The Queen and the Girl who would be Night
a Gotham fairytale
If this story sounds familiar, keep reading.
This time it wasn't the skyscrapers of Manhattan that awoke the Queen, and she didn't poison that Apple as she'd poisoned the one Snow White had bitten into. The world had changed too much, perhaps, since she'd been locked inside a story book. Children believed still in princesses and heroes, but now they knew them through means incomprehensible to the Queen. Video games had made chunky plumbers a perfectly adequate hero archetype, and the word princess called up to mind a woman as skilled in the arts of war as she was a messenger of peace, compassionate and wise, who could deflect weapons with a simple gesture of her wrist.
Simple ideas that had once seemed set in stone, ideas that had defined so much of what the Queen had known, had changed.
Monsters hadn't, though.
Nor had power, the Queen realized, when she cast blindly for the place that most fitted her mind. If the Queen had once believed power to be a political object, a mere tool or accident of fate, that time had long since been lost in the chronicles of her life. She had reigned uncontested over a land of fairy tales for eons now, enlarging her kingdom with every new book to be written, every novel hot off the press. Power, for the Queen, came shrouded in the smell of fresh ink and new paper. It had been centuries since the candles of her fairy tale castle had burnt with something other than the scent of incense, and, when she let herself drift into a daydream, her scepter shifted into a quill. She had scores of spies to keep her appraised of everything that went on in her land, at first implemented to look for her rebel stepdaughter, and whose uses had come to supersede their original purpose.
The Queen stretched her consciousness over the world, and rejoiced. Although much of their treasure might no longer be in, people still thirsted for knowledge as the ultimate source of power.
It was a spike of both that caught the Queen's attention, a wound on the East Coast of the United States, like a rotten fruit among a basket of healthy ones.
Monsters and power.
(Do you see now? I did say it would be different.)
When Cass came to, she rolled to her knees, swallowed. The inside of her mouth tinged with a veneer of bile, Cass tried to wipe her lips with the back of her wrist, out of habit, and that was when she realized she wasn't wearing her mask. There was metal in front of her face, covering her whole head.
She wasn't wearing the rest of the costume, either, but something that reminded her a little of children running around on Halloween. Suits of armor? Batman said they were dressing up as knights, and Cass had pointed out that the armor looked nothing like what Batman was wearing, but he'd pretended not to hear. She'd deduced it meant hero.
The armor was light, and a stylized bat was engraved on the front.
Quickly, she stood. The last thing she remembered was landing on the corner of Grant and Bolland; the angle was right, and the general heights of the structures around hadn't changed, but things were off. Bolland didn't have gargoyles, and the windows were wide panels of stained glass, like there was at the church on Moench. A thick blanket of ivy covered the walls of the building, almost entirely obscuring the facade, so she could only get glimpses of the stone underneath. The coffeeshop's neon sign by the bus stop had disappeared, replaced by something older, wooden. She counted the same number of letters on the sign, but she couldn't even identify which letters they were.
The street was empty, it was still nighttime, and the lights from the windows were duller than usual. The city was asleep. Glancing up, Cass could see stars blinking in the Gotham sky, clearer than they'd been since the No Man's Land. And not the same.
The watch sewn into her costume should have told her the time, and how long she'd spent out, except it was gone, along with her comlink and the alarm button Batman had silently slipped into all the updated costume designs. She wasn't sure how to test it, but she felt pretty sure the security that sent eletric shocks when someone tried to remove the mask was gone as well. Another of Batman's latest upgrades, probably Barbara's idea. Cass wasn't sure she was a fan.
And the tracking unit. Cass hoped it was still working, and blinking someplace safe, maybe with her vanished suit, because Batman and Oracle would worry if she just disappeared, and if they thought she was deep into trouble they'd send reinforcements.
The Clocktower was closer.
She still had her grappling hook; she took it from her belt and examined it, but there seemed to be nothing different about it. Maybe the technology wasn't too advanced, or maybe there was another reason.
Jumping might be a little off, what with the armor, she made sure to tell herself before leaping into the air. She'd have taken it off if not for the Bat on the armor's chest, an identifying beacon for the people who might see her, and a reassurance to herself.
The helmet kept the wind from her skin more than the mask, except the slits in the metal over her nose and mouth, slicing the air into lashes, rushing down her neck. It didn't clank but she was concerned it would – it was like wearing a cooking pan over her head.
The hook worked just fine, catching over the edge of the building she wanted to reach, and she was in midair over the gaping, quiet boulevard of Sale when its grip slid and gave.
Cass kept her mouth shut on a scream, let herself go, and rolled to minimize impact.
Her head bounced against the inside of the helmet and the armor absorbed the shock with a sound like crumpling steel sheets, like Batman's car wheezing past a crumbling wall, like no car crash Cass had ever heard, like no Kevlar could protect after a fall from – she looked up and counted, eight, nine floors? She moved the mouthpiece of the helmet to check for damage, and it wasn't even stuck.
And there should've been traffic, she reminded herself to get herself moving. There didn't look like there would be, no car lights rushing at her, the streets darker than they'd been since Riddler had taken the electricity down one month ago, but staying curled up in the middle of the road wasn't safe.
Her hands were sweaty in the gauntlets when she retracted the grapple. Twigs and leaves were still snagged on the teeth. Ivy. She'd caught the surrounding vegetations instead of the wall itself when she'd aimed.
She took refuge into the mouth of an alley while she made sure everything was in working order. She'd have bruises on her forearms and the back of her head, but after some acrobatics just to make sure ('flips and shit', Steph called them) she figured her sense of balance and her back were fine. Batman would be very angry if she got hurt falling down. So would Steph, who’d never stop making fun of her.
With a measuring look at the blanket of plants above her head – branches and bushes woven into a clump, blocking out the sky like in forest – Cass decided against the rooftop route. It'd be longer on foot, but not if she fell every time she used her grapple.
It wasn't so much longer on foot, anyway. She'd been used to crossing over Gotham before she had a grapple, before she was even Batgirl or Cassandra. Whatever had happened to Gotham – and it was still very clearly Gotham, down to the undercurrents of smell, when you sniffed beneath the weirdly woodsy stuff – it wasn't worse than No Man's Land. The asphalt was very solid under her feet, and the buildings hadn't crumbled, and that meant people wouldn't be falling into holes and getting injured.
When it was night, generally Cass was working. She didn't really think of it that way, except it filled her stomach with something warm when Barbara or Nightwing used that word (even if Barbara didn't always approve, Barbara liked work, but sometimes when she said Cass was working too much her mouth looked like it wanted to say something else). Sometimes people got the wrong impression, though, like Brenda had, so Cass wasn't always sure when it was all right to say that. And she could hardly explain she was saving people's lives, could she?
"That way lay people asking to see your badge," Dick had said in a very serious tone, and waggled his eyebrows while Steph laughed in the background.
Cass had looked at him. "I know what people really mean. And how to turn them down. Unlike you," she pointed out.
Dick spluttered and Steph had fallen off the couch choking, and Cass had realized spoken language had tricked her into being unclear again. "I mean, you don't know what people mean. Not the other part. Sorry."
Dick had smiled, a bit sickly. "It's, ah, it's okay, Batgirl," and he'd disappeared for the rest of the night.
Cass' nights were filled with rescues and fights and detecting. Sometimes detecting meant being at a club, which Cass liked very much, and she danced between waiting for the target to drop a message to another guest, or stopping a guy who'd slipped a roofie into the drink of his dance partner and waiting for the cops to show up.
She didn't walk much, much less when there was no-one with her and nothing happening. Walking around was what afternoons were for, especially the golden hours when sunlight burnished on windows and slicked down metal ramps, thick and sweet like maple syrup.
So this was different.
Cass thought she might have liked it better if it had been her Gotham.
Paths winding between narrowly-spaced buildings exuded a smell of forest after the rain. In places the asphalt was cracked with weeds, lunging up at the ancient streetlamps or car hulks, crawling up the blackened bricks and bleached beams of walls; more often, it had disappeared entirely, leaving streets paved with uneven stones. At crossroads the pavement was dug in so far, eroded by generations of traffic, that the holes were still filled with water from the last time it had rained, muddy with the grit of the city. That was somehow more disturbing than the city's alteration.
It was a collage of the old and the modern, roughed-up cars still parked in front of wineries with wooden panels pulled down instead of metal shutters. There were a few crushed windshields here and there, concave glittering up like a starry maze, but no more than on a normal night. Religious signs and metal horseshoes hung in the place of the plastic charms on the rear-view windows.
The only people she saw were lying strewn across the streets and by the sidewalk, laid out on benches, and were as deep asleep as the sleep of the dead.
Gotham was silent like a vow in a Cave.
After the first two blocks she walked, she chanced upon a birdcage. This was quite unusual, because Gotham City had little use for birdcages, when they didn't contain expensive exotic birds, and this one only contained the most common sparrows, crying pitifully.
As she approached to examine it, a small bird flew to the cage, attracted by the suspension of mirrors twinkling gently inside the cage, and, squeezing through the metal bars, found itself inside the cage. Once inside, Cass saw, the mirrors reflected against the metal bars, and the spinning light kept the birds dizzy and unable to fly out.
