It's been on the news; Renee and Tot were following it on the TV and on live internet streaming from the lighthouse. Renee called Kate, who was helping to keep Gotham safe, and who didn't say anything which Renee might interpret as facing her mother and sister. Then Renee called Helena, who was busy right now, thank you. Stay safe, OK, Q?
It sucked, but the Justice League looked like they were on it.
And no, there was no sign of a zombie Batman.
Renee was thinking about whee she'd be able to do the most good, but this isn't her style of thing.
And Tot has gone crazy.
"I am a scientist," he says. "I live to understand life's mysteries. And none is greater than the mysteries of life and death."
"Some questions don't need answers, Tot." And that includes all questions that involve collecting your dead best friend's hair into a petrie dish in the hope it'll spawn a zombie best friend. "If you're really curious, I could ask him."
"I'm not interested in your magical bar, Renee," Tot replies (counter to all the interest he's already shown.) "Delusion or magic - it means nothing without confirmation. Think what we could learn from a living Charles Victor Szasz!"
"Could at least let me go ask his permis..." she stops, mid word. "Did you just hear something?"
A knock at the door.
The woman is tall, east Asian, and wrapped up against the cold, buffeting rain, through which she has decided to walk - during a zombie apocalypse - to a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere.
"I have walked fifty miles since yesterday through foul weather and I have no patience for small talk. I have come to fight someone, and I woould like to get started. After I'm done, I wold appreciate a bite to eat."
All this while walking straight in, not waiting for an invite.
"Do you know this lunatic?" Renee asks Tot.
"Lady Shiva, yes," he replies. "She killed Charlie, once."
Renee stands by her original diagnosis of: lunatic.
"You are Renee Montoya," Shiva informs her dryly. "Heir to the Question's mask and perhaps to his martial prowess, as well. I seek to test that.
"We will fight. You will defend yourself, or you will die."
Renee stares at her. Really. In the middle of a zombie apocalypse?
"Shall we battle here or outside?" Shiva asks.
"Outside," Tot says without hesitation.
"Or you know," Renee suggests. "Not at all."
"That is a choice. If it is yours, I will kill you."
"I've got to go outside and get beat up now, Professor."
"So it seems."
Shiva is good. Really good. Scary good. Richard Dragon good. He pushed Renee, but she never wondered if he would, actually kill her. From the beginning, she's pushed to her top game, feeling each strike she blocks and knowing that it would have been lethal. Never ever quite landing a hit herself.
She stops even feeling the cold and the rain.
She definitely fails to notice the flash of light in the lighthouse.
It's an unlucky step on Renee's part that fails her. A kick that has never failed to bring Helena down, doesn't even make contact with Shiva. Renee's opponent makes the smallest move and her ankle is lost, and she falls backwards, hard into a puddle.
"Now we are finished." Shiva is business like and dispassionate as she leaps into the air to deliver the final blow.
And, not for the first time, Charlie saves Renee's life.
The light is blinding and white, and lasts for a fraction of a second before disappearing, leaving the Black Lantern in its place. Charlie - the Question, complete with coat and mask, and a symbol on his polo neck Renee recognises from the news.
In another second, Shiva has attacked, and he's defended and punched her away like swatting a fly.
"You're not as good as you think you are," he says, dry and vemonous, but with the next breath his tone changes.
"Renee? I need your help. I don't know what's happened to me. It... hurts. I'm scared, Renee."
"Much as I'd like to believe you," and she does. Even with everything she's talked to him about in the Bar, everything she's promised never to do, she longs to bring Charlie back to a life that has meaning - "I don't."
"Worth a try." Zombie Charlie has not adopted the same, defensive position in which Renee and Shiva are facing him. The very last thing Renee wants to do is fight Charlie, but she will, if she has to.
Oh, Charlie. She really hopes he isn't in there, in any way.
"You speak with the voice of Victor Sage," Shiva is saying, "but you are not him. No matter. My intent today was to test myself against one of the undead, and you will suit."
Renee isn't sure if she should be insulted. "You said you were here to test yourself against me."
The fight, even with Shiva on Renee's side, is one-sided, and Renee doesn't stay in it long. But Shiva keeps going, even though nothing she can throw at the Black Lantern can knock him down. Still, he can't fell her, either.
Shiva's shoulder explodes in blood.
"You old dog!" the zombie snickers. "Who knew you you had it in you?"
It's Tot, standing in the door of the lighthouse with an old shot gun Renee has never seen him use.
"This is my moment, my oppotuity..." he says. "Don't you see? I couldn't let her ruin it. To solve the ultimate mysteries, to finally put an end to the riddles. To understand the meaning of Death.
"He is both alive and dead. He can give us the answers!"
"Tot," the Black Lantern muses, staring at the professor. "I never knew you were capable of such passion. Look at you. That is genuine, bona fide, fourteen carat greed!"
Charlie's attention on his oldest friend, Renee helps an injured martial artist to her feet. "Are you badly hurt?"
"I do not know. I have never been shot before. It is not what I expected."
"Please tell me you know how to destroy that thing." She wouldn't come to fight without preparation, right?
"We do not have the capacity to destroy it."
Not the answer Renee needed. "Then what th..."
"Not every battle ends with the defeat of the enemy," Shiva continues over her. "It cannot fight what it cannot see. It can only see what we feel."
She's right, Renee realises. It was talking to her to raise her compassion. It was testing Shiva's willpower. It turned away from them both when Tot's greed became blinding.
"Can you feel nothing, Renee Montoya?"
Tot, meanwhile, is realising that Charlie has no intention of answering him.
"You're taunting me. Playing with me. You have no intention of giving me satisfaction. I'm going to die."
Then Shiva kicks him in the head.
Renee runs through the rain to Tot, but she keeps her head turned towards Charlie and Shiva, watches as the Black Lantern gets back to his feet to turn to the martial artist, then look around wildly. For the woman that is right in front of him.
Before he can turn away from her, Renee pushes Tot into the lighthouse and shuts the door against her best friend.
"Shiva!" Tot says, desperate from worry. "She..."
"She made it blind to her," Renee explains. "We have to do it too! It sees what you're feeling! You have to empty yourself.
"Whatever you're carrying for Charlie, whatever you left unsaid, you have to let it go, Tot!"
By the time she's managed to say that, the door behind her explodes open, knocking her down.
"I don't know about you two," Charlie says, "but I'm freaking starved. Who wants to be first."
"Now, Tot," Renee says, "say goodbye to him."
It's easier said than done; she's heavy with compassion for Charlie; for hope that he's happy in the bar despite of the knowledge he could be better.
The fear that at any moment he could move on and leave her again.
But she looks at this thing wearing his flesh, and she bows her head.
She sits on the floor and she waits for him to leave.
And only when he's gone does she put on his hat, and his mask. Tot and Shive can look after themselves, but there's a Black Lantern out there wearing Charlie's body, and Renee is going to stop him.
Renee tries not to think of her family. It's not as easy as it might seem, given she's been trying not to think of her family for years.
The Cathedral is full of people doing the same thing, sitting around in clutches of friends and acquaintances, all focused hard on not thinking about their loved ones that must be outside in the Anti-Life throng, collectively calling at the cathedral for people to Submit. It's not a pleasant situation, but it's suddenly very much worse when the noise stops.
Everyone outside is silent.
And then, in the middle of the crowd, a sound, like a shepherd's crook on stone. The crowd parts, and the man comes forward, barefoot, clad in only a pair of torn shorts, and clutching the Spear, the glows red with energy like hate, matching the flames pouring forth from the inverted cross between his eyes.
Renee recognises his face - it's Vandal Savage, the Immortal Man. Or at least, the body is. The person in the body is Cain, and Renee has no idea if that is Vandal Savage, or is just possessing him. She doesn't know if there is a difference.
