So, er, this is, er, fanfic... it's not my fault, okay? I dreamt this one night, and it was just so awesome I had to write it down. To my total surprise, it remained pretty awesome on paper, and dreams don't usually do that.
Needless to say, this showed up shortly after watching all the episodes of the Batman of the Future (also known as Batman Beyond) animated series, an excellent and surprisingly dark reworking of the Batman myth set in 'the future'. (There's a film spinoff, which is superb: do make sure you get the uncut version, though.)
The story so far: Batman of the Future. Fifty years from now, there's a new Batman in Gotham City; Terry McGuiness, who broke in to Bruce Wayne's mansion and stole the batsuit to avenge the death of his father. Now overseen by the aging and cynical Wayne from the console in the batcave, Terry goes out righting wrongs and beating up the bad guys in traditional style.
Except this particular bad guy, this particular night, is refusing to be beaten up. Terry had been investigating a rash of unusual disappearances; young people, from all walks of life, all outsiders, just vanishing. On spotting this particular guy, he decided that he was worth investigating: people flying without equipment are either superheroes or supervillains, and the JLA isn't in town.
Unfortunately the guy is rather tougher than Terry thought. He seems to be using all kinds of psychic powers: chucking stuff around without touching it, energy bolts, hypnosis --- although that doesn't work too well through the batsuit's visor. It's one of the energy bolts that finally does for Terry; it fries the suit's electronics, and he falls to the ground, stunned.
The strange man lands next to the fallen Batman and slowly walks up to him. Curiously, he pulls off the hood, and looks at the face underneath; and then holds his hand up to Terry's face, as if trying to sense something. He slowly starts to laugh quietly. Stripping off and discarding the suit, he lifts Terry into the air with his mind, unzips a glowing white portal in the air, and they both step through and are gone.
Elsewhere in Gotham, Bruce Wayne stares at a blank screen and starts swearing in frustration.
When Terry comes to, he doesn't recognise his surroundings. He's in some high-tech building, but when he looks out the window, there's no surrounding landscape --- the ground leads on a short distance and the just stops. He quickly finds out he's in a pocket universe called the Citadel, and there's no way back to Gotham. Only the man who kidnapped him and the other people at the Citadel can open portals back to Earth; he calls himself the Master, and he's trying to train wizards. Sort of. He's looking for people with latent psychic ability, who he then abducts off to the Citadel and trains to use that ability. Once trained, the new Adepts 'graduate' and head off... somewhere... to where work needs to be done that only they can do.
Terry doesn't like the place. The Master runs a cult of personality, and that's not the only thing that's cultish about the Citadel. The students there --- disciples --- practically worship the Master, despite the bizarre and occasionally downright horrible training regime; it appears there's a tremendous kick out of using your new-found psychic abilities, and he's the only route they have to doing that.
Speaking of which, it turns out that Terry himself has tremendous abilities, if only they were properly harnessed; and the Master is determined that they shall be harnessed. Terry resists at first, but quickly realises that the only way out is through one of the Master's own portals; and the only way of getting to one of those is to get on the Master's good side. The fact that he's being imprisoned in a tiny cell deep underground with no food or water helps, too.
It's that first acquiesence that the Master's looking for. As soon as Terry finds himself able to do things, the Master has him hooked; he's very good at what he does. The prison cell is the stick. Being able to do magic (and having far better quarters) is the carrot. Terry keeps searching for a way out, but with less and less persistance, and finally starts making excuses that while he's here he might as well learn as much as he can... it's a slippery slope.
He does miss home, and Dana, his girlfriend from Gotham City. However, included in the carrot is an introduction to Keroon, the Master's daughter; as the Master had planned, they get on quite well together. Keroon is a Thirteenth Level Adept, second only in power to the Master, the only Thirteen not to have graduated. She's nothing like her father, and is a plump, friendly girl, quite unlike Dana. While innocent is not entirely the right word, she's easily manipulated by her father. Terry rapidly finds himself forgetting about going home.