The cage had been made with a door, so that whoever had set the trap could retrieve their victims, Cass presumed. It took only a moment for her to snap the lock open, slide her arm inside, and tear the mirror suspension.
As soon as she'd taken out the hypnotic mirrors, the birds shook themselves, and flew to the opened door so fast they made strands of Cass' hair fly.
She watched them go, wondering if they'd be able to see where they went in the dark, or if they would be eaten, but it was always better than being in a cage, wasn't it?
Thoughtfully, she pocketed the mirrors, and went her way, which coincidentally was the same way the last sparrow had gone.
On the square below where the Clocktower used to stand a hanging block was waiting; a few candles and matches to light them were stacked on the steps leading up.
The Clocktower itself had vanished. Changed, to a tower needling the sky. Cass raised a candle up, but the night was too dark and the tower too high. Maybe it pierced the skies and went all the way up to the moon. Maybe it reached all the way to the Justice League's base.
Maybe the others were there and devising a plan already.
She walked around the tower, but found no door, and no secret passage revealed itself behind the bricks when Cass checked, pushing aside the thick leaves of ivy with her hand to rap her knuckles against the cold stone. The knocks echoed in her bones, dulled by the dense ivy coat.
The ivy didn't give when Cass tugged, didn't budge. It was a very resilient plant, ivy. The numbers were somewhat fuzzy, but she thought it could support an elephant? She was certainly lighter than an elephant.
Cass put her candle away, sighed, and, grasping the ivy vines with both hands, started climbing the ivy tower.
The foliage grew thicker as she went, until the stems of ivy were twisted into veiny knots, she only needed to hook her gauntlets into them for leverage, and her entire foot rested on them. Under the leaves as wide as her hand, she could hear a world of wood creatures, scuttling insects bigger than a half-dollar coin, rats running up and down the leaves and the tower, their business interrupted for a moment by her passing.
Nests of twined twigs and paper rested snugly at the biggest knots, and Cass was careful not to disturb them. Once she reached too close to one, and the parent bird flew out from nowhere, squawking loudly and flapping around Cass' head until she'd climbed away. The helmet kept the bird's beak and the leaves from her eyes, and though it was dark, Cass didn't need light to keep on climbing.
She went at a good rhythm, she thought, rising in the almost complete quiet of the subdued city. She would have glanced down if she'd been able to see something, to see if the tower was playing tricks on her; Cass wasn't afraid of heights. It wasn't too tiring, either, and the weather was fine, with no rain falling or wind blowing or sun baking and making her swelter in her suit of armor. She was lucky the creatures weren't to scale, or she'd be encountering cockroaches big as her head, and the more in-your-face magic was the more obnoxious Cass found it.
Finally the mantle of ivy gaped around an opening, a window just the size the Clocktower's had been. Cass gratefully climbed inside.
The room – there was only one taking up the whole floor – was big and round and filled with the same computers that Cass knew and empty of people. There was an unused bed and books even bigger than those in Batman's library, and a braided ladder of red hair that couldn’t possibly be real but felt just like natural hair when she took her gauntlet off to touch, that was piled next to a closet and that Cass glared at. It didn't explain how whoever lived in the tower (and given the computers and the books, it was Barbara) had got away, though.
Hitting a key on the main computer's keyboard made them whirr into service again. Cass sighed in relief, and pulled open the desk's drawers, while she was at it. A lot of Oracle's stuff was gone, but the computers were still here and working, and her surveillance cameras were showing shots of the city all over – the city now, with the new gargoyles and the dark green at random places – and if she was lucky--
Her fingers brushed against a small, round piece of plastic that she hastened to retrieve. It rolled in the crook of her palm when she took a better look, black and dull and an older model than either Batman's or Barbara's newest designs, but unmistakeably a commlink.
She turned it on with one hand and pushed it inside her ear, and it was like it had never been gone at all.
"Oracle," she repeated, forceful.
The line was as good as dead. If Oracle was just busy with someone else, there'd be the musical beep telling her to wait. If she was busy elsewhere there'd be the message asking Cass what was her urgency.
Nothing was wrong.
"Batman," Batgirl changed frequency.
“Shoot,” Batgirl muttered. Despite Steph and Babs' assurances, swearing didn't make her feel better. And she didn't dare put her fist inside the computer screen and wreck the room as she was tempted.
Riffling through the other drawers turned up no more forgotten tech, except for a small USB stick. Maybe there were codes, or encrypted files; better take it with her. Because it was potentially precious, Cass tucked it into her bra – the elastic fabric would do a better job of keeping it from falling than the cloth pockets inside the armor. She rolled her shoulder until the plastic stopped rubbing against her collarbone. If only the change had spared her utility belt.
She took a calming breath. Well. At least she did have a commlink. It was possible it wasn't working, but now she knew that some technology had resisted the—spell? It felt like a spell. No assuming without definite proof, she chided herself. Okay, what was the evidence? There had been a change so big it had affected the entire city. She would have thought it was Poison Ivy – she'd pulled something like that, once, tried to submerge Gotham with a sea of plants and turn it into a jungle she'd called paradise – if the buildings themselves hadn't changed.
The bad guys behind it were being discreet: no parades to celebrate, no public claims. Maybe it was because it was night-time, though. Yes, that was the main thing; it was like what had happened to Gotham didn't matter. Usually there'd be TV teams and cops outside, and the bad guys doing everything they could to let people know they'd won and it was over. (Spoiler, Steph would say: it's never over.)
It sounded like JLA stuff. It looked like she hadn't been so far off when she'd thought maybe the tower went up to the moon!
Slightly cheered up by the deductive process, Cass wrestled with Barbara's computers until she found a screen where she could choose who to get in contact with, she thought. There were lots of names, most of which she didn't recognize (couldn't read), though the first was pretty certainly Batman's – Cass would've recognized it even if there hadn't been the stylized bat next to it. “JLA” was easy to recognize, three-letters long, and Cass clicked it.
She hoped Batman would answer, so she could tell him she was only checking that he was there and what had happened in Gotham was JLA business. Maybe that was why Oracle wasn't here, actually – maybe the League had needed her moonside and they'd teleported her up?
The screen stayed very, very blank.
Cass shrugged and clicked on the Bat symbol next to Batman's name.
At once the menu changed into the Batcave's interior. The view was the same as if she'd sat on the computer's seat and swiveled to look behind, except that the computer's cam cut off before you could see the Case. It was just there out of the screen, on the right side.
“Batman?” she called. Then she cast her voice louder, and repeated, “Batman? Robin?”
A clatter of feet echoed in the Cave, and a shout.
The girl who ran up to the screen wasn't wearing Spoiler's costume. Nor even eggplant-colored armor. It was Steph; it was unmistakably Steph, blonde hair and elbows poking out like there were ghosts standing in her way as she dashed, fists clenched like fuck you.
“Robin,” Batgirl said.
Red and green and gold, however washed-out, pretty definitely meant Robin.
“Yes! Okay, so wow, it's just not here something happened, right, you'd tell your best girl if you were going into town with an actual armor?”
Which Robin's suit was clearly not. Cass studied the folds of Steph's ratty cloak and tunic. The way she was carrying her left arm meant she was packing a knife, but the costume seemed to be perfectly ordinary fabric.
“Fucking amazing? Ridiculous? Like a walking, living target?”
Cass made a frustrated noise. “Like when you smile. Batman has a word.”
“Batgirl, are you sure you want to tell me?”
“Like... Santa's little helpers...”
Steph looked disgusted, rolling her eyes behind the cloth domino, and Cass snapped her fingers. “Imp! Impish! You look like an imp!”
Steph and Tim had dated long enough that some of their facial tics had bled; Steph's current expression was a Tim face, when he was annoyed and pleased at the same time, and annoyed because he was more pleased that annoyed.
She opened her mouth to let Steph know, and to inquire after the others, when the picture sizzled, and the view of Robin in the Batcave was replaced with Barbara's haughty face.
“You,” Barbara's face said. Oracle? “Pure-hearted champion of this forsaken land. I issue you a challenge.”
“Who are you?” Cassandra asked. The other questions she filed away as less urgent.
“I am the Queen; I am the one who knows all that happens in the realm I rule. I am the sovereign who never fled and whose banner never was broken. The scars of this realm, I bear them in my flesh, and I have endured every sacrifice that my land had to give. At long last I arise to claim my crown, my throne, and the loyalty of my subjects. I am the Oracle and you are the one who is chosen to oppose me.”
Unbidden, Cass's knees buckled. She grasped the edge of the desk, flash-quick, to avoid dropping to her knees.
“You may come to me empty-handed or armed with your hell-forged weapons, o my valiant challenger. Delay not. I shall await you.”
Her voice echoed with every word she spoke, Barbara's tone with Oracle's voice-scrambler.
“What did you do to Gotham?”
“Prove your worthiness, and your questions will be answered,” the Oracle Queen said. Her voice started to fade.
“Where do I find you?” the girl (knight) cried out.