He stands at the base of the steps to the cathedral and screams. “Hate Everything. HATE EVERYTHING.
“God most of all.”
He stands at the base of the steps and he calls for the Spectre. And the Spectre answers – well, Crispus Allen answers, materialising at Vandal Savage's feet, snatching the Spear and lifting the man up with a hand at his throat. It's definitely more wrath-of-man than wrath-of-God. And Cain answers it – by plunging a thumb into Cris' eye, kicking the Spear back into his own hands and plunging it down through Cris' heart.
Renee screams “No!” but no one heeds her.
Right now, at this moment, she doesn't believe in God. At least, no God who could allow this to happen. Who could allow Cain to stand there, with a spear through her friend's body, and rip the Spectre out, leaving Crispus a dead husk on the ground.
But there are new gods. They're dying and being reborn, and all of us mortals, she thinks, all of us made of meat and blood – we're nothing to them, just collateral damage. The Spectre, apart from his human body now, kneels in red chains at Cain's feet. The Radiant stands behind the Question, not quite cowering, but not much more than submissive.
The Crime Bible foretells Cain's return, and the vengeanse he wreask upon the world, upon God's creation for the punishment he endured. Cain's return heralds the end of the world, the death of the old god. The book of Adumbrations tells of Cain ushering in the Age of Apokalips on Earth.
The Spectre kneels at Cain's feet and calls him Master.
This is how the world ends. With the might of one God brought to his knees, a slave following on the heels of his master and – as Cain lifts a hand to touch the Radiant on her glowing cheek – with the corruption of God's mercy.
And then, he turns his attention to Renee. Because it's been at least an hour since anyone tried to kill her and that can't be left alone.
“You defied my will, Faceless. You failed me. You were to lead my order, the one detined to put the spear in my hands, not Sister Wrack,” (Who by the by is watching all this and muttering “kill her kill her kill her...” Renee is going to slap that bitch if they both survive.)
“I do not abide disobedience. I abide failure even less.”
“Talk talk talk,” Renee retorts, because she never learned not to taunt the person about to kill her. He grins a grin that makes the Joker look friendly, and points the spear at her, shooting the same red angry power straight at her chest, just as he killed Cris.
Cain asks the same thing Renee was thinking “Ho do you yet live?”
She takes the opportunity while she can, and kicks him in the face; a move that accomplished two things: 1) a broken foot and 2) the opportunity for him to grab her by the throat.
“Oh no no no, little thing. You may be immune to its power, but its blade will cut you just the same.”
And once again, Renee is about to be killed. Time for another last minute rescue.
Seriously, these people never stop trying to kill her, do they?
But Renee's got a boat to catch, even if she has to run and leap off the pier onto the deck as the boat pulls away in order to catch it. The boat, hired by the Order of the Stone to excavate the Spear, which has been tracked to the mid-Atlantic. Stowing away on board, Renee waits behind her mask, as they send down a member to retrieve the artefact.
Sister Wrack has made herself the de facto leader after Flay's death and Renee's refusal to lead. So it's hardly surprising that it's Wrack who takes the spear and unwraps it in front of her companions and the captain of the ship.
“What... what is this?”
“Power,” Wrack purrs, caressing the spear. It glows red in the full moonlight, the only lights this far out to sea. “Power to kill a false god, or to raise a new one!”
“Don't!” Dammit, why was Renee so slow to act. She rushes out of her hiding place just in time to see the man run through with the spear that once pierced the Christ. Flush with bloodlust, Wrack pulls it out only to turn it on Renee, blasting her with a vengeful red energy that sends the Question hurtling backwards into the cabin through the solid wall.
Renee is determined, as ever, to make it as difficult as possible to kill her. She is not armed with a magical spear of God-killing power. She is not armed at all, and to be honest, she isn't exactly sure how she plans to win. But for now, she concentrates on not dying, which is harder than it sounds, even with Renee's possibly legendary good luck with flying by the seat of her pants.
But it's still hardly surprising with Wrack corners her, pointing the spear at her face.
“You don't know how many times I have imagined killing you for our Lord.”
“No, but if you hum a few bars, I'll fake it.”
Look, what do you want from Renee? She's in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, facing down death, trying to stop the Apocalypse, and she hasn't slept for a few day. And the fight that looks like it was about to end in her death has suddenly been thrown off by a change in the ambient light and a sudden new arrival.
“Renee Montoya. Your judgement is at hand.”
Having the Spectre appear in the middle of a fight really throws you off your game. In fact, it completely changes the game.
She knows this guy; she's seen him before, looming in the sky over Gotham City back when she carried a gold shield – back when she thought being a detective would give her the answers she wanted. He's called the Spectre. He's the spirit of Vengeance, or so she's been told.
Last time she saw the Spectre, her partner was standing beside her. Her partner and friend, Detective Crispus Allen. But Cris Allen was murdered. But...
“You are a murderer.” It's Cris' voice, but it isn't his voice. Something is using his voice, but Cris is still saying it. “The leader of a blasphemous cult, the Order of the Stone, born of a heretical religion built upon vile acts and depraved cruelty.”
“Don't forget the kick-ass Sunday Bingo. Is it you? Is it really you?”
“The sins of your Order are beyond number,” and his voice cracks; less Spectre, more Crispus, “I'm sorry, Renee. I don't have a choice. God commands this. I'll make it as painless as I...”
But Renee's distracted – or rather, Wrack is distracted by the appearance of the Spectre and had to rethink her game. On a final attempt to kill Renee, the Question steps up and kicks the cultist in the face, wrenching the Spear from her. “You mind? We're talking here!”
She has the spear, and for the briefest of brief flashes everything might work out. “Cris, listen to me...”
“Come. I offer you a last kindness before the end.”
“I don't want a kind...”
But there's a flash, and everything's gone.
“...ness! I want answers!” They're stuck in an alleyway that smells of damp and blood in the way only Gotham can smell. And Renee is empty handed.
“Where's the Spear? It was in my hand! Where'd it go? You left it with Wrack? Do you realise what she's prophesied to do with it? That was the Spear of Destiny! They're going to...”
“YOU. BE. SILENT.” The Spectre's is deafening, undeniable in a way Batman could only dream of, filling not just the air but Renee's very soul. And he's angry.
“What happened to you?” She asks her friend.
“I died. And I was given a choice, to join with the Spectre, to become him. I chose poorly.”
(With all the running around after the Spear of Destiny, Renee had been resisting the urge to make Indiana Jones references. She is disappointed in Cris)
“Now you must be punished for your crimes.”
“I don't get an appeal?”
“A chance to speak in my defence, or...”
“Look upon her for the final time.”
A gloved hand emerges from the Spectre's green cape like the Ghost of Future Yet To Come, and points down the alley, Renee's gaze behind the mask, follows.
There's a fight going on. Killer Croc, and three or four heavily armed henchmen, facing down one woman who's reckless enough to take them on herself.
Helena Bertenelli. Huntress.
How does he know? Renee's only ever interacted with her in Milliways. Cris was dead when she came into Renee's life.
(God, look at her.)
That's when Renee realises it.
It's all for real. This last kindness. He's really going to do it. He's going to kill her.
Everything flashes away again, and when the night air returns, it's colder, windier. They're on a roof. The roof.
“You're going to execute me in front of the Batsignal?”
“This place holds meaning for you.”
“But not for you? Cris, we spent four years working opposite each other just one floor below where you're standing. Floating. Whatever it is you're doing. Don't tell me you can't remember that.”
When he speaks, it's with all the heavy weight of God's Vengeance, pulled down even further by a dead man's regret.
“I remember everything, Renee Montoya. It is time. Make your peace.”
There's something in his voice, something lurking beneath the unearthly resonance. He doesn't want to do this.
“Cris, these crimes I'm accused of... I'm innocent. I haven't done them!”
