Chapter 6: Not the Start of a Beautiful Friendship
If asked, Selina would readily admit Poison Ivy was not her favorite person in the world… “In fact, she’s not in the top six billion.” That didn’t prepare her for the words ‘She’s dying’ or the fairly gruesome explanation that followed:
“Despite the green skin and pheromone production, she started off human: oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. Now it looks like half of her is respiring as a plant, at least at the surface level: taking in carbon dioxide from the air through eerily leaf-like skin and putting out oxygen as a waste product. The tissue where the two halves meet is distressed, very seriously so. Her connection to plants might be enhanced, making her appear more powerful, but she’s paying for it with every breath. She can’t live.”
The last words were punctuated by a soft tone from a console in the main cavern, as if the Batcave itself was tolling Ivy’s doom with the lyric indifference of an 18th Century poet.
“You get that while I change,” Bruce ordered as he headed to the costume vault.
As he dressed, he reexamined the plan he’d started at the hospital, tweaking a few details in light of Selina’s report. Then he clenched his fist and twisted his arm to send a barb of pain through his muscles, blasting away the last of the morphine. In the surge of that fight-or-flight response, he speed-reviewed the revised plan… grunted… and emerged from the costume vault.
“No, we’re at the satellite cave under the tower, so under a mile,” Selina was saying. “Right... Right… Catwoman out.” She touched a control and then turned to face him. “It was Dick on the comm. Seems he was on the scene at the Diamond Horseshoe and you lost a cufflink; he found it in the rubble. He covered with his usual jokes, but I think he was rattled. I told him you’re fine. He guessed ‘suited up twenty minutes after getting back from the hospital.’ I said more like five, and he said Alfred must be slipping.”
He grunted, but Selina’s smirk had faded.
“That’s why you brought us here,” she said (in the same tone he’d say ‘The museum is closed.’) “He’d have you sedated and in bed by now, wouldn’t he? (You’ll need the micro-C4 insert to get through the steel-reinforced window…) Bruce, what makes you think I don’t care about you just as much as he does? (…And that will take time you don’t have any more.)”
“What I think is that you have a better understanding of the life out there,” he graveled. “The demands of the job, and what I’m capable of. You know I’ve worked through worse than this a hundred times.”
It was Batman’s eyes locking onto hers on the final words, the resolve that would never admit to feelings that compromised the mission. The discipline, the stubbornness, the jackass. She realized he had been alert enough to give himself that shot in the med lab, but he handed her the hypo instead. She gave his gauntlet a hard swat over the injection mark, enough to be felt on the ravaged tissue beneath.
“That was for testing me,” she said with vintage rooftop sass that covered something else. “And after I stole you from the hospital. Before that there was a… dog.”
“I’m sorry, Kitten,” he said, knowing she really meant the scare she’d had in between. He hugged her briefly, then smacked her backside. “Now let’s get to work. I take it Nightwing is on standby if we need him?”
“As soon as he gets changed. He was in civvies when he called, and after what I told him, he’s heading home before getting back into costume. I think you’re all going to enjoy switching to silk underwear. I know I prefer it.”
Batman ignored the subtext, as always, and powered up the city map.
“A reasonable precaution, but we’ll do better with him covering my flank with Etrigan. Ivy is going to be your responsibility.”
“I thought that might be the case,” Selina said with a curt, professional nod. “And not just because of the pheromones. All that stuff she said to Dr. Sabana about a woman acting as advisor for the animal kingdom. Much as it makes my skin crawl, it really sounds like I was her ‘first choice,’ the obvious one who came to mind and she went for Sabana as an alternative.”
“Yes,” Batman said. “But I had you tagged for the job before you told me any of that. When I was with Ivy, there was a vibe whenever your name came up. Reminded me of Barbara when she first showed up as Batgirl. Dick when he was in high school.”
“If you’re saying Ivy is part adolescent brat, I must tell you, that’s standard for rogues.”
“I’m not saying that at all; I’m saying the opposite. I’m fairly sure what I was seeing when your name was mentioned was the real Pamela Isley, pre-Poison Ivy. Something about you, the feelings you evoke, accesses the pre-Ivy parts of her personality. That’s the most likely key to de-powering her.”
Selina made a face and mouthed ‘de-powering’ like a child reacts to the announcement of liver and spinach for dinner.
“Bruce, you know I’ve no objection to finding an off switch when it comes to powers. But it seems like we’re stacking an awful lot of conjecture on a half-hour of observation and a few second-hand accounts, without any chance to test anything. You sure I’m the best person for this and not, say, one of your over-sugared Justice League buddies that like to go flying in without any idea what they’re dealing with?”
“I am. The idea is to get ‘Pamela’ in the room long enough to get a message through, make her see reason about her condition. The appearance of any ‘Cape’ would do the opposite. Now then,” he paused long enough to touch several spots on the map, which lit up at his touch. “History says she’ll have made for Robinson Park. It’s closer than Riverside and much larger, infinitely more places to hide.”
“I was thinking I’d bring Harvey,” Selina continued. “Seems like he’s got the best chance of getting through to her.”
Batman shook his head.
“A few hours ago, I would have agreed. Not just because of her remark about the twins but, as I said before, she was instrumental in reaching Harvey when Two-Face took over after that Vernon Fields business. It’s even possible that her transformation taking that form, divided down the center, could be a subconscious desire to call in that debt.”
“But I didn’t like the way she was talking about him,” he said darkly.
“Of all the things she’s done tonight, I can’t believe that makes the list.”
“Selina, you’re right that you and Harvey have a better chance of getting through to her than Batman would, and probably better than you would have alone. But we can’t risk a coin toss. If it’s more than his physical appearance, if Two-Face rules are back in play, that’s a variable I don’t want in the picture. Better to go in alone than with an ally that might turn on you.”
“Pfft, I can handle Two-Face,” she said dismissively.
“Since always, jackass. He’s less of a problem than you were.”
“He stabbed you when you found him at Fields’s hospital room.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “But after that, he refused to flip for it when Ivy suggested killing me. You said she’s dying, Bruce. You think if I tell him that in just that way he won’t vote down any lingering Two-Face urges in order to save her?”
“I really don’t know what that relationship is, Selina, and I don’t care to. I know enough: I know it’s an unknown. He’s an unknown, a dangerous one. Too dangerous to have in the room while you’re facing her in this state.”
