by Dan Swanson
“There is none as skilled with sword and shield as I!” Ares boasted as he approached Etrigan, weaving his sword through a glittering series of arcs and slashes. The flashing sword veritably filled the air in front of him with deadly edges — whatever he closed on would be slashed and chopped to death.
A bored-looking Etrigan pulled a gun from the holster on his side. The barrel was the size of a truck tire. A single shot, a shell the size of a cruise missile, and Ares’ torso was blown to shreds.
“It is always a surprise,
What can be learned through mortal eyes.”
He turned to Hades.
“Greetings, Unk! You must debunk
Zeus’ claim on your allegiance,
Otherwise, right now you die
For your petty malfeasance.”
Hades spoke. “Zeus is my brother, while you and I share naught but our home, the underworld. And even you have not the power to kill the gods of Greece — humans created us, and only with the extinction of humans will we be undone. Still, you have the power to cause great pain to even gods, which gives me pause.” He looked at Ares and shuddered. The god of war — well, his head, shoulders, and arms — was frantically scuttling around the battlefield, gathering scraps of his body and screaming in pain as he did so. “I believe Zeus has transgressed and may need a lesson, so I’ll sit this one out.”
Etrigan turned to the battle between the Spectre and the Greek gods of lightning and fire. Suddenly, the Spectre found himself again in that timeless instant of translation, a private universe inhabited only by Spectre and Demon.
“Please go deal with Wayne, ghastly white,
Allow me to finish your fight;
Lightning and Fire
Have aroused my vast ire;
I do what I do out of spite!”
The Spectre was then standing in front of Bruce Wayne, and he realized that Etrigan had just switched places with him. Across the landscape, two grim Greek gods faced a cackling, prancing Demon, all three growing larger as he watched. In front of him, wearing a cloak and hood that strongly resembled those of the Batman, Bruce Wayne stood motionless, almost as if in some kind of stasis.
“Bruce Wayne, you have much to answer for,” said the Spectre. “While the arrogance of Zeus is understandable, how dare you, of all the spirits in the afterworld, play games with human lives? What was the Batman but a symbol that all humans have the power to choose their own destinies? Do you deny them that which you fought for in life?”
His voice beat at Bruce like a hammer. Bruce was clearly struggling with something but remained silent. Each word inflicted incredible agony on the ghost, who had thought he was beyond physical pain at this point in his existence.
“How is this game you play any different than how Silky Cernak manipulated your wife and led her to her death? In fact, perhaps his blackmail was more honest. Selina at least knew she was being played!”
There was pain on Wayne’s face as he remembered his wife, blackmailed into committing one last crime and then being killed by the blackmailer. (*) He was shuddering, and sweat was pouring from his face. His teeth were clenched, and still he said not a word.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “From Each Ending, a Beginning,” DC Super Stars #17 (November-December, 1977).]
“Did not you learn your lesson when you came unknowingly under the influence of the Psycho-Pirate and nearly tore the JSA apart? Have you forgotten the pitched battle in the Batcave or the terrible consequences? A team that was together for close to forty years, torn apart by the mistrust you spread while under the influence of that villain. (*) And now you bring others unknowing into a mere game?”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Divided We Stand,” All-Star Comics #68 (September-October, 1977) and “United We Fall,” All-Star Comics #69 (November-December, 1977).]
There was clear contempt in the thundering voice. The rage of the Spectre was rarely unleashed in full, and there were few more terrible things in the universe.
“Bruce Wayne, those humans who died because of your game cry out to me for vengeance. Neither your dubious ally, the erstwhile king of the gods, nor the respect you gained from our past association will help you now!”
The Spectre’s face grew in Bruce’s vision, growing impossibly larger, filling his entire universe, filling his entire mind, coming near to wiping out everything that Bruce had ever been or ever strived to be. With a last heroic effort — an effort far greater than any he had ever made, far greater than he had ever imagined that any being could have made — he finally forced himself to speak.
“Jim, help me!”
With those words, his struggles stopped, and he had no energy left with which to fight. He slumped, helplessly. He knew that if the Spectre didn’t heed his final words, he might spend the rest of eternity in the place of the damned.
As for the Spectre, these were the last words he had expected from Bruce Wayne. An appeal to Jim Corrigan? As he considered this, he realized yet again the power of Bruce Wayne’s mind. The Spectre was hardened to appeals from the damned, having heard them all millions of times. Nobody ever deserved vengeance; it was always someone else’s fault. Yet Wayne knew that Corrigan could never ignore a plea for help from a friend, not that Corrigan’s intercession would stay the hand of the Spectre if punishment was required. So there must be more to this than just a baseless plea for mercy. And what did Corrigan have that the Spectre did not? Why, he was a detective.
For the third time that day, time stopped. This time, the two who conversed in the timeless limbo were an even stranger pair than before — Police Detective Jim Corrigan and the Spectre.
“Something doesn’t add up,” said Corrigan. “Look, when Etrigan forced me to change, you discovered that I had been under a spell, right? A spell that kept me from noticing this game and also prevented me from thinking about changing.”
“That is correct,” said the Spectre. “Proceed.”
“If I had not been ensorcelled, would you have noticed this game?”
The Spectre thought for a few seconds. “Perhaps not. In fact, likely not. It was a subtle thing and not the sort of affair I normally concern myself with.”