“At the heart of the city, where the most brilliant minds of my court were already gathered and souls most exceptional have burned for years on end, lighting my way back home. I have taken back the castle of Arkham, that should never have been lost.”
She regarded Cass for one last time, and the screen showed Steph once again.
“What was that,” Robin demanded.
The armor seemed – not heavier all of a sudden, but more meaningful. It wasn't a gimmick, or a coat of armor with a bat painted on, it was the Bat costume. The spell had taken care of changing it into its most fitting form.
“I think... I know what's going on,” Cass said slowly.
“Oh, good. Care to share?”
“It's... It's got to do with Oracle.” She preferred not to say anything about her suspicion it was a spell. For one, it was the most obvious possibility and Steph must have thought of it already, for another, she wasn't sure how to identify conclusive evidence for magic, and for the last, even if it was, she wasn't a magician and neither was Steph, right? She was a knight, and Robin was--
“Robin, what are you?”
Robin looked down at her outfit, pinched the tunic between two fingers, and twirled on herself. “I, huh. I think I'm a thief.”
Batgirl nodded, satisfied.
“You were saying, about Oracle?” Steph quizzed. She was talking fast, quips and tiny jerks of her head, birdlike. Cantcatchme, the angle of her shoulders was saying. Can't cage me, can't make me, try and I'm gone, try and I'll shout.
“It's her. Arkham.”
“Wait, what? Oracle went bad?”
“No no no!” Cass waved her hands in front of her, vehemently. “It's—it's got her. Something is using her. Her face, voice, body... It doesn't just look like Oracle. It's Oracle, but it's not.”
Steph caught on quick. “Possession? Man, that sucks. Okay, got an idea what we should do 'bout that?”
“She said she's waiting for me,” Cass explained. “In Arkham. I have to go there.”
“Oh, let's not,” Steph said in a light, fake tone. “It's a silly place.”
Cass's incomprehension must show. Steph went on. “Seriously, BG. Arkham's fucking crazy on Gotham's best day. Just imagine what it must be like today.”
“Gotham needs me,” Cass reminded her.
“Can't you wait for back-up? I even got dressed up for the part. I'll be here in a Flash second!” She spread her arms to show off her outfit. “And what about the others?”
“Everyone's asleep here,” Cass said. “Maybe they're asleep too. Can you look? In the Manor?”
“Sleeping Beauty-like? Makes sense.”
Cass scrunched up her eyes. “The story with a princess? With the music and the funny horse?”
“That's the one! I didn't know you'd seen it.”
“Batman made me.”
Steph was silent for two seconds on the other end of the line.
There was a noise, then a gasp, and when the first noise was repeated Cass identified it as a shaky chortle.
“Okay, leaving aside things I'd never have been able to begin to suspect about Batman-- I can do that. I'll slink through the castle and you'll, huh, stealth through Arkham's defenses. O's accounted for, but that's as far as that goes. She tell you why you were the chosen one, by the way?”
“She called me Gotham's champion.” Steph made an encouraging noise, and Cass reluctantly added, “pure-hearted.”
“I...” Steph tilted her head to the side, and nodded. “Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
Minutes were ticking. In not too long, it would be dawn. Maybe it didn't mean anything; maybe Cass was worrying over nothing. But there could be a time limit.
“I have a commlink. We'll keep in touch.”
“I'll look for a commlink too. Tim always keeps a spare one in his uniform, in case the one he's using stops working.”
“Good,” Cass said, nodding.
“Okay.” Steph nodded, took a breath, then nodded again. “Okay,” she repeated. “Cass? Don't do anything too crazy out there, or I'll kick your ass.”
“You'll try,” Cass replied with a smirk, and she cut the communication.
The roads she followed didn't go the way they should. They zigged when they should have zagged, twisted when they should go straight, circled wide around the towers and movie theaters and tagged sculptures Batman had once used to describe them to Cass. She glared at the street plates when she walked past them. They were even less useful than usual.
If she could at least read the streets' names, she thought with mounting exasperation, then she'd know if Breyfogle Boulevard had suddenly decided the Breyfogle Institute was superfluous, or if Grant Avenue had decided Vaughan Street was its new best friend.
She'd take a turn down something she'd swear on her cape was Finger, and found herself by the docks. She resolutely set her steps toward Robinson, and ended up on Kane.
She was walking down the narrow street by Grant Park whose name she'd never learned, because both Barbara and Steph referred to it as “the street with the kebabs” and Batman had never corrected her when she called it that way, jump after careful jump between the spurts of broken concrete, and when she reached the end, trailing her hand on the corner, she turned, and stopped.
The bright mural stretching across the metal shutters that had once been the entrance of an old moviehouse, eaten by old-looking lichen that hadn't been there in the morning, proclaimed she was nowhere near where she'd started.
On the painting, a dark-clad masked woman was dancing in midair above men with guns, while a boy in bright colors – brown skin, green sweats, red jacket, gold necklace – cheered her on. In the next picture, a police car let out a pair of dumbfounded officers, while grandmas looked on with their arms crossed and kids played on the steps. If you looked at the most remote corner of the mural, tucked behind the old woman with a cigar, you could see two red roses set on the ground, like one of those bouquets people use to remember the victims of a shooting.
Moss was eating over the wall, but Cass scratched at it until it shredded and fell; underneath, the painting was intact. She smiled, glad it wasn't gone or the outfits and weapons hadn't changed. She liked it very much, and the people who lived around Crime Alley must agree; in the months since it'd appeared, there hadn't been one errant tag graffitied across the painting.
Two doors down, by the well-lit entrance of the clinic, an older woman was scrutinizing the ground. She had her back hunched in her search and her eyes narrowed.
“Hi,” Cass greeted her.
The woman looked up. She was still wearing a white doctor’s coat. Cass envied her for a moment.
“Oh, it's you,” Leslie said. “I suppose you all have your hands full, but your young eyes would help me.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Bullets,” Leslie said. “Someone let bullets drop, and they're strewn all over the street now. I need to find them all before someone gets hurt.” She gestured in the direction of Crime Alley, patchy cobblestone and darkly-lit. “It would take me so long and I might not get them all, but you can do that, can't you?”
Behind a window, curtains rippled, as though someone had just let them fall back. People were awake here.
“I will,” Cass promised.
Leslie nodded. Her smile didn't smooth away the anxiety lines etched on her forehead. “Good. Come see me when you're done.”
She walked back into the clinic where patients must be waiting, and Cass was left alone to look for the bullets.
The streetlamp over her head shone brightly. It cut a cone of white sharp light around the lamp, lit a vaguer aura a little further away; and past the mouth of Crime Alley, the light was drowned completely, swallowed by the far-reaching street. If she searched for the bullets by eye, she'd spend hours combing the pavement and even then she might miss one.
She took the mirror out of her pocket and tilted under the streetlamp, reflecting the light. She oriented it toward the alley, angling it slightly to light the way, and a spark a few steps away caught her eye. It shone bright, showing the unmistakable shape of a bullet. She angled it again, making sure to keep the first spark in her track, and the light ricocheted, reflecting again on a second spark, a little distance further yet from the entrance of the darkened street. A slight twist of the wrist revealed a third bullet beyond the second, and a fourth one nearby. And again, and again, until the reflection of the light had pinned all the bullets littering the alley, shining like pearls in the beam.
With the string that still hung from the mirror, Cass carefully tied the mirror to the streetlamp, and went to retrieve the bullets.
When she was done, she entered the clinic to look for Leslie.
Leslie sighed in relief when Batgirl deposited each and every bullet on her desk. “Oh, thank you. It won't stop people from shooting each other up, but when the world goes crazy every little thing helps.”
Cass lifted her helmet and beamed. “You're welcome.”
Leslie was tired, but she returned Cass's smile. Turning away, she opened a drawer and handed Cass two syringes.
“Here, have this. They're stimulants. Use them only if this lasts much longer and you absolutely have to stay awake. It's shaping up to be one of those weeks.”
“Cass?” Steph's voice broke into her thoughts. “I found 'em, but they're not gonna be a big help.”
“You were right. They're asleep. It's pretty creepy.”
Cass remembered days gone by, when the Manor was empty. The first time she'd entered, and there'd been no-one but cops, whispers echoing in the too-vast hallways, as they searched for evidence that Bruce Wayne was a murderer. And more recently, when sometimes Batman would send her and Tim and Nightwing and everyone who got too close away, and stayed alone with the silence in the rooms whose decorations hadn't changed since his parents had arranged them.
“Yes,” Cass echoed. “Creepy.” She shook herself. “Who's the princess?”
Robin snorted. “That would be Tim, as far as I'm able to tell. Do you know, the master bedroom has changed into this alcove with a canopy and stuff? My seven-year-old self would have been so jealous. Scratch that, I'm jealous.”
“Did you kiss him?” Cass wanted to know.
“I did, but I don't think I'm princess-y enough. He didn't wake up. Alfred's asleep in the chair next to him, too, so you know he was looking over Tim.”
“So we need one. A princess.”
“Or prince, whatever. I don't think this fairytale is gonna discriminate, sorry for the pun.”
Puns were authorization not to ask for an explanation, unless she was dealing with Riddler, so Cass simply ignored it. “Nightwing?” she suggested.