“I’ll be the judge of what’s too dangerous, thank you very much.”
“Like hell you will. This is my plan and I—”
“Bruce, when normal people wake up in a hospital, they stay there,” she cut him off harshly. “When they do eventually get out, they go home, get into bed, and the person who loves them the most in this world fluffs their pillow. You call me to break you out like it’s a Ra’s dungeon. And I do. You hand me a hypo and say ‘Give me the shot, I can push through the pain.’ You want me to trust your judgment; well this is where you pay for it, partner. You trust mine. I’m bringing in Harvey. You might want to keep that in mind when you talk to me on the comm tonight.”
With that, she turned to go, but Batman reached out and grabbed her arm.
“Selina, wait,” he said, a stab of pain from the fiber attack twisting down his side as he moved, infusing the words with an urgency he didn’t feel. “You’ll need this.” He held out a bat-shaped communicator. “Harvey will believe you’ve agreed to work with Batman on something like this, you’ve done it before. But you can’t do it with a cat-shaped mouthpiece.”
“No guess I can’t,” she said, taking the comm with a wink. “It’s funny, Dick and Barbara had those made for me because it would be compromising for me to walk around with the bat-version.”
Batman said he would brief Oracle and the others that the Catwoman on the comm tonight would be the unrepentant cat burglar with no knowledge of unmasked identities, but Selina wasn’t listening. She was looking down at the comm between her fingers and biting her lip thoughtfully.
Batman’s voice trailed off. He knew the expression, even before Selina’s eyes flicked up to meet his.
“You have an idea,” he said flatly.
“I do. And you’re really going to hate it.”
The Red Feast. Etrigan slurped, thinking he should have done this before. Wasting his time tormenting Ivy with that foul taste in his mouth. Earth-life. Gaia breath. His very flames stinking of that, that… stuff just because he was impatient to see the bitch suffer. Well, he’d come to his senses, thanks to that rancid meth whore. Sinking his teeth into her back, hearing the gurgle of a scream that wouldn’t come, he couldn’t think why he’d waited so long. A vagrant was next, and much better eating. Oh, the blood of one who had killed, twice in war and twice since, it had a tang he hadn’t tasted in so long. It frothed between his teeth, melting away the last traces of that awful sap.
The whore’s body thrashed on the ground, spilling her inferior blood into the sod. It would not do anywhere else, for the Princes of Hell did not feed like lower demons. They were fastidious. There was no shame in the spill itself—such as the rich, succulent cruor which gushed from the vagrant as Etrigan tore the meat from his ribs—but to leave the spillage was not decorous. On a floor, he would have to lick it up or burn it dry, but to let it flow into the mud was considered a mark of special celebration. It acknowledged the intrusion of life into the earthly realm that had once belonged to demons alone, accepting its pleasures and entering into its ways of death and rebirth.
Etrigan let his head tip back, nostrils flaring for a deep inhale, and let loose with an elemental howl that vibrated in the souls of every living thing within earshot. A dozen birds fell from the trees, their little hearts seized in dread. Dogs howled for a quarter mile in every direction; beyond that, they whimpered.
Etrigan snorted in satisfaction, light tufts of smoke pulsing from his nostrils in a slow, angry rhythm. The goddess. She couldn’t claim the immortality to justify that title, but she did have a bond with all this stinking plant life and that bond was stronger than it had been. Where once she had scouts that would observe the goings on in the park and report back, now… she would feel it. She would know the demon had entered her park.
Leathery lips drew back from fangs still stained with blood. The mouth opened, resembling wildcats displaying the flehmen reaction. He looked around, selected a shrub, and directed a controlled tongue of flame into its center.
Selina wondered what would upset Bruce more: the number of favors she was racking up with active and semi-active Rogues, or the idea of her going in to confront Ivy with an ally who would be considerably more dangerous than Two-Face if he turned on her.
“I gotta tell you, C.W., if it was anybody else asking, I’d show them the door head first.”
Matt Hagen had shifted his bulk to mimic either her own elbows-on-the-table lean-forward move from her stint as Gatta Corleone, or James Gandolfini’s as Tony Soprano at a sitdown on which her performance had been based. Either way, it meant he knew he held all the cards.
“That bitch gets into my clay. I mean that literally. Her ‘babies’ will sink their roots into me and suck. Water? Minerals? Don’t ask me what they suck in exactly, but it’s incredibly uncomfortable.”
Of course he had also taken and held a human form when he saw her, a very attractive one. So maybe she did have a card or two…
“Now you say she’s getting into fibers? I hate those things. Just trying to mush out on a bed, I hate ‘em. And don’t get me started on shag carpeting. Ivy commanding fibers, I’m going to have nightmares now.”
“I appreciate that,” Selina said earnestly. “But now that we know, there’s an easy enough workaround: don’t wear cotton.”
“Suppose she’s ready for that, hm? Suppose she’s got some laying around, just in case.”
“In the park, that’s extremely unlikely.”
“But not impossible,” he insisted.
“No. No, it’s not impossible. But, Matthew, if that’s the case, while it may be uncomfortable, I don’t think it will hurt you the way it can hurt Harvey. And me, by the way.”
“Besides which, she can use the pheromones to turn Harvey on you, and that won’t work with me, right?”
“That’s basically why I’m here, yes.”
He stroked his chin, thinking it over.
“You’d be wired, just like when you went to see Bane during the war. Harvey will feed you your lines the way Eddie did,” she prompted.
“Yeah, I get that. It’s just the idea. Second time I’d be playing a man who doesn’t have the sense to stay out of sniffing distance of that crazy harpy. Dent’s actually worse than Batman. Going back on his own because he likes her? How mental can you get? It’s like going back to Pasadena.”
“Um, okay, I’m sure there’s a funny story there and I’d love to hear what happened in Pasadena—some other time. Right now, the clock is ticking. So rather than go on listing all your objections to ‘taking this role,’ let’s assume we’ve already had that conversation and you go on to the part where you tell me what it’s going to cost for you to overlook it.”
“Jesus, C.W. you sound like a studio suit.”
“I really am pressed for time, Matthew. A lot of people have already been hurt tonight. If there’s a solution here, quote me a price. If not, tell me flat out so I can stop wasting my time and move on to something that might work.”
