The Second Night
The Terror Rises
As night fell, the city seemed to hold its breath. Or perhaps that was just Wayne. There would be more deaths, that he felt sure of. It was only a question of who, and of what those deaths would reveal.
It was not long before his fears were confirmed.
The sun hadn't even fully set when news came in that a massive fire had broken out at a tenement house in the lower east side. In the Batcave, Batman at once punched the address into the computer. Just as he had suspected: the building had been used in the past as a hideout by Garfield Lynns, AKA the Firefly.
He wouldn't bother going to the scene himself. There was surely nothing that could be done for Lynns now. Instead he listened to the news flooding in, as well as the police banner, gathering all the information he could.
For once they told much the same story. An hour or so before the blaze, a woman claiming to be from the city had appeared at the building, telling everyone that there was a gas leak and they needed to evacuate. Witnesses described her as tall, dark-haired, and very good-looking, but the public works office denied having sent anyone to the building, or that any such woman worked for them.
The Riddler had been correct. Not that Batman had really doubted him. Last night had only been the beginning. But tonight, he vowed, would be the end.
Batman pulled up a list of past hideouts and bases of operation used by the city's major criminals. He excluded the ones currently incarcerated in Arkham.
The closest to the fire was the old Gibson Courthouse. It had long since ceased to function and had, in fact, been condemned for years. The roof sagged, the windows were all boarded up, and the floor was warped and unstable. But bureaucratic red tape had thus far held up the demolition, supplemented by the 'contributions' of the many criminals who found the place a useful hideout. Lately, however, it had been more or less taken over by Harvey Dent, better known as Two-Face. The insane former district attorney had been doing a stint in Arkham, but had been released just last week.
It was time to pay him a visit.
Batman entered through the cupola on the roof, moving with such skill that he didn't even disturb the real bats that were resting there before setting off on their night hunt. He descended silently through the attic, to the rafters that stood exposed from the once-elegant arched ceiling above the main courtroom like the bare bones in a half-rotted corpse. In the chamber below, Two-Face – his left side a mass of burns – was striding up and down before the bench, declaiming in a loud voice as though arguing a trial, despite the fact that he was alone in the cobweb-strewn courtroom.
"This is an opportunity," he was saying. "The Penguin is dead, and his property rightly devolves on next of kin. Having no rightful heirs, it falls on us, the people of Gotham. The time to act is now!"
He turned and presented the burned, charred side of his face to the bench.
"Penguin isn't enough. We need to take the chance to wipe out all who oppose us! Joker, Ivy, Riddler, and of course the Bat. But first we get Catwoman! The one who stole the public funds and led the Bat right to us last time!"
"I agree, justice must be served," Dent said, turning his other side and gesturing to the great, cracked stone statue of justice that stood behind the judge's bench. "But there will be time to deal with her once the matter at hand is settled. With the Penguin's territory in our control, the ends of justice will be more easily served."
"Gotta flip for it," said his burned half. "Let the coin decide: heads the bird's land, tails the cat's head!"
He cast the coin spinning into the air. But it never landed. Batman appeared suddenly and silently at his side and caught it out of the air.
"You've got bigger problems, Harvey."
"Batman!" Two-Face snarled. "Give me back my coin!"
"Once you've answered a few questions," Batman replied.
"I've got nothing to say to you, Bats! I'm a free man now! Cleared for release! Completely cured."
"How much did you have to pay for that diagnosis, Dent?"
Two-Face spat a curse at him and Batman let the subject drop. He wasn't here about Harvey Dent's crimes. At least, he didn't think so.
"Penguin, Zaasz, Croc, and Clayface were murdered last night," he said. "Now Firefly's been killed. Who do you know would have a grudge against that group?"
"Besides you, do you mean?" Two-Face sneered.
"For the sake of argument."
"Hrr…give me back my coin! I gotta see if you get an answer."
"When you've answered, you get the coin back," said Batman.
Dent growled, but submitted.
"I don't know much about it, but there's a rumor Penguin was gearing up for war with that creep Hugo Strange. Strange didn't like going through the bird for his equipment, see, and he'd been making other arrangements of his own. Last I heard, Penguin was looking to get a crew together to take him out for good. I know for a fact that Firefly and Croc were set to be on it."
Hugo Strange...yes, he might have the brains and, what was more, the mindset to pull this sort of thing off.
"Where is he?"
"How do you expect me to know?" Dent demanded.
Batman held up the coin.
"I can always throw this down a sewer, you know."
"Last I heard, he's got a lab set up in the old observatory, but he's probably not there anymore!" Dent snapped. "That's all I've got, now give it back!"
Batman flicked the coin at him and Two-Face caught it greedily.
"Once this is wrapped up, Dent, I'm coming for you," Batman warned.
"Yeah? We'll look forward to it."
"Watch your back. If it's not Strange, then someone's targeting thugs like you."
"Don't you worry about me: worry about your feline friend. When we get finished with her, there won't be enough to fill a liter box!"
Batman restrained the urge to break Dent's jaw. He spared him a contemptuous look, then grappled back out of the courthouse. There was no time for personal anger; he needed to talk with Hugo Strange.
But no sooner had he ascended to the attic when a terrible scream echoed up from below, before being cut short by a sick, wet crack.
Batman whipped around and dropped back down through the ceiling, landing in the middle of the courtroom, scanning for threats even as he fell.
But there was no one. He landed alone in the middle of the room just as Two-Face's coin rolled to a stop at his feet and landed face-down.
Harvey Dent lay in a spreading pool of blood, his head split down the middle by the rusting metal sword that, moments before, had stood in the hand of the statue of justice. Someone had taken it down and cleaved it right through his skull and deep into his chest. As he looked at the statue, Batman saw that the scales of justice had been tilted sharply to one side.
