue me.
"I am describing something no less than apocalyptic," Asi returned. "Literal and figurative hell on earth; the subjugation of mankind; freedom for all demons to cross to the realm of the living… All of that—and much more—will happen, if Almagest succeeds."
Hell on earth. Great—just great… Another end-of-the-world scenario…. Why did everything have to be in apocalyptic proportions? And if that was the case, why did the powers-that-be have to choose this guy to be their messenger? I kept my mouth shut for a while, taking out some of my frustration and worry by clutching the steering wheel tighter. My headache throbbed more heavily now than before.
It was official—I felt like shit.
Dick stared back at Bruce, as Damian and Tim stood close to the hospital bed that Alfred had prepared inside the Batcave. "You guys finished patrol early?"
"I was the first to report back to base," said Tim, his Red Robin costume still on, minus the domino mask.
"Pennyworth and I are three-fourths done analyzing the liquid inside the vial," added Damian.
Dick shook his head, frowning a bit due to a throbbing headache. He sat up in bed, while everyone kept a cautious eye on him as he moved. He rested his right hand on the nape of his neck. "I was out? How long? What vial are you talking about, Damian?"
"You and AJ were at the front gates a little over an hour ago," Tim replied. "Both of you were unconscious. Alfred and I worked on getting you inside the house."
"AJ… Where is he? How's he doing?"
Bruce handed Dick a couple of ibuprofen tablets and a glass of water. As he watched Dick take the pain killers, he said, "He's upstairs. Still unconscious… Leslie and Alfred checked him out. He'll be fine; he just needs to sleep it off. How about you…?"
After taking a deep breath and handing the empty glass to Bruce, Dick replied, "My head feels stuffed. ...Weak. Still, better than before. I just remember getting dizzier…sicker…the closer we got to Gotham. Don't know how AJ and I got here in one piece."
Bruce, Tim, and Damian exchanged glances. "What?" Dick exclaimed. "What did I miss?"
Tim let out a sigh. "Alfred and I heard your car horn. We checked out the monitors and saw that it was you, but you weren't opening the front gate. We hurried outside… and someone was with you and AJ."
"Masked, and in black? Hooded with an ankle-length black cloak?"
"Did he disappear into mist?"
"Not right away. He had his hands up at first—his way of showing that he didn't mean any harm, I guess. We were about ten feet away from him. He said that he was leaving the antidote for you and AJ. Then there came this thick fog—just appeared out of nowhere. A minute later, it—and he—were gone. He left two vials left behind. You were clutching one, and AJ was clutching the other."
Dick ran his fingers through his hair. "Asi…"
Damian blinked. "Asi…? You were with Asi?"
Dick raised his hand as he saw their eyes widen. "Asi showed up in Bridgehampton. He helped AJ and me escape. If I blacked out—which sounds likely—then he probably took the wheel on the last stretch of our drive home."
"But the note…the watermark—" Tim said worriedly.
"He sent it to warn Bruce. He said he also sent one to AJ's dad."
"We ran toxicology tests on you and AJ," Bruce interjected. "You two were drugged… poisoned. There's anti-toxin in your system too. Whatever Asi gave you and AJ, it's doing its job as we speak."
"He said it was an alchemic panacea," murmured Dick, taking a deep breath to help clear his head.
"We'll find out what it is from Alfred's and Damian's tests." Bruce's face looked grimmer as he thought about Asi. "What happened out there, Dick?"
When Dick was done telling everyone about what happened at Bridgehampton and his encounter with Asi, Tim shared what he had learned about Asi from his source. A period of silence followed.
Finally, Bruce sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. "We'll resume talks later. We have a brunch today. Tomorrow," he sighed again, "one of us will pick up Cassandra from the airport. Unfortunately, we won't have much time to address this issue then, either, because after that, our dinner guests will be joining us here."
Dick frowned in confusion. "Dinner guests?"
