Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to any aspect of the Batman universe. I own nothing save for any original characters that I have created.
Hell and Devotion
And those that slept, they dreamed of ill
And dreadful things:
Of skies grown red with rending flames
And shuddering hills that cracked their frames;
Of twilights foul with wings;
-The Vampire, Conrad Aiken
The river was even more loathsome than before, and home to a menagerie of new nightmares. The scales of an obscured reptilian creature glided beneath the surface of murky water more akin to a swamp than a once-peaceful river, bubbles the color of tar erupted from the water to burst mid-air into foul-smelling splatters of clotted blood, clumps of floating moss crawled with grotesque beetles that filled Teagan's ears with the sound of a thousand horrible buzzing wings, and gnarled tree branches jutted from the water's surface to end in sharp, jagged splinters.
But the most dreadful of the river's horrors was the hand grasping at her feet, shielded dutifully from sight beneath the filthy clouded water. She felt its terrible flesh clawing at her own, bloated from wet decay and clinging slippery to bone, with a touch so searingly cold that Teagan cried out in both fright and pain as gaunt fingers wrapped around her ankle. When she attempted to kick free a second hand dug the shattered remnants of what were once fingernails into the flesh of her calf to carve a hideous trail of torn skin and blood until Teagan screamed once more; wild panic overcame her when she realized the hands were dragging her downwards into an unseen abyss, and even as she flailed and fought and wept their grip remained strong and merciless. In desperation she reached for a branch, and when her fingers grazed across its bark Teagan felt the cruel, fleeting illusion of escape right before she was pulled beneath the water's surface.
As she began her descent into the hateful river, her heart pounding from fear and a lack of oxygen, Teagan gazed up into the darkening view of the sky that had long-ago brought her joy and let out a final, defeated scream of terror.
"Teagan. Teagan! Teagan!"
A distorted voice called out her name with a mouth full of static, its echoing tone both fearsome and afraid, followed by a dim symphony of warped sounds: guttural sobbing, prayers spilled in a tortured frenzy from many lips, lamenting pleads for mercy and an endless wail of no no no no no—
"Teagan! Teagan, can you hear me?!"
A hand coated with indistinguishable grime pressed against her forehead, and Teagan hesitantly opened her eyes.
Staring down at her was Leland, her eyes wide and bloodshot. The front of her white nurse costume was speckled with blood, her hair was wildly disheveled, and the wet trails of tears on her flushed cheeks indicated that she had been crying.
"Are you okay, Teagan?" Leland's usual calm, warm demeanor was gone, now replaced with an expression of shock and panicked concern. "Are you hurt?"
Teagan blinked, her mind foggy with confusion. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she vaguely noticed the strong scent of pumpkin in the air and a stringy, pulpy substance covering the front of her dress and tights and matted to her hair; it was only when she lifted her hands to study the muck coating her fingers that realization dawned on her.
"What happened? Teagan whispered. Her throat felt raw and dry; she wondered with analytic curiousity how long she had been screaming. She rose from the floor to her feet before vaguely noticing a sharp pain and looking down to see a badly-skinned knee exposed by her ripped fishnets, angry-red and raw, and watched as blood trickled slowly down her ruined tights to land at her boot.
Leland swallowed. "I don't know," she replied, and with a shaking hand pointed towards the ballroom floor.
The fluorescent lights had been switched on, revealing evidence of the pandemonium that had taken place throughout the lobby floor—what was once an elegant, candle-lit ballroom had devolved into bright chaos and destruction at the hands of its poisoned inhabitants. Shattered plates of gourmet food and broken champagne bottles littered the floor; near one pile of glass sat an abandoned pair of Italian designer shoes worth more than a month's pay, along with a gruesome trail of bloody footprints. Most of the tables had been overturned, their centerpieces smashed into a mess of crushed petals and pearls, and guests and staff alike cowered in fright beneath the few that remained standing. Even the canopy did not escape the mayhem unscathed—the curtains had been ripped from the ceiling, lying torn and soiled in a crumpled heap on the floor.
But more intriguing was the sight of socialites and old money wandering dazed and trembling throughout the lobby, their brains still addled by the toxin's effects. Fresh bruises and blood adorned their bodies, with some even exhibiting self-inflicted scratch marks from clawing at their own faces in horror; one weeping man in a jester costume sported a black eye that set his face swollen and deep purple, his bloody knuckles revealing himself to be his own assailant. Damp hair clung to sweat-drenched faces, fine gowns and suits were reduced to stained ruin, and each and every single one of their faces shared the same range of emotions—fright, confusion, vulnerability, pain, awe—for they had all finally encountered the great equalizer, the one thing no amount of wealth could ever truly protect them from for as long as they lived and breathed: pure and sudden fear.