He took in the sight in an instant, took in the eerie, supernatural implications, and then rushed to the back, the door to the judge's chambers. Light footsteps could be faintly heard, running down the passage.
He reached the door as the footsteps ran into the judge's chambers, then heard the splintering of wood as the boards covering the window broke with the impact of someone crashing through. Batman was seconds behind his quarry, so that the bits of splintered board hadn't even ceased falling by the time he plunged through and out into the night.
The alley was deserted. Batman listened, looked up at the tottering walls, looked down for some egress into the sewers, examined the few securely-locked doors along the alley, but there was no sign of the killer. It was as if he had vanished into the shadows.
Cold fingers crept down Batman's spine. He'd encountered the paranormal before, but this seemed in a different field of its own. Ghosts didn't split a man's skull or crash through wooden boards. Yet flesh and blood didn't vanish into thin air.
He touched his radio.
"Alfred. Harvey Dent is dead."
There was a pause.
"God rest his soul, the poor man," he answered.
"The killer got away. I was right behind him, but he disappeared."
"It was uncanny, Alfred. I was only out of the room for a moment, and someone came in, took a heavy sword off of the statue, split Dent's skull, and fled, all before he could stop them and before I could get there."
"Superhuman then, sir?"
"Maybe. But there's something about these killings...a kind of style..."
He considered, then shook his head.
"I have to see Professor Strange," he said. "Before he died, Dent suggested that Strange had a grudge against the Penguin. And he just might have the resources to pull off something like this."
"Do watch your step, sir. It is getting dangerous out there."
Batman grappled up to the rooftops, but as he landed he noticed something: a lithe figure in black slinking out of sight behind an air vent.
She poked her head cautiously into view.
"Oh, it's you," she said.
"Did you see anyone go by in the alley a few moments ago? Or come up this way?"
She shook her head. "I just got here." Then she glanced past him at the courthouse.
"Uh...do I take it the district attorney's office is vacant?"
Batman nodded. She whistled.
"That makes it, what, six?"
Again he nodded, watching her suspiciously.
"What are you doing here, Selina?"
"Staying on the move," she said. "If the Terror is taking out crooks, I don't want to make it easy for him."
"That's what people are calling whoever's doing this. Gordon can try to keep it out of the papers as much as he likes, but we low-lives have our own ways of spreading news. Penguin, Zaasz, Croc, Clayface, Firefly, now Two-Face. Doesn't take a genius to see the pattern. I don't think any of us bad guys will sleep well until he's locked up."
Batman couldn't say he'd be sorry for that. It was what he had been trying to instill in the criminal element for years. But this kind of thing, murder, that was unacceptable.
A thought occurred to him, and his expression hardened further.
"So, you were the one who tipped me off to Two-Face's plan last year?"
A cocky smile tugged at Catwoman's lips.
"Surprise!" she said.
"He was pretty upset about it."
"No, really?" she said. "I thought he'd see the humor in it."
"You also swiped Freeze's diamond last month. You're making some dangerous enemies, Selina."
"I'm a dangerous enemy," she answered. Then her smile twisted a little. "Besides, Two-Face and Penguin don't look too scary anymore, do they?"
"Did Penguin have anything against you?" he demanded sharply.
"Most people do."
"This is serious, Selina," he snapped. "Did he have a grudge against you?"
"So I took a tour of his safe," she said with a shrug of her elegant shoulders. "So what? He'd stolen it all in the first place. He didn't need to sic Croc on me."
"I think he'd been wanting a bite for a while," she said carelessly, stretching herself so as to best show off her figure, which would have caused the average swimsuit model to question her vocation. "But that lug doesn't scare me. Or didn't, I should say."
"What about Clayface?"
She gave him an almost insulted look.
"Do you think I'm stupid?" she said. "I've got nine lives, but I'd've heckled the Joker before I picked a fight with that walking litter box. First rule of surviving is to see there are some fights you just can't win."
"Someone did though," said Batman.
"Well, you don't think I buried that monster, do you? Or took a few bites out of Croc?" She pulled back her lips to show her small, white, even teeth.
Batman considered. Selina didn't have much in the way of scruples. She'd kill in self-defense without hesitation, and she'd gladly leave an enemy to die if she had the chance. But he couldn't see her doing cold-blooded, theatrical murders like this. It wasn't in her character. She was a survivor, not a killer.
Besides, she was right; she wouldn't have been capable of inflicting those bites on Killer Croc, or burying Clayface alive in cement, or even pinning the Penguin to the wall with his umbrella. That was a completely different level of power.
"No," he admitted. "But someone did. You'd better watch your back."
"Always," she answered, then, turning and glancing back over her shoulder, added with cheeky grin. "Almost as intently as you do."
Batman deepened his scowl to hide the smile that tugged at his lips. But his amusement quickly faded as Selina departed and he turned his mind back to the case. It was time to visit Hugo Strange.
The observatory on Dunwich Hill was one of the great tourist attractions of Gotham. Or it had been until a few months ago, when Scarecrow had sought to use it to cast a fear cloud over the entire city. Batman and Robin had successfully stopped him, and Scarecrow was safe in Arkham, but the observatory had still not been fully repaired or opened to the public. It seemed that Professor Strange had taken advantage of this fact to appropriate it as a suitably isolated location for his twisted experiments.
He was at work tonight. As Batman crept inside the great double-dome through the opening from which the telescope had once projected, he saw flashes of electricity flickering in the chamber below. Some poor soul was being tortured, or worse.
Holding back at times like this was the hardest part of his crusade. But to be reckless would only get himself and others killed.
Batman peered around the edge of the inner dome. Despite Dent's assertion, Strange clearly hadn't vacated the hideout. The room below was filled with equipment: test tubes, beakers, large electric machines, and so on, all part of Strange's sick obsessions.
But as he looked, Batman noticed something else. Iron cages lined one wall. Three stood open and empty, two contained the massive forms of men mutated by Strange's experiments. But both of these were clearly dead, their backs broken.