He learns fast. The same skills and qualities that made him such a good Batman make him a good magician. He learns telekinesis; telepathy; extra-sensory perception; the ability to open portals between the lesser worlds (but not, it should be noted, to the major worlds such as Earth); invulnerability to the elements... each milestone is punctuated by a ceremony designed to reinforce the student's belief in his own powers, and coincidentally the student's belief in the Master's own superiority. The ceremony to mark Terry's invulnerability to the elements, for example, involves being transported to the Elemental Plane of Fire and being shackled to the floor of a chamber while a wave of flame rolls over him... afterwards, he gets sprayed down with water, which explodes into steam of Terry's own red-hot but undamaged flesh.
It still hurts.
Later, Terry says to the Master: "What's wrong with the Plane of Water? At least it wouldn't be as hot there..."
The Master frowns. "The Plane of Water is alive. Conscious. Aware. It has its own agenda. We don't go there."
Despite the fact he's learning far faster than the other disciples, Terry is not disliked. Partly this is because Keroon adores him, and everyone likes Keroon; but mostly it's because he's close to the Master. The younger disciples have their own secrets and rumours, however, and these don't get passed on to him.
So he only finds out about Yleth when he finally becomes a full Adept, a Thirteen, and hears about the Master's great triumph.
Yleth is a god. One of the Powers beyond space and time, It embodies corruption and foulness. Long ago, back before Keroon was born and her mother was still alive, Yleth was in a great battle with the awareness within the Plane of Water, and the Master's old domain was in the centre of it. The Master and his wife fought back; their powers were strong, but Yleth was a Power. They were unable to stop Yleth flowing around and over their domain, but in one final, cataclysmic battle they managed to seal it off from Yleth's power. The struggle fatally wounded Keroon's mother, but the place that was to later become the Citadel was made safe from Yleth's power --- forever. A tiny bubble of light, floating through Yleth's foul ocean.
That night, after the ceremony, Keroon tells Terry the rest of it. The Master's will managed to keep her mother alive long enough for Keroon to be born, but as her umbilical cord was cut, so the last spark of life left her mother. Alone in the barren domain with a newborn child, the Master suffers a crisis of the soul, and eventually finds a new purpose: to train Adepts to fight Yleth and all Its kind. She shows him a sealed room, deep within the Citadel. In it, there is a very special portal. When the Master feels they are ready, he takes the graduate Adepts into the room; there, unseen, they pass through this portal, and it takes them to whereever they are needed the most.
But she also admits that sometimes, in a darkest hours of the morning, Keroon dreams of Yleth. She feels It, beyond, somewhere, aware of her but biding Its time, awaiting some future purpose. She trusts the Master implicitly, and he says that their bubble is impenetrable, but sometimes she loses faith. She is glad that Terry is here now; with his help, she feels doubly safe...
Time passes. Around him, the other disciples work up through the levels, become full Adepts, and then, one by one, graduate and pass through the portal below. Terry remains, and so does Keroon. He asks, but the Master just frowns again, and says, "The time is not right. There is still much for you to learn." And time passes again.
Very suddenly, one day, things change. Terry and Keroon are currently the only Thirteens in the Citadel, and as such their duties include teaching the lower-level disciples. During one class, early in the morning, Keroon feels that there is something she should be attending to. Not that there's anything wrong, exactly, but just that there is something on the edge of her attention... the feeling has been there for some weeks now, gradually growing. She decides to do something about it, and so dismisses the next class, returns to their suite, and sits cross-legged in the air in the middle of the room. She enters a deep meditative state, extending her awareness throughout her body.
What's changed is immediately obvious: she is no longer alone. There is another life there, a small one, but with its own distinct voice. She is pregnant.
In some shock, she studies the tiny mind in her abdomen. It is unformed and very simple, but there is awareness there, and it recognises her touch and responds to it. And as it does so, something elsewhere shifts.
Far away, she feels a third awareness suddenly awaken. It is unlike her unborn child; ancient, complex, scheming, reeking of corruption and evil. Yleth. Its amorphous eyes focus on her in dark glee, in anticipation of a plan fulfilled. It begins to reach out towards her, and the tiny presence within her recoils in sudden terror and emits a plaintive appeal to her for help. Keroon tries to keep Yleth out, but to no avail, because Yleth is already inside her, ingrained into every atom of her body, and like calls to like... she snaps out of the trance and falls to the ground, but the infinite ocean of evil that is Yleth has already touched her and starts welling up from within.