Bruce nodded. "Michael Ishino e-mailed me a couple of hours ago. He and Jii-san are flying into Goodwin this afternoon—a day earlier than expected."
"Em and the band moved rehearsals to early morning, so that she could make brunch." Tim turned to Dick, "You really should rest, Bro. I'm sure Em would understand. You'll see her at brunch, anyway."
As he mulled over Tim's suggestion, Dick frowned again. "I've bailed on her a couple of times already. She also doesn't know about AJ and the Bridgehampton trip—"
Tim nodded with a small smile. "Yup—now you're getting with the program. Let someone else go to today's rehearsals. We'll all say that you picked up AJ from the airport, and you two will meet her here for brunch. That way, you and AJ can get more rest. Make amends and give her your apologies when she gets here."
"Tim's right, Dick…" Bruce paused. "We have a full plate this week," he reminded them. "Alexa's concert is two days from today. The gala's a couple of days after that. We also have guests to entertain."
"Not to mention the after-party on both concert nights," Damian interjected.
Dick sighed. "Alfred will have his hands full tomorrow, so I'll pick up Cass from the airport. I'll figure out a way to make it up to Em…do my best to keep any commitments this time around."
Tim said, "Em said something about either she or AJ would be picking up Mister Ishino from the airport. That'll be one less matter to worry about."
"We're not giving up patrol time because of these obligations, are we, Father?" Damian demanded.
When Bruce shook his head, an inwardly-pleased Damian nodded. He turned to the others. "Get some rest, everyone. We have a full day—and night—ahead of us."
"Sounds like a plan…" Dick bit his lip and stopped moving. His head throbbed worse when he moved quicker than he should have. Once the pain subsided, he took a deep breath, looked at the others, and smiled sheepishly. "I know, I know. Take it easy…"
Bruce shook his head once more. He gently patted Dick on the back and helped the younger man out of the gurney and onto his feet. "Come on, soldier. Off to bed, but take your time. Don't even think about making it to those steps, up your room, and in bed without me."
With a smirk, Dick countered, "And miss being tucked in and told a bedtime story? Gee…I wouldn't miss that for the world."
"I'd have you wheeled into your room and strapped in your bed, if I had my way. Don't start with me…"
"Fine, fine…" Dick chuckled. Then he sighed. "A concert, a gala, after-parties, dinner guests—all while we've got a 400-something-year old ghostly assassin, a 200-year-old mystically-powered megalomaniac, and a crazed cult at our tails."
"Gotham's criminals, black magic, and primordial gods—don't forget about those," Tim hollered, as he and Damian climbed the stone steps leading up to the manor.
Dick glanced at Bruce, pursed his lips, and yelled back, "Thanks for the reminder, smart aleck."
Tim laughed. "Anytime, Bro… Anytime…"
Dick Grayson's Point-of-View
I still felt like crap, even though today was a much better day than yesterday. However, life went on. Tim accompanied me to Goodwin International, just to make sure that there'd be an alternate driver, in case I got too tired or dizzy.
Yesterday's brunch was what I'd hoped it would be. AJ and Em were civil… even passably friendly with each other. All that I could do was exchange stares and headshakes with AJ. We'd figured out that brunch would be a vivid indicator of how tonight's dinner would turn out. It also seemed that, so far, he was being true to his word—that he wouldn't have a problem if Em and I wanted to become friends—or more than that—later on.
Before Em left the manor, she and I made arrangements for tonight's date. We agreed to meet at the arena during her afternoon rehearsal, and go from there.
As for Cass, her visit was long overdue. We all missed her. The three of us chatted away, filling in each other on what had been going on in our lives our work. Tim and I updated her about Asi, too.
Cass summed up her sentiments with the words, "Be careful…always." Once Tim and I promised to do so, the mood went back to lighthearted.
After parking the car in the garage, the three of us walked inside.
Tim and I stopped for a minute before we entered the rehearsal area, prompting Cass to ask, "What?"