“God does not make mistakes, Renee. You are the leader of the Order of the Stone: an unholy clutch of murderers and rapists, or men and women who sin and abandon with blasphemous delight. An order whose members rampage around the world even now, ushering the arrival of Gehenna. And you are named their head.”
“They called me their leader, that much is true. They made me their leader. But you've got to know that I fought them! God must know that! And if you know that, then you know the rest of it, too! What they did to me! What they made me do! And you know what I learned, how I escaped, how I've been trying to stop them ever since! What I told Turpin...”
“I know. God knows.”
“Cris, don't do this.”
“God just doesn't care.”
She's not scared; it's beyond time for scared. Renee's just filled with regret and sadness and frustration at everything that is left undone. Everything she won't be able to prevent. But the Spectre reaches forward, and for all he seems to suck the light out of the air around them, his hand is glowing blue sparks.
This is it, Renee has time to think. I'm going to die. I'm not ready to die, not yet.
He reaches for Renee, and Renee tries not to cry.
“Of course God cares.”
It's a new voice. Female, as much as the spectre's is male, but also not. Something bigger than mere sex, than mere humanity. Something Divine.
And then there's the Light.
The Light hurts Renee's eyes, blinds her for a second. And then she sees Her. She's so bright – the way light seems to fall into Cris, it radiates out of her.
“God has always cared.”
Renee – who has been told since she was sixteen the God hates her – gets it. The spirit of Vengence, the spirit of Mercy.
This time, when Cris – the Spectre – speaks, Renee hears the power in his voice, and a fury she swears could bring the whole city down.
“Does God forbid me my office once again? First I am denied Libra, now this?”
“The Almighty commends you your office, Spectre. For this one I am sent to bring mercy.” Her voice isn't just musical – it's music, but Renee can tell it's a song he doesn't want to hear.
“Mercy? MERCY!?” White lightning flashes across the rooftop, as the Spectre lights up the sky with his anger, and Renee doesn't understand why. This isn't like Cris.
But then, what Renee does understand about the situation could be listed on the back of a postage stamp. With a Sharpie. As the capes rise into the sky above her, facing off with each other, she's nothing more than a spectator.
“Don't you dare speak to me of God's mercy!”
“How can I do else, Spectre, when that is what I am. So the Spectre is God's spirit of vengeance, thus the Radiant is God's spirit of mercy.”
“No!” Cris – and Renee's sure this is Cris, acting through the Spectre, but don't quiz her as to why – lashes out at the woman, hitting her face through the hood of her white cape. “God HAS no mercy!”
With his fist clenched, the woman speaks, quietly but with all the power of the Divine behind her. “But I say unto you that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him thy other also.”
The action that comes from these words knocks the fight out of the Spectre, and he collapses down, to the roof, towards Renee. The green cape begins to dissipate, leaving just Cris, kneeling in front of her.
“God can't have mercy! Don't you understand? If God has mercy...
“Then where were you?”
Renee moves as soon as the Spectre goes from the voice – the instant she sees her friend in front of her.
“Where were you when God made me kill Malcolm?”
Cris' son. He'd been found in the same alley as the body Jim Corrigan – the man who killed his father. Mal had been holding the gun that killed Corrigan, but no cause of death was ever established for the boy himself. Renee has never regretted not killing Corrigan herself more than this very moment, kneeling on the roof of Gotham Police Headquarters, her hand on the shoulder of her dead best friend .
“I killed him, Renee. I killed my son.”
They stay there for five minutes, Cris finally giving way to the tears and fury and regret, Renee there for him as they were always there for each other in another life, the Radiant simply watching, with all of God's mercy shining down on them. No sign of the Spectre – vengeance has no part on this scene.
When it washes past, they stand and separate, saying nothing to acknowledge the moment that went. Renee takes off her mask, and asks the Radiant whether Cris had a choice in the matter. All she gets in return is a reiteration of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It's decidedly unsatisfactory.
Then the Radiant melts away the way the Spectre did, leaving just a woman in her place – a nun.
“It's Clarice, right? Sister Clarice... I don't know how I know that.”
“Yes you do. God told you.”
“I don't want to hear God anymore. I don't want any of this.”
“I know. But you and I, we can no more refuse the Lord's service than Jonah could. The spectre is needed, Crispus, more than you can imagine, he is needed...”
And just when Renee is settling back for another conversation she can't get involved in or really comprehend, another interruption comes. This time from a face and voice she knows, and hasn't seen for a long time.
“You guys shouldn't be up here.”
It's Stacy. The receptionist in the Major Crimes Unit. Renee used to see her every day when this was her workplace. Stacy was a compassionate person, idealistic without being naïve, a consistently incorruptible part of the GCPD, and as a civilian, the only person authorised to operate the Bat Signal.
It's very bad that she's here.
“It's not allowed,” Stacy continues, in a worrying monotone. “Not without permission.”
“They still have free will.” From behind the receptionist comes another familiar face, moving in the same rigid fashion, speaking in the same monotone. Maggie Sawyer. “That is not allowed.”
No. This wasn't supposed to happen until after Cain rises – which means they've already found him, given him the Spear.
“There is only one will,” Maggie continues. Her eyes – like the eyes of the entire police department appearing on the stairs behind her and Stacy – glow red in the night. “Darkseid's will. Submit – or die.”
The sound comes out of all of them at once. Not just the words “Surrender your will”, but a noise. Devoid of meaning, frequency of symbols defining nothing. Renee covers her ears to block it out, feeling her knees buckling beneath her. She's vaguely aware of the Spectre and Radiant snapping back into form, throwing up a shield, yelling at her not to submit.
Antilife equation = loneliness +
It burrows into her mind like a worm.
Renee feels her mind going – tries to grasp it, but has nothing to hang on to.
All of Richard Dragon's mental training falls away from her like a shield of paper.
A void forms, filling her mind with one awful thought...
There's another flash of everything changing, and suddenly Renee's down on street level. She'll admit, she's getting very tired of being teleported around like that, but at least her mind's her own.
Renee breaks open the mask and the gas, and waits for the cloud to clear. Gotham is dark and damp; this is not unusual. What is unusual is the silence, broken frequently by a single phrase, repeated at intervals by separate, lone voices echoing to the accompaniment of feet all walking in the same direction.
“Anti-life justifies my hate.”
And beyond the shambling mindless people: A figure lying in the gutter, defeated, shrouded in a black cape and a shock of red hair.
Renee races out of the alley, towards the fallen figure.
“Kate! Please be alright, Kate, it's...”
That's when a red glove shoots up around Renee's neck, clamping tight.
“All is one in Darkseid.”
Batwoman shambles to a standing position, hurling Renee through the air into the hood of a car recklessly parked inside Gotham City. The windshield shatters and the hood crumples under her, in a shock that includes at least one broken rib and some horrible leg bruising.
There's no pleading with her, and very little fighting her. It's hard enough that Renee can't bring herself to seriously hurt the woman she once loved, whose will is not her own, it's also that the thing in Kate right now is making her even stronger than she was, and she was already a match for Renee. Renee's wrist crunches in her fist, her arm twists almost out of the socket, and when she's smashed down, she feels her ribs moving, and there are pains in parts of her body she had forgotten she had.
This is perhaps the fourth time in an hour that Renee's been about to die, and it ends the same way; in a blinding flash of white light, and Kate is torn away from her. The Spectre throws power at Batwoman, and Renee finds herself cradled, and then held back, by the Radiant.
“No! Don't hurt her! It's not her fault! It's Anti-Life, she's got no will of her own!”
“And isn't that worse, Renee Montoya?” asks the Spectre, holding Kate in a cage of his power. “Would this not be a mercy?”
The Radiant shakes her head. “Not while hope remains.”