He dropped silently down into the lab. There was not a sound or motion in response. The source of the flashes of electricity was hidden from view by a bank of computers. Cautiously, he peered around the corner.
There was a man strapped to the operating table: a large, muscular man with a bald head, wearing reflective sunglasses to hide his eyes. The man was Professor Hugo Strange, twitching and jerking under the shocks. Two electrodes were embedded in his skull, sparking as they shot electricity through his brain.
Batman hurriedly threw the switch on the side of the machine to turn the power off. Strange twitched a moment or two longer and then lay still. Batman pulled the electrodes free from Strange's skull and found that their ends were black and carbonized. Already certain of the truth, but feeling compelled to confirm it, he lifted the reflective sunglasses from Strange's face.
Two smoking, empty holes looked back at him. Hugo Strange's eyes had burst from the electricity coursing through his brain, which must now be cooked to a cinder.
Again, there was that sense of poetical fitness: Strange done in by the same means he had visited upon so many others, the brain he so prized burned away to nothing.
And again the ominous sense of unreality. Hugo Strange had been a powerful man, and as cunning as Batman himself. Yet someone had overpowered him to the point of strapping him to his own lab equipment and frying his brain.
Batman turned his attention to the cages. The three empty ones had definite signs of recent occupation. Then whoever had killed Strange had also released those prisoners of his who had not yet been subjected to his experiments and eliminated those who had. Thus another pattern was emerging: as with the death of Firefly, the Terror had taken steps to protect the innocent. Strange had been his only target, and he'd released his victims.
Batman left the observatory and examined the road leading back down into the city. It was just possible that whoever had been imprisoned might be able to tell them something...if he could find them.
But though the road had hardly been used in months, it was still a paved road, and it retained no signs, at least none visible to Batman. He soon gave up the search, but resolved to tell Gordon about it and to try to find those three men.
Meanwhile, midnight arrived and in the distance the Gotham clock tower sounded the hour….
Or did it?
Batman paused, listening. The first blow had been noticeably muffled. The second less so. Only from the third stroke onward was the familiar clear tolling of the bell to be heard.
Batman jumped into the Batmobile and sped in the direction of the clock tower. He had a grim notion that he could guess what he would find when he got there.
Ascending the shadowy depths of the tower to the space immediately behind the clock, beneath the endlessly turning mechanism overhead, Batman approached the great bell. He'd been there many times over the years for one reason or another, and the bell was famous throughout Gotham.
Tonight it had a grotesque new ornament.
A man's body was bound tight to the side of the bell with thick wire. His brown suit was saturated with blood, which dripped down his clothes to pool beneath his feet. And where the man's head should have been was now nothing but a red paste on the surface of the bell and on the striker directly across from it.
"...And so ends the Clock King."
Batman whipped around, but there was no one to be seen.
"Nygma. What are you doing here?"
"Once again, I am not here, Batman. I am still safe and sound in my comfortable cell in Arkham, serving my debt to society. I just dropped in to see the show, and to wonder how many more criminals you will let die before you get wise?"
"If you knew what was going to happen to Fugate, why didn't you do something about it?"
"I'm not supposed to be a hero," Riddler answered. "And I thought any fool might be able to guess what would happen to the Clock King, given how the game is shaping up."
"This is not a game, Nygma!" Batman answered. "People's lives are at stake."
"I know, Batman, which is what makes it so interesting: a perfectly simple puzzle for you to solve, and the longer you take, the more people will die. Who knows? Sooner or later, it might actually reach someone who you'd rather remain alive. What is Selina up to these days? I still owe her for that subway job."
"I'm warning you, Nygma…."
"Oh, well, if you really concede that you can't figure it out, I'll give you another hint:
The world is I, and I the world
All life held tight in velvet furled.
"Good luck! Oh, and just a thought, whatever else happens, I wouldn't expect Mr. Freeze to survive the night."
But the Riddler had nothing more to say.
Batman stood awhile in the tower of death, pondering Nygma's words. He thought he saw the answer to both riddles, but they didn't seem to add up.
Then, from beneath the ever-advancing clock, he saw something he'd been expecting for a while: the Bat Signal blazing against the night sky.
Gordon was pacing the roof is obvious agitation.
"There you are," he said shortly as Batman landed before him. "I'm only going to ask this once: are you the one behind this?"
"You should know me better by now."
"I thought I did. But when your enemies start turning up dead, and you keep showing up at the scene of the crime, I've got to be able to explain that."
"I'm not an executioner, and especially not this kind. I'm trying to find out who is."
Gordon sighed as though a weight on his shoulders had just been eased a little.
"The mayor's on me to take you in. You don't find some answers soon, I won't be able to hold him back."
"I take it Lynns was in that tenement?"
"Won't know until we get the dental records back, but I'd lay good money on it being so. Only body in the fire, by the way. But that's not all; we found Julian Gregory Day dead in a hotel room earlier tonight. Someone had stabbed him through the skull."
"Hotel room?" Batman asked. "Room 1582 of the Gregorian hotel?"
"Now, how the hell did you know that?"
"1582 was the year we switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In the process, ten days were lost from the month of October. I'm guessing Calendar Man was stabbed through the October tattoo on his head."
"In any case, that brings the death toll up to seven."
"Nine," Batman corrected. "Clock King died at midnight in the Gotham clock tower, and Hugo Strange is in his laboratory in the observatory with a brain fried to ash. There are also two of his experiments dead in their cells, though personally, I would blame Strange for those."
"Look, I can't say I'm sorry about any of these freaks. Well, except Dent. I'd always held out hope he'd come back. But we can't let some lunatic run around butchering people like this!"
"I don't mean to let him," said Batman. "There were three other men in Strange's laboratory. Whoever killed him set them free. If you can find them, they may be able to help us."