“That's pretty much my guess, yeah. The good news is that I've looked and he's not here, unless he's been shoved in some secret room with the six other ex-wives-slash-sidekicks of the lord of the house. The bad news is that I have no idea where he is.”
“Nothing so far either, but I haven't—AAAAAH!”
“I'm good! Just startled, is all. That's—okay, that's really very creepy. Wow.”
“What's going on,” Cass pressed.
“I found Batman. He's asleep in the—the Manor didn't have a chapel before, right? It's one of those super-secret newly-there rooms I was just telling you about. There's an altar, and mosaics on the walls, and not one crucifix or Star of David or y'know, anything you'd expect from a temple in Batman's house. There are bats. On the mosaics. And a necklace with dried blood on the altar and other mosaics which look just exactly like R-robin – all four of us, I swear that's the creepiest thing I've ever—yeah, fuck that, I'm outta this room.”
She was breathing too hard.
Cass waited, and when it didn't sound like she was calming fast enough, she said her name again. “Steph. Talk to me.”
A shaky laugh. “I'm good, it's just—there were mosaics on the ground, next to him. And the mosaics, they were kind of faded, like when you pace a lot, so I didn't see it at once, but they showed a gun, and a crowbar, and a—a power drill, and I just, I had to get out.”
“I understand,” Cass said, and wished she was with Steph, so she could show her what she meant, instead of words that didn't fit.
Steph took a breath.
“I'm getting out of here. It's probably gonna take a while, there's thorns blocking the entrances.”
“Oh no.” Cass heard Steph grin. “I'm taking the car.”
Arkham Asylum was enclosed with fences.
The elegant spikes of the metal railing pointed to the sky like so many lances, barring the way to people who'd want to enter the well-maintained park. The asylum itself rested at the top of a low hill, and the halo of trees was cut away so that it the building would get the best light – or to avoid letting people get in and out of the building without being seen. If you didn't know what it was, you could believe it was still the estate of some paranoid old-money family bent on privacy.
The spell hadn't affected the fences, but the gate was wide open. Anyone who'd want to call upon the judgment of their Queen could enter.
When she made for the gate, a figure jumped down the nearest building.
“I was waiting for one of you,” Huntress said.
“Of us,” Cass corrected.
“Whatever.” Huntress crossed her arms. The butt of her crossbow, strapped to her back, peaked over her shoulder.
Cass mimicked her arm-crossing, and started tapping the floor with her foot, oh really.
Huntress snorted and shook her head. “Okay, I deserved that. Sorry, kiddo, I'm a little on edge. I've been watching Arkham since the comms went dead, in case anyone breaks out. It's been wearing me down.”
Cass tilted her head, go on.
“I haven't done surveillance without back-up or without knowing what the hell is going on since No Man's Land. Is it all over, or is it just us?”
“Don't know.” Working on it sounded so much better.
For a second Huntress looked like she was considering a half-hearted, gratuitous stab at Batman, then the expression disappeared.
“Do we know what's causing it?”
Cass winced. “Oracle,” she said, apologetic.
The hood hid almost all of Huntress' face. “Ah. That kind of trouble. Then it's not such a bad thing after all that the comms are dead, is it?” She looked back at Arkham. “I suppose she's, or, well, Arkham is the epicenter of it, since you're here.”
Epicenter was just a complicated word to mean center, though if Cass asked Huntress, Huntress would explain all the ways it wasn't the same. Close enough for Cass's purpose.
“Okay, get in. I'll keep on keeping guard.” The smile Cass perceived in Huntress' tone was not entirely humorous. “You go and do your thing, I'll pin anyone who steps out of Arkham that's not you to the wall.”
Taking another look at Huntress' posture, the tiredness weighting on her shoulders, and the crossbow with which she defended the city, Cass took out the syringes Leslie had given her and held them out to Huntress in her cupped hands.
“So you don't sleep,” she explained when Huntress took one of the syringes to take a closer look. There was something written in small letters on the side of the vial, so maybe she didn't need to say, but for all Cass knew, it was just written that in came from Leslie Thompkins' clinic.
“That's fantastic! Thank you, Batgirl.” As she gleefully put the syringes in her pocket, Cass could see the additional hours of work each vial meant. She paused. “Which reminds me. Come with me, I have something you could use.”
She raised her hand, and Cass grapple-hooked to the rooftop on her suit.
The sniper's nest Huntress had set up had an excellent view on Arkham's estate. She'd put up a small tent, which she was now digging through. Cass glimpsed a few blankets, one umbrella, and a backpack. There was a Thermos already out, by the place where Huntress must huddle to watch. If she looked, Cass knew she'd find survival rations and a first-aid kit. Everything Huntress would need for a new No Man's Land surveilling the Arkham inmates.
After a minute, Huntress emerged from the tent, gripping a long, slender package. The cross-like handle was the only part that wasn't wrapped in thick fabric, tightly held together with string.
“This is Deathstroke's sword,” Huntress said. “I've been keeping it here where I was sure Zsasz wouldn't get his hands on it, but if anything it's safer with you.” She held the package out to Cass. “Besides – all knights have a need for a sword, don't they?”
Cass took the sword from Huntress' grip before she lowered it. The package was heavy, but not as heavy as she remembered. She lifted it to her mouth and gnawed at the string.
“Wait, I've got—well, that works too.” Huntress considered the bits of string, falling limply where Cass had bitten through it.
Quickly, Cass undid the rest of the knots, and slid the fabric off. The sheath stared at her, orange and blue and familiar, like a half-forgotten dream.
“Batgirl? Is it going to be all right?”
She sounded concerned, and she looked like she was thinking of patting her on the shoulder but wouldn't.
The sword was bigger than the one Deathstroke had given his daughter back then, and Cass wasn't tall enough to wield it like Deathstroke would. But he'd trained her with it. Deathstroke liked to think of himself as a teacher.
“Yes,” Cass said.
The sword fit into Cass's belt as if by magic. Helena looked a little proud, and a little like she wanted to punch someone. It was a look that Cass associated with family, and which always made her feel what Steph called “the fuzzies”.
She left. When she was midway down the building, she heard Huntress swear at her disappearance. Cass smiled.
Unnatural quiet reigned over the place, while Cass walked up the alley toward the front door. The sick-looking trees, which had been replanted a handful of months ago after Freeze had disseminated a pollution agent on the city, now stretched majestic branches. If she had to give chase there, she'd have to be mindful of how wide each trunk was, wide enough that a man Batman's size would fit behind if they tried to hide.
The entrance had been paved over with smooth, dark stone, and raised with a soft slope, which was framed with sculpted handrails. When the clouds moved over, the gleam of the moon reflected dully on the knobs of the rails, which were sculpted in the shape of the head of some mythical beast.
A flock of bats flew over Cass's head when she reached for the door's knocker.
When no answer came, she gave the door a slight push; it creaked open. Brushing her hand against her sword for reassurance, Cass entered.
Inside was as brightly-lit as the outside was dark. Innumerable candles sparkled, from the walls, the chandelier, the giant candelabras framing the doorway, glaring pitilessly from every possible nook. Cass blinked to adapt to the sudden light, and stepped inside.
The door slammed shut behind her, crashing like thunder.
The main entrance was unlikely to be the most practical way out if she needed to make an escape, but Cass wasn't planning on retreating before she'd confronted the Oracle.
“Oh, is the Queen's guest arrived?”
Cass's head snapped up. The voice was coming from up the sprawling stairs, and echoed clearly through the hallway. It was followed with a cackle that rebounded from wall to wall and made the candles' flames flicker. Cass grimaced in distaste.
“Joker,” she told the man walking down the stairs, and stopped, at a loss for words. He was wearing the costume of a servant, she thought, and carrying a candlestick in his right hand, though there was no need for it, and in any case his candles were unlit.
He moved as if it was his right to walk through the place, and Cass watched him carefully as he got closer. More than once she'd been warned against him, and she knew that as harmless as he looked, he was an unpredictable and resourceful opponent. She could take him, but she wasn't sure of the price tag attached. Better for now to wait and think.
Barbara – the Oracle – wasn't wearing a mask. Cass looked at Joker and started calculating what where the chances he hadn't seen her face.
“Why, Miss Knight, I am so flattered you remember me! But here I am not, as you say, the Joker, but her Majesty's butler. It's a role only given to one's most trusted confidant, do you know.”
By her side, Deathstroke's sword felt like it was flaring to life. Cass detached her gaze from the Joker's grin and planted her eyes in his.
“The Queen waits me.”
“Indeed she does, my Lady of the Bat. And I have been most strenuously briefed that I should start you on the journey to her, without delay. Let us not try her Majesty's patience, then, and follow me up.”
With the candlestick he gestured at the rising stairs, and without waiting for a sign of her approval he started back up.
Cass hesitated a moment, then made up her mind. The Oracle already knew she was here. And if the Joker was planning to trick her, she'd rather have her eye on him when he did.
She followed him up the stairs, and as she walked her outfit started to change. The metal shell that encased her torso and limbs shimmered and twisted, its surface creasing in silvery rivulets, blurring and softening.