Renee can still barely think above the pain pulsing through her, but she's aware of the crowd of Darkseid's possessed minions closing in on her. There're things broken inside her, and hope might be all she has. She clutches weakly at the Radiant's robes, assuring herself that she can.
There's another bright flash. And then, there's peace.
Gotham Cathedral. Renee knows the inside of this place almost as well as her own childhood church downtown; she never visited until she wore a badge and her faith was wavering, but even as a lesbian who felt rejected by God, she'd never failed to feel His presence under the dome.
Until now. The Radiant teleported her in, but she's in too much pain to feel God's mercy right now; she can't straighten her legs, let alone take her own weight.
“God wants this to happen,” Cris is saying. “Why else would we find ourselves powerless to stop it. Why else would He abandon us?”
“God abandons no one,” says Clarice.
“Says you,” Renee butts in. “I don't know from God, but the black book, the Crime Bible, it foretold all of this...” she has to stop her explanations for a cough that stops in her chest, unable to make it any further past a wall of pain. It's getting too hard to breathe, so she pulls the mask off her face for clearer air. There are things moving inside her that she's sure aren't supposed to be.
She's trying not to pray at all, but she's especially fighting against the urge to pray that she'll get to see Charlie on her way.
Cris decides to use his super new X-Ray vision to give her a complete diagnosis of everything that's wrong inside her, but Clarice – Clarice just lays her hands on Renee.
The light, again, is blinding.
The blood clear from Renee's face and windpipe, the cough that's been fighting for the last minute shoots to the surface. “Did you just...”
“No. God did.”
It's nice, in Renee's opinion, to be able to breathe and move again, but Cris has other opinions.
“God will let you do that for her. While piece by piece my own power is whittled away. “
“And whose fault is that? God's for withholding it, or yours for denying it?”
“My power is the power God gives me.”
“You do not even begin to understand what power means, Spectre.”
“Then explain it! At every instant I have done as commanded! At God's order I was prepared to kill my friend! At god's order, I killed my son!” The Spectre doesn't so much fade, as the force of Cris' anger pushes the man forward, out of the Spectre's visage. “And why was Renee spared, tell me that? Why was she spared when Jake was not?”
“Gee, thanks, partner.”
“Renee, that's not.... that's not what I meant.”
“It's OK, Cris. I understand.” And she does, really. She gets it. Renee doesn't say anything else, knowing she hasn't the power to address Cris' pain, and besides, she's interrupted by the Cathedral doors being pushed open, by the crowd outside.
It must have been the light of the healing, or maybe just Cris' rasied voices, because it feels like every remaining free person in Gotham is on the steps, clamouring to come in. For a few minutes, all Renee and her super companions can do is crowd control. And then push the doors to on the much much larger crowd of anti-life zombies outside.
(Shutting the door on Mr Freeze is easy. Seeing Jim Gordon outside in the crowd rends Renee's heart as much as Stacy)
They don't try to come inside, though. Not yet. And that's when Renee realises what's coming. Who's coming.
When the Spectre whisked her away from the boat, the Spear stayed behind -not because Sris had left it on purpose, but because he could affect it, the same way he couldn't affect Captain Sawyer and Stacy – the same way he can't now affect the mob outside. Now the Order of the Stone has the Spear, and the rise of Anti Life means they've already used it. To raise Cain.
“Cain?” Cris repeats. “As in 'and Abel?'”
“That's who they're waiting for,” Renee says, looking not at Cris but at the crowd “He's coming here. He's got the Spear.”
It's Clarice who answers – they've both been powered down and human looking since the cathedral turned into a refuge. “He needs it to kill the Spectre.
“It was you that marked Cain, and it is the Spectre Cain will have his revenge upon – his only means to revenge himself upon God.
“Let him try. I may hate God's guts, but I don't see the Almighty letting that happen.”
“I'm not so sure,” Renee says carefully. “I think God or whoever may be sitting this one out, Cri. Neither of you has been much good against Anti-Life, and if I'm right about why you couldn't affect the Spear...
“Let's just say I don't like your chances.”
“Then I'm right,” Cris responds, bitterly. “God has abandoned us.”
Well, not her fault exactly – more like her responsibility.
Anti-Life, that's what it is. It's an equation, or a virus or a – something, and it's likely to take over the world and turn Earth into a new home for Darkseid and all the evil gods of Apocalyps. Renee found the descriptions in the Crime Bible to be a little too Dawn of the Dead for her liking. (Tot said it was very I am Legend). The signs have been building, and now everyone's paying attention, from the Justice League on down. Renee's even been recruited by some shadowy Government Organisation for purposes not yet explained.
Thing is, though: This has been foretold, and it's been what the Order of the Stone has been working towards; that pesky crime-worshipping evil cult Renee somehow managed to make herself leader of. It all ties together with their ultimate purpose – to recover the Spear of Destiny and use it to resurrect Cain. And that will bring the end of it all.
“It goes like this,” she explained shortly to the press gang who forcibly recruited her into their Secret Government Conspiracy, “all this stuff – the murder of the gods, the meta kidnappings, even the Manhunter – that's just shit, and we're swimming in it, sure.
“This spear – that's the fan, and you really don't want them to switch it on.”
If it starts, or if its always been happening.
The Order of the Stone start talking about an upcoming apocalypse.
A series of kidnappings becomes nationwide, targetting exclusively meta children, all under 18. Investigation leads Renee to something called 'The Dark Side Club'.
The Religion of Crime contains numerous references to something called Anti-Life, always associated with Dark Side. The spelling is never clear.
She hears rumours loud enough that they're deafening. A new spread of murders. Crimes Det. Montoya never had to investigate.
The Books talk of Cain, and the first murder. The first crime. The first murderer returning to the earth for the last crime. The final one.
The world is going to hell so fast Renee gets vertigo.
J'Onn J'Onzz is dead. The Martian Manhunter. Renee was just a teenager when the Justice League were founded. She thought they'd be around forever.
Danny Turpin was looking for the kids. He's gone missing. The death continue. The rumours ricochet like bullets, each one louder and more violent than before.
What kind of gangland killing leaves a man mummified?
There's a draft. For superheroes. They get to Renee before it goes public. But she can't go with them, yet.
They've been trying to keep something from her, the Order, which she leads. It's in the Book, but it's also shoing up in the Irish sea. Stories of an artifact. A spear.
The spear. The betrayal.
The Book is very very clear what this spear can do. Who will wield it, and when it shall happen.
Her connection with Tot cuts out in the middle of Portsmouth, and she doesn't have time to figure out if it's a deliberate shut down of the system, or something bigger. Because she's now realises what's going on. What this is.
A word forms on her lips, one she remembers from when she was at college. One she never thought she'd hear again. And never when she was so involved in it as she is.
Dear Ms. Montoya, AKA THE QUESTION,
You have three minutes to read this card, whereupon every trace of it will disappear completely.
“Hey, Tot,” Renee throws out, not looking up from the letter. “You ever heard of Oracle?”
“Heard of him,” Professor Rodor offers, the frown even making his voice. “But only as rumour. He's all over the 'net, but you only get a glimpse when he's left something for you to see. I'm not even sure it is the same person.”
You are one of many potential applicants that may be...
“What does rumour say?”
“Something about a secret network of superhero operatives. Controlling ever information stream in the world. Brought down Blockbuster. Works with Black Canary.”
Inside the band around the roses you will fins a nearly undetectable monitor/communnication which will attach...
“I thought Black Canary was hanging with Huntress these days?”
“Her too, I guess.”
AsktheQ: yea. Weird, right? The card was all 'form letter' esque, too.
Call2Serve: How'd he get your address?
AsktheQ: That's what I want to know. Who knows?
Call2Serve: Not their style.
Call2Serve: You think it's him?
AsktheQ: Or a friend.
AsktheQ: u there?
Call2Serve: Yea. How many you think got sent out?