"Any idea how to find them?"
"They're likely to be homeless, but I don't think they'll keep quiet. Keep an ear out for any rumors and watch the shelters and the hospitals."
"Little enough to go on."
"I'm working on it. Did you get anything from Croc's body?"
"Just what anyone could have told you; something took a lot of bites out of him. Probably more than one something. Looks like he ran into a bunch of sharks."
Somehow, that didn't sound right to Batman. It didn't fit with Jones's character to die like that.
That was also the trouble with all his suspects; they just didn't fit.
The Riddler and Batman had not been the only ones to realize the significance of the clock tower and the muffled strokes. Catwoman had investigated as well and heard the whole conversation, hidden among the turning gears overhead. She'd found herself amply rewarded by hearing the Riddler's confidence that Batman cared so much whether she lived or died. Her pleasure at this was so great that she surprised herself.
Get a grip on yourself, Selina.
But the Riddler's assurance that Mr. Freeze wouldn't survive the night gave her pause. Selina was no friend of Victor Fries: in fact, he'd promised to pay her out for swiping a perfectly cut diamond he had meant to use in a super-powered freeze gun he had been making. But still, she was curious: was the Riddler right? And if so, mightn't she be able to find out who the Terror was if she got there first?
It also occurred to her that if she could save his life, Freeze might see his way to not killing her. She really liked to keep the number of active death threats against herself to single digits where possible.
One way or another, Catwoman knew mostly where the major rogues of Gotham spent their time. It paid to know where to avoid (and where the best loot might be found after someone had pulled off a particularly good score). At the moment, Mr. Freeze operated out of the basement of an old machine shop on the west side, down by the river.
If she'd been in any doubt that she was in the right place, the arctic atmosphere that met her as soon as she slipped inside confirmed it. Freeze could only survive in sub-freezing temperatures, and he kept his hideouts well below that.
Catwoman shivered as she made her way across the dim, empty space toward the entrance to the basement. Every step seemed to be accompanied by a corresponding drop in the thermometer. And it only got worse as she approached the steps. She reflected that, for all its many, many benefits, skin-tight leather really didn't do much to keep out the cold.
At the top of the steps leading down to the basement she paused, hugging herself tightly. Icy air breathed out at her from below, as though the steps led into the ninth circle of Hell (and how had she remembered that reference?). Beneath her feet, the basement was a silent bluish shadow.
"Victor?" she called. "It's me, Selina. I just want to talk."
"I-I'm here to help. Honestly," she went on, shivering. "I m-mean, why else would I b-be here, right?"
"I hope you're not s-still sore about that d-diamond. I'll get you another one! Just d-don't ice me."
Cautiously, both for fear of traps and fear of slipping on the icy steps, she descended underground. At the foot of the stairs her sharp eyes caught sight of what certainly was a trap: a laser trip-wire, one that no-doubt would spring something particularly nasty on her if she broke the beam. She smiled a little in satisfaction at having spotted it, then cartwheeled nimbly over the beam. Landing lightly and sure-footed upon the icy floor, she pulled her night vision goggles down over her eyes and looked around Freeze's shadowy laboratory.
She didn't know what most of the equipment was or did, nor did she care. The important thing, to her mind, was that it rendered the place a veritable maze, one in which Victor Fries might be lurking around any corner with his gun, ready to turn her into a cat-sical.
And I had to go announce I was coming, she thought. Brilliant move, Selina.
Shivering violently and hugging herself tight in an effort to hold what little warmth she could, she crept amid the equipment, searching for Freeze. She didn't dare call out again. For one thing, she didn't want to make it easier for him to ambush her. For another, something about the silence seemed to dislike being broken.
Silence...there was something wrong about that, wasn't there? It was too quiet. Much too quiet. Every other time Catwoman had been in Freeze's lair, there had been the constant hum of the powerful refrigeration units sucking the heat out of the room. Now there was no sound at all.
His air conditioning was off.
Did that maybe mean that Freeze had moved to another lair after all?
As she contemplated the question, something crunched under her boot. Looking down, Catwoman saw thousands of shards of ice littering the floor, cast out from a pile near the middle of the chamber. Heart hammering, but drawn by irresistible curiosity, she bent down and picked up one of the larger pieces.
With a gasp she dropped it and stepped back, bumping against the equipment and setting it rattling. Her skin crawled over her jangling nerves.
The piece of ice she had picked up was an entire frozen finger, still inside its thick gloved encasement. This pile of ice shards on the ground were all that was left of Victor Fries.
Catwoman's eyes darted about the chamber. The Terror had been here, and not long before, since the room hadn't had time to warm up. Was it possibly still here? Did it want her as well?
More than likely.
Curiosity more than satisfied, Catwoman decided it was well past time to be leaving. But as she turned to retrace her steps, something lying on the floor a few feet from the pile of ice caught her eye. It was Freeze's gun, broken in half, its super-cool liquid spilling out in a pool upon the floor and radiating a cold so intense that it was painful to even get close to it. The Terror, it seemed, had first frozen and shattered Freeze with his own gun, then broken it in two so that no one could ever use it again.
She didn't wait around to puzzle it out. Selina Kyle fairly ran out of Victor Fries's laboratory and didn't stop running until she reached the rooftops of Gotham. But though she was soon warm again, it was a long time before she stopped shivering.
Batman raced through the streets, trying to make sense of the case.
At present he had no leads, except for the Riddler's cryptic words and a handful of strange, seemingly contradictory circumstances. The brutal murders, yet each thematically tied to its victim in an artistic manner. The apparent ability of the Terror to go wherever he liked and disappear at will. His unflinching savagery towards his victims, yet willingness to take steps to avoid collateral damage.
Mixed into this were two other, possibly related developments: the Riddler's newfound use of drone technology to apparently see and hear everything in the city from the safety of Arkham. Perhaps he could do more than just listen and watch?