In sudden pain beyond anything the Master inflicted, she screams and collapses onto the ground, writhing. Ectoplasmic grey slime oozes from every pore and forms wriggling worms of fetid ichor slither over her body. Deep within, Yleth's awareness is focusing deep down, onto the wailing mote inside her abdomen... but it still manages to speak to her:
"You serve Me," It says. "As your mother served Me. As your father serves Me still. As your child will serve Me. Your mother was offered to Me, and you were offered to Me, but your child I will take." Its mental voice, oily and glistening, rises in unholy glee. "I will take the child, and I will be the child, and through the child I will walk the worlds. And I will have Dominion!"
The outside world is merely a red blur to Keroon, seen through a haze of pain. She can feel her body being seared with corruption from the inside out; the feeling of damage is far worse than the physical pain itself... she struggles in terror to think, to come up with some plan, but there is nothing, and she cries out to Terry for help.
But then she remembers something, some half forgotten piece of lore: Yleth once fought the Plane of Water.
With the last vestige of her strength, she summons a portal to the Plane of Water, scrabbles forward, and falls through it.
In the middle of a class, Terry suddenly staggers forward, clutching his head.
"Keroon!" He abruptly runs for the door. Behind him, the Twelth Level disciples murmur uncertainly.
The Plane of Water gently receives Keroon. She floats quietly in a serene blue expanse, all pain gone, in an ocean of peace. The living water permeates her: not invasively, but gently and tenderly. It flows through her body and out every pore, and as it does so it takes every last atom of taint and corruption, disease and decay... faintly, she can just make out Yleth, screaming in frustration as it loses her hold on her... and as it does so, it also washes free all of her father's manipulation and half-truths. She finds herself thinking clearly for the first time in a very long time.
After a while, the spirit of the waters lets Keroon become aware of it. It quietly informs her that while she is welcome, this is not her place, and she must leave --- soon, but not necessarily immediately. All oceans are one ocean, it says. Many places are open to her.
Keroon thinks rapidly, and with unprecedented clarity. Terry once told her about... what was his name?
Half-way up the stairs, Terry staggers again. This time the shock is external; the ground trembles slightly, and he can hear the metal structure of the Citadel groan in sympathy. At the same time, just for an instant, an immense wave of hatred and frustration bursts across him, but then all is quiet again. He glances round, but continues upward to the Master's sanctum.
Outside, there are two Tenth Level guards, but they know him, and he goes straight through. He is now in the antechamber to the Master's private office. He raises his hand to knock on the door, but something --- some old instinct, learnt in Gotham City, perhaps? --- makes him pause. There are voices coming from inside.
"That is unfortunate," says the Master.
"It is most unfortunate for you," says another voice, somehow oily and distasteful, seething with hatred. "I will not be denied."
"All is not lost," says the Master. "The situation can be recovered. Does our agreement still stand?"
"Fulfill your end of the bargain," says the other voice, "and I will fulfill mine. Do not fail me again."
Terry shakes his head --- irrelevant --- and knocks. "Come," says the Master. Terry enters, and falls to one knee in front of the Master's desk.
"Master," he gasps, "Something terrible has happened..."
"I am aware," says the Master, standing and walking abstractedly around the desk. "She is my daughter, after all. She has been taken."
"What's happened?" Terry cries. "There was just... pain... and then she was gone..."
The Master rests one hand on Terry's shoulder and looks with compassion into his eyes. "My beloved disciple," he says quietly. "You must be strong. Keroon has been stolen from us by the Plane of Water."
"The Plane of...?"
"I fear the worst. If she ever returns to us, she will be changed." The Master's gaze lifts to the huge window that forms one wall of the office; outside, the grounds extend a short way and then there is nothing but the blue of the sky. "She will have been consumed by the will of the waters. We may never be able to trust her again."