“I say no, you’re going to go in alone?” he asked.
“No, I’ll take my chances with Harvey,” she said. “I really think the two of us have a better chance than I do alone. Best of times, Pammy and I really don’t like each other.”
“Then why are you doing this?” he asked—but this time, his voice had an odd tone and Selina suspected the delivery, if not the actual words, was from one of his films.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s what you do.”
His eyes had locked onto hers, and Selina had the weirdest feeling she was just ‘scanned.’ She couldn’t guess what he had seen in her, but he’d noted something that—like Gandolfini’s sit-down—he’d decided he might want for his repertoire.
“You’re kind of creepy,” she said, figuring that any real Rogue would know to take that as a compliment.
It was no simple matter searching a space as vast as Robinson Park, even for anomalies as conspicuous as Etrigan and Poison Ivy. Nightwing began on the West Side moving East; Batman on the East moving West. He came across signs of self-uprooted foliage near the clearing with the Janus statue, and forwarded the info to Catwoman. It was unclear if Ivy had been there herself or was merely close enough for the plants to hear her summons, but he judged the disturbance had been between one and two hours prior, and at least some of the plants were moving south-southwest. He didn’t take time to analyze further, Ivy being only a secondary objective. He did hope to confirm the observation as he went along, when Nightwing radioed. He’d found bodies, an obvious Etrigan kill. Batman raced to the site and, joining Nightwing, they began a new search from that spot, spiraling outward as if making it the center of a yin-yang.
After nearly a half-mile, Batman smelled it. An odor like grilling vegetables. He ran ahead and found Etrigan in a “clearing” that had not been a clearing that afternoon. It was barely a bike path. Now trees were bent and broken, some pulled up by the roots, some smoldering branches broken over rocks, benches overturned. And in the center of it, Etrigan wrestled with a new abomination. A monster bred of many smaller plants coiled together, like the one at the nightclub. But where that had resembled a giant serpent, this was more like a hydra. Four—five—no six tendrils coiling, undulating and snapping like something from a Hercules epic.
As ridiculous as it looked, the thing was clearly able to give Etrigan a fight, wrapping around a leg here, head-butting there. And while the demon gave as good as he got, snapping off one tendril and wrapping another around a tree, Batman could see the sappy white substance that oozed from its wounds hurt Etrigan. He would wince and withdraw a talon rather than let it be covered. Once, when he shot flames at one of the tendril-heads, it dodged and another tendril leapt into his mouth, making him howl.
Batman swiftly weighed the bargaining chip of helping against the strategic advantage letting Etrigan tire himself out.
“Now I’ve got you, now I’ve got you,” Ivy said, her head tipped back, her mouth open, but the gasps that followed seeming more passionate that labored.
“You want to be alone, Petal? Or is there room for two?”
Ivy turned with a rapturous smile towards the familiar voice, but the joyous ‘Harvey!’ on her lips stopped at “Ha—” when she saw who walked beside him. “Two more, you mean,” she sniffed, then went on in a sing-song tone like a child putting on a show of politeness before an adult. “Hello, Selina, how nice to see you again. Been too long. Do come in and join the party.”
“Thanks,” Catwoman said flatly. “Raising a little hell, are we?”
“No,” she said with a proud smile. “Did it on its own this time. And I’m teaching it a lesson.”
“She’s got balls, I’ll give her that,” Harvey said in an aside to Catwoman, which brought an angry glare that matched the angry squawking in his earpiece. “I mean we’ll give her that,” he amended. “We mean we’ll give her… oh never mind.”
“It’s quite wonderful,” Ivy said, tilting her head as if listening to a favorite song. “I don’t need spies and scouts like I used to in order to keep up on the comings and goings when I’m in the park. My babies, the special ones I just made, we’re so… connected.” Her face was transformed on the final word, a euphoric gleam in her eye and a psychotic twitch on her lip. “I can just reach out,” she said, closing her eyes with a dreamy expression, “and feel them.” She began to laugh, then to cackle. “And they’re winning, hahahahaha, oh, yes. Well, maybe not winning exactly, but they’re hurting the big brute.”
“Petal, that cannot possibly be good for you,” Harvey-Matt said cautiously.
“Oh look, Batman’s there. Why don’t one of you go string him up by the nads,” Ivy instructed. Then her brow furrowed. “No, doesn’t seem to work. They don’t take direction as well as the old single vines, at least not at this distance, but it’s a fair tradeoff.” Her hand moved absently down her chest, at first seeming like she was stroking a breast. Then, as she took a deep breath, it became clear that she was caressing the dark strip separating the green skin from the pink.
“Petal… Pamela,” Harvey said deliberately, “This is really dangerous stuff you’re playing with. You told us plants don’t think like people, they don’t experience the world like we do. You can’t expect to just hook yourself up to some plant brain and think it’s not going to take a toll. You’ve said it a hundred times about Harley, spending all that time listening to Joker nattering on. Some point, the crazy starts to make sense. And besides that, that thing you’re doing with the chest-stripe doesn’t look at all healthy.”
Since Harvey could hear but not see, the last observation was presumably Matt’s own improvisation. He was staring at the spot, and not with admiration. Ivy noticed and glared.
“What a hypocrite you are. Two-tone, you don’t find it a turn-on? You don’t think they’re ‘a perfect pair’ anymore?”
“Petal, please,” Harvey-Matt said uncomfortably, while Catwoman became thoroughly engrossed buffing a claw. He went on. “You were perfect just as you were, and we were a perfect pair during the war, weren’t we? The way you railed against the mobs was the hottest thing I ever saw.”
“Who ever saw?” Ivy said with a honey-dipped gotcha smile.
“Ehhh,” Matt stalled when the Harvey in his earpiece offered no response. “Figure of speech,” he went on, although his tone said ‘Line?’
“You’re so full of it,” Ivy said in an odd mix of admiration and disgust. “You’re here because of the twins, right? I knew that’d bring you out. Queen Feline came along to scold me because I roughed up her precious Bruce, and you’re here because I went after twins without inviting you along.
“You should have been there anyway, Harvey. Why weren’t you? Times, Daily News and the Observer all had blurbs on their arrival. Twitter and Instagram were buzzing about their movements since Bruce Wayne took them to Wine Riot—oh and by the way, Selina, what the hell? You going to make that man behave or what?”