And then there was the Joker; still out there, but silent and unseen since last night. Was it possible that he was involved somehow?
Another signal painted the sky. For a moment, Batman feared Gordon already signaling him to report another murder. Then he saw that it was in fact the Joker's new parody; apparently, he had set up a spare. He turned the car in the direction of the signal.
This one had been set up on the rooftop of a high rise across the street from Wayne Tower. Batman almost wondered at the Joker's brazenness in doing something so public in such a well-patrolled part of the city. But he had long since ceased being surprised by the clown's antics. However horrible, however reckless, however foolish or cunning, it was only to be expected.
He landed on the rooftop, scanning for threats, but there was no one here. No one but a plush clown doll laying propped up in front of the spotlight.
"There he is!" said the Joker's voice emanating from the clown, sounding tinny and distorted. "How're you feeling Bats? I know I always get a little pooped out at this stage in a killing spree."
"Where are you?"
"Oh, wouldn't you like to know?" the Joker taunted. "Maybe I'm in the commissioner's office, kicking back with my feet on his desk and a big cigar in my mouth! Or maybe I'm in Gotham orphanage, giving a show to all the little kiddies. Or maybe I'm...right behind you!"
Batman whipped around, but he was alone.
"Ha ha! Made you look!"
"What's your game, Joker?"
"Game? Oh, I'm just enjoying the show: watching you finally go completely bonkers is something to behold."
"You can't seriously think that I'm behind this."
"I don't think seriously about anything," said the Joker with a laugh. "But I happen to know that plenty of people already do."
Batman was about to retort when a scream from behind him, distant but growing rapidly louder distracted him. He whipped back around, and saw a figure tumbling through the air down the front of Wayne Tower. He reached for his grapple, but there was no time. Before he'd even begun to draw, the man landed on the pavement and seemed to burst like a water balloon.
"Whoops!" said the Joker's voice. "There goes another one! Who was it this time, Bats?"
A wave of screams and cries of horror rose up from the street, but Batman quickly turned his eyes from the unknown body to Wayne Tower itself, scanning its roof, its well-known ledges….
He whipped a set of small, but powerful binoculars to his eyes as fast as possible, but even so it was only just able to give him a faint glimpse of a figure running along the balcony: the one directly above the enormous illuminated 'W'. That ledge was part of the executive lounge, reserved for the most senior members of the company.
As for the figure, all he could discern was that it seemed to be dressed all in black. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw the flicker of a cape as it disappeared around the corner and out of sight.
Suddenly, the Joker's voice boomed from loudspeakers installed along the side of Wayne Tower and echoed through the streets.
"Come all, come see what Batman has done! He's killing the baddies one by one! Is it justice or vengeance, or is it just fun?! Best watch your step, or your time will come! AH HA HA HA HA!"
The people were staring up at him. Fury burned inside Batman like a nuclear reactor: intense, but controlled. Batarangs flashed from his hand, hitting the speakers and silencing them in rapid succession. Then he ripped the wires out of the hateful spotlight, picked up the stuffed clown, and ground it under his boot, crushing the machinery inside.
There was no reason to stay any longer, and every reason to keep going. He turned his back on Wayne Tower and the unknown man on the street and grappled to another building. He needed to get out of sight, especially if the police were to take the Joker's accusations seriously. And after what Gordon had said, it was only too likely they would.
But even so he paused a mere block away. He'd seem something; the faintest hint of movement, as of a dark figure vanishing out of sight on a rooftop. He was on the verge of pursuing the figure when he became aware that someone else was coming up from behind. He turned around sharply as Catwoman landed gracefully behind him. One glance at her face, even in her mask, told him that something had happened.
"Who was that back at Wayne Tower?" she demanded.
"I don't know," he said. "I didn't kill him."
"Of course you didn't," she said impatiently. "You don't do that sort of thing. You're ridiculously noble that way."
She seemed to want to say something more, but checked herself and changed the subject.
"I've been trying to find you to tell you: the Riddler was right. Fries is dead. Someone took him out, then smashed his gun. You should tell the cops they'd better get there quick if they want to pick him up with a broom instead of a mop."
Batman took a moment to consider the implications of her words.
"What made the Riddler so sure?"
"I guess because we're all on the chopping block, aren't we?" she answered.
"But then why bring up Fries specifically?"
"Probably because the self-impressed bastard's the one behind it all. Thinks it'll make a good puzzle and clear out the competition at the same time."
He considered, but shook his head.
"No," he said. "I don't think so. They're too...direct for him. He would have made all the deaths more intricate: not simply cut Zaasz's throat or cleave Dent's head. But he knows more than he's letting on."
"You think it's the Joker then?"
"Maybe. He's involved somehow, but this is all not like him. It's too...precise."
"I know what you mean. But if maybe he's trying to frame you…."
She trailed off. That was indeed a possibility, and Joker's recent actions would seem to lend weight to the idea. Only Batman couldn't see how.
"Unless he's just taking advantage of someone else's work," he said. "I wouldn't put that past him."
He thought of something else and frowned at her.
"How did you know what Riddler said in the clock tower?"
"Curiosity," she answered. "Cat and woman, after all. I could hear the clock just as well as you could, and came to investigate. You can say what you like, I still think the Riddler is behind the Terror, and I'm keeping my eyes out for him. He's not gonna catch this cat napping."
She turned to go.
"Wait, Selina," Batman said. "You knew where to find Freeze: what about the others?"
She paused, cocking her head as she studied him.
"What, are you going to go try to save them?"
"If I can."
"Of course you are. Okay, but if anyone asks, you didn't hear this from me. Bane's operating out of a warehouse down by the river, on Insmot Street, and Poison Ivy's set up in the old Gotham zoo: the one they keep talking about paving over. Those are the only still-living ones I know."