I blinked. Then I turned to Tim. "Isn't that the guitar riff to Gun N' Roses' Sweet Child of Mine?"
Tim nodded. "They must be on break if they're goofing off and doing song covers. And yes, that'd be Em doing lead vocals, as we speak."
"Goofing off?" I pointed at the door to the rehearsal hall. "That's not goofing off. Are they performing that in concert?"
"Nope, they're just doing it to relax and have fun. They're good, aren't they?" Tim pushed the door open, and, like the gentlemen Alfred had struggled to turn us into, we motioned for Cass to go first.
When we got inside, the band started playing Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.
We stood watching in awe while the band played. It certainly brought back good memories of when Roy and I performed together in Great Frog, with Roy behind the drums, while I played guitar.
And whoever the band's guitarist was, my hat was off to him.
I noticed a couple of things which had me looking forward even more to concert night. There was great chemistry between the band members—particularly between Em and the guitarist. I could see that each band member was feeling the music play through them and come out as a kick-ass performance.
When the song was over, the three of us applauded.
"So what do you think?" Tim asked Cass. He nodded back at Em after she waved hello to the three of us. "Awesome, huh..?"
Cass didn't reply.
"Yes… The guitarist is…good," Cass murmured absentmindedly, her eyes fixed on the stage.
I couldn't help but glance at her.
Tim caught on too. He quickly climbed up onstage after the drummer got up, and I motioned for him to go behind the drums.
Unlike Tim, Cass and I took the stairs. By the time we got up there, Tim was playing drums—with the band's drummer giving him pointers.
After Em and I exchanged a friendly hug, I said, "Em, my sister Cassandra—Cass, for short."
Em shook Cass's hand with a smile and then introduced the band members to us, one by one. She turned around and frowned, looking for someone.
The guitarist came from backstage with an armful of water bottles, which he began passing out. When he reached Em, the two exchanged comfortable smiles. He shook my hand, saying, "You must be Dick Grayson. I'm Troy…Troy Tsuuri…"
"You were good," Cass interjected. When he blinked, she clarified, "The guitar. You were good."
Troy looked at Cass, placed his hand over his heart, and gave a slight bow. "Thanks. I'm flattered." After a moment's pause, he asked, "And your name is…?"
"Cassandra... Cass,.. Dick's sister. Also Tim's…"
Troy's smile became warmer still, his gaze resting on Cass when he extended his hand. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Cass."
As Cass and Troy shook hands, I thought I saw something pass between them. My train of thought got interrupted when Em draped on my arm. "Take a ten-minute walk with me? We could get some fresh air…talk?"
"Sure." I waved to my siblings to let them know I was going. They were otherwise occupied and had no problem with letting me do my own thing. Tim was checking out the drums, while Cass…
Well, Cass was checking out Troy. And it looked like Troy was responding in kind.
Bruce was going to love this…
"So what's the scoop about Troy?" I asked, once we were out of everyone's earshot.
She paused. "Is big brother worried about little sister hitting it off with a handsome guitarist? I thought you had more than enough info about him from yesterday's brunch."
"About Troy—Mister Mysterious Hospital Guy—being the reason behind your break-up with AJ…?" I smiled back at her. "Love does crazy things to people, Em."
She turned to face me. "It's important to me that you know, Dick." Another pause. "Troy's a good friend. I wouldn't have made it out of Santorini alive if it weren't for him."
I nodded and sighed. "Whatever happened in the past will always be between you and AJ. You and Troy are good friends. The time might come when you and AJ can put the past behind you and become close friends again. No one should blame AJ, Troy, or you for what happened."
"You're taking this rather calmly. Our mutual friend should take pointers from you."
"There's nothing to think about. Things are just the way they are… simple as that." I thought about Donna Troy. "I've had my share of friendships with the opposite sex. I can tell if two people have crossed that line before."
"The line between friend and lover…?"
When I noticed that she was watching me closely, I smiled. "There's chemistry between you two—no doubt about it. I see it on stage. I see it on how you two treat each other. Yet, in spite of all that I see, something tells me that you two are just good friends."