Cass jumped down the stairs, but it was too late. The armor was gone, replaced with flimsy silk, as fine as a spider's web. The material wrapped around her in a fashion not unlike the dresses she'd sometimes worn at Wayne charities, short and chic, Brucie's glossy-paper girlfriends told her, uncertain fabric whose limits seemed to shift in and out of existence, showing thighs riddled with scars. A wide, gauzy black scarf flapped behind her as a makeshift cloak, twirling around her arms. At her feet were flat shoes, and a quick hand to her face assured her she was wearing a mask, its edges curving into an intricately familiar shape.
Her long-gloved hand reached for the sword at her belt, and closed around air.
The weapon was gone.
So had Joker, when she looked up at once, furious beyond belief. There wasn't even left floating the echoes of his characteristic cackling.
She had no weapon, but she'd never needed them; no armor, but for the Bat hiding her face.
Forward she went.
Shadows veiled the corridors of Arkham, the deceptive glare of the entrance a distant memory. Now, candelabras shone their solitary glow, like ghostly lighthouses in a sea of darkness. The walls stretched, dark grey stone that seemed to swallow the light and eat sounds.
Cass had never had much to do with Arkham. It wasn't Batgirl's assigned duty; it wasn't Cass's taste, either, to launch herself into the eager pursuit of the Hatter or Poison Ivy. But she'd been there more often than she'd had to, all the same. She'd slunk in and haunted these halls, searching for understanding. Not answers (the questions were Batman's), and not knowledge (that was Oracle's quest); she remembered when she'd asked Barbara “what was the soul?”
They said people in Arkham were sick in their minds, and that was what Batman and Oracle both were concerned about. Brains, and chemistry, and sickness with overly complicated names that sometimes changed. Brains and chemistry meant something for Cass too, but maybe she put something different in it.
To her, if the people in Arkham were sick, it was a sickness of the soul.
When she'd sneaked into Arkham, she'd been struck with how clean the place looked. It was like a hospital, white walls and neon lights and glass panes everywhere. Security like that which you could expect in a top-secret government facility like that which she'd infiltrated so long ago. Cameras looking over everything, that made you work at not being caught. Disabling a camera, Batman had taught her, was as damning as letting oneself be caught on film. So you'd have to get acrobatic to go around your business. The simplest way to do that was--
Cass glanced up, and hissed under her breath. Stupid.
Ancient-looking pieces of machinery rotated slowly at various intervals on the walls. Cogs and gears turned soundlessly, belying the rusty appearance of the machines. Their round, glassy eye scanned the length of the corridor.
Oh, well, better late than never.
With a vault, Cass nimbly leapt up the wall, until she'd stretched her body parallel to the ceiling, her feet resting on one wall and the palms of her hands flat on the opposite. Thus lodged she was above the view line of the cameras, and she could walk anywhere she wanted without being seen.
The dress wasn't a hindrance at all.
She'd turned a few corners, the rough stone of the walls muffled through the gloves barely enough that she knew she wouldn't leave fingerprints, when the commlink in her ear crackled. Cass bit her lip. She was deep inside the Queen's chosen castle, now – how deep, she didn't know. If Steph was in trouble, getting out wouldn't be an easy task.
And there was also the issue of the cameras... Cass had no idea whether they picked up sounds or not. She'd been quiet so far, mostly out of habit and because it wasn't any special effort, but if she started to talk...
The nearest camera was several leaps away. Safe enough.
“Robin?” Cass called out. Her whisper was barely louder than a breath intake.
For a handful of seconds nothing answered her, and Cass waited, her muscles locked, ready to flip back in case Steph needed her outside. An image of the birdcage flashed before her eyes – Robin trapped – Cass closed her eyelids to dispel the fear. If anyone could break out of such a trap, Robin would.
Careful, Cass started creeping again. If she could reach a better position before Steph told her what was going on, that was all the better. Besides, she trusted Steph's skills. Much more likely she'd call to tell Cass she'd found Nightwing and they were going to wake Tim up. (Maybe Cass should tell her about Huntress? The spell didn't seem to think Huntress was a princess, but you couldn't reject an hypothesis out of hand without testing it.)
The crackling subsided, and the muscles in Cass's neck relaxed. The actual sound was unclear, though. She pricked up her ear, and picked up – music, distant and muffled.
She was about to ask Robin what was going on when the crackling started again, louder, until they were like a wall of white noise, and stopped as abruptly as they'd started.
It would've been more comfortable if she'd known what had happened, but without clearer signal one way or another, she had no choice but to go on. The worry that Steph was caught in a death-trap somewhere was just that, a baseless worry. The music she'd overheard didn't call that to mind – no cackling, shouting, or boasting. Maybe it was only the radio waves getting mixed up. It shouldn't happen, but with the change, anything was possible.
Cass banished the clinging remnants of unease. For now, she had to focus on Arkham. Getting distracted was dangerous.
She made her way stealthily and steadily; still, when the first echoes of music reached her ears, she thought the commlink must have started working again. It came stronger then, a trill of some cord instrument bouncing against the walls of Arkham, and she stilled, gaping.
It was music, she discovered after following the sounds down the length of an endless corridor. She recognized the genre – classical wasn't her favourite, being often more concerned with melody than with rhythm. She could hear a piano, but that was all her untrained ear could tell apart for certain. (Maybe she should learn about music. Not how to read it – music had its own letters, and Cass was having enough trouble with English – but how to listen to it at least. When she thought about it, it seemed like sheer luck she'd never dealt with a criminal with a musical gimmick.)
The music became louder as she came closer, and now she could hear the drone of conversations and the tinkling of glasses. It sounded just like the receptions she sometimes had to attend, as Bruce Wayne's daughter. Polite laughs trickled out of the open door, with the pool of golden light.
Cass pulled herself directly above the door at the end of the corridor, and considered her options. There might be another way. For all she knew, the Queen wouldn't even be in the room. The ballroom, she decided to call it. (That was a bit of a leap in logic, but all her instincts told her she was right, and Batman was always pleased with what her instincts told her. Sometimes you could take – had to – take the shortcut, even if it wasn't one-hundred-percent proven.)
On the other hand, she didn't know where else to go. She had no idea how Arkham had changed. Maybe it was bigger. Maybe it reached so deep inside the Earth that the people working in the lower levels were constantly sweating, and on the very last level they had windows peeking just above a river of lava, red and glowing.
If she decided to go another way, would she even be able to go back the way she'd come from? She could imagine how the spell might have made Arkham into a labyrinth. You lost yourself in a labyrinth, and sometimes you never got out at all; and the people of Arkham, well, even if they escaped, they were still lost.
Another piece of music started, this one faster and more joyful. There was nothing to it; it wasn't the time to hesitate.
Cass dropped to the floor, hiding herself with the heavy pillars framing the door, checked her mask one last time, and entered.
To her immense relief, she found she wasn't the only one wearing a mask. The guests bustled around, in clothing Cass had only seen in movies and on the historical documents Bruce and Barbara had insisted to show her. It was like someone had taken a segment of history and shaken, until the centuries had blended together into an Olden Times that Cass couldn't define. Most of the costumes might be European in origin, but there were some she recognized as Chinese or Middle-Eastern, and all had gone through the same process of making them unreal – mix-n-matching – and all were in rich, vibrant fabrics. There were ruffles and veils and capes and expertly displayed skin; clothes and people glittered with metal – jewels and embroidery and impractical-looking pieces of armor. Everyone was wearing a mask.
Cass started to slip through the guests, looking for Barbara. It really was just like a Social Occasion, except that among the throng of bankers and socialites, heirs and money-makers, escorts who thought Cass was one of them and discreet bodyguards passing themselves as escorts who knew she wasn't, here and there were people Cass recognized more easily than bankers and socialites to whom she'd been introduced three times.
Here, Freeze turning down the offer of a drink from his conversation partner; there, Poison Ivy in the middle of a court of admirers; there, Scarecrow exchanging a few words with a musician who'd just stopped playing. The people they were talking to treated them with respect, but no trace of fear in their body language.
She'd had enough practice now at avoiding unwanted discussions that she could cross the room twice without being accosted, but she didn't find Barbara. The ballroom itself was vast and brightly-lit, just like you'd expect from such a room, and the walls covered in mirrors made the room look vaster and more brightly-lit still. There were eight doors, two at each corner of the room, each framed in pillars of a different style. The ones Cass had come through were sturdy grey stone, and at the top were perched two gargoyles. The buffet that ran almost the full length of the room was covered in white linen, as Cass had come to expect, but instead of being loaded with trails and pyramids of tiny bites of complicated food, its only role was to support rows and rows of glasses of wine so deep and so darkly red it seemed to absorb the light.
At one end of the room, in full view of everyone, stood a throne. It was raised from the ground with a few steps, and it was made of carved wood and incrusted with stark white decorations in the form of a full-face mask that were too dull to be mother-of-pearl and that Cass thought might be bone. The only reason Cass could see the engravings was because the throne was empty; and so was the lower, more modest seat on the throne's left.
“Do you dance?”
