A/N: Thank you to the fabulous AngelQueen for the beta, and enjoy the chapter!
Chapter Seventeen - Shadow and Flame
To say that a fury had been unleashed from hell may have been a small understatement. Diana was made blind in her rage, so much so that she did not even have a target. She welcomed it as additional fuel to her own natural strength. It had started quite cold, when the police officers had turned up at the manor and told her, with great regret, that she'd need to come and identify the body that lay in the police morgue. It almost didn't look like Alfred. It was just some strange old man. Alfred would never go through something as undignified as death.
"Yes," she murmured. "That's Alfred Pennyworth."
The pathologist covered his face back up with that hateful white sheet, and she accompanied the detective out of the morgue. "Tell me what happened again. This time more slowly, and clearly." Her voice was icy, leaving no room for argument.
"Well, we — There was a bank robbery," the detective explained softly, "and in defending a fellow hostage Mr Pennyworth was fatally wounded."
"I see. And the robbers? Did they escape?"
"I … They surrendered to us. Requested to be placed in protective custody. We're considering it now."
"Protecting them from me, I assume."
"Well, yes, ma'am. There are few people in this force who would arrest you as things stand at the moment. Joker and Harley Quinn, no one really batted an eye, but these men are ordinary criminals. Mr Pennyworth's death wasn't their aim. So we can't condone… You understand?'
She understood that she would have to find another way than tracking them down and ripping their intestines out through their mouths. She flew back to Wayne Manor, to the Cave, and seethed in the dark. Ordinary criminals. What did that even mean? As if the evil of ordinary men didn't count somehow? It was worse. It was pervasive, insidious, everywhere and nowhere at the same time and she — she had no idea how to fight it. Certainly with any success. How on earth had Bruce done it? How had he ever begin to? She suspected—she knew, she had always known—that it was by being entirely human. And Diana … she just wasn't. And worse, now she had no one to help her learn that skill. You left me far too soon, Bruce, she thought. I needed more time. It was a fallacy, maybe, but a simultaneously bitter and comforting one to contemplate: if she'd just been give a little more time with him than perhaps it would have been better, perhaps she would have learned more, adapted enough so that when she was plunged suddenly into a world without him … she could have done it.
If only her mother had not interfered ...
As it was, Batman had been wrong to assume she was ready. The thought was enough to cause a small quirk in the corner of her ironic mouth. Batman had been wrong. Wrong to think she would not fail him.
Well, dwelling on that could not do any good now. She had to do something. She had to take lives for the life taken. That was absolutely clear. She no longer knew what it was to be human, but she knew what it was to be Amazon.
She waited until night had fallen, until they were safely in a cell and away from any police officers who might get hurt. The cell was seven floors up Police Plaza, with a nice, crumbly brick wall that required almost no punching through. She did not bother to break their necks or anything like it. She simply grabbed them, hauled them out into thin air, and dropped them. For two of the three, death was instantaneous. For the unfortunate third, less so. He did not stop screaming, when he hit the ground. And when Diana drifted towards him, he screamed louder. It hit her with all the force of a freight train. What was she? What had she done, what was she doing—what was she going to do?
She had been lonely, she had been grieving, but now it occurred to her that she was utterly adrift. There was no connection to anything. To humanity—it had died with Bruce. To Themyscira—she had severed that tie herself. To the League—they had betrayed the memory of one of their own. She had nothing. She belonged to nobody. She was, entirely, totally, alone. A panic sparked in her chest. She turned away from her victim and flew home as fast as she possibly could. Even then, though, her refuge offered fresh reminders of her isolation. The Cave was completely silent, dark and oppressive, but — not judging. It reflected was what in her now: a void. A dull grey place that hung, suspended, in the ether. The possibility as well as the hopelessness of it was overwhelming. Pressed down by the weight of it, she sat down on the cave floor, and wept. In all her life, she had never come across this. She had always known her own mind. Always known which path to take. She didn't know what to do now—there were a myriad of wrong choices, bad decisions, before her. No right ones. No wise ones. No light.