After a moment of silence, she placed her hand on top of mine. "Thank you, Dick. I lost a relationship because of it. I don't wish for Troy to suffer the same."
"Ah, Cass. You don't have a problem with me. She's also old enough to make her own decisions." I sighed. "Now Bruce, on the other hand…"
She frowned at first, then slapped my arm. "Oh, come on. Don't tell me that Bruce will go all-protective, hell-bent father figure on Cass."
"Aren't most fathers like that when it comes to their daughters? Wasn't Michael-san or Jii-san like that with you?"
"Oh, they still are. Nana May, too. It really doesn't work, though, once I've decided on something… or someone."
We passed the rest of the time in silence, until she motioned me that it was time to get back to rehearsals. Once we started our stroll back to the arena, she continued, "I went through phases with them while growing up. They were there for me all those years, even though I was rough…even impossible… to deal with. To them, I'd always be that nine-year-old little girl…"
"We all went through our stages, believe me. I'm sure Bruce and Michael-san would love a trip down memory lane just to embarrass AJ and me." I shook my head, still amused, as I added, "Something tells me, though, that we should just sit back tonight and see how things unfold."
She eyed me a bit. "That smirk of yours… I didn't think you had a despicable bone in your body."
I chuckled. "I'm sure someone's bound to mention a particular guitarist taking an interest in Cass. It's just payback from yesterday's brunch… or leverage for tonight's dinner."
She laughed. "Oh, so the jig is up."
"I can smell the set-up, Em. I wasn't born yesterday."
"True, true… Let the grownups have their fill during dinner. Afterwards, we can hang out."
Once we got back inside, Cass ran up to me. "Dick, help!"
Em gave me an affectionate pat on the arm and excused herself, heading over toward Tim and the band. Cass waited until she'd gone off a ways. "I…want to go…out. Tonight…"
I blinked. "Tonight…? But what about dinner...? We have guests, remember?"
"Dinner okay. Troy will be there. After…we go out. He doesn't know. Yet."
Caught off-guard and still confused, I asked, "About dinner, or about the date after dinner?"
"Date, yes. Dinner, no... Troy…asked me out. I said yes."
"Just go ahead and invite Troy. Alfred won't mind. Most of our dinner guests already know Troy. You shouldn't worry about—"
"Not Alfred, Dick. Bruce…" Cass's voice trailed off.. Her silence said it all. I knew exactly what she meant.
I sighed. "Look, Cass… Hang out with Troy after rehearsals. Go get coffee or ice-cream. Hang out at the mall. Watch a movie, talk, and get to know him. Then, if you still like hanging out with him, invite him for dinner tonight."
"I'll talk to him." I tapped the right pocket of my leather jacket. "We'll stay in touch before dinner, okay?"
I sighed again, as I watched Cass turn and join the others. My earlier joke had just taken a new twist. I had my work cut out for me tonight—before dinner even got started.
Bruce was definitely going to love this.
Lee, the drummer, looked at the three of us, "Let us know how we're doing, okay?"
The band then got back to rehearing. This time, they started in on their original material—the very stuff that had made Alexa a star, even though she hadn't appeared in public.
The three of us sat listening to song after song, each song as flawless as the recordings—which made me appreciate the band's talent even more.
A hand rested on my shoulder, as Bruce whispered in my ear, "So what do you think?"
I nodded to Bruce and then waved a hello to Damian, "Wayne Arena's lucky to have them. They're very good."
Bruce gestured that we should talk privately. I rose from my seat, and followed him toward the middle of the arena where we could still watch the rehearsals, yet be able to talk discreetly. "We've done all that we can to analyze that substance in the vial. Same goes with all the blood-work for you and AJ," Bruce explained. "We took blood samples from both of you, once we got you inside, and found high traces of scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Those substances are found—"
A chill traveled down my spine as I murmured, "—in plants such as nightshade and mandrake, both poisonous."