The change when she shifted her attention to Selina seemed to confirm Bruce’s theory: a younger woman. Maybe not ‘high school,’ but definitely younger than the eco-terrorist with two doctorates. Was that a pre-Ivy Pamela? Selina thought back to when they’d met at the polo grounds, when Jason said she was trying to ‘make friends.’ She’d mentioned Bruce then too. Maybe… maybe something in her relationship with Bruce struck a chord with Pamela?
“It’s not a big deal,” Selina said, jettisoning all the ‘Catwoman’ responses she’d brought in with her and stalling for time while she considered this.
It happened when she dimension-hopped too. There was a strangely rational, compassionate and centered version of Poison Ivy who ran the Iceberg Lounge and was sure the Bruce and Selina she knew belonged together. She called it Nature’s Decree... Selina continued to stall:
“It’s like a bachelor party,” she explained. “Except he’s having it a little early because these women flew in from halfway around the world…”
And she was on their side when the Rogues were out to destroy ‘her’ wedding. She’d gone to Bruce to assure him she was going to protect it. Why? Why was she so invested? Somewhere in that screwy head of hers, ‘Bruce and Selina’ meant something…
“If you say so, screw it. I still think it’s weird,” Ivy said, turning away. This time the effect was definitely high school. The words, the tone, the posture, everything.
From Demon freed from fleshy pen
To him whose rage is trapped within,
I call in language loud and clear,
‘Oh Dark Knight, Friend, a little help here?’
Batman grunted. Of course Etrigan sensed him. Up until now, the battle had his full attention. But within the last minute, the plant-hydra became sloppy. To a wholly objective observer it might seem punchy from the fight, but Batman recognized the behavior he’d seen earlier—what he felt earlier—in the vines that held him backstage at Queen of the Night. Whenever Ivy's attention wavered, when she dipped into that more passive civilian persona, the plants weakened. They became slower, confused, and more easily outsmarted.
As if to prove the point, Etrigan bit off one of the heads, then spat it on the ground, making a face at the sensation that obviously pained him. He spat at it several more times, then shot a lick of fire at it for good measure, a delighted snarl on his lips.
Unfortunately for him, the rest of the creature took advantage of the opening. First it rammed him with all its remaining heads planted in the center of his chest, knocking him to the ground; then the momentum slammed him into a very sturdy tree trunk. Crushed between the huge hydra-vine and the thick bole of wood, Etrigan shook his head to clear the ringing, bared his teeth, and snarled to renew the fight.
“Fine, be that way,” Selina said, doing everything she could think of to turn off ‘Catwoman’ and put herself in the mindset of an earlier time. The girls at Miss Corinne’s who it was such a pleasure to steal from. There was that one; what the hell was her name? From Charlotte, North Carolina, and there was a reason—never discovered but there had to be a reason—she hadn’t gone to Middlesburg. Hair a little too perfect; two sets of electric curlers to keep it that way, God knows how she found the time. Talked like Scarlett O’Hara, charm bracelet, good at algebra, sucked at Latin… What the hell was her name? Well, it didn’t matter, it was ‘Pamela’ now and Selina did her best to think only of perfect-hair-whatshername when she looked at or spoke to Ivy.
“Why all the interest in my boyfriend anyway? Why do you care? It’s not like coming to watch him play polo is going to make me go along with your Trees and Cats Ruling the World scheme. I know you asked Claire first, Pammy. You’re only coming to me ‘cause she turned you down. In fact she didn’t just ‘turn you down,’ she came at you with a knife just for asking.”
“Well she doesn’t have anything to prove like you do, now does she?” Pamela said angrily, hands on her hips. “Where were you when the rest of us banded together to fight Falcone?”
“I was with Harvey when we got bombed!” Selina cried, answering Ivy defensively rather than keeping the conversation on point like she normally would.
“Yes, and then you did nothing. What kind of Rogue does that make you? I said it before and I’ll say it again, wildcat’s been tamed.”
“I took down Falcone!” Selina shrieked, beating down every instinct for feline dignity and mirroring Ivy’s hands-on-hips stance.
“But you didn’t do it with us! You weren’t there when Joker showed up with that idiotic Pagliaccia or when we took the first warehouse or when Molatova came in and—”
“I was with you stopping Bane from blowing up the Iceberg! And Arkham and you, I might add! You don’t have to say thank you or anything, Pamela, I know plants aren’t exactly famous for gratitude. But you might at least refrain from attacking me through Bruce every time you get your aftermarket nose bent out of shape—”
:: What the hell is going on? :: Harvey asked in Matt’s earpiece.
“Not sure,” Matt answered as softly as possible, while taking a tiptoeing step backwards. “The only time I’ve seen anything like this was recording the commentary track for Silver Destiny and that was—you don’t want to know. But three actresses going at it like this and the AD, he was just curled up in the corner by the end of it…”
:: Doesn’t matter. Stop them. ::
“Ladies! Ladies, ladies,” Matt-Harvey announced loudly. “I think we’ve strayed a little far from the point.”
“Which was you being even more inconsistent than Cat People over there,” Ivy said, wheeling on him. “You don’t know who you are anymore, Harvey. First you get the acid wash and think Two-Face just sprung from the scars. Spontaneous generation, like flies from rotting meat. And then you think he’s gone because your scars are magically healed. Go around like he never existed, like you don’t know any of us. Turn yourself into the world’s biggest bottle of Diet Coke-and-Mentos when every natural impulse to get pissed off is squelched, and then when you finally blow and the scars come back, you think you’re all Two-Face. ‘Til I make you come to your senses and bring Harvey back, still waiting for the ‘Thank you’ on that one, by the way. You flit off to the Meadowlark Institute where they think they’ve cured you and you think they haven’t.
“Gaia’s Garters, Harvey, you think you’ve been pulling one over on all the Capes and Straights because you’re not ‘really’ cured, and when the Jetset Twins from Norway come to town, you’re home watching Netflix. Wayne the crime-magnet is trotting them around town, and you’re not even paying attention.”
The left side of Matt-Harvey’s neck trembled very slightly and he blinked in an odd twitchy way.