There is light, Diana. You need only turn back to it. Come back to me, come back to the sun, turn your face. Look at me. I am here, with you.
It was so loud, so real that for a moment her desperate imagination was fooled by the voice. She nearly saw the glowing, shimmering figure. Mingled shame and dread rose up in her, constricting her throat, when her fingers met Hades' amulet. The sensation faded. Reason returned. For a moment … but no. No. She was still alone. After the brief burst of hope, her grief seemed even heavier than before. It burst from her in loud sobs.
She could go back to the League. She could accept that she needed help and that she couldn't handle Gotham alone. She could surrender her pride and ask for help. But if she did that, what would she have left? Nothing.
"But... I have nothing anyway," she whispered.
Her throat tightened, her jaw clenched and her eyes burned. When they came, the tears felt like acid, cutting into her skin. Her chest cracked like her composure, and suddenly she couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but sob.
Without thinking, her hand went up to clasp the amulet, squeezing it tightly as she wept. The next thing she knew, he was there, pulling her against his chest. She sobbed in his arms for a long time; for Gotham, for Alfred, for her friends, but mostly for Bruce, stopping only when she ran out of tears to cry with. Hades said nothing, only did as he had promised, and was there for her, soothingly stroking her hair and murmuring crooning noises to her just as a parent should. When she'd stopped, Diana lay in the arms of the devil, wide-eyed with grief and teetering on the edge of madness.
"Teach me," she said suddenly. She moved back a little, looked into his fathomless black eyes. He stared back evenly, waiting for her to continue. He was the only constant she had. Moving quickly, jerkily, Diana took his huge hands in hers, kissed them. "Please," she begged. "Father. Teach me."
She was not stupid enough to miss the gleam of triumph in his eyes; just too wearied to care about it. Whatever the plan was here, whatever game he was playing, she would be party to it. Because at least then there would be a plan. But Hades was still careful with his words.
"You crave your vengeance, and it has not been satisfied by taking the clown's life. Am I right?"
She nodded. "Every criminal in this city is responsible. Everyone who made him become Batman at all."
"Then pray to Nemesis. She will be able to imbue you were greater strength and resolve. I will not be far away, my child."
His words brought a surge of relief. He wouldn't leave or betray her. Not like everyone else had - Bruce, the League, her mother. She still had someone. He stayed where he was while Diana crossed to her altar, knelt at it and touched her head to the ground.
"Mighty Nemesis, Adrasteia, I beg of you - help me. Help me to gain proper vengeance on those who have wronged me. Allow me to execute justice in your name." She bowed again. "I am your vessel, to fill as you wish." She opened her eyes, staring at the small figure of Nemesis. Themis had failed her, failed Bruce, who had fought for so long in her name, however unknowingly. Perhaps Nemesis would not. "Please."
She stayed there, kneeling like that for hours, wholly obsessed. Eventually she fell asleep on her knees before the altar. She did not wake when the eyes of the stone idol turned black. She did not wake when the blackness seeped out, hovering in a cloud around her. She did not wake when slowly, bit by bit, the darkness seeped into her lungs, into her blood.
Into her very soul.
Diana woke with a stiff back and an aching neck - and resolve. It felt like a fire had been awakened in the pit of her stomach. She knew she could do it now. She could cleanse and conquer anything again. Knowing she would find him there, she turned to where Hades sat, cross-legged on the cave floor. He did not wear his spiked armour or weaponry, clad instead in clothes she might choose for meditation. She nearly laughed, but held it in. Perhaps running the Underworld required peace of mind.
"How do you feel, koré?" he asked, without opening his eyes.
"Assured. Nemesis answered my prayer."
"I knew she would." He opened his eyes, stood, stretched and smiled. Diana no longer felt afraid of that smile. "Are you ready to learn your craft?"
