Old and Red and Reeking of Dread.
The tunnel ended at a moderately large cavern, about an acre in size at most. There were three largish fire pits laid out in a rough triangular pattern, each with a chanting creature shrouded in a dark robes standing beside it. In the center was an old stone alter, so old it made my teeth positively ache to gaze upon it. Beside the alter was Mister Punch, a tall thin man with oddly coloured hair and his visible skin so pale, it looked bleached white. He was naked to the waist, was wearing dull orange trousers, was barefoot, and had various symbols painted on his back and arms. He was facing away from the entrance and his complete focus of attention seemed to be whatever was laying upon the alter.
The three of us crouched by the sheltering rocks of the entrance, looking upon the scene.
Renee leaned over and whispered in my ear, "He's only been out for a few hours, how could he have set this up so fast? And what are those things? They don't move like humans."
"Those 'things' are most likely demons of one sort or another, and it is they that probably set up this location. He was drawn here. There is a sensation, almost like a signal fire, burning here. Calling out to a certain sort of mind. He was summoned or guided, I'm not sure which, and I can not see into him. None of the elements nor creatures will speak to me of him. His beast is far fouler than mine, and fully human as well, which gives him great power."
"Why is that?"
"He has a real soul."
Mister Punch raised his hands and began to laugh. A high keening sort of chuckle that built with maniacal strength to gales of howling mirth. As he laughed he lowered his hands, and began methodically moving them over whatever was laying upon the stone slab before him.
"That's it, " Kate whispered, "We're going in!" With that, she threw her boomerang at Mister Punch while Renee ran into the cavern and with one of her typical flying leaps, attempted to strike him as well. I followed behind slowing only to pick up a piece of timber from the floor. As I moved closer I could see that strapped to the alter was a young blonde woman who had been treated most cruelly by the wicked pair of knives in her tormentor's hands. Lines of red blood covered her naked form while a bit of cloth was stuffed in her mouth to obviously stifle her screams. My beast looked upon this in a purely professional sense and approved of the composition and style. Mister Punch certainly has talent, it seemed to tell me.
The boomerang struck him in the shoulder, knocking his left hand with its keen blade away from her face. At almost the same moment Renee's kick caught him in the small of the back. This had the effect of sending him sprawling over the alter to land face first on the floor.
"Ohhhhh Nooooo! There's a bat in my belfry! And she's got friends..." Mister Punch rolled to his feet and kicked out with a long thin leg. Striking Renee in the ankle and sending her off balance. By this time I had gotten close to the alter and after stripping off my gloves, used my fingernails to sever the potential sacrifice's bonds.
Her first actions were to weakly reach up and pull the gag from her mouth, mumble "Oh puddin'...what have you done?" then faint. I scooped up the limp body, and leapt away from her point of bondage.
"Pretty quick aren't you? Now you put that back! It doesn't belong to you and I just happen to need it right this moment. You know little girls shouldn't take other peoples toys without permission..." Mister Punch's voice sounded like that a bone dry corpse, the chanting was continuing unabated in the background and I just knew there was no way to stop the ceremony. Renee and Kate were incessant in their strikes, but the boney figure rose to his feet again and again as the speed of the chant began to increase. After a moment Kate launched a few attacks on one of the other participants, but her fists flew through its body as if it were no more substantial than air or shadow.
"Dru any suggestions?"
"He needs the sacrifice, otherwise the ceremony fails. That's the way these things normally work."
"Okay, new plan. Protect Harley!"
Mister Punch attacked me with a barrage of blows. He was strong, stronger than any human I had ever encountered save a Slayer, "Give me my toy back Little Miss, or I'll get really grumpy!"
"I think not. Though the constellations told me naught about you, I can see the poison on the surface leeched its way down to the bone."
"Naught? Who says naught that isn't in a Regency romance?"
"I was brought up with proper grammar and diction."
"I had a grammar once...then I killed her. It was that ruler of her's fault. Always trying to jump down her throat. Who am I to second guess the reasons of office supplies?"
The chant was speeding up again and even with the combined efforts of Renee, Kate and myself, we were sorely pressed to resist his fanatical onslaught. My beast was raging, craving to be released to hurt, to kill. It sang within my very marrow. The stink of blood from all Miss Quinn's wounds was whipping it into a clamoring frenzy of anticipated destruction. Finally I managed to lay hands upon him and my beast broke loose. My true face appeared and I raised his body above my head, only to then hurl him away from me before I could be tempted by his arterial flow. His body sailed across the cavern only to land with a sickening snap alongside the alter.
I could feel the light dying in his eyes as the chanting was reaching a crescendo, then he began to laugh again. This was not the psychotic mirth that we had heard earlier, but a dirge like chortle that rasped and wheezed as his essence faded. Then I saw his hand scrabbling 'cross the floor as if in desperate search. I ran forward in time to hear him gasp, "Sssssometimessss ssssssacrificessss mussssst be made..." as he took the blade and slit his own throat.
The chanting ceased and the fires dimmed down to a low ruddy glow. A nimbus of dark blue fire formed above Mister Punch's body and descended slowly to envelop him and begin to consume his flesh. I stepped back and watched the scene as the cavern began to tremble and shudder.
"Dru, should we leave now?"
"Oh yes!" I picked up the damaged woman and pursued by my friends fled towards the safety of the exit getting free in time to avoid the collapse of the ceiling.
When we reached the surface, I stopped and told the others to go on without me.
"Okay, hand over Harley and we'll see you later."
"No, she's been tainted, and I think I'm the only one who can help her. I can see it."
"Are you sure Dru?"
"Yes, very sure. The frogs told me. They tend to be more trustworthy than moths these days you know."
"Alright, we'll cover for you, but you know the Bat will find out."
"I would be more surprised if he didn't."
They turned to go then Kate turned back, "Dru, is the Joker dead?"
"Oh no, he's become much more dangerous than that..."