In the end, the trip to Jason's country home took about four hours. For the first half of the drive, Bruce and I talked and caught up on everything we'd been up to over the past several weeks. He got me caught up on his work with Batman Inc around the world. I shared with him the current progress on my hit list. We both had differing opinions on the chances the Gotham Knights had this year for the pennant. Then we agreed to patrol together that night after we got back to the city.
After that, though, the length of the drive and the monotony of the rural country scenery began to take its toll. I tried to stay awake as long as I could, but soon dozed off as I was watched the clouds hanging lazily on the horizon. Bruce didn't even bother trying to keep me awake those last couple of hours.
"Wake up, Tim. We're here." As Bruce nudged my shoulder to wake me from my nap, I drowsily contemplated offering to stay in the car while he met with Jason. I'd been having a pretty nice dream up until that point and wasn't in a real hurry to leave it. Then I looked out the window and saw Jason's "country home." Any thoughts of staying in the car and sleeping the rest of the afternoon away vanished immediately.
In the past, when dealing with Jason Blood, either he came to you, or you met him at the home he kept in the city proper. The sorcerer's "country home" consisted of nothing less than a tall, majestic stone tower that looked like it had been transported right out of the Lord of the Rings. It sat in the middle of a grassy clearing surrounded by a dense forest on all sides, save for the single lonely pathway created by the gravel road Bruce had driven down to get here.
"Wow," I said as I stepped out of the car and made my way to the cobblestone path Bruce was already standing on. "This place is incredible. How long has Jason had this here? Did someone build it for him, or did he use magic to..." My questions faded as I noticed that Bruce hadn't said a word since I got out of the car. He hadn't even moved. "Bruce?"
"It's too quiet."
Bruce glanced around warily. "No bird calls. No insects. It's the middle of the afternoon on a late spring day in the country. This silence is unnatural."
I hadn't noticed it before when I stepped out of the car, but now that my father mentioned it, the silence in this place was eerie. It was almost as if nature itself were walking on eggshells around this place. The only real natural sounds I heard in this place were that of a rogue wind stirring up the leaves of the surrounding forest. Now that I was focused in on the strangeness of it all, the sensation made my skin crawl.
"Ah, there you are, Bruce," a voice called down to us from above. "I'm glad you could make it out here on such short notice.
Jason Blood was the kind of man who cared nothing for modern styles or fashion trends. I suppose after a thousand years, such things really seemed trivial. Still, as far as mystic sorcerers go, he usually looked pretty well kept. He wore his bi-colored hair a conservative length, not unlike Bruce's, and he usually dressed in dark clothing that was simple, understated, and neat.
All of which he was not at that particular moment.
The man looked absolutely ragged. His hair was a mess and his clothing looked like it hadn't been washed, or even removed, in over a week. More disturbing was the fact that Jason seemed to be in some sort of midway state between him and his demon. Though his physical frame and size were still his own, Jason's skin had taken on a very jaundiced appearance. In addition, a pair of distinctive "bumps" seemed to be growing out of his forehead, his ears were looking very pointed, and his fingernails looked like actual claws that could do some serious damage.
Bruce and I were both surprised and not a little alarmed. "Jason. What's going on?" he asked in his "Batman" tone of voice.
The partially transformed sorcerer sighed. "I'm sure I look a fright right now. Don't worry. Etrigan's still under control for now."
Bruce's eyes narrowed and I felt my body tense. Jason's words do not inspire confidence.
"Please come inside. I'll meet you in the foyer and explain everything."
Once Jason disappeared from the balcony, I shook my head. "I think I hate this," I said with a grimace. "Should we suit up before going in?"
Bruce thought for a moment. "No... But grab the belts. We'll take those with us, just in case."
After grabbing our utility belts from the car, Bruce and I made our way into the fantastic stone structure. Once inside I found myself wishing we were here on a genuine social call, rather than business. The interior of the tower was incredible. The academic (i.e. "geek") in me wanted to explore every inch of this place from top to bottom with a fine toothed comb. Unfortunately, I didn't have too much time to examine the statues and paintings in the foyer. Jason did not keep us waiting long.
"Thanks again for coming, Bruce," the sorcerer said gratefully. Up close, the changes in his appearance were even more striking. His skin had the demon's texture as well as its color, and as he speaks I can see that some of his teeth have sharpened to obvious points. I stood back while Bruce talked with him.
"What's going on, Jason?" Bruce repeated his question from outside. "Why are we here?"
"To the point, as always," the sorcerer observed. "Alright then. Simply put, a relic from my past has come back into my possession, and I need to transfer it to its new caretaker as soon as possible." He sighed. "What you see before you is a side effect the relic has on me." Jason motioned for the two of us to follow him as he led the way down a spiral staircase. "Etrigan wants it, but cannot be allowed to have it."