“Right!” said Corrigan. “So why was I pulled in at all? Leave me alone, and don’t make me a pawn, and you won’t have any reason to investigate and won’t become involved. Safest thing to do. On the other hand, if Blood had not been made a pawn, would Etrigan have interfered with this game?”
The Spectre didn’t need to puzzle over that. “No. At most he would have been amused. It would certainly have not aroused his ire.”
“So why include Blood at all?” said Corrigan. “Including Blood guaranteed that Etrigan would interfere with this game. Whoever cast the spells on Blood and me wanted this game to be discovered and destroyed.”
“I begin to see,” said the Spectre. “And no doubt you know the identity of this secret player?”
Corrigan sighed. “C’mon, Spec — you’ve been merged with me for what, almost fifty years? What are you going to do when I pack it in? Isn’t it obvious?”
“I have no patience for riddles. Quickly, the answer!”
Corrigan sighed again. “Let me show off a little more, and see if you can work it out yourself. Bruce is a ghost. Do normal ghosts have the kind of power over human behavior that Bruce is exhibiting? You don’t have to answer; I already know. God knows I went through enough years deluded into thinking that you were merely my own ghost, when it should have been perfectly clear that you were a completely separate entity, especially when you spent some fifteen years merged with my counterpart on Earth-One. Zeus must have loaned Bruce some power. Does that clear it up?”
“Ah, Zeus used his power to place a geas on the ghost of Bruce Wayne in order to find a worthy opponent,” reasoned the Spectre. “Being of mortal descent, Wayne was unable to overcome this geas directly, yet he refused to yield. Within the rules of the game he was forced to play, he found a way. You and Blood were among his secret pieces. And he foresaw these consequences entire.” Only someone as intimate with the Spectre as Corrigan could have heard just a small trace of something very much like awe in the spirit’s voice. “A brilliant strategist he proves himself once more!”
The timeless place vanished yet again as they returned to Olympus.
Nearby, Etrigan had messily bested Hephaestus and was toying with Zeus. The Spectre waved a hand over Bruce Wayne, and his will was once more his own.
The angered Bruce gave his voice a power that was normally reserved for gods and demons. “Zeus, you will pay for this!” He launched himself at the god like a human missile. But Zeus had bigger issues to worry about and swung a careless backhand that sent Bruce tumbling, broken, over the landscape.
Zeus roared with laughter. “Puny human shade! Who are you to think you can challenge the king of the gods?”
While still flying through the air, the broken body changed. It became darker and seemed to grow great, dark wings. The tumbling slowed and came under control, and the broken body straightened and, with a final acrobatic roll, landed lightly and turned back to the battle.
There was no boast to the words, no added emphasis — yet none was needed. Zeus, who had faced and easily defeated every mortal champion ever raised up against him for thousands of years, felt the first twinge of fear. The being that strode toward him across the shattered and devastated grounds of his palace was far more deadly than the shade of Bruce Wayne. Etrigan withdrew from the battle, observing the exchange alongside the Spectre. Neither seemed worried about the outcome.
“You are wearing the body you wore when alive,” Zeus said, trying to sound confident. “You have no more power now then you ever did. And you never had the power to face a god.”
“Sounds like you’re talking to build up your nerve, eh, Zeusy boy? Your power doesn’t matter to me. I already told you — I’m Batman.”
Rather than respond, Zeus let fly a barrage of lightning javelins. Batman slipped agilely between most of them; those he was unable to dodge, he blocked with his insulated cape. Zeus couldn’t believe that any mortal could survive such an attack, yet Batman moved through the lightning storm as casually as if he were strolling through a garden. Before Zeus could react, the Dark Knight was within striking distance, and strike he did — a stinging slap across the face.
The outline of Batman’s hand glowed red on the snarling face of the lord of Olympus. Rather than throw another lightning bolt, he used his next one like a spear or a pike, stabbing and slashing at his foe. Casually, with no apparent effort, Batman evaded each blow and again slipped close to the god to slap him once more, so that he had matching marks on each side of his face.
Zeus roared in rage, and the volume of that roar would have leveled mountains. Batman stood with his cape wrapped around him and weathered the storm. Even Zeus could not sustain such volume for long, and when his voice failed him, Batman slipped close, this time blasting him with pepper spray. Zeus vanished, and Batman was wrapped in the coils of a giant snake. A touch of a switch on his utility belt, and his cape stiffened into knife-edges wings, and the tighter the snake squeezed, the deeper it was cut.
The snake was replaced by a bloody Zeus, but while his wounds quickly closed, he moved a little more slowly than he had before. As for his opponent, the Batman was moving as quickly as ever. A batarang flashed out, trailing a wire and binding Zeus’ arms and legs. Batman moved around behind the bound god, who was unable to turn to track him. A not-so-gentle shove to the back of Zeus’ head, and he toppled to the ground, screaming as his face smashed into the rubble. There was an explosion, melting the wire, and Zeus sprang to his feet.
“Enough! Spirit of the Bat, I banish you back to your eternal rest, never again to tread on Mount Olympus!”
And Batman was gone. Zeus turned wearily to the Spectre and Etrigan, who were totally ignoring him. The Demon Etrigan spoke before the two of them vanished.
“When next we meet, we meet as foes;
I take my leave, so it goes.”