Cass looked away from the throne. The man talking to her was tall, his costume an assemblage of black velvet; his lacquered white mask, scowling on the right side, smiling on the left, couldn't hide the acid burns on one half of his face. His voice wasn't a growl, but mild and well-mannered, and he didn't stand like he was going to pull out a gun. Cass decided it was safe to answer.
“I'm looking for her,” she said. “The Queen.”
Harvey nodded, like he was expecting her question. He'd recognized her; if he wasn't calling out the alarm, it was for reasons of his own.
“She hasn't shown yet. We've been waiting for a long time, but the Queen hasn't graced us with her presence. The ball was supposed to be in her honor, you know.”
“Isn't it strange?”
He shrugged. “There are those who whisper that it is, but I'm sure she has her reasons.” Behind his mask, she could see his eyes glancing at the far side of the room. Following his glance, she saw the Joker, in his valet's livery, attending to the guests with a story that seemed to have them laughing – without a hint of horror or tears. “Are you sure you don't want to dance?”
Maybe the Queen had other eyes beyond cameras.
“Just one,” she said, holding her hand out to Harvey.
“Guess luck is on our side,” he commented, as he put his hand on her shoulder. “It's only a waltz.”
Cass didn't reply. She hadn't been taught how to waltz, but she knew how to follow the music, and from what she could see waltzing mostly involved whirling while making sure to avoid the other couples. She could do that.
She could tell he was a good dancer, as good as Batman would be if he wasn't Brucie then – and sometimes even Brucie was a very good dancer indeed, when Batman was falling in love with the young woman in his arms. (It happened often, more often than anyone thought, even Batman, but Batman fell easily in love, and when they were people who didn't die or didn't fight or didn't hurt, he never knew it, and his love forgot them as soon as they weren't dancing anymore.) Dent had been a brilliant young DA with a promising career, she remembered, and he must have attended his share of Social Occasions. Harvey still knew the gestures and rhythms, even if Two-Face didn't have much opportunity to use them.
They glided across the dark wooden floor, and whirled and whirled and whirled. Onlookers' gaze, when they found them among the dancers, clung to them for a few moments, then slid to the next couple. They were gathering far more approval than suspicion, and that was good enough for a conversation.
When Cass asked again where she'd find the Queen, on the next turn Harvey pointed at one of the doors, with a tiny jerk of the wrist nobody would notice. “Her apartments are that way. Careful, though. That wing's different from the rest of Arkham Castle.”
“Nygma tried to enter it, once, without the Queen's permission. They found him two weeks later with no memory of what he'd seen.”
Her first reflex was to point that it hadn't been two weeks since the spell. She bit down on her lips. The spell had changed many things. Maybe it had been two weeks, and magic was lying to her when she thought it had been less than a day.
“She knows I'm coming,” Cass replied instead. “She wants a—a duel? To finish things.”
“A denouement.” He slowed down, lost in a memory of a long-ago trial against himself, wanting an ending that fit, and Cass seamlessly moved them into the next whirl. She waited for him to be done reflecting, keeping an eye on the pulse in his throat: it if jumped, she'd know Two-Face was back. It wasn't a pleasant memory, from the loose grip of his hand and the thin set of his lips, but in the end he emerged. “It makes sense. Still, best be on your guard.”
Which brought her back to the main question. She thought she knew the answer.
“Why are you helping me?”
“The coin,” he said. “I know I'm betraying them, but...” The corner of his lips tensed with bitterness. “Guess I couldn't be the good guy without turning traitor.”
Once upon a time, Cass had pretended to be an assassin to watch upon a team of people who wanted so much to do good there was a chance they might try too hard. Sometimes the price to pay to keep people from dying was the other kind of pain.
“You are,” she assured. “Doing good.”
His smile didn't smooth the bitterness away. “Heh. You're a chip off the old block, aren't you?” But he didn't sound quite so angry when he said it.
If the dance had lasted very much longer, she'd have tried to break off the dance, promised Harvey she'd come back to hold up her end of the bargain afterwards, but the music reached a stop. Thanking your partner was slightly awkward – it wasn't done at normal formal parties, and Cass's dress made curtseying impractical, so she just nodded and said a polite thank you.
Harvey looked like he wanted to laugh, but nodded back. “Nice mask, by the way,” he told her, before plunging back into the crowd. His tone had sounded off, just by a few notes, on the last words. Closer to Two-Face's.
Cass was gone into the door he'd shown her before he took his coin out again. It didn't stand apart from the others, neither bigger nor richer; at the top of the marble pillars, Cass noted, was carved the symbol of an eye.
She hurried into the corridor, ducking her head just in case.
The voice came from the dark. She stopped and squinted in response, made prudent by previous encounters. The first shadow she'd run across had been Shiva, loving as she'd never been and mocking as she no longer had a right to be, and for minutes Cass had been fooled, until Shiva had turned around and walked away. Her back was pierced and torn with a bleeding wound, made by a hanging hook – as if, in the months since Cass had defeated her mother and left her above a Lazarus Pit, it hadn't been bandaged or healed.
The second shadow had been two, the man she had killed with her bare hands as a child, and Brenda, who in the end knew which tea Cass liked best and whom Cass had left in Bludhaven.
Maybe they were her deaths or the people she failed.
It wasn't the first time Cass saw people who were supposed to be dead, and so she didn't shout or rationalize or do any of the things people who haven't worn a costume in Gotham City might do, when confronted with the sight of ghosts.
She'd been readying herself for the people Deathstroke must have had her kill, or maybe Steph or Batman or even Cain, but this voice belonged to someone who was alive and – unlike the others – might be actually here.
He had called her name. That wasn't a good sign.
She refrained from calling back.
He emerged from the dark, the bright blue V coalescing into sight a few moments before the eye could distinguish the rest of him, black-dressed and sleek, a shadow from the shadows.
When Nightwing was three bounds away from her, he stopped. The spell had left his appearance untouched, the white crescent of his grin cutting across the surrounding darkness.
“How is it hanging?” he asked, friendly.
It was strange that he'd stop so far away from her.
“You know,” Cass said. “Spell.”
“Oh yeah, that.” He laughed a little, like it wasn't a big deal, but he didn't move, not even to gesture around him or to shrug.
Cass's weight shifted, so she was lighter on her feet, ready to spring.
“How come you're here?” she asked, blunt because there was no reason to beat around the bush.
“I was waiting for you,” he said. “You're here to see the Queen, right?” There was a smile accompanying the question, trained. Mechanical.
Cass's heart sank. “You work for her.”
He nodded, enthusiastic. His head seemed to bounce, like a toy's. “I am her gallant knight. Or her jester, it depends. I'm supposed to bring you to her. Babs wouldn't want you to lose your way.”
Hearing the name took Cass aback. No-one had used it; they'd all called her “Majesty” and “the Queen”. It had made it easier to separate Barbara and the spell version of her. It wasn't really Barbara who was doing these things; she was as much of a victim of the spell as Tim or any of the other people that had been changed. Barbara had become the Queen because the spell had been putting people in roles – Cass was the knight, Huntress was the hunter, and Oracle was the one who watched over Gotham from the Clocktower and whom everyone looked up to.
Maybe the others hadn't called her that because they didn't know her real name. When Nightwing spoke, it made Barbara the Queen again. No possession involved.
Nightwing was still grinning – wide, happy, beautiful grin – when he turned around, gesturing for her to follow him. His hand did a little jerk when he did that wasn't quite in tune with the rest of his body. He walked calmly, one foot after the other, and Cass couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him so sedate-looking.
This was the second time Oracle sent someone to bring Cass to her.
Cass still might not know how to read, but she wasn't stupid.
Besides, even if he did lead her to Oracle, Cass would find herself facing both Oracle and Nightwing, and she would rather not.
Two silent hops brought her right behind him, her hand raised for a nerve-pinch, when he dropped abruptly.
Suddenly she was facing the air, while Nightwing whirled, and whirled, and came to a stop at a safe distance – exactly as far as he'd stopped when he'd come to greet her. His smile hadn't slipped one iota, as if it was painted on his face.
“Are we fighting already? Oh, well.”
They leaped at each other, the scarf fluttering behind Cass's back, poor replacement for a cape. Cass took a look at Nightwing's stance, and her eyes widened.
In ordinary circumstances, if he was prepared or if he knew the ground, he could be a challenge to her. Nightwing liked close combat – not a good thing if you wanted to engage Cass – but he was such a fantastic acrobat that it didn't mean an immediate game over, if he'd had the time to lay traps or procure rope to trip her up and restrain her.
His foot made a wide berth where her head had been, and as she regrouped, tried to adjust, he jumped – kicked out in a split that Cass neatly side-stepped.
That was off. Okay, Nightwing had always been dramatic, and he'd always favoured generous, spectacular tricks, but that was just-- Why would he extend the effort to do a split kick against just one opponent? Especially one as dangerous as her?
She kicked out at his knee. She didn't expect it to connect, but she was testing a theory. The spring he made to avoid left her jaw hanging. He landed on too-stiff legs.
Cass knew the human body. She knew how muscles tensed when preparing for a jump; she knew how her family moved. She knew Nightwing couldn't possibly have made such a jump without flexing his knee.