After giving me a subtle glance, Bruce followed Jason, and I followed them, trying to stay aware of everything in our surroundings even as my father continued to converse with Jason.
"Am I safe to assume that the new caretaker is expected to be me?"
"And what is the relic that seems to be causing you so much trouble?"
"Have you ever heard the legend of the sword in the stone?"
"That's Excalibur, right?" I asked.
Jason stopped stock still on the stairs and whipped his head around sharply to glare at me with undisguised annoyance. Though his eyes were still human, they had an unnatural red glow in the dimly lit stairwell. I'm not quite sure, but I think he even growled at me.
"No, it is not!" he snapped irritably through clenched teeth. Then he paused and contemplatively ran the tip of his tongue over his eyeteeth, as if he'd only just become aware of how long and sharp they'd grown. With a frustrated sigh, he continued in a more controlled tone. "The sword Excalibur and the sword from the stone are two entirely different blades. One was used for war, the other for peace." A wry, humorless smile played on Jason's lips as he locked his gaze with mine. "Peaceful weapons rarely get as much notoriety as bloodied ones."
I swallowed hard as Jason turned away to continue the descent. Bruce continued with the questioning while I stayed quiet.
"Tell me more about this peaceful sword, and why such a thing would be drawing Etrigan out against your will."
"The sword is called Clarent," Jason said softly. It was forged as the sister blade to Excalibur. While Excalibur's role was to be the war sword of the king, Clarent's role was purely ceremonial. That's not to say it didn't have its uses. Though it was forbidden to wield it on the battlefield, it could be wielded to protect the royal family. Clarent's main purpose, however, was to decide the next heir to the throne. It was also a holy sword, and used in important ceremonies like knightings and blessings."
We had finally approached a closed door at the end of the stairs. Jason fumbled for his ring of skeleton keys with his claws. His face, his whole body's expression, was downcast. "Before the final battle between King Arthur and the sorceress Morgaine, the Clarent was stolen from Camelot. Then, against everything it was created for, it was used by Arthur's own son, Mordred, to murder him." Jason found the right key and slid it into the lock. "From that point on, the holy sword has been anything but."
The sorcerer opened the door and stepped inside. Bruce followed him grimly. I lingered in the doorway. I don't know if it was Jason's story, his demonically altered appearance, or the general dungeon-like atmosphere of this part of the tower, but I felt incredibly uneasy. The relaxing happiness and contentment I'd enjoyed earlier in the afternoon seemed like a distant memory. Down here, all I felt was cold, unyielding dread.
When I finally worked up the nerve to enter the room, Bruce and Jason were already in the center of it, examining what looked like a simple medieval short sword encased in a worn and well battered leather scabbard. It sat on a small round table that had been marked with a circular arrangement of runes and other symbols that glowed with an eerie light.
Bruce studied the unassuming weapon stoically. He was all Batman now, even without the cowl. Jason, on the other hand, was practically bleeding anxiety. Being this close to the Clarent was aggravating his condition badly. I suppose there's little a demon would find more alluring than a thoroughly corrupted, once-holy relic. Even though I was now inside the room, I stood with my back against one of the cold stone walls, as far as I could get away from that thing. Perhaps I was just suffering from a hyperactive sense of paranoia, but I could have sworn that the sword was watching me.
"So I just need to take the sword to claim it?" Bruce asked, seeming to repeat something he'd been told while I'd hesitated outside. "There's no spell or ritual that needs to be cast?"
Jason shook his head. "None. All it requires is your touch."
Since there seemed little point in delaying the inevitable, Bruce decided to go ahead and reach for the sword. I tried to watch as calmly as I could, though inside I could feel my heart thudding a mile a minute in my chest. Jason seemed tense as well, though for an entirely different reason. As much as I wanted to shrink away from the sword, Jason seemed to want to rush forward to snatch it himself. He was literally digging deep grooves into the stone table he was sitting on with his claws. We both waited for Bruce's hand to fall upon the sword.
But it never did.
With a small flash of light and a crackle of static electricity, Bruce's hand was repelled when it got to within a few inches of the Clarent. He snapped it back quickly, as if he'd just been stung.
"Bruce? Are you alright?" I said with alarm. I almost moved off the wall, but catching sight of the sword froze me in my tracks.
"Yeah… I'm fine," he said as he shook his hand and flexed his fingers. Then he looked to Jason, who had a confused look on his own face. It seemed that he wasn't expecting that result.
"What the-" Jason started, but then shook his head. "Try again once more, please."
Bruce gave Jason a hard stare, then turned his attention back to the sword. He was more wary now. What's that saying? "Once bitten, twice shy?" As my father reached out once more, I folded my arms across my chest. The closer his hand got, the more tense I became. Something didn't feel right. This was wrong. All wrong. I wanted to stop Bruce. But I couldn't move. I felt that something bad was going to happen.