Keroon bobs to the surface, spits out some water, and stares in amazement at Gotham City.
She has spent practically all of her life in the Citadel. The idea that a place could be so large, and so full of life, astounds her. And so... dark. It does not look like a comfortable place.
Indeed, it is not. Gotham City is not a good place to be if you do not know where you are going, and Keroon is wandering aimlessly. However, she is a Thirteenth Level Adept; she has powers far beyond what her frame suggests, and when a gang of Jokers try to mug her, and maybe have some fun at her expense, she barely breaks stride.
After a few moments a thought strikes her; pinning one of the thugs against a wall without laying a hand on him, she asks him where she can find a certain person. In a city the size of Gotham, finding one man is a nigh-impossible task. But everybody knows this name, and shortly afterwards she lands in the grounds of Wayne Manor and knocks on the door.
Terry's disappearance had hit Bruce Wayne hard. He was an old man when Terry met him, keeping himself alive by cynicism and sheer iron willpower alone. Terry's disappearance, while on the job that Bruce sent him out to do, broke that will. It's been eight months now, and he's a faded wreck of a man, just sitting alone in a darkened house waiting to die. Keroon's first words, however, revitalise him: "Wow. You don't look as impressive as Terry said."
After picking Wayne up off the floor and giving him a quick burst of psychic healing --- he has a weak heart --- Keroon sits him on the sofa and starts explaining, as best she can. "He should just come home." Wayne explodes eventually. "His family think he's dead."
"I'm not sure he remembers he has one," Keroon says, scratching the side of his head. "He may need some help."
"Whatever it takes," Wayne says grimly, straightening up, but suddenly sags back again, clutching his side. "But I'm not worth much these days."
Keroon starts smiling. "You should meet a friend of mine..."
Deep in the bowels of the Citadel, light flares in a corner as a portal opens.
Keroon steps through, followed by Wayne. They are both dripping wet, and Wayne looks twenty years younger --- and a little wild-eyed. "If I'm going to keep this up, I should take a towel," Keroon says, wringing out the tail of her shirt.
Behind her, Wayne recovers his composure. "Where are we?" he asks, all business.
"Deep underground," Keroon says. "I couldn't risk going back to the suite, I'm afraid... I don't think we should meet anyone until we've found Terry."
"Good idea," Wayne grunts. He is unarmed, apart from his stick; nothing in his armoury can match the Adepts.
They cautiously make their way up through the Citadel, avoiding the disciples. Keroon can totally dominate the weaker ones, so that they simply don't notice her; the stronger ones, however, she has to put to sleep, and so they leave a trail of bodies behind them.
They find Terry wandering aimlessly around the corridors. Keroon sees him first, and motions to Wayne to stay hidden. "Terry!" she calls. He spins, and as he sees her his jaw drops.
"Keroon!" he cries, and runs forward and takes her into his arms. "Oh, thank god, you're here... it's okay, the Master can make it all better again... trust us..."
Keroon kisses him lightly and finally manages to persuade him to put her down. "Terry," she says. "Terry, there's someone--- Terry listen. There's someone you should see."
Wayne steps out from behind the corner. "McGuiness." Terry looks as if he's been poleaxed.
"Mr. Wayne," he manages. "What are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same question," Wayne says. "What exactly have you been doing during the past eight months?"
"I... I..." Terry stutters. Wayne continues relentlessly: "Your mother thinks you are dead, McGuiness. I thought you were dead."
Terry is caught between his old life and his new life, and frantically searches around for a means to reconcile them. His gaze falls on Keroon. "You!" he cries. "The Master warned me of this! You're possessed, this is some trick!"
Keroon shakes her head. "No trick, Terry. Give me your hand." She takes his hand and places it on her belly. "Feel that? My body cannot lie to you."
Another metaphorical poleaxe lands on Terry's head. "What does this mean?" he says feebly. Keroon sighs. "It means we're going to have a baby, Terry," she says, and kisses him again. "Do you love me?" she asks.
"Of course," Terry replies.
"Do you trust me?" she continues.
Terry hesitates, and comes to a decision. "Yes."