AsktheQ: idk, let me call up my superhero drinking pals and ask them.
Call2Serve: w/e. I didn't get one, if that's what you're asking.
AsktheQ: It was.
“Listen don't say 'welcome on board' or anything. That's not how it's going to work, OK?
“Here's the thing: I'm not going to be one of your Birds. I've got bigger problems right now and if you're anything like I think you are, you already know that. I'm going to trash this thing as soon as I've finished telling you this.
“You've got my address. You've probably got my phone number. I'm not changing anything. In fact, I've got some ideas about making it even easier to contact me. You want me for something specific, you give me a call.
“But I'm not playing Charlie's Angels with the rest of your team, OK? That's not my style.
“Look forward to working with you.”
She hauled a punching bag out to the Carribean inlet so she could beat the crap out of something in a place where it isn't snowing. She's many things, including self-destructive, but she's not a masochist.
She's out there this evening, in a sports bra and shorts, working away at the leather in the cooling twilight.
Screw fake 'Scotland'. This is the way to do it.
Charlie's hat protects her from the unforgiving sun and uninvited insects, and she hikes towards the ship with the most concentrated movement on it. She's sure this is the place, but she still has to haul her own ass up the hull.
"Permission to come aboard?"
She is surrounded by men and women of various builds and backgrounds, mostly youngish, all physically fit, and all shaved clean. Wearing generic loose pants, the women have their brests bound tight with bandages across their chests – a motif continued on the arms of the men. They stand, alert to a person, proud and ready to fight. Renee reflects that she wishes she'd brought some nun chucks.
She wishes she owned some nun chucks.
"I'm looking for Flay?" she hazards. "He's expecting me."
They do not stand down.
"Praise Cain? All Hail the High Madame? Greed is good? No wait, don't tell me, I've got it... Hooray for Crime!"
They do not stand down and they're not impressed by Renee's razor sharp wit.
Renee ducks her head and rolls out into her palm the ball of pseudoderm that makes up her mask. As she stretches is out, she recites:
"And the caitiff gazed upon her, and saw then that she was without faith, and empty. And too, he saw the reflection on her face."
With her mask on, she lifts her head, and every single cult member bows to her.
"Faceless," they say in unison.
The woman in front of her, an disarmingly cute woman with a piercing and who, renee has to admit, is really rocking the bald monk look, introduces herself as Shard, and invites Rnee to follow her to their leader. Down into the metal hull of the vessel, two pairs of boots clumping hollowly in the corridors, sending out echoes in all three directions as they approach the hold. There, Flay sits cross legged in front of a bloood soasked stone; an alter. He dismisses Shard with the order to "get things ready for the trial" – and that doesn't leave Renee exicted for the conversation.
"I confess to imperfect faith," Flay says as Shard leaves. "I was not certain you would come."
"You threatened to murder everyone I knew if I didn't," Renee points out. "That kind of offer is hard to refuse."
"And even harder to fulfil. We both know that is not why you came."
"I came for answers."
"You have all the answers. Whether you choose to heed them is your choice alone. But self deception is a sin aginast Cain and unworthy in a devotee such as yourself."
"I am not a member of your dark faith."
"Yes you are, and much more," says Flay, standing up to be level with her, face-to-well, no face. "You have come to know the word and have been changed by it. Do you deny it?"
"It has been a rare pleasure, teaching you the lessons, watching as you have gained mastery of each in turn. You have practised deceit."
"I have sought the truth."
"You have succombed to lust."
"And I regret it."
"You have acted in greed."
"For the charity of another."
"You have committed murder."
"I offered mercy."
Flay holds her eye – a difficult thing when you're looking at someone without eyes, Renee knows. He smirks, slowly, knowingly.
"You cannot unknow what you know, Faceless. The only question is what you will do with this knowledge. They are waiting for us."
And with that, he leaves. Renee, of course, follows.
They are indeed, waiting for Flay to emerge with the Facless. He stands infront of his crowd of kneeling cultists, reeling off a speech about how he is the weapon, the rage, the pride, the rock stained red with blood. Renee knows every word; it's right out of the Book.
Thunder crashes, and it starts to rain.
(Of-fucking-course thunder crashes. Of course it starts to rain)
"They wil bear witness to what comes next," Flay address the Question once more.
"What does come next?"
In answer – and entirely expectedly, it has to be said – he swings a kick at Renee's head. She evades, without difficulty.
"One of us dies. The other lives and leads this order into the new darkness."
Eh... "Neither of those options really works for me, I gotta tell ya."
"You speak as if you have a choice. You do not" Flay throws a quick succesions of hand and foot attacks at his opponent. Not one makes contact.
"Sure I do. I can refuse to fight."
"Then you choose death, not only for yourself," Flay's gaze flicks away from Renee, to something behind her, and above her eyeline. She turns as he continues, "but for the daughter of Lilith, as well."
There, on a platform above the cabin of the ship, stands Elicia, clothed in white, blindfolded with her hands and feet bound. The woman who introduced herself as Shard is also up there, a knife at her throat.
"Renee, is that you? Renee?"
Renee's heart leaps, but that part of her that pays attention now, that noticed that it leaps as hard as she'd expect it to when an innocent life is in danger. She instantly hates herself for noticing that it's nothing compared to when Kate was stabbed, or when Huntress...
...alright, when Huntress does anything, if she's honest.
That rend in Renee's soul? That's guilt.
"Don't move, Elicia! I'm coming!"
"The object of your lust." Flay stands in Renee's path. "Would you kill me to lie with her again, Faceless?
"You have wrought this. Now you fight not only for your life, but for the whore's as well."
He's got her right, at least. Renee can't leave Elicia to be killed. She'll have to fight. Of course, she starts by continuing the theme, by letting him throw a number of hard offensive strikes in her direction, and not letting a single one hit its mark.
"Your skills were adequate when we met in London."
"I got better."
Not as better as fast as when she was training with a Bat every day, but Renee's had plenty of time to train and meditate, and even more time to actually fight, since she got back. She's certainly better enough to knock Flay head over ass with her first offense.
"Yes, you have."
He lands inconveniently next to a pole that might have been a mast or some piece of salvage, which he lifts up in one hand and swings at Renee's hip, before using to vault into a kick at her head. He was holding back; now he ups it.
"Just not enough."
He hits her firmly under the chin and sends her hard onto the floor; she has to roll to avoid being skwered with his pike.
"Was I wrong, Faceless? Are you unworthy to lead this order?"
Renee rolls and leaps to her feet, but he has her backed against the rickety railing of the ship; there's nowhere to go. So she kicks out that railing – the wood snaps away from the rusty nailings and she catches the flying railing, giving her a convenient home-made bostaff fo deflect his attacks.
"Dunno. Do you have dental?"
She fights him, but she's on the defensive, always. She won't kill him – she won't, but she won't let him kill Elicia, either. So she fights. She takes his hits, she hits him back, she somersaults into the crowd and she merrily walks – literally- over their heads, racing to Elicia and Shard
"Enough running," Flay has finally had enough, and he throws his staff like a spear. The trajectory turns it around, and it hits Renee flat in the back, knocking her into a pit of torn steel pipes and wooden shards. It's a regular deathtrap, and it's only through grabbing a pipe and controlling her fall that she's able to prevent herself from stabbination.
"Though it pains me to say it, Lilith's vision failed her," Flay continues, throwing a flying kick into Renee's midsection. "You are not the one."
"See, that's what I've been trying to tell you," Renee argues.
Flay stands above her, bringing his foot up again to smash into her head, to finsih it. "Consider that lesson learned.
As his foot plummets down to her, Renee reaches up with both hands and grabs that foot, stopping it's fall. She absorbs the force into her arms and pushes straight up and back, converting all his force right into throing him back into the wreckage, where steel teeth tear into his legs, pinning him.