It was an incredible vision to behold. Teagan's fingers brushed across the pouch of her dress to linger where the gas mask had been, and for the first time in her life she felt pride.
They would not remember the events leading up to the moment when she lit the dreadful candle, and they would not remember what had occurred around them as they anguished in the throes of the toxin, but they would remember the fear; for the rest of their days the fear would inhabit their minds, taking shelter in their nightmares and submerging to darken moments of happiness and comfort and warmth, and they would forever regret the night they stepped foot into Crane's asylum and unknowingly became his lifelong victims.
"We need to call the police," Leland said quickly. "Now."
Teagan nodded and extended a hand to Leland, helping the still-shaken psychiatrist rise to her feet. "Do you have your phone on you? I accidentally left mine in—"
"The Joker Gang!"
Teagan froze and feigned an expression of surprise. "Wh...what did you say, Dr. Leland?"
"The Joker Gang," Leland repeated, talking more to herself than to Teagan. "I saw them on GNN the other night—they did this, I know it. The news mentioned rumors that they were starting to use gas bombs...they must have heard about the fundraiser, saw it in the paper…"
Her voice trailed off and she brought a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide in horrified realization. Her reaction had been predicted earlier by Crane; a recent rash of crime at the hands of a new faction calling themselves "The Joker Gang" provided a convenient suspect and Leland, intelligent but ever predictable, would arrive at the conclusion of outside involvement at the hands of criminals before ever suspecting the true culprit working alongside her.
"You should call the police now, Dr. Leland," Teagan said gently, and Leland nodded in distracted agreement before turning away and reaching into her pocket for her cellphone. Teagan watched carefully as Leland walked away to join a small group of asylum staff assisting injured guests, her phone pressed to her ear with a trembling hand and her voice on the verge of collapsing as she informed the GCPD of the horrors that had taken place within Arkham; when Teagan was sure Leland was out of sight, she lowered herself to the floor and sank her hands into the mess of destroyed Jack-O-Lanterns.
It was unpleasant work; her fingers dug through through moist globs of stringy pulp, thin seeds with pointed shells that stuck beneath her nails, limp skins smashed to resemble strips of orange leather, until she felt something waxy and slightly warm beneath her touch.
From the grotesque pile Teagan retrieved what remained of Crane's capsule and quickly placed it into the pouch of her dress, and in the lingering havoc no one noticed her bring a pumpkin-covered hand to her mouth to hide an amused giggle at the thought of how easy it had all been.
Crane watched with satisfaction as ball guests let out screams of raw horror before crumpling to the floor, wildly throwing their arms over their heads to shield themselves from monsters visible only to them. Some began to babble, their frantic tongues reciting prayers for protection and pleads for mercy, while others simply ran until they tripped over the hems of their costumes to land in an undignified, helpless heap of tangled limbs and fabric. The colleagues with whom he had so often shared forced lounge room conversations with over lukewarm coffee now tore at their hair in mad terror, their eyes darting about in their skulls as they took in fearsome visions beyond their comprehension—no amount of training or lectures or years spent doling out prescriptions could prepare them for fear in its full splendor, and even their stifled imaginations were capable of summoning nightmares that threatened their prized, useless rationality. Everyone in the ballroom was now equal, for fear cared nothing for money or class, nor appearance and education; their terror had reduced them to the same primal level, and they were all nothing more than frightened, cornered animals chemically ravaged by their own brains.
Everyone except for her.
She looked up at him with doe eyes full of love and worship behind her gas mask, and as he took her hand in his and pulled her close Crane marveled at what she had become. She had poisoned an entire room of people purely out of devotion to him, and without ever once asking why—he had wished for it to happen, and so it had, and in carrying out the act she had sealed herself to Crane for the rest of her life.
There was no turning back now, and that was how they both wanted it.
Crane cupped her face in his hands, gently caressing her cheeks with his thumbs before sliding his fingers to the back of her head. She took a deep breath and nodded, and her eyes remained focused on his even as Crane unfastened her gas mask and the toxin began to work its way through her system.
She was his experiment, his success, his prize.
She was his.