“You don’t even notice that you speak with one voice now,” Ivy went on. “I don’t mean the ‘we’ and ‘us’ routine. I mean you. The coin only comes out when you remember, and then it’s like… theatre. Not like you’re torn the way you used to be, not ‘of two minds.’ You’re not Two-Face again, Harvey. You’re just a confused mess.”
“Please stop screaming at me,” he said finally.
“Might be hard to hear,” Pamela said in a voice of such eerily rational calm it evoked the Ivy of that other-dimension. “But my tone is and has been perfectly rational and appropriate.”
Though his mouth didn’t move, the faintest, faintest hint of Harvey Dent’s voice could almost be heard from the flesh halfway down his neck. Then a two inch strip below his ear seemed to ripple, like some kind of alien invasion movie where gills were about to sprout out. Ivy’s eyes grew wide and she slapped him.
Slapped him again.
Slapped him a third time, and the earpiece that he had formed the ear around—and had been tightening and clenching the clay-flesh around to cover the noise since Harvey began screaming—fell loose and dropped onto the grass, revealing the true source of the screaming Matt had asked so politely to stop.
:: And another thing we learned from the criminal element, never to turn your back on… :: it ranted.
“You,” Ivy said, a quiet, seething soft-spoken rage. She spat into Matt-Harvey’s face, depositing a dollop onto his cheek which instantly lost a square centimeter of mass and plopped off his face in a disgusting flesh-colored drip.
The ground rumbled briefly, then erupted into a crater between them where tree roots tore through the soil and thick twists of vine slithered through, as if trying to form another great beast but unwilling to emerge until they had the width and girth to be imposing. That was not their aim, however, which soon became apparent as they coiled and slithered around Matt-Harvey’s feet and ankles. Much as he tried to hop and stamp, then to lose form to escape their grip, they recoiled and tried again.
“And you,” Ivy said, turning to Selina who had unholstered her whip and was trying, semi-successfully, to help Matt while keeping her own ankles free. “Bringing him here? After all I’ve done for you? Him? That, that walking dung heap.”
She made a fist and pulled, but neither the leather of Catwoman’s costume, the nylon stitching, nor the silk underneath responded. Catwoman gave her the finger without bothering to look up from her battle with the vines, and… Etrigan laughed.
My darling verdant ecofreak, give up that feline fray.
He said from the path to the Oak Bridge that constituted the entrance to the lair.
It is for you this Etrigan has fought and cloyed his
Your champion of leaf and vine, it fought me well at first,
Leonidas in spinach form, Attila at his worst.
Until, what’s this? It grew confused, meek, cowardly and weedy.
Your power and attention waned, then victory was speedy.
Ivy looked anxiously at Catwoman, then at Two-Face/Clayface, then at Catwoman again, trying to reconstruct when, exactly, she lost touch with her babies in the park. A vine slithered behind Catwoman’s boot in response to her quandary, but for a moment, she couldn’t even remember how to call it to attack.
In the second it took her to remember, the demon started laughing.
Oh that’s rich, the goddess green would sharpen claws
on a cat?
It’s she who plagues you more than I? I’m hurt, and that’s a fact.
A cursed distraction, Bat has said. It’s true, she wins that prize.
To pull your green attention from your own imminent demise.
Selina, dear, I’m not supposed to make your sweet flesh bake.
But cats may run with tails on fire, if you’re swift, you’ll make it to the lake.
With a wide sweep of his arm, he shot a vicious barrage of flame towards Catwoman.
“NO!” Batman called out instinctively as he reached the clearing in time to see it, but not in time to stop it. A positive wall of fire heading for Catwoman, while vines coiled around her waist, making it all but impossible for her to escape. Clayface stretching out his arm to form a barrier between her and the flames. Ivy trying to run, but falling—overwhelmed by the heat or else she was having trouble breathing again—and Hagen adjusting and reforming to shield both women in a precarious double-igloo the instant the flames hit.
“Etrigan, stop!” Batman called, though the sound was lost in the roar of the fire and a more human cry coming from the Hagen-clay. “Enough. You’ve done enough harm. Blood is using you. You can’t want that.”
Etrigan stopped adding to the blaze, and as the sound dropped off, Nightwing’s voice could be heard on the comm asking Batman’s location. He didn’t answer. He squelched the temptation to glance at the clay mound where Catwoman was last seen, and he stared fixedly at the demon.
“Etrigan, he’s using you,” he repeated. “Blood is using you. You can’t want that.”
The other way around, poor sod.
It’s Blood who is the sucker.
It’s been too long since I had a bod.
Now thanks to your polo chukker,
I’m free to roam, I’m free to thrash.
Destruction like this I crave.
Since Luthor’s hatred got me hot
I saw how to misbe—
It wasn’t the first time he’d been hit by a mortal. It wasn’t the first time he’d been impressed with Batman’s unending and untempered commitment to a fight he could not win. The rage that first won Etrigan’s respect tore into him now—pounding, striking, hating—a true brother demon, trapped as he had been in a prison of mortal flesh.
Etrigan backhanded him with all the strength and power a brother demon deserved, and Batman’s bulk went flying into the flash-fired Clayface igloo, shattering it like broken pottery.
..:: Well that’s not good,::.. Oracle reported bluntly in Nightwing’s earpiece. ..:: Everybody but you is offline. Batman’s comm, the restricted channel I put Catwoman on for tonight, that Nigma gizmo she had for Hagen and Dent to use isn’t ours, but I hacked it so I could jump in as a back-up in case… in case this happened. And it’s gone too. ::..
“Acknowledged,” he said, as if it was the most routine announcement in the world.
..:: Dick, everyone’s line is dead. ::..
“Don’t panic, O. It’s the hellfire. Those things are made to survive a kiloton explosion, but as soon as you bring a demon into the vicinity, all bets are off. That stuff has a radius of Evil WTF, messes with everything.”
..:: Hmph. Okay, give me a minute. ::..
“Give you a minute? To counter Demon Evil What-the-Fuck that messes with everything?”
..:: Let’s just say ‘has a radius’ and ‘all bets are off’ rang a bell.::..
She paused and ‘Wing heard the signature staccato of typing in the background. It was a familiar sound in a crisis, but because of the dire circumstances surrounding it, he was never able to realize the comfort it brought. When her voice started drifting off every few words as she became more consumed with her task, and through the pause, you heard that jittery heartbeat rat-a-tat.