"Good," Flay remarks, when he realises he's lost. "Oh, very very good. Take what is yours. Finish me."
Renee stands over him, looking down at the man who's haunted her thoughts for so long, and she realises – she doesn't want this. She shouldn't be here.
She turns away from him.
"I wouldn't kill the man who murdered my partner. What makes you so special?"
Shard is still on the platform, still holding Elicia, but she offers no resistence when Renee demands her freedom and steps forward to remove the blindfold covering the eyes of the woman she once loved, however fleetingly.
"Call it victory by decision."
Goddammit, some people just refuse to stay down. Somehow Flay struggled off his stake and followed Renee up, hardly able to stand on his bleeding out leg.
"One of us..." he throws himself at Renee, a knife at her throat, "dies, one of us," she deflects under instinct, hardly thinking iof anything beyond not dying this second, "leads..."
Flay falls back down again, into the spikes. This time, they pierce him through the torso several times in a way he was only lucky to miss the last time. His body spasms, and goes limp.
The cultists around Renee slowly lower to their knees. Elicia walks up behind Renee, and cups her face as if to kiss it.
"I knew you would do it. I always knew."
She slowly sinks to Renee's fee, joining Shard who is already on her knees.
"Master. Command us in Cain's name."
Lesson Five: The Parable of the Faceless.
Riley's bar, a cop haunt, was hit three weeks ago. Eleven men were killed bloody, and every single one had been a uniformed cop. There were two survivors. Monroe and Carson, who went undercover among policemen, trying to bring down the corruption from within. After the bad cops were mown down, only then were the good cops taken, one by one kidnapped and found bled-out and cut up, their badges taken, apparently sliced off their bodies flesh and all.
Twenty eight cops dead total, but O'Toole had mentally split it into two events – the systematic hunting and slaughter of his good, honest, hand picked cops, and the gang-style massacre of eleven bad cops, which he'd dismissed as a bad deal gone worse. Monroe and Carson, the "honest" cops, are still alive.
In body, at least.
Renee's no good at pretending to flirt with men, but when she tells O'Toole to watch himself, she lays a hand on his jacket, showing concern. He doesn't notice when she palms his badge, leaving him alone in the parking lot with Monroe. She's out of sight when the detective stabs his chief in the arm with a sedative-filled needle, and she hopes the chief will forgive her.
She follows Monroe and his captive to a warehouse, knowing at all times she could step out and stop it now. But that would end this chapter. That would stop the ritual.
And she has to know. Is this the Religion of Crime, or just a good cop gone crazy?
She's not sure what she'd prefer.
Renee hides, and she watches Monroe stringing O'Toole up like so much meat, himself stripped down to the waist except for a necklace of badges strung together – his trophies of the kill. She watches, and she listens.
"I was undercover and I was scared. All those dirty cops, they were so tough, so strong, and they'd killed, you see, but it wasn't enough. He slaughtered them. If you can't take life, you've got no right to keep your own."
His voice is distant and halting, dreamy and completely sincere, like a recent convert. It's all Renee needs to hear.
She knows those words.
She read them in a Book.
Announcing herself, Renee informs Monroe that he can't get what he wants, can't claim a trophy from O'Toole, because she has his badge. It's like setting a fire behind the acolyte's eyes; he forgets his bound victim and turns every force of his greed towards the Faceless. She had no intention opf giving it up, bbut when he throws a carving knife at her, she has to throw the steel to deflect and save her from losing both faces.
He flees up the stairs and she follows him under orders from the screaming chief of police behind her. She knew it was cold outside, but the snow still hits her hard when she breaks out on to the roof behind him. How the hell did it fall so fast? She's surrounded by a swirling cloud of white, and can't make anything out around her.
Though not quite as annoying as having two hundred pounds of half naked policeofficer jump on her from behind, his string of badges pulled back against her neck with the intent to choke.
"You're weak," he spits in her ear. "I'm strong..."
Renee clips an elbow back sharply into his ribs, winding him and sending his face forward into her rapidly jerking backsuch head. As she rips the badges away from her throat, she sees the arc of his nose blood into the snow in front of her. In the heartbeat before the snow covers that splatter, she darts forward and slips herself out of the jacket he holds. Feeling her feet slip on the ice, she spins around leaps back, flooring her assailant as she does so with a flying roundhouse kick.
"I'm sorry, you were saying?"
The distance wouold have been a great idea if he came at her again, but Renee's plans fail when Monroe slips around in the snow and turns tail, racing for the edge of the roof. She realises too late that he's going to try and make the leap, and races to catch him before...
...before he can....
...he misses the edge and hits the opposite wall with a crack as his kneecaps shatter. But he doesn't fall. Someone caught him.
The man who beat Renee in Liepzig. Who she fought in London. Who she tracked to DC and to Gotham and who had the key to all of the Religion of Crime.
He stands on the flat edge of the other buiolding, holding in his hand the man he used to get Renee's attention with two massacres.
Monroe stares at Renee, all his faith stripped away, and she sees the scared helpless man who had been allowed to live in Riley's; allowed to live so he could murder.
"Pull him in, Flay!" she shouts. "You can save him! You can..."
"...no. You were strong. He was weak. And now..."
She could have stopped this. If she had moved to stop Monroe when he first took O'Toole. If she had told O'Toole from the beginning what she suspected.If she hadn't wallowed in more deceit in order to get closer to the Religion, to the Book.
To the Word.
"...You've murdered him."
It's not a long drop, but it's long enough, and Monroe's body is tired and frozen and breaks easily with when it hits the frozen road. Renee is as still as that corpse, stadning on the roof edge while Flay addresses her, casually tearing a strip away from the wrappings around his arm. There are coordinates written on the bandage, written in an ink thick and congealed brown.
"You've taken the fourth lesson of blood, Faceless. We shall meet four weeks from this day. If you do not come, I shall visit the fourth lesson upon everyone who has ever had meaning in your life, Renee Montoya."
Lesson Four: Murder
It's not exactly a conversation Renee was looking forward too, but seeing the way in which Myra refuses to let the world fall away beneath her on hearing of Charlie's death, it's like losing him all over again.
And it makes her hate herself all the more for the deception she's pulling on everyone.
"Yeah, he's dead. But I still talk to him a lot. You want to give him a message?"
But Myra deserves more respect for her mourning than that. She went to a lot of trouble to fake her own muging to attract the man she loved to ask him for help, and Renee can't let that woman know that she, Renee, has the contact denied to his lover. She deserves the chance to let Vic Sage go, which Renee cannot have for herself.
But you haven't been back to the bar for weeks, is it months now? Why, Renee? Why are you avoiding the place? Is it because you can't tell Huntress about Kate? Or Elicia? Is it because you can't let either of them distract you from the mission? Is it because you're ashamed of what you're doing?
If Hub City were known for one thing, it wouldn't be that the original faceless detective hailed from there, but that it's a seething cess pit of crime and corruption. Apart from Myra and the ghost (sadly not literal) of Vic Sage standing over everything, Renee would feel almost at home here.
In most respects, given the city she originally called home, that really would be damning with faint praise, but Isadore O'Toole, the Chief of Police is like an old friend. Like a lot of her old friends, for that matter.
"That thing in the news about the cops being murdered, that much is true. This guy, he cuts 'em up, takes their shields. But it's Hub City and the whole damn country knows we're a cess-pit, so it ain't like anyone gave a damn.
"The thing is, the dead cops? They're my cops. The ones I trust. The ones that ain't on the take or abusing the badge. It's taken me years to get this department this far, and now some nutjob is tearing it apart. Seventeen in three weeks.
Yeah. Definitely familiar.
His cops. The honest ones. She remembers being a part of that minority. Harder in many ways than being a gay Latina, a lot of the time.
This guy is going down, if Renee has to go down with him.