Then it did. Bruce's hand got as close as it did before, but instead of just a small snap, this time there was a large crackle as a thick tendril of blue electricity arched from the hilt of the blade to his hand. It was as if he'd been struck by a bolt of lightning.
"DAD!" I yelled. My father cried out in pain and was forced backward several feet before collapsing. My concern for him broke me free from whatever grip of fear had me locked in place. Once at his side, I knelt beside him, trying to figure out what was wrong and how to help him. He was unconscious and smoldering slightly, but at least he was breathing and had a pulse, as erratic as it felt. As I reached into my belt for my communicator, I could hear Jason pacing and muttering behind me.
"Not right. Not right. He's the caretaker. Shouldn't be rejected. Can't be rejected!" Jason's voice was sounding more and more like Etrigan with every passing moment. "The mirror said it was Bruce!"
I, for one, had had enough of everything in this place. Bruce getting hurt this badly was the last straw. "Will you shut up about that sword?" I said. "Bruce is seriously hurt! He needs help!" The communicator in my hand refused to work. It must've been because of something here in the tower. I was desperate to leave, to at least get outside where I could call for someone, anyone. Maybe if I yelled, Conner or Clark could hear me.
Lifting my father up as best I could, I started to make my way back to the open door to the stairs. Jason was still muttering in the background, but I didn't care. I just wanted to leave.
The sorcerer's now raspy voice caught my ear. He'd stopped rambling and the room had gone deathly quiet. I paused to look over my shoulder warily. Jason was pointing right at me.
I said, feeling a chill course down my spine like ice water. "Excuse me?"
He was grinning like the demon. "The mirror showed me the caretaker. Always shows. Never wrong. Never wrong." He shook his head. "I was wrong. The mistake was mine. The mirror showed two men, but I assumed Bruce was the chosen. I was wrong. I was wrong." Jason's eyes, glowing red, bore down on me. "You're the one."
When faced with certain danger, the body's natural response gives you either one of two choices. Fight or flight. However, when that source of danger is a demonic sorcerer staring at you like you were the blue plate special, flight reflexively takes priority.
"Sh-t!" I cursed aloud before trying to bolt through the still open door, but a wave of Jason's hand cut off my escape. The door slammed shut before Bruce and I could make it through. I glared at Jason.
"Timothy," he growled. "You have to take the sword! I need you to take it!"
"Not a chance!" I shouted back. "We'll find another way! Another person!"
"There's no time!" Jason roared.
Bruce started to regain consciousness, pushing me away reflexively, but as soon as my support was gone, he crumpled to the floor with a groan. I grasped at my belt for explosives so that I could take out the door.
Jason was losing what was left of his mind, growing more dangerous and desperate by the second. In his delirium, he opened his mouth and a blast of fire erupted from it. It forced me away from Bruce, singing my clothing in the process.
I rolled onto my feet to face Jason, who now looked almost completely like Etrigan.
Jason's red eyes darted between me and the sword. I could see the war going on between the man and the demon. Much as I was opposed to taking the sword myself, every fiber of my being was screaming at me to keep it away from Etrigan. Perhaps it was something instinctive to my humanity that just knew something horrible would happen if the demon got a hold of the Clarent.
"Damn you, Jason," I growled under my breath. "If this thing kills me, I swear I'll claw my way back to life just to kick your ass!"
As I figured, the demonic side of Jason Blood won out in the contest of wills. Etrigan lunged towards the table, hand outstretched. Immediately several round throwing disks of mine went flying right at it without a second thought. The razor edged throwing weapons embedded themselves deeply into the demon's flesh. As Etrigan roared in pain and launched another volley of fireballs in my general direction, I ducked under the flames and dashed for the table.
Seeing my movement toward its prize, the demon rushed to grab the sword again, but this time I was close enough to strike the table itself. I kicked the legs out from under it, toppling it over in my general direction and sending the Clarent clattering to the floor in front of me. Closing my eyes tightly and before I could second guess myself, I reached out and grabbed the scabbard tight, bracing myself for the same bolt of electricity that had taken down Bruce.
The shock I was expecting never came, though. Slowly, I opened my eyes. I stared with a sort of numb confusion at the scabbard I held in my right hand. Nothing happened. Reflexively I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I remembered the demon in the room. Gathering my feet under me, with the sword still in hand, I turned to face Etrigan.
However, it seemed that the fight was officially over. Etrigan was clutching his head and roaring with frustration. As he did this, I noticed how he was changing both in size and features. The demon's trademarked visage was dissolving away and Jason's humanity was returning. The whole process took about a minute. When it was all over, Jason knelt there on the floor, gasping for breath.
I sat down there in the middle of the broken, scorched room. First, I looked back at Bruce, who was awake and leaning against the wall for support. He was gazing at me with concern. Then I studied Jason for a moment as he was trying to recompose himself. He looked like crap, but at least he was fully human now. Then I looked down at the old sword in my hand. What the hell had I just gotten myself into?