..:: When I work with the Justice League, there’s often high levels of radiation from an alien source… And that’s pretty much what we get with standard… Terran-made communication. Can mess with anything in unpredictable ways… I’ve come up with a few tricks to counter it and… Yep, got a location on the Batmobile auxiliary remote… So at least one thing in the utility belt isn’t smashed to bits... ::..
Selina coughed weakly. Her head swam. After about a minute of inconsistent effort, she succeeded in forcing her eyelids open and then wished she hadn’t. For the first time since the Gotham Post travesty appeared, she reconsidered the merits of goggles, as there was… dirt… or some kind of dirt-like stuff… in her eyelashes. Every few seconds, a pebble fell on her head, either the dust settling on the collapse that brought her here, or a warning of further collapsing still to come.
She heard a soft moan up ahead so, with a final lurching cough, she thrust her shoulder forward as she would in a vent, gagged on the dusty-grittiness of the inhale that followed the cough, and lurch-coughed forward with her other shoulder. Then she adjusted her elbows under her and did again. Lurch-cough. Lurch-cough. Until she finally hit a reasonable person-size opening and birthed herself out into a miniature ‘cavern’ formed by the walls of the crater Ivy’s tree-root monster had opened, and topped by, uh…
“Holy hell, is that Clayface?” she asked, wincing up at a ‘ceiling’ with the texture of petrified top soil but the color of their protective igloo—except for one patch where it had the texture of human hair, and one patch where it looked like the sport coat he’d worn as Harvey.
“Possibly,” Ivy said, pointing to the last.
“Matt?” Selina called out with a hope she didn’t feel. “Matthew?”
“Might be dead,” Ivy guessed. Her voice was soft, shell-shocked, and she spoke only a few words at a time. “Thought about making him into pottery enough times. Didn’t think it would work. Never considered hellfire.”
“You could try to show a little respect,” Selina said. “If he’s gone, he went saving us.”
“This what you call ‘saved?’” Ivy said, gesturing with her hand like a game show model presenting a showcase.
“Your green ‘babies’ made this hole. Can’t they dig us out?”
“Of course. I’ve sent out a call. A motivated tree’s roots, a determined vine, they can get through anything. The no-longer-walking dung heap’s remains wouldn’t slow them down.”
“And yet, here we sit,” Selina observed, looking at the walls.
“That awful yellow thing must have burned up or scared off all the babies who are nearby. We’ll have to wait for one that’s farther off to reach us.”
“Etrigan,” Selina said absently, and when Ivy looked at her like she’d cursed, Selina repeated it. “The yellow demon. His name is Etrigan.”
“Is there no one that hates me that you won’t make a friend of?” she asked.
“I’m not fond of Joker,” Selina answered evenly. “Honestly Pammy, very few of my friends actually hate you. Mild dislike, indifference, yes. But Harvey’s a fan. Eddie certainly didn’t mind you until you put him in the hospital.”
“Oh, yes, that,” she said guiltily. “How is he?”
“Bruised and pissed. He’ll recover.”
“And that fellow from the Z?”
“I don’t know. There was no update when I left the hospital.”
“Oh. And that Claire woman?”
“Damn. I liked her.”
“You have a funny way of showing it,” Selina said coldly.
“Self defense, she came at me with a knife,” Ivy replied. “It’s a new power; there are going to be misfires. You know how it is.”
“Actually I don’t. No powers, remember? Just a way with locks and safes.”
“And Batman. If that’s not a superpower, I don’t know what would be,” Pamela muttered. “And Bruce, let’s not forget him—Oh how is he, by the way? I mean, last I saw at the nightclub, there was a fire. But you’re here and not talking about ripping my lungs out through my nose, so he must be okay, right?”
“He’ll pull through. After lots of rest.”
“Remember that time he brought me a Whitman Sampler?” Ivy said with a chuckle, like it was a memory they would look back on with equal pleasure. “Fully greened, goes out to get me a love token, and all he brings back is a crappy box of cheap drug store chocolate.”
Selina stared, openmouthed.
“I mean, how do you do that?” Ivy said, oblivious to Selina’s shock. “How do you get a guy so stuck on you that even pheromones don’t make much of a dent. And you don’t even give up the cats. I mean look at you! Here you are, with the mask and the ears and the claws, prowling after dark. I don’t see you pretending to care about Oswald’s stupid bird fixation or the six hundred episodes of Law & Order that Harvey wants to talk about. In fact, you wouldn’t would you? ‘Cat thing.’ Cats don’t.”
“Sure we do. I bet on the Harvard-Yale game with him,” Selina said. “Every year.”
“You call that a compromise?”
“They’re the Bulldogs, Pammy. In the name of friendship, I bet my hard-stolen dollars on the Yale Bulldogs. Some years, I lose.”
Pamela chuckled, then wheezed. Let her head tip back and took a few deep breaths through her mouth.
“Still doesn’t seem as bad as what I went through,” she said, letting a hand rest on the dark patch of her sternum and tracing it up to her neck, touching it gingerly like a sprained ankle.
“We’re talking about that day at the polo field, right?” Selina asked, ignoring the floorshow. “Pretending you were interested in the Foundation’s animal shelters and hearing about Bruce throwing Batman out of that dinner party?”
“Well that last one was sincere,” Ivy said instantly, forgetting her physical complaints. “I mean, that is fairly spectacular, Selina. The Bat comes asking questions, and Bruce tosses him out of the penthouse.”
“You know that’s a figure of speech, right? It doesn’t mean literally ‘off the terrace’ or anything.”
“Selina, get real. Batman came after you and Bruce threw him out? I don’t even like men and I say that’s a keeper.”
There was blackness. Then instinct without conscious thought shook Batman’s head a few times to clear it. He staggered to his feet, and as his vision cleared, Etrigan grinned.
First round to me. I’d say best of three,
But you know as well as I, you’ll keep coming until you die.
Batman touched his belt, silently transmitting his location—Etrigan’s location—and starting the first countdown. Now it all came down to position, timing, hopefully Nightwing catching up to them at some point, and at least one of them staying conscious.
Catwoman arched an eyebrow, but inwardly, she thanked Bast. There wouldn’t be a better lead-in, and they were trapped. Ivy couldn’t flee when the conversation took a turn she didn’t like…
“Pamela, explain something to me, if you ‘don’t like men’ so much, why do you keep hooking up with Two-Face? I mean, in the beginning, you did seduce Harvey in order to kill him.”