She just has to work out how to trap him.
"Your cops, you said," Renee says, her voice hard and all business. It's easy, behind the mask. "The honest ones. Who's the most honest cop in Hub City, chief?"
"...you gotta be kidding me."
Charlie probably knew what he was – scratch that, Charlie almost certainly thought he knew what he was doing by leaving his lighthouse jointly to his best friend and the woman he picked to continue this legacy. He wanted them to forge some sort of friendship – certainly, the way he frequently asks after Tot from the distance of the bar speaks of his desire to see the two of them cosy and settled roommates on the seafront.
Instead, it's just awkward.
Professor Aristotle Rodor is short with words and quick with judgement and doesn't hold back with the disapproval for everything Renee does or thinks. He is also the smartest person she has ever met, and dedicated to completing Charlie's work every bit as much as she is, out of respect for the man and as a way to work through his own mourning process. But she's growing used to having him around. After all, he judges everything she does, but he's still not as bad as a Dominican mother.
However, Renee has not told him that she's met Charlie at a bar between universes. And as such, she lies to him every single moment.
They're not friends. Rodor makes this clear at every opportunity. But that doesn't stop hiim from offering her coffee everytime he makes a pot, despite knowing full well she doesn't take caffeine any more. Renee gets the impression he offered the same to Charlie, immune to the refusals. She doesn't drink, but she notices.
In the middle of the exchange of short snipes that has become their morning routine, Rodor is distracted suddenly by the TV news he has in the background.
"Myra?" Renee looks sharply at the picture; a petite redhead with delicate features, looking at the same time too young to be a mayor and much much older than her years. "That's her?"
Pretty and intelligent and competent. The love of Charlie's life.
"Sixteen Hub City police officers have been murdered in the past three weeks. The attack on Mayor Connelly-Firmin now raising fears that the killer is branching out..."
A cop killer. Going after the woman known to be romantically attached to the old Question. Renee has no doubts whatsoever that Flay is sending the ex-cop new Question a very obvious message. He might as well throw rocks at her window.
I guess I'm off to the Mid-West.
Too much to ask that I could go back to Europe?
But Kate doesn't hand the book over when asked.
"Whatever's in this book, it's evil. You said so yourself!"
"Someone has to understand them! I need that book! I need its knowledge!"
"It's not need! It's greed!" Kate must know how deep a cut that leaves. "You're so desperate for the knowledge you don't care what it's doing to you! I'm asking you, please, let it go."
To hear Kate sound so plaintive is a new one on Renee, but she can't let it sway her. It's not about greed. It's about knowledge, and understanding and finishing what she and Charlie started, what almost killed Kate. It's about finishing a job, and Kate doesn't seem to understand that.
And that is why she kicks Batwoman's legs from under her.
The fight is intense and vicious, and nothnig like any fight Renee's seriously had. Richard, Vic and Huntress are good, but that was in most cases, training. Flay and the other cult members have training and strength and ability, but Kate is relentless and hard and uses every weapon in her arsenal, including throwing honest-to-God batarangs at Renee. There's anger in her that Renee's opponents rarely have; directed full force towards Renee herself. Renee, and their relationship, which they both know, can never be friendship, and seems doomed, even after all these years to be stuck in the heat and the anger of the recently heartbroken.
Maybe they should stop sleeping together, but Renee can't stop that. It's all she can do to remember that this is a fight, not foreplay, she wants so hard to get at the woman under that suit. But Kate has the book, and Renee needs the book more than she needs to kiss Kate, right now. Meanwhile Kate – she doesn't care about the book. She's just fighting to fight, and to get to Renee. That anger gives her the edge, and after fifteen minutes intense fighting, Renee is down, at the mercy of Kate's boot.
"Why? What's so damn important you're willing to fight me over this?! Why are you doing this?"
Renee chokes against the boot at her throat. "I have to fight them! I'm trying to save you!"
Kate removes her foot, and Renee can't tell if it's out of compassion or disgust. All she can choke out is "I'm doing it for you."
The book lands at Renee's feet, bouncing under the force of being thrown.
"Maybe you should have asked what I want? But that's never been a question, has it? Goodbye, Renee."
Renee can't get the train out of Gotham fast enough. As she leaves behind the city she grew up in, she opens the book.
The pages are all blank, except for seven words in the middle.
Lesson Three: Greed
His name is Sinclair, and he's the leader of the tenth coven in Gotham. Kate says she doesn't know much about the religion, but she's picked up some leads with her not-an-investigation-honest. The strategy of attack for this guy is simple; the Question takes out his bodyguards while Batwoman pounds him into the floor.
Renee could watch Kate work for hours. It's not all from West Point; somewhere between their attempt at a relationship and the invention of Batwoman Kate became very good. She moves like she's dancing, and her fight is artistry. There's nothing of Renee's sensei in her, but it's all grace and force and a smile that means she really really enjoys what she's doing.
Renee is going to remember that smile for many nights to come.
Right now, she just stands and watches thr Batwoman work her spell, and she remembers what it was like to be a layperson, watching the capes do theiir work. She has to remind herself that she's a cape herself, in a way.
He gives them the date and time of the auction, and Kate makes all the arrangements to crash the party. Renee's head is filled with the exictement and intoxication of working with a partner again. She missed this.
It's been a long long time since Renee was in Gotham, and the first order of business is Cris. He might not have any answers to the puzzle she's trying to put together, but she hasn't visited him, and he deserves that. She owes him a visit, and an apology.
She brings him roses. Not out of choice, but she didn't think to buy flowers until too late, and the street vendor only had red roses. Not usually the kind of thing that a lesbian would bring her male ex-partner, but Cris doesn't complain. Cris doesn't complain about anything these days.
She leaves them in their original wrapping by the gravestone.
From then on, she visits people in the exact reverse order of priority and need, because for everyone who isn't former Detective Allen, the people she most needs to see are the people she least wants to see. The uniform bars - nothing. Molly's - nothing. The obvious thugs - nothing, except the satisfaction of violence. The GCPD - something. Along with a lot of pain of seeing both Maggie and Jim at once. Renee is far too aware of how much she misses her cop family, but the job really wasn't good for her.
She's tracing the third version of the Bible of the Dark Faith. It was being handled by a man named Flay, and then passed to the Penguin for auction. Renee needs it; needs to know what she's dealing with.
And the best person to help her is the first and last person she wants to see.
"I owe you an apology, Kate."
God, she looks good. And she's mad, which is only to be expected considering how Renee left her (It feels like years now, fucking Milliways), and that just makes her hotter. It'd be a cliche to talk about redheads and their tempers; god knows Renee's been as guilty of that as anyone.
They go to a cafe for a drink – Kate is surprised that Renee doesn't drink anymore – and Renee explains about her quest to learn more about the book.
"The words, the pictures. It's hard to explain... it's terrifying, even... even evil... but it's also seductive and sometimes... sometimes you can see the beauty in it."
"STOP IT." Kate screams at Renee, who hadn't intended to start talking like that and is as much surprised by herself as by Kate's shouting. Kate doesn't have to remind Renee that the book ordered her murder, but she does anyway.
"You should destroy them," she insists. "Burn the books."
"No," Renee says stubbornly. "I can't. I have to know my enemy."
Kate remains unhappy, but she nevertheless aquieses to Renee's unspoken request for help.
Renee comes back the next Thursday.
And the Thursday after that. And after that. Regular. She meets Elicia, they sit in a room, and they talk. And then the Question slips out and investigates, waiting for the opportune moment to stop the initiation of Casucci.
Meanwhile, Renee can spend more and more time with the captivating, sweet, and constantly witty Elicia. As the weeks go by, she's thinking more of Elicia from week to week than of the mission; of the Cult. Elicia and Renee; Renee and Elicia.