“Come on, Batgirl. I know you aim better than that!”
He was chatting, and that might be enough for someone that didn't know movement the way Cass did, but it did nothing to shatter the strangeness of the scene. It was Nightwing's voice, in a body that looked just like Nightwing's, but that moved like it was controlled by something outside – by someone who knew how Nightwing looked when he fought and how he liked to, but who could only put his body through the moves they wanted from the outside. A puppet, it came to her as Nightwing rose into another of these strangely rigid jumps.
And the person who was controlling him wasn't as good at it as he was. There was nothing Nightwing could do to block the nerve-pinch.
Nightwing fell as though his strings had been cut; she caught him before his head hit the ground, and lowered him gently.
She stood over him a moment, thinking, then sighed, and left him behind.
She didn't much like the idea of leaving him like this, free to come back and help Oracle when he came to, but it'd take him maybe two minutes to slip off the knots if she tied him up. It'd be a waste of her time more than his.
She met no more visions or servants of the Oracle. The corridors had started to change again, wires running down the hallways, dripping down walls, punching through a displaced paving stone in the ceiling. In the low lighting, they looked like the web of a gigantic spider, knotting tighter the deeper Cass went.
Once or twice Cass tapped her commlink, encouraged by the more modern look of her surroundings, but it remained dead.
Finally she came to the room that she'd been looking for. It was a big, windowless room; on the walls, were you might have found the windows, were hanging computer screens, showing different views into Arkham and out in the city. Empty streets in the rich neighbourhoods, shadows of robbers lurking by the walls; the half-lit entrance of Leslie's clinic; Huntress on her rooftop, crossbow aimed at Arkham.
The biggest screen of all, on the left of the Oracle's throne, was as big as the one in the Cave and showed a close-up of her face, composed and regal. The throne and the screen were both facing the door. Waiting for Cass.
“There you are,” she said. Her voice echoed, her mouth and the screen. Under the brocade of her gown, Cass could see that she had her legs crossed. “Now, little knight. What is it you sought audience with me for?”
Cass stepped forward, and, thinking back to the stories she'd heard, knelt. The stone was cold and rough under her bare kneecaps. She'd been more used to the armor.
“Release us,” she said, in a clear voice. “Lift your spell. Release Gotham.”
“Why? I have done nothing but brought truth to the city. My spell only revealed the truth of who you are. Knights into knights, huntsmen into huntsmen; the oblivious, sleeping masses into the sleep of obliviousness; and the powerful, whose every whim rule the city, together in the halls of the castle that matters the most. I have done nothing to you that you didn't already do to yourself.”
“Truth is more complicated than a spell,” Cass pointed. “You took Barbara.”
Barbara's lips curled into a sneer.
“I am the Oracle who has grown tired with seeing things without the power to oppose them. The potential was always mine - hers. I just fulfilled it. I've become the Queen Gotham needed me to be for years.
“I have watched you, little knight.” All around the room, the screens filled with images of Cass's crossing of the city, from the streets to the ballroom, from opening the cage to defeating Nightwing, stolen snippets of each encounter that had guided her along the way. “Every task the city threw at you, you overcame. You are brave, and devoted, and truthful. These qualities make you precious, o kingless knight. Swear allegiance, and you will protect the city forever.”
Cass pinched her lips, and rose. “Never.”
The quirk of Barbara's eyebrows was so familiar for a moment Cass thought the spell was over, and Barbara was returned.
“Is that so? You would turn down my offer, and rebel against me? I remember a time when you weren't so prompt to disrespect. You weren't so proud, back before you could talk, that you would've turned an offer to make you better. Swapped your legs for speech, didn't you, poor little fish out of water. And neither worked out too well for you.”
Cass drew herself to her full height.
“I never said yes,” she said. Insisted. It hadn't been an argument she'd ever had with Barbara, but she'd overheard Batman and Oracle. Barbara thought the exchange was fair, leaving Cass with a brain that could understand words and attempt to speak back; Batman hadn't. When Cass had done everything she could to try and reverse the exchange, Barbara had taken out her fear and fury on Batman, not on her. In the end it hadn't come to a choice between one and the other. But if it had – today still Cass would choose the same.
The Oracle impersonator's expression froze, and Cass smiled at her, wicked.
“Now who's telling the truth,” Cass taunted.
“If it's the truth you want,” the Queen said, in a tone of repressed anger, and there was a shift – Cass blinked – in the Queen's place rose a dragon.
Without meaning to, Cass took a step back.
So this was what the sword had been meant for.
The dragon reared up, taller and taller in the suddenly wider hall, until it towered over Cass. Its green scales glinted, subtle threat of solidity, and it spread wings larger than a car.
Its mouth was open. Before its fiery breath unfurled, Cass leapt out of the way.
She kept on running; there were grimy gargoyles behind which to hide, just the immensity of a hall suddenly thrice as big as a ballroom, and a gigantic flying creature hot on her heels. She zagged in the open, pursued by the searing breath of the dragon; when she was too slow to turn abruptly, she could feel the air, blurred with heat, brushing against her legs, and the fabric of her dress seemed to shrivel.
“What are you waiting for?” Barbara's voice asked in her commlink. “Slay the dragon.”
Behind her, the dragon spoke with Barbara's voice. “Isn't that a knight's role? Slay me, and free your city.”
“OR DIE FEEDING ITS TRUE PROTECTOR,” Barbara's voices yelled. Cass reeled under the echo.
Cass vaulted to the side; the dragon's claws tore through the air where she'd stood. If Barbara really was the dragon, it changed things, didn't it? (Maybe it wasn't so bad she didn't have the sword after all.)
She'd never won a fight or defeated a training simulation by running away. Running up the wall and jumping on the back of her opponent, now...
A dragon was faster than she was, but it was also bigger, big enough that when she missed the neck, she could hold onto its back. The dragon let out a piercing, inhuman howl, and arched in the air. She squeezed her eyes shut and flattened herself so its wings wouldn't knock her down, and, clinging, she crawled until she was close to the dragon's head.
It also brought her closer to the dragon's teeth, she realized, when the dragon's jaw snapped closed after breathing out a plume of reddish smoke.
“Barbara!” she screamed into the wind, hoping Barbara would turn back, hoping she'd overthrow the dragon and the queen and the spell.
Did dragons even have ears?
The reptile's scales ground over her skin, the flimsy silk of her dress doing nothing to shield her, as she leaned closer.
“Oracle,” she called urgently. “Gotham needs you!”
The great beast blinked, an eyelid so dark it looked almost black lowering over an eye green as poisonous flames, green as Barbara's, and Cass had a flash of inspiration, a memory dating back a couple of months, bugging Barbara for a mission when she was supposed to be resting still after twisting her ankle, and Barbara closing her eyes and sighing, slowly, just as the dragon had just done. “Not until you say the magic word.”
“Please,” Cass added, a word she always forgot unless prompted, a word that didn't mean anything, a blank in people's body language.
For a few seconds, nothing happened. Wind whipped against Cass's face, rushing through the eyelets of her mask, cold and sharp. Cass's vision blurred, the muscles in her arms strained as she held on to the dragon's serpentine neck.
She whispered words she wouldn't remember later, memories and pleading, and calls for Barbara to return to Gotham, that the wind of flight snatched and carried off. Words had never been her strength, but now, more than at any other time, Cass threw herself into the effort. Her whole being was reaching toward that one goal, the release of the spell – breaking through to Barbara. Barbara's thing was words, the way fighting was Cass', she had words for promising and words for doing and words for hurting, until they were real things. It was like magic, to Cass, something she couldn't understand, something whose only rules frustrated her, arcane and mystifying as much as rules of actual magic were to Batman.
She spoke to the dragon Barbara's head as though she was weaving a spell, an apprentice sorcerer fumbling her lines.
A jolt cut her off, loosening her hold, and the next flap of wings caught her in the ribs, as the dragon took a sharp U-turn toward the end of the room where the throne still stood, abandoned. Cass grit her teeth and breathed shallowly. It wasn't the pain that took her aback – that she could ignore, didn't compare to a bullet in any way – but the realization that she wasn't making headway. Maybe Batman or Tim would've found the right words to get through to Barbara; Cass wasn't good enough.
Collecting her legs under her, Cass crouched on the back of the dragon, and stood, slowly, like Dick had let her do on a horse when he'd taken her and Tim and Steph to visit his circus when it had come back to Gotham. The dragon undulated in the air, smoother and faster than a horse's gallop, and – Cass leaned back, spread her arms – going lower, closer to the ground...
She jumped as the green dragon dove, pushing on her thighs and extending herself. For a minute she was soaring through the air, the twin of the dragon's acrobatics, confident as if it was her home. She didn't fear the landing; she'd jumped or fallen or plunged higher, and always come through. Her body wasn't so easily injured. It was the teeth of the dragon that might crush through her, or the dragon's flames; and in mid-air, there was nothing Cass could do to avoid them.
The dragon looped back and up, and their eyes met.
“Oracle,” Cass stammered.
The dragon's long neck extended again, and she flew up, passing over the prey falling through the air.