"I am, Father." The word sounded, tasted, strange on her tongue. She might have said wrong, once. Now it was merely unusual.
If Hades caught her hesitation, he showed no sign of it. "Then come. It is night again; let us observe your city."
Twenty minutes later, they stood on the tower of Gotham Cathedral. Rain lashed the streets, falling in horizontal sheets. Diana felt neither the cold nor the wet. Why had she been so afraid? After all, what was this city made of? Bricks and mortar. What were its people made of? Flesh and bone. Diana had proved she was capable of reducing both to rubble and ash. She had felt unequal to her task, but now— now it was laughable how unequal the task was to her.
"So this is your protectorate? Your mandate. In the old days, this city would have begged for your patronage and protection, just as Athens did with Athena. So Gotham must supplicate before you," Hades told her.
"I've no need for them to supplicate themselves before me."
"You have need of them to respect you. And the first step towards respect is always fear."
"Fear?" She cocked her head. "I do not wish them to fear me, either." Diana wondered why the words sounded so weak, even to her own ears.
"Yes you do," Hades countered. "Some of them, you do. You cannot hide your soul anymore, Diana. Not from me. There are some in this city whose souls you wish to inspire terror inside. I approve. And I can teach you how easy it is."
She nodded. With the few remaining rogues gone, the rest of them would be easy to control. "Where do I begin?"
"With the agent of man's ascension and his destruction," came the answer. "With fire."
His gaze travelled east; Diana followed it to the squat, hulking structure of Arkham Asylum. "I understand."
Fire was so absurdly easy to start. What was slightly more difficult was knocking out and evacuating every doctor, nurse, orderly and night watchman from the asylum without any of them calling the police. Still, she managed it. After that, it was a case of disabling the fire alarms, sprinklers, blocking fire exits. She destroyed the alarms because there would be no escape for the inmates, and hearing the sirens would only cause them terror. She didn't want their last moments to be like that—she wasn't a monster, after all.
She seeded flame in several locations around the asylum, and the blaze took around thirty minutes to take root. Diana hovered above it all, making sure there was no way for the fire brigade to stop it. Making sure no one escaped.
The police arrived, of course, but they were as helpless as the people incarcerated and cremating. When she was sure no one could stop it, she floated down to stand next to Commissioner Gordon in silence. They watched it blaze until dawn came.
"And what are we supposed to do with new prisoners?" he asked finally.
Diana sent him a cold glare. "There won't be any new prisoners, Commissioner," she said impassively.
His eyebrows shot up. "You do realise that they're not automatically going to stop breaking the law," he said. "Without the threat of prison, what will you do to the ones who carry on?"
"The ones who carry on?" she asked with a smirk. "From now on they answer to me." The smile faded as she turned her back on the still-burning asylum. "As does everyone in this city."
Before he could protest, she lifted into the air and flew away. His daughter's words echoed in his mind. Don't leave it to Diana. Get the Justice League involved.
He wasn't dealing with Diana, Princess of the Amazons anymore. Gordon didn't know what he was dealing with now. But it filled him with more fear than Batman ever had.
She's alone in the world. Her friends are gone. Almost everyone she ever cared about lie dead around her. She's not done, though, not yet. She is Guardian of Gotham City. Her black suit is testament to that – it is battered, torn, bloodstained, as is the rest of her. Despite the bruises and cuts on the skin, she has never looked more beautiful.
A smoke-laden breeze catches tattered hair, lifts it toward the sky. Her eyes blaze in defiance as she faces down her foe. The shots begin. Diana raises her bracers, deflects as many as she can. It's not enough. Three will get through before Flash, her only living ally, gets there.
Three. That's enough.
One impacts her shoulder, opening up a red laceration, forcing her to take a step back.
Two enters just below her ribcage, punching a bleeding wound into her skin, and forcing her back once more.
Three pierces her skin and goes directly into her heart.
There is no scream.
A/N: Review please!