Keroon smiles happily, hugs him tightly for a moment, and then pushes him backwards into a portal that she has opened behind him.
"A baby?" Wayne says.
Terry has returned from the Plane of Water. He and Keroon are sitting in a corner with their arms around each other, comparing notes. Wayne is nearby, looking out a window at the abbreviated landscape.
Terry eventually comes to a decision. "I must go and see the Master. We owe him that." Keroon is unhappy, but sees the justification --- he is her father, after all. She wants to go with him, but Terry persuades her to stay behind with Wayne. "Besides," he adds, "there's something I rather think we should check out." "What?" Keroon asks. "The graduation portal. Have you ever seen it? I want to know exactly what's going on here."
They make their farewells --- Terry pausing briefly to mutter, "Wait 'til I tell mom she's going to have grandchildren," --- and Terry leaves for the Master's sanctum. Keroon and Wayne head downstairs.
Some of the sleeping bodies have been found, and there's a little commotion rising, but they manage to avoid it all and quickly find themselves outside the ritually sealed doors leading to the graduation portal. Keroon studies the seals with some trepidation. Trying to open the doors using her psychic abilities will set of all kinds of alarms.
Wayne snorts. "What about a lock pick?" He pulls out a small electronic device. Being purely mechanical, it completely bypasses the psychic wards, and the door swings open.
The portal is inactive, a simple archway in the centre of the ritual circles. Keroon stares at it. There's something about it she doesn't like. She slowly approaches, and reaches out to it, activating it just enough to be able to tell what's on the other side...
A horribly familiar miasma rolls off it, and she jumps backwards. Yleth. Now she knows what to look for, she can sense the psychic echoes of what has happened in here. The Thirteenth Level Adepts would enter this room, proud and eager, and then one by one they would step through the portal, and then Yleth would consume them. She can sense their pain and horror... her father has been sacrificing his own disciples to the slime god Yleth.
She throws up.
Wayne holds her head until she has finished. "We have to find Terry," she gasps hoarsely. "Quickly. But first..." She reaches out both hands, and in a flare of energies calmly blasts the portal out of existence.
Yleth blinks, its eye burnt out. Its patience is exhausted. The tiny bubble it has harboured for so long is no longer useful to it; therefore it must be destroyed.
The Citadel shudders again, and outside, the flat blue sky abruptly darkens. Grey cloud appears to swirl, and then congeal, and slowly begins to seep through the walls of the domain and ooze across the grounds surrounding the Citadel. Slime, falling from above, spatters over the buildings.
A few disciples are outside; they flee for the Citadel in terror. Most of them make it.
Keroon flies up the centre of the stairwell, pulling Bruce Wayne along behind her. Around her, the Citadel creaks and shudders from the impacts on the roof. The disciples who had been guarding the Master's sanctum have fled, and she blasts the door asides and storms in.
The Master is standing behind is desk, hands clasped behind him, facing the broad window. The grey slime has risen half-way up the side of the building. Terry McGuiness stands beside him, face blank.
"Terry?" Keroon says, suddenly uncertain. Wayne steps up behind her, hands tightening on his stick, wondering what he can do.
The Master turns. His expression his tight. "Daughter," he says. "You have betrayed me."
"No, father," Keroon replies. "I'm trying to save you."
The Master ignores her, and nods to Terry. "Disciple. Destroy her."
Terry, his face still blank, raises his hand, and energies suddenly swirl around Keroon, lifting her off the floor. Pressure starts to build up, crushing her.
"McGuiness! Stop!" Wayne barks, and moves forward, but a gesture from the Master pins him in his tracks.
"I may be defeated," the Master says, very quietly, "but those who betray me must still face the penalty."
Keroon struggles, but Terry is stronger than she is. The pressure is becoming unbearable; he is slowly crushing her with his mind... she can sense that his will has been totally obliterated by the Master. "Terry!" she cries again, and reaches out with her will; not to strike him, but simply to reach him. Somewhere, deeply buried, the real Terry McGuiness must still be there... beside her, Bruce Wayne struggles fruitlessly.