She hesitated, looking at him with a curious intensity that was unlike her.
"Just...be careful, will you?" she said. "Whoever he is, this guy's probably not going to take kindly to someone getting in his way."
"The thought has occurred to me," he answered.
Bane's warehouse was dark when Batman arrived: a silent, black hulk amidst the bristling city lights, as though a hill had transplanted itself from the countryside and staked a belligerent claim amidst the towers of Gotham. He entered through the skylights, taking great care to check for booby traps. Bane was far too cunning to leave anything to chance, and he did not disappoint. Two carefully snipped wires later, Batman descended into the darkness.
A single glance showed him that any warning he might give had come too late. The warehouse was an absolute shambles. Crates and shelves lay smashed to pieces. Rifles and ammunition, the remnants of Bane's gun-running operation, were scattered about, several of them bent and broken with the fury of the battle. The Terror had not caught Bane unawares, it seemed.
Along with the wreckage, there were bodies: Bane's crew. They lay scattered about, most stabbed or with broken necks, but some looked splattered as if they had been struck with tremendous blunt force.
Though he had come to respect that the Terror wielded great power, Batman was nevertheless stunned by the carnage. This monstrosity, whatever it was, had laid waste to the entire gang.
For a brief moment, Batman wondered whether Bane himself, clever and skilled as he was, might possibly have escaped the fate of his men. But then he found him.
The big man lay on his side. Luminous green Venom leaked out of the broken tubes that had formerly fed the chemical into his muscles. His back was bent and twisted at a sharp, unnatural angle: broken in much the same way that Bane had once broken Batman's own spine, only this was far more severe.
But Bane was not yet dead. Batman could still hear his labored breathing.
Cautiously, he approached his fallen foe. Bane's eyes suddenly opened and fixed on him.
"Bat...man…" he gasped.
"Bane. Who did this to you?"
Bane blinked. He seemed not to understand the question.
"Who did this?" Batman repeated.
"Pesadilla," Bane gasped. "Impossible…"
"Who, Bane? Give me a name!"
Batman tried to process this.
"You did this? You did this to yourself?"
But Bane was fading fast. His final words came in one last, strangled breath.
His eyes rolled up into his head and Bane breathed no more.
Batman stood a moment over his fallen enemy. Bane, he felt, deserved better than this. He was a monster, but a monster who commanded respect.
"It was I. Myself."
An idea was growing in Batman's mind. A fantastic, but not unthinkable idea. One that might, just possibly, explain everything. Or nearly everything.
In any case, there was nothing he could do to help Bane now. He would only have to hope that he was in time to warn Poison Ivy.
Or do I hope? He asked himself as he left the warehouse and drove in the direction of the old zoo. Would I rather be too late?
No. Regardless of their crimes, this sort of cruel, cold-blooded execution was unacceptable. They deserved to be treated like human beings, whatever they had done.
Batman pressed the accelerator, driving faster than he knew would be prudent. He would not allow himself to make excuses that delayed his arrival. He would not play along with the Terror.
As he drove, he tuned into the police band frequency once again. He dreaded hearing of more deaths, but he needed to stay abreast of the situation as it developed.
There was a few minutes of irrelevant chatter, ordinary crimes, false alarms, and the rest of the usual business. Then:
"Be advised, we have a preliminary identity on the jumper who fell from Wayne Tower tonight. The man has been identified as Bruce Wayne."
For a moment, Batman stared at the council in a kind of existential confusion, spurned on by the supernatural dread that was rapidly coming to be associated with the Terror case. But then his rational mind caught up to him.
His old childhood friend, always envious, always hateful, always wanting what he, Bruce, had, to the point that he had recently performed plastic surgery on himself to exactly resemble him. The man now called Hush. So he had become a victim of the Terror as well.
Hush had deserved death, there was no doubt about that, yet it still felt odd that someone he had known for so long and – he'd once thought – so intimately had met such a gruesome end.
It also made him wonder: had the Terror known he was killing Hush? Or had he meant to strike at Bruce Wayne?
Like most of Gotham, the old zoo had seen a good deal of carnage over the years. Penguin had once coopted the aviary into a gauntlet of death. Killer Croc had preyed upon visitors to the reptile house, and Dr. Kirk Langstrom, sometimes the Man-Bat, had formerly worked here (before leaving Gotham to seek treatment for his strange condition). Finally, an attack by Poison Ivy last year had left the place too contaminated to rebuild upon, and the zoo moved to greener pastures outside the city limits. It seemed that, upon her most recent escape from Arkham, Ivy had returned to reclaim her conquered territory.
The air was thick with the sickly smell of poisonous plants. As a precaution, Batman clapped his gas mask on over his nose and mouth before venturing into the grounds.
There were no longer any electric lights lining the paths, and the whole zoo was shrouded in shadow, save for the silvery moonlight. The pens in which the exhibits had once roamed were now deserted of animal life and overgrown with weeds and thistles. Several of the fences were in bad repair and had collapsed or else been knocked down. It was all eerily quiet: so much so that Batman feared that he once again had come too late. He quickened his pace.
As he penetrated deeper into the complex, the air grew denser and more humid. Mist began to obscure his vision, and he could almost smell the sickly sweet toxins even through the mask.
He arrived before a larger paddock, once the home of the tiger exhibit. This one was even more overgrown than the others, a veritable jungle, but with weeds and other plants not native to Gotham. The air within was thick with vapor, and the temperature here was far warmer than the rest of the city.
"Ivy!" he called into the mist. "I've come to warn you.…"
Driven by urgency, Batman was not as vigilant as he meant to be. As he approached the fence he felt something touch his ankle. He reacted an instant too late. With a jerk, his foot was pulled out of from under him, thin tendrils swiftly coiling around his legs as he dangled upside-down.