Cass rolled in a series of somersaults, coming to a stop not far from the place where she'd started. Looking up, she found the dragon that was Barbara flying in circles, content for now to ignore her. The screens around the room filmed dramatic shots of the dragon, zooming in to her teeth, her wings, the sinuous line of her reptilian tail. Its, Cass corrected herself. The beast the cameras showed was purely a predator. If she hadn't come closer – much closer than the screens advised – Cass would never have guessed Barbara was the dragon.
She looked around. It might or might not be an illusion, or a spell, or anything like that. But in Cass's experience, it was mostly similar to Barbara's holo training simulations, and if Cass didn't want to wreck the room – and let's be honest, she wasn't sure she could do much against a dragon – the only way to stop it would be to look for--
There were some buttons under one of the screens. Not close enough for Barbara to activate them without moving, but at this stage Cass might as well give it a try.
She reached out for the button; the dragon screeched, metal and fury combined, and plunged toward her. Cass dove to the side as the same time as the dragon smashed through the console, in a ruckus of folding metal, and the blast of an explosion grabbed Cass and pushed her away, blowing a gust of heat on her back and her legs, razing the console behind which she'd intended to hide in a blare of soundless light. The floor was growing further away, burning white under Cass's eyes, and in a terrifying moment Cass realized the world had gone mute, the only sound she could hear the drumming of her own heart.
Then she was dumped on the ground again, as rumbling up the walls announced the room would collapse soon, alarms filling the place, and--
She looked up, and the décor had changed again.
No sign of an explosion or a dragon, and no alarm, though a beep kept on beeping; dim lighting hung over a room like the one Cass had first entered, but instead of a throne and a rich, heavy gown, there was a chair with a helmet and a multitude of wires bursting from the helmet's top like an overabundance of brains, which ran over the ground and were hooked to the various screens. Near her, on the huge screen that had reflected her face earlier, shone Oracle's mask, pale green and eyes open.
Barbara was unconscious under the helmet, her head barely held upright by the helmet itself. The spell had caught her at home, in washed-out sweat-pants and a tank top, her glasses sliding just down the tip of her nose.
Painfully, Cass tried to sit up. She was sore like she'd been riding a dragon or been caught in an explosion.
Barbara's eyelids fluttered.
“Barbara,” Cass tried.
On the screen, Oracle's mask flickered, and blurred, and was replaced with a woman's painted face. She had the same look as Barbara had when they'd spoken through the Clocktower's screen, and she was wearing a crown. The Queen, Cass knew though she'd never seen her proper face.
“What are you doing,” she hissed, her face distorted with anger. “What are you doing, you little--”
In Cass' ear, the commlink scratched up with chopped pieces of Steph's voice, from very far away. “...kay, I'm here... ran the door down so... ceive me?”
Barbara groaned. The Queen gasped. “Why did you wake her up? Go back to sleep, Barbara,” she adressed Barbara directly, too urgent to be an order, “sleep, sleep now, let me do--”
(“...uck,” Steph cursed, far away.) Another beep started ringing.
The Queen's mouth opened again – Cass pushed on her straining muscles, again, so she could throw herself in the Queen's face – there was bound to be an off switch on that screen – but she didn't have the time.
She could only stare as Barbara's eyes snapped open.
“Get out--” Barbara ripped the wires off the helmet “--of my head!”
The Queen screamed, full of pain and fury, as if Barbara had stabbed her with a sword. Barbara was panting like after combat, her cheeks and her eyes blazing.
“You little fool,” the Queen ranted, “you are nothing, nothing without me! I made you Queen! What will you do now? Go back to your Tower and pretend nothing happened – pretend I didn't give you what you wanted?”
Barbara's eyes were hard as stone. “Cass,” she ordered. “Gimme the keyboard.”
It was set right under the Queen's screen. When Cass stood, on sore muscles, and shuffled to the keyboard, the Queen quieted down.
“What are you doing, child?”
“I thought I was a knight,” Cass replied. She held the Queen's gaze. The Queen wasn't any calmer, not truly, said the tension in her neck and in her lips and on her brow; but she put on a better front.
The keyboard was lighter than most any weapon you'd find on the streets. Cass was reminded of a Batarang, as she held it out to Barbara, but this was even more unassuming.
“You've had a taste, now, Oracle!” the Queen called. “Power! Your power, the one you were always too scared to use. Are you going to be content, becoming powerless again?” Cass shifted. “Are you going to cripple yourself willingly – twice a cripple?”
A very thin smile stretched Barbara's lips.
“I think I do all right,” she said mildly. “Cass – keep an eye on the door, would you?”
On the screen, the Queen's eyes flashed. “Do not underestimate me, Barbara. Do you forget I have been you? I know what you're planning to do. And I will do everything in my power – in your power – to prevent it.”
Her voice was weighted with dramatic portent, like she wanted each word to bore into their mind. She wasn't telling the truth. It was a jolt, to realize she had exactly the same ticks, when she was hiding something, as anyone else Cass had come across.
“You're lying,” Cass said, clear and loud. Barbara made a small, amused noise under her breath.
The Queen's eyes narrowed.
“Whatever you're planning – you don't have enough time.”
For the first time, Barbara hesitated – fingers paused in the air just a fraction longer than they usually did before crashing onto the keyboard, typing in a frenzy.
“Oracle?” Cass asked, out of the corner of her mouth.
Barbara shook her head. “Nothing. It'll just be—well, it'd be easier if I had an external drive. As it is I really need you to make sure we're not interrupted.”
External drive... Fumbling, Cass pulled out the USB stick from her bra – she'd almost forgotten it was there – and pressed it into Barbara's hand. “Can this help?”
Barbara's lips fell open. “Yes,” she hissed. “Go—put it into the USB port where you took the keyboard—the slot down--”
“I know,” Cass said, and she was gone.
In two seconds Barbara had selected an option on the right-click menu, scrolled and closed the window.
She looked up straight into the Queen's eyes.
“I just saved you on this USB stick. You're a program, now, Queen. You played with things you didn't understand – you went into my mind to use knowledge that wasn't yours – and now I'm awake, and the knowledge is mine again and mine only. You tried to take a shortcut, because you weren't sure how long you had before Batgirl came and you couldn't defeat her unless you used me. My computers. My knowledge. My self. Oracle is me, and I am Oracle. No-one uses the Oracle.
“You're trapped in there now, aren't you? Where I can study you, and duplicate you, and rewrite you just as you tried to rewrite us. You're a virus. And the truth is – not even a very good one.”
In the silence that followed, as the Queen gaped, Barbara smiled a not-very-nice smile.
“Cass, you can take the USB drive out.”
“I'll remember you,” the Queen rushed to say, as Cass bent down. “I promise you, child: you will regret this.”
Cass shook her head. “You were right the first time: I am the knight. I'll be waiting.”
When Cass took the USB device out, everything flickered as if someone had turned on a light. The room was much smaller than it had been under the Queen's reign, but there were almost as many monitors. There was no window; by the huge monitor-covered desk, the dustbin was overflowing with candy bar wrappings and empty soda cans.
She'd put Oracle's throne in the room where they did surveillance, Cass realized. Like Oracle herself would have. She'd--she'd really dug up what she needed in Oracle's mind, hadn't she?
Cass stood up, and turned, the familiar weight of her cape enveloping her like an embrace. The chair Barbara was in had turned back into her wheelchair; Barbara sighed and patted her wheel. “Well, at least that's that. Now we only have to make it back outside.”
“The Arkham people were out,” Cass reminded her.
Barbara grimaced. “True. Let's see if that wasn't fixed when the spell disappeared,” she said, and wheeled herself up to the keyboard.
“--ing to see if there's any doctor or guard that could--” the earpiece started again.
Cass jumped. “Steph?”
“Aah—yay you're back! Oh my god, tell me you're just back and you haven't been laughing your head off cause I'm babbling again.”
“That wouldn't be nice.”
“Yeah, because that stops you from teasing me.”
“Not on missions,” Cass protested.
“Everything looks back to normal here. You defeated the Queen, right? So I'm thinking, mission accomplished. I'm kinda jealous, actually.”
“Everyone's locked in their cells,” Barbara called. “I guess the spell snapped everything back into place, like elastic. Nightwing's already heading out, we should do the same.”
“We're coming out,” Cass informed Steph. “I'm with Oracle. We can take the car to go back?”
Barbara's eyes snapped to Cass, shocked, as Steph laughed feebly.
“The car?” Barbara repeated. “The car? Someone took—who are you talking to?”
“Funny you should mention that...” Steph trailed off.
“Gimme that earpiece,” Barbara demanded when Cass was silent a second too long, making a grabbing motion with her hand. Cass could've dashed away, but it would have only delayed the inevitable. She handed the earpiece over, and Barbara jammed it into her own ear. “What—Spoiler.” There were layers of meaning in the way she said the name. “What is it I hear about a car?”
On the other end, Steph must be defending herself. Barbara was silent a moment, then started again, as she wheeled herself toward the door.
Cass stopped paying attention to the argument. Following Barbara through the hallways, she opened her hand.
The plastic body of the small USB drive shone, cupped in the palm of her hand.