On the eighth week, Elicia is not immediately available, so Renee waits, thinking only of the girl rather than the job, what they'll talk about, how Elicia will look and smell and laugh. She's marginally disappointed that another client gets to spend time Renee doesn't, but she can wait.
When Renee is shown up to the room, Elicia practically jumps on her, immediately sweeping her into a sudden kiss that Renee has to back out of.
"Elicia, slow down."
"Make love to me."
She has a bruise on her face, Elicia. Someone hit her, hard and recently. And Renee vows silently to make that person suffer for touching her in that way.
"She did," Elicia says reluctantly, voice lowering to a whisper. "You don't understand, they've been watching..."
They know. They know that Renee knows, what they're doing here. And Elicia has been threatened with further violence to keep her occupied here, because tonight is an initiation. Casucci's.
"That's why you keep coming back, isn't it?" Elicia asks. "You don't want me, you never did."
It cuts just as deep as anything Kate or Dee ever said. Renee flinches. "You're wrong,"
And she shows her just how wrong.
Afterwards, the regret hurts. Renee doesn't love Elicia, she knows that. She was just... infatuated, and she abused that infatuation, letting herself get distracted from the job in the process. The conversation is short, terse, and it's the Question who leaves the room, to find Casucci's initiation, catching him in ritual, just about to kill a woman at the alter of Cain.
They're all outmatched, and the Question makes short work of them all, reminding Casucci that "nothing they threaten you with could be worse than what they want you to become."
There's no satisfaction in making her way through the acolytes, but there is something in facing down the Mother Superior. The woman who hit Elicia, who used her to get to Renee, who orchestrated the whole thing and pushed her into doing what she hates herself for doing.
For a second, she sees and feels nothing except that hatred for herself, which gives way at anger at the whole sorry cult and what they did to her, and to Elicia. Out of disgust, she snatches a lit torch from the wall and throws it to the tapestries.
All traces of her sin must be erased.
Lesson Two: Lust
Renee Vasquez is also completely fictional; a creation of Renee Montoya, who wore out her VHS copy of Aliens long before DVDs came out.
The brothel is a front for a sect of the Religion of Crime called the Sisters of Lilith, who use sex as a form of persuasion to convert their customers to the cult. Being a high-priced establishment, with a reputation for both quality and discretion, and situated in the environs of DC, they have managed to spread the word of Cain into a number of very powerful mouths indeed. Renee is here for reconnaissance only. Look around, prove that's what they do, get out.
Until she sees Elicia. Elicia ruins everything.
Blonde, confident and charming, she ensnares Renee through a glass wall without even looking at her, and soon they're in a room together, despite Montoya's resolve not to indulge; not to give in to the temptation, not to abuse her sexuality, not to go down that path again. To just do the job.
But if she's going to do that, she needs to get away from Elicia. So she slips pills into her own champagne to make throw up as a distraction. It's not hard - she's been dry so long the alcohol tastes bad anyway -and when Elicia is out of the room, Renee breaks out the mask and gas and slips into the House, to have some questions answered.
The sisters have their eyes on Colonel Casucci, and Renee soon deduces that an initiation is coming. Hopefully one she'll be able to stop, if she keeps coming back.
Which gives her more time with Elicia.
When it rains in Gotham, it rains sudden and it thunders hard and it continues until the city is swimming in its own filth. It is, Renee considers, real rain. When it rains in London - and she's decided it's always raining in London - it's a pale imitation of Gotham and somehow more annoying; a grey dampness that doesn't seem to actually come out of the sky so much as ooze up from the poorly kept streets (and Gotham's been through an earthquake) straight into her skin. It makes her miserable, and a miserable Renee is a Renee that misses alcohol and cigarettes and mild violence.
She's in London at the tail end of a short tour of the Religion of Crime's major outposts in Europe, and because of a newly published book by a Professor Stanton Carlyle, a Scot currently holding a research position at the Folklore Society at University College London. Tonight is a talk and accompanying signing - the single one promotional event for Carlyle's new book ; A Blasphemous Mythology: The Religion of Crime.
Renee has, of course, read the book. She's read two copies of the book it was based on: the Crime Bible, holy book of the Religion of Crime, the acolytes of which had only recently tried to cut out the heart of Renee's friend and one time lover. Not to mention that the man who first alerted her to the presence of the cult was Charlie, Vic Sage, the latest in the line of dead friends and partners of Renee Montoya. This is a job that needs completing.
If she could only stop making so many rookie mistakes.
Her first mistake was attempting to confront Carlyle at the talk about the possibility of the cult actually existing. It gave him the opportunity to be rude and dismissive in front of his audience, and alerted him to someone with a special interest to be there.
Her second mistake was, when cornering him in a Bloomsbury street after the talk, to betray that she knew of the existence of the three copies of the Crime Bible, even to name the two 'considered lost' (actually in the lighthouse with Tot). It put his defenses up even further and he stormed off with a mild threat.
So she did what she probably should have already done: she pulled her mask down over her face and broke into his offices, where she found a presentation case for what appeared to be a pair of scissors made by Watson & Weir in Westminster. Scissors - the favoured murder weapon of Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Dusseldorf.
The Crime Bible is like another of a similar name - it's made up of a number of 'books'. The Five Books of Blood. The Book of Moriarity. The Book of Kürten. It's all connected, all entwined. All obvious to the woman who's spent months immersing herself in the Bible and the cult.
The scissor-sellers supplied the charming American PI with Carlyle's home address, and she was back on the trail, pulling her mask down on the way. By the time the Question arrived at the house, it wasn't a moment too soon - Carlyle already had the scissors up and posed ready to kill his wife from behind.
By now, she had the answers, or so she thought. Carlyle, an acolyte of the Religion of Crime, wrote the book about it: pretending to be a dissection but really to promote knowledge of the Book and spread the cult further. The murder of his wife and child in the style of the Vampire of Dusseldorf would just increase profile and have more people turning to the book. Fortunately, the Question has been trained by Richard Dragon, and is able to easily subdue Carlyle. The sudden appearance of a better trained martial artist bearly phased her - she recognised him as a member of Order of the Stone, one of the major covens within the Religion, and he kept her working hard for a few tough minutes.
"You have learned the word," he told her, "but you resist its call."
Renee's final mistake was assuming it was just Stanton in the Cult of Crime. She was too busy with martial fighter man to notice his wife, or to stop her stabbing the professor. They were both followers.
Fueled with a sudden rush of adrenalin, Renee knocked the thug down and raced after the woman to the second floor, where she was just in time to utilise some vicious armbreaking and stop the murder of the son.
Vicious and intensely dissatisfying.
And now it's now. Face clear, Renee watches from an alley as the response to her 999 call comes in. A father is dead, a mother arrested and broken, and a son left. And the cult will get their publicity.
"I should've seen it," she tells herself. "I could've stopped it."
Lesson One: Deceit
“I need you to go to him again. Tell him it worked.”
It was a lifetime ago. More than a lifetime ago. That was a different city, a different world, and a different Renee who followed Jim's orders and made deal with the devil.
When she wakes, she'll rationalise it and remember and know that they didn't know where they stood and they didn't have much room to do anything else. She'll go over the mental pathways she's covered a thousand times since, and fail to come up with away they could have survived that isn't complete fairy tales.
But in her dream, right now, all she can see is hisface – both of them, and that eye continually mocking her while his other begs her to do the right thing, by all of them, by everyone. All she can hear is the tingle of his coin as it tocuhes ground, and she can't bear to finsd out what side came up this time.
It was another lifetime. But since Huntress returned to the bar, Renee has been dreaming it every night., and she realises now why it was she waited so long before returning to her own life, her own world.
She had to make sure Huntress came back.
And now she's back, and alive, and safe, and everyhting's going just as Renee remembers it – which isn't well.
Now it's time for Renee to get on with her own task.