The Master watches in silence, hating himself for what he is doing.
Keroon drops all her barriers and pours herself into Terry's mind. It is a vast, echoing, empty place, filled only with distorted shadows of her father... there, in the distance, there is a tiny spark, but she cannot reach it. The outside world is going red now and closing in on her, and she feels her strength waning.
Then, deep inside, her unborn child looks out through Keroon's mind, into Terry's, and regards that spark. Something undefinable passes between them, and Terry gasps and drops Keroon to the floor.
Terry sways, struggling to collect his thoughts; and then turns and blasts the Master with every power at his command, pure hatred on his face. The Master, caught unawares, is thrown backwards against the wall.
"Terry! No!" Keroon cries, and throws herself forwards to stop him, just as the Master levels a bolt of his own back at Terry. The bolt strikes her in the back and blows her across the room; she bounces off the wall and lands motionless on the ground.
The Master stares in horror, something inside him finally broken. He and Terry run over to her, their animosity forgotten. "Keroon?" he whispers. "Keroon..."
Keroon is still alive, although very badly hurt. She looks up in a haze of pain, and sees only her father. "Why?" she manages to say. "Why did you do it?"
Horrifyingly, the Master begins to cry. "I had no choice," he says, weeping. "It made me. I couldn't save your mother, but I had to save you... no matter what..."
"But, but," Keroon says, "all those people..."
The Master shakes his head in self-disgust. "It was only meant for a little while, but I, I forgot..."
"You defeated Yleth," she says numbly. "You said so."
"No, daughter," the Master whispers. "It defeated me."
Wayne steps forward. "I hate to break up the reunion," he says drily, and points with his stick at the window. There is just a blank grey mass on the other side of it, faintly iridiscent patterns swirling viscously. Suddenly, there is a loud snap, and a crack appears diagonally across the window. Beads of ooze begin to appear along it. The Citadel shudders more violently as portions of it begin to collapse under Yleth's weight.
The Master whirls around, stretches both arms out on either side of him, and focuses his will. The creaking and groaning quieten down, and the beads shrink. "Go! Take her! I can hold it back for a while!"
Terry looks between Keroon and the Master. Keroon is quietly crying, and the Master is already beginning to shake from the strain, eyes screwed shut and sweat appearing on his forehead. His face hardens, and he kneels to gently lift Keroon into his arms. A portal opens, and without looking back he steps through into the Plane of Water.
Bruce Wayne pauses, regarding the Master. The other man's eyes open, and a ghastly smile appears on his face. "Go," the Master says more quietly. "I will find my own way."
Wayne nods grimly, but not without understanding, and steps through.
The Master feels the Citadel slowly empty around him. Portals pop open all over the building, scooping up his disciples and taking them away to safety. The strain is immense, nearly beyond what he can bear; but he feeds the effort with twenty-five years of pain and self-hatred and guilt and sorrow and he bears the load. Eventually, he is alone again.
Outside, one of the outbuildings suddenly implodes, crushed flat by Yleth's slime.
The Master turns slowly, balancing Yleth's crushing weight on his shoulders. The portal to the Plane of Water is open behind him, but he cannot pass through and hold off Yleth at the same time. Unsupported, the buildings will protect him for a few seconds at most; enough time, maybe, to run for the portal.
But he has other plans.
He abruptly lets go, and reaches out for the portal. Behind him, the window shatters and Yleth reaches for him; above and around, the Citadel begins to collapse. But instead of passing through the portal, he opens it completely, making it fully transparent. A solid wall of water pours out of it.
Standing in the middle of his office, as Yleth and the Plane of Water converge on him, he knows that whatever happens, he has finally defeated Yleth; and he laughs.
This is the end of this story, but true stories are never finished. After all, back on Earth, across the globe, bewildered, confused and newly cleansed Adepts are staggering up the beaches. In the harbour of Gotham City, Bruce Wayne and Terry McGuiness, all of his powers intact, climb wearily out of the water. And half-way around the globe, Keroon's naked body lies unconscious on a tropical beach, her unborn child waiting within her... and they all know that nothing will ever be the same.