“You should know, Catty. You can’t tell me your going after Bruce Wayne wasn’t for something work-related when it started,” she said, dodging the question reflexively.
“Assuming you’re right,” Selina said with a naughty grin, “I like men. In fact, I only like men.”
“Yeah, only like men you meet on the job. Let’s not forget who you were stuck on before that.” She put her hands together and flapped them like wings, adding a squeaking noise that ended in a wheeze.
“0 for 2 changing the subject, Pammy. We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you and your peculiar insistence that you hate all men, when you clearly don’t. I’m asking you to explain the glaring exception to your stated rule.”
She started to say he was the exception that proved the rule, when she remembered Nigma. Selina knew about that little indiscretion, and only Harvey thought it took two exceptions to prove a rule. She cursed under her breath, and Selina—taking the silence as a scored point just like a cat—continued.
“While we’re on the subject, if men are so low on your list, why do you dress that way? I have evening gowns that show less skin. So if it’s not for them, why do you do it?”
Ivy’s first response was the same as for any challenge: defensive hostility. But being trapped, she only expressed it as an angry glare.
“I wear what I like. I like my leaves. I like the way they feel, and I like looking this way. Why should I deny myself for them?”
“So if they enjoy it, it’s no skin off your nose. If they don’t, same deal. You’re not going to be less than you are for them.”
Pamela shook her head.
“I see what you’re getting at, Selina, but we’re not talking about clothes. People like you when you’re being yourself. Why?”
“Not all of them. Blake, Hugo, you. I don’t give a shit. Plenty of people do like me, why get hung up on the others.”
Ivy’s brow wrinkled like she was sure there was something wrong with the argument (besides it coming from Selina) but couldn’t quite figure it out. Unable to find a flaw in the logic, she said only “Hmph.” Selina continued:
“Pammy, whatever happened to you to make you like this, why do you think it came out looking so much like Two-Face?”
“I don’t see why that man’s name keeps coming up,” she said haughtily.
“You might later. For now, humor me.”
At first Pamela said nothing, and Selina had to be content that it was at least a stubborn teenager silence that meant (according to Bruce’s theory, at least) the pre-Ivy Pamela was still engaged.
“Come on,” she coaxed. “May as well pass the time. We’ve got nothing to do but wait.”
Bit by bit, she started talking… not about the transformation, but the weeks leading up to it. Living with Harvey during the war, a mission in Philadelphia that doubled as a day trip with Harley, a 3AM chat… Some hard truths about the people in her life and how they thought of her, and a series of escapades fueled by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Selina couldn’t help chuckling at the “Paperless e-edition,” which of course made Ivy scowl. Then she laughed too, but said that was the worst part of the whole experience. When she poked fun at herself, when she betrayed the plants she loved and belittled their importance for the sake of making a joke. Selina began to see her remarks about compromise and cats in another light.
“Pammy, if you’re pretending to be someone so completely not-you in order to be liked, I don’t see how that’s any different from using the pheromones. I mean, if you want them to like you, you have to let them see who that is, don’t you?”
“Well, obviously, yes,” Ivy snapped, angry that she hadn’t seen it that way herself. “But if they don’t like the real me—“
“Harvey and Harley? Of course they do, where have you been?”
“—Selina, Harvey is astonished I can be rational and Harley is confused when I’m nice!”
“Yeah,” Selina nodded. “You’re a royal bitch, Pammy. Connect the dots, they like you anyway.”
“I think I’m getting it. I really am. Go on, Pamela. Why do you think you came out of this looking like Two-Face?”
She sniffed dismissively.
“You know so much, why don’t you tell me,” she said—and then realized that if Selina had a theory about her condition, it was the last thing she wanted to hear. So she immediately held up her hand before Selina could speak.
“Okay, well, I was asleep when the transformation occurred,” she reported objectively, like a scientist. “I presumably rolled onto one side, and all of the… catalytic, green-making… stuff, was heavier and therefore succumbed to gravity and settled on my left side.”
Selina pretended to scratch her head.
“That’s semi-plausible,” she admitted. “But then, what was it you said about Harvey before, up above?”
“Didn’t know that, eh? Yeah, he thinks that he’s got you all fooled, that he’s faking being better and is really the same old Two-Face again. Doesn’t even notice that he speaks in one voice now. Oh he still says ‘we’ and ‘us’ and flips the coin when he remembers, but it’s… I don’t know, it’s different. And he kisses like… never mind, that’s personal. Forget I said that.”
“Y-yeah,” Selina said awkwardly. “I actually meant the rot—”
“He’s an idiot, you know. I know people say that about Bruce, but they have no idea. He's like a carnation and Harvey’s the Youtan Poluo of idiocy.”
“R-right. I meant what you said about flies and rotting meat.”
“Oh, that,” Ivy said with a patronizing sigh. “Spontaneous generation, a fallacy borne of the ancient world’s misinterpreting what they saw in nature. They saw flies buzzing around dead animals all the time and with no concept of maggots or larvae, they figured the flies sprouted from the carcass. Today we know better. You’ve got to have the genetic material to make baby-fly.”
“So the fallacy is that this totally foreign thing can sprout from inert matter.”
“In Harvey’s case, even in a basically good man who fought crime though the system, you’ve got to have the genetic material to make ‘baby-rogue.’” Selina said like a pupil still struggling with the concept.
“Exactly!” Ivy said, pleased with an apt student who was trying so hard. “A fact he’s going to have to face up to at some point, even though it means Two-Face isn’t something that was done to him. It was him, everything he did was a choice, and he’s no better than the rest of us.”
Selina let the words sit there, fermenting in the silence for almost ten seconds. Then she said:
“And you’re no worse. Pammy, whatever happened to you didn’t spout from a valium, a glass of wine and a chat with Mrs. Ashton-Larraby. You came out looking like Two-Face. I have to think there’s a reason for that, and I can’t get past all those things you said about him.”
“Pulling one over on the Capes and the Straights? I don’t think so,” Pamela said dismissively.