A woman emerged from the mists on the other side of the fence: a woman of dazzling, almost inhuman beauty, her form perfect, her hair crimson, her face as seductive as sin itself. It was hard to tell whether she was wearing any clothes, or whether she were simply bound about in living plants.
Her full, red lips were pulled back from her perfect teeth in a snarl of rage.
"Batman!" Ivy exclaimed. "It was you! I knew it was you! You murderer!"
"Pamela, listen to me," he said. "I'm not behind these killings…."
"You think I care about some filthy animals? You killed my babies! My poor children!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Salt!" she exclaimed, gesturing at the jungle behind her. "You filled my garden with salt! My poor babies!"
Looking past her through a gap in the mist, Batman saw that much of her garden was indeed withered and brown.
"I didn't have anything to do with that," he said. "I came to warn you…."
"Lies!" she shrieked. "You've always hated my children!"
Not all her plants were dead, it seemed. A long and strong-looking vine was rising from the ground behind her like a serpent.
"Ivy, there's something coming: something you can't stop! You need to get out of here."
She didn't seem to hear him. Behind her, the vine snaked closer.
"This is the end, Batman!" she shrieked. "You will never harm my babies again...!"
She raised a hand. But at that moment, the snake-like vine flashed out like a whip and caught her by the wrist.
"What?!" she gasped, staring at the vine gripping her arm. "No! No, my darling, stop!"
Another, thicker vine suddenly lashed about her slender waist and coiled around her torso like a python.
"STOP!" she shrieked, tugging at the encircling vine with her one free hand. "What are you doing?! It's me! It's your mother!"
She screamed in pain as the vine tightened about her, and then it began to drag her swiftly back, like a fisherman reeling in a catch. Ivy wailed and writhed in the crushing grip.
"Pamela!" Batman called in horror, tearing at the tendrils holding him in place. He could be out soon...but not soon enough. As Ivy was dragged kicking and struggling across the ground, a huge green pod that he hadn't noticed before opened up to receive her. The inside of its leaves were a venomous-looking pink lined with innumerable thorns.
In what seemed like no time at all, Poison Ivy was pulled into the pod, screaming in her final terror.
"NO! NOOOO! WHY?!"
The pod closed tight around her just as Batman worked loose of the snare. He vaulted the fence and raced forward, but before he'd gone two steps the pod had retreated beneath the earth, still ringing with Ivy's muffled screams.
A moment later, there was silence.
Batman clawed at the earth where the pod had vanished. He continued to dig long after he knew that Ivy must be gone. At last, however, there was nothing to do but to step back from the pit he had made in the loose earth.
Despite the sultry air of Ivy's garden, Batman felt chilled as he seldom had. In his years fighting crime, Batman had seen all kinds of strange things. He certainly wasn't one to dismiss the possibility of a supernatural explanation. And the more he saw of the Terror, the more he began to think it might be magical in nature. Poison Ivy's death seemed almost to confirm it.
Yet even so, there must be a reason, and origin point for whatever had been unleashed upon Gotham. There was a pattern here, and that meant a guiding intelligence. Curse, demon, spell, or witchcraft, Batman meant to get to the bottom of it.
As he was leaving the zoo, brooding over what he had seen, Batman once more caught a glimpse of movement in the distance: a figure disappearing into the shadows of the park that stood opposite the zoo.
He sprang after it. This time, he vowed, it would not escape.
Through the deserted, overgrown park he pursued the retreating shadow, his eyes fixed upon it, tracing its faint outline as it fled among the trees and bushes. Together they made no more noise than the autumn wind that blew the dying leaves in their wake.
Then, abruptly, the shadow vanished. Batman paused in a patch of moonlight for an instant, then, warned by the faintest wisp of sound, he turned and caught the flashing blade on his gauntlet. The figure in black drew back, but Batman was too quick for her, and before she could regain her position he had caught her wrist in a steel-pincer grip. Her other hand went to her belt, but Batman jabbed her in the joint of the elbow, numbing that arm before she could retrieve any other weapons. He bent the wrist in his hand further and further, until at last the sword dropped from her fingers, but not a sound or whimper escaped her.
The woman in his grip was dressed all in black, the lower portion of her face concealed behind a veil, and her black hair tied back. Only her eyes, dark and cold, flashed in the moonlight. Batman at once recognized the garb of one of the League of Assassins and he wasted no more time.
"Where's Ra's?" he demanded. "If he's in the city, I need to see him immediately."
"Then you are in luck," she answered. "The Demon's Head has summoned you. Release me, and I shall take you to him."
He held his grip a moment longer, then let her go. It was like the League to open a summons with a sword thrust. A way of testing whether you were worthy of their attention.
The ninja retrieved her sword, then turned and ran lightly off into the moonlight. Batman followed her. Soon they passed out of the park, and their chase continued across the rooftops of Gotham. Batman could only hope that there would be answers at the end of it. The night was growing old and dawn was approaching.
A long and winding journey led them into the city's industrial section and at last to a steel mill on the river. Its windows were aglow, but inside it appeared deserted.
They entered through an upper story, onto the catwalks overlooking the blazing furnaces below. It was like stepping into an oven.
The ninja disappeared at once into the stark, flame-cast shadows, leaving Batman to make his way along the maze of catwalks into the plant. Turning a corner, he beheld a tall, straight-backed figure silhouetted against the glow of molten steel rising up from beneath like the fires of Hell.
He had seen that figure many times before, often framed against the hellish light of a different kind of pit.
"I almost think it must be too good to be true, Detective," Ra's al Ghul answered without turning around. "Yet I find when I arrive in Gotham that your enemies are falling one by one. Can it be that you have learned to do what is necessary at last?"
Batman hesitated. When he had first recognized the ninja, he had thought that he'd found the answer at last. The League of Assassins, the unseen hand that had so often moved the wheels of the world. Wielding both supreme skill in stealth and murder and strange, sometimes supernatural weapons, they would be ideally placed to be behind the Terror. And the brutal punishment of those they deemed wicked and unworthy of life would be just like them as well.