"Right," Bruce replied with a stiff nod. "We gave you both the antidote. Fifteen minutes later, we took another blood sample. Those samples, along with the residue in the vials, had traces of physostigmine and pilocarpine. They're found in plants such as calabar bean and jaborandi.
"Damian, Alfred, and I experimented with nightshade, mandrake, calabar bean, and jaborandi," Bruce continued. "We tested the theory that Derek had poisoned you two with nightshade, mandrake, or a combination of both. We also considered that Asi's panacea contained calabar bean, jaborandi, or a combination of the two. We ran experiments with those theories in mind."
"Considering how those four plants work in the human body, what happened to both of you just doesn't add up. With the levels of nightshade or mandrake that we found in your bloodstream, with no antidote, you two would've been dead within hours…or at the very least there should've been substantial damage to your systems. The levels of antitoxins we used should've killed you as well. It also shouldn't have cured you that quickly."
"If the poison and the cure weren't acting the way they're supposed to, how about synthetic equivalents?"
Bruce sighed, his forehead creasing a bit. "We thought about that. The chemical components were there, but the side effects still don't coincide. You're both symptom, side-effect, and complication-free. It was as if the poison and antidote had never been introduced to your systems."
I sighed. "So I guess AJ and I dodged that bullet, and we have Asi to thank for it?"
"We need to run more tests, just to make sure…"
"But there's something more urgent—Derek and Asi."
"I agree. We'll be more vigilant about Derek Anson. I know Asi saved your lives, but we still need to be wary of him."
The two of us were quiet for a moment, listening to the music. I glanced at my siblings, sparing a longer look for Cass. "By the way, are we still going to watch over Em and the others?"
Bruce silently scanned his surroundings. He looked more relaxed. "You are. Don't you have a date with her tonight?"
"The date's still on. There's just something that you need to know." I told him about Cass and Troy possibly hanging out together after dinner with the Ishinos.
No matter how harmless I'd tried to make it sound, Bruce still frowned… and I knew exactly what that frown meant. "The guitarist…?" he murmured.
"Yes, the guitarist."
Bruce frowned even more. "Cassandra just met him."
I gave him a small smile. "They're just hanging out together. Totally harmless..."
"She just met him. People 'hang out' after they've known each other for a while."
"They want to hang out so that they can get to know each other better. It's not as if they're going to—"
Throwing a piercing glance towards me, Bruce asked, "Going to do what?"
My eyes narrowed. "Never mind."
"No," Bruce countered, "You said—"
Remembering how Cass had pleaded with me earlier, I explained, "Now don't put words in my mouth. I said never mind because everything's perfectly harmless. She invited him for dinner tonight. Em knows him very well, and so does Michael-san. Technically, she's not hanging out with a total stranger."
"You know that AJ dislikes Troy because of what happened in the past."
"It's not an issue with either Em or AJ, Bruce. Even if there's an issue, that has nothing to do with Cass and Troy hanging out and becoming friends." I gave him a hard look. After a moment of silence, I then said, "Look, give Cass a break, will you? When you think about it, she really doesn't need anyone's permission yet she's still worried about what you think. Doesn't that count for something in your book?"
Bruce did not utter a word. He still didn't look pleased. Finally, he met my eyes and said, "I don't like it…"
"I know, but isn't this so much better than having things happen behind your back… without your say…?"
We fell silent then, our eyes focused on the rehearsal. I just had to see what would happen in the next few hours... see if I'd been able to get through to Bruce, for Cass's sake and peace of mind.
End of Chapter Six
Nightwing, Robin, Red Robin, and the Batman franchise (characters and all) are the property of DC and their respective creators and legal owners. This fanfic along with its original characters such as Asi the Destroyer, Andrew James "AJ" Ishino, Michael Ishino, Derek Anson, Madeline Harvey, Troy Tsuuri, Jii-san, and Alexa Emrys are the properties of PJ Zatken.