Yet now Ra's seemed to believe that he, Batman, might be behind it all. And he would certainly never feign ignorance on such a point.
The solution, that a moment ago had seemed to answer everything, vanished before him like smoke, leaving the mystery as obscure as ever.
"Is that what you brought me here to ask?"
"As a preliminary," said Ra's. "Depending upon your answer, there may be more to be said."
There was a pause.
"The answer is no."
Ra's turned around. His face would have shown him to be not more than forty or forty-five or so, but his eyes were windows upon the haunted, cold, withered soul of a man who had lived for centuries. He scrutinized Batman thoughtfully, and then sighed.
"A great pity. For a moment, I allowed myself to hope…but so it often is. In that case, we have nothing more to say to one another, Detective. I shall not be in Gotham long, and you clearly have matters of your own to attend to. Good evening to you."
Batman made no move to leave.
"What do you know about these killings?"
"I know that they are but a small part of the cleansing that is long overdue for this city. More than that, I could not say. It is none of my concern."
"It might be," Batman answered. "If the Terror knows you're in the city, he may come for you as well."
"You may spare me your concern, Detective," Ra's answered with the shadow of a sneer. "I have encountered such vigilantes many times before, and I do not fear this 'Terror'."
"From what I have seen tonight, you should." Batman answered. "This isn't some ordinary vigilante gunning down criminals. This is something that broke Bane in half and tore Killer Croc to shreds. Your messenger could tell you what it did to Poison Ivy. Even you may not be prepared for this."
"You seem to be slipping, Detective, if you are so easily unnerved as that. Your compassion makes you weak, as I have often said. But you need not trouble yourself: my business in Gotham shall not take long and then I shall be out of the reach of your," his sneer became more pronounced, "'Terror'."
Batman did not try to convince him further. Ra's was not the sort of man who could be convinced. But Terror or no Terror, his presence was cause for concern.
"What is your business here, Ra's?" he demanded.
"Once more, it is no concern of yours."
"I could make it my concern," Batman answered. Ra's sighed.
"If it will avoid a tedious and unnecessary conflict, I shall inform you that Gotham steel contains certain compounds necessary for my plans. Tonight is a night of forging, and with the dawn, I shall depart."
He indicated the forge below.
"You see my servants at work, forging the ingots that will become our weapons," he said. Batman approached the rail and look down. A great vat of molten steel lay below, and three men in heavy protective gear were drawing it off into moulds. "The work, as I say, shall not take long."
"What is it about the steel?" he asked.
"That, Detective, I shall leave you to discover for yourself," he answered. "Gotham is, at present, not my target, so you and I have no quarrel."
"You and I always have a quarrel, Ra's," Batman answered. He didn't think that Ra's was lying: that wasn't his way. But he knew that anything Ra's had planned could only mean death for many people. He already had all he could manage with the Terror. But even so, he couldn't look the other way.
As Batman was rapidly considering his next move, however, there was a sudden crash from the way he'd come. He and Ra's moved at the same time, racing to the site of the impact.
The body of one of Ra's's ninjas lay on the catwalk. The man's throat was cut and he seemed to have been thrown from above. Ra's drew his sword and Batman readied a batarang as they both looked up, but, unsurprisingly, there was nothing to be seen.
"You need to get out of here, Ra's," Batman said. "It's after you."
Ra's ignored him, scanning the ceiling. The two men stood back to back, eying the catwalks above and below, looking for some sign of movement. Dread clawed at Batman's spine, but at the same time his faculties snapped to their fullest attention. Whatever else happened, now, if ever, he would have answers.
Suddenly, there was a cry from the forge. Ra's and Batman rushed back to the ledge where they had first spoke and looked down. The forge was empty now, with only the half-filled moulds to indicate that the three men had even existed.
"An assassin," Ra's mused. "One with skill…."
"More than that," said Batman. "I am telling you, Ra's, you need to run!"
Again, Ra's ignored him. Light, rapid footsteps made them whip around. The ninja girl who had led Batman to the plant was racing along the catwalk, her clothes torn, her sword in hand.
"Master!" she cried. "I have seen it!"
"Where?" Batman demanded.
She pointed up at the walks above.
"A figure in black," she said. "It looked like...like you," she said, pointing at Batman.
Ra's glanced sharply at him, but Batman had already drawn his grapple.
"Stay here," Batman ordered. "Watch Ra's!"
He shot a line up to the higher catwalks, landing with hardly a sound even on the metal grating. There was a flash of movement to his right. Turning, he caught a glimpse of a dark figure disappearing around a corner from another walkway some ten feet from where he stood. Batman didn't hesitate a second nor give a thought to the molten steel below before setting his foot on the railing and leaping across the gap.
He caught the railing on the other side, swung himself up onto the walkway and hit the grating at a run. He turned the corner after the figure in black and saw it fleeing down the brick corridor. But again, he only had the briefest glimpse: a dark, lean form disappearing into a doorway.
Before Batman could follow, however, he heard a cry from the forge.
An answering voice, not loud enough to be identified, then a scream of shock and horror from Ra's.
As soon as Batman heard Ra's cry out he rushed back to the forge. But he only had time to see the figure of Ra's al Ghul fall, black against the steel as he plunged into the hellish pit. His body erupted into yellow flames as he struck the steel, his final scream cut short upon the impact.
Batman tore his eyes from the gruesome sight to look at the platform where Ra's had stood. There was nothing to be seen. He dropped to the platform and saw the ninja girl laying several feet away, her throat cut. Behind him the steel already showed no trace but a faint darkening where the Demon's Head had met his final end: a death from which even the Lazarus Pit could not restore him.
And from somewhere in the maze of catwalks above him, Batman heard a high, cruel laugh.