“A confused mess,” Selina quoted. “Pammy, with all you’ve said about what you’ve been going through—and thank you for leaving Bruce and I out of it, I don’t think I want to know how we fit in, but I know this: Spontaneous generation is a fallacy. Two-Face didn’t just spring out of Harvey Dent, and that marginally rational adult I’ve glimpsed on occasion didn’t sprout from thin air either. You’ve got it in you, Pammy, without compromising on absolutely everything you care about. You’ve got a choice as much as Harvey does.”
Ivy stared, and another light rain of dust and pebbles began to sprinkle down on them as the rescue plants made their way through the wall.
“You want it to be simple, don’t you? Like you’re some penny dreadful Jekyll and Hyde thing? The dumbest soap opera cliché of a split personality? ‘Pamela’ who has nothing to do with plants or Gaia or Batman. And Goddess Greenleaf who can’t have nightmares.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ivy seethed.
“Oh I do on that part. Etrigan got in my head earlier tonight, I recognize the signs. Pammy, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in trying to make your life better beyond the plants. I do think that’s where Etrigan gets at us, where a lot of things get us. That’s where we can be hurt. ‘Goddess’ doesn’t have vulnerabilities. It’s Pam who can't sleep and feels lonely and gets hung up on something Harley said when you just wanted to have a nice afternoon together, am I right?”
“No, you’re not,” Pamela lied.
“Pam is vulnerable, and that’s why goddess is so appealing,” Selina said as if Ivy had confirmed, rather than denied her previous statements. “Except it’s no way to live.”
There was real anger under the last words, which broke through Ivy’s denial. There was a blaze of poisonous anger in Selina’s eyes that burned right through the cocoon of denial and rationalization. For her part, Selina saw Bruce—the idiots who knew the truth but declared ‘Bruce Wayne is the mask,’ and the man himself who resisted the happiness she offered for so many years with just this sort of compartmentalized bullshit.
“It's not being alive, Pammy. Giving your whole life to the mission to save the weeds is actually a tremendous act of cowardice. So put on your big girl panties and join the human race, or that not being alive part is going to be more than a snappy turn of phrase.”
“What in Gaia’s name are you talking about?”
“Have you noticed you’re not breathing so well?” Selina said archly. “Because everyone else has. All the witness statements mention it.”
Ivy started to speak but stopped, apparently not liking the words that were about to come out.
Another drizzle of dirt and pebbles rained down, and she tried again.
“My attempts to ‘join the human race’ have never ended well,” she said quietly—and suddenly the adolescent tone made sense. It was suddenly very clear to Selina that Bruce’s idea of a Pre-Ivy Pamela had let less to do with her pheromones or skin tone and more to do with the original fork in the road, focusing on plants because people were just too hard.
“Screw-ups do go with it,” she said in the tone she’d use with Cassie. “People are not as predictable as rhododendrons, and we all get it wrong more often than we get it right, Pammy. But finance 101: if you can't lose, you can't win. The payoff for a person on those days you win is beyond the dreams of any plant-goddess. Have you noticed you’re not breathing so well?”
Ivy played with a leaf at the top of her bustier, teasing it with her finger as if it were a kitten. Selina scowled.
“The fact is, you don’t have a split personality with dominant ‘Darth Ivy’ in control. I know you want everything to be simple and make sense. ‘Men Bad’ not ‘All men except Harvey, and Eddie on a good day, and he’s not for me but that Bruce Wayne is a keeper.’ That’s life, Pammy. It’s confusing and contradictory. And there aren’t a lot of shortcuts for the lazy. Have you noticed you’re not breathing so well?”
“I’ve noticed,” she said, bitterness seething under each word. “The nightclub wasn’t so bad. Walk to the park wasn’t great, but it certainly didn’t kill me. Then I had some nightmares and, goddess, it was like fear gas and Red Bull.”
“You need help, Pammy. You’re a botanist, you know how plants work, you must realize what’s happening. Half of you is poisoning the other half, which in my opinion is taking the theme too far.”
“If I agreed with your presumptuous, non-medical opinion, so what? I didn’t make this happen, I can’t just click my heels together and take another valium to unmake it.”
“Pammy, I talked to Batman earlier tonight. He’s seen video from the club. He says there’s a process for the pre-phylloxera vines in France that would probably reverse this. With a pure sample of uncontaminated genetic material—”
“And where do you figure we’re going to get anything uncontaminated?!” Ivy shrieked. Selina pointed wordlessly to the right side of her face, and Ivy said “Oh. You mean like…”
The wall behind splintered into dusty soil as one of the monster vines broke through.
It was the fifth time Batman had engaged the demon, at the Explorer's Gate, down the bridal path, past the Oak Bridge to Strawberry Fields... His body was paying for it with every swing and every step. But finally—battle by battle—he and Nightwing had maneuvered Etrigan to a spot where the protocol could be attempted. Pain tore through his punished muscles as he summoned all his strength to push the demon back, then braced himself for the blow that would come in the split second when he stopped to speak instead of continuing the fight.
“We’re done,” he said—and the swat came, the fierce talons ripping into the body armor and pushing shards of it into his chest in an excruciating repeat of the earlier assault from shirt fibers. Batman bore it stoically, taking only a moment to catch his breath as silent, slow-moving fingers slid a small black cylinder from his belt. “It’s over, Etrigan.”
You give up the fight?
That doesn’t seem right.
No surrender I see in—FERNAL BLIGHT!
Endued Rama light?
A tiny dot of red now flashed under Batman’s thumb, making the rim of the cylinder appear to glow.
“I created this system for Superman,” he said hoarsely, as nine shafts of light broke through the clouds to surround Etrigan in a circle of thin beams that looked like moonlight. “Networked satellites configured to bounce condensed beams of sunlight to a given point, creating a zone of solar energy to recharge him in an emergency.”
What is this? Sons of Dis! Etrigan swore.
“Ordinary moonlight,” Batman answered calmly. “Concentrated the same way sunlight would be, by bouncing through a system of high-powered mirrors. Special mirrors in this case. It doesn’t make any difference to Superman that they’re made with silver foil that’s been specially consecrated. Now that you mention it, I do believe it was by priests of Rama in a ritual that thanked him for driving evil from the world. I can see where that might be uncomfortable for you, Etrigan. Maybe you’d like to call it a night. Turn the reigns back over to Jason.”
Etrigan looked hatefully at Batman, and then burst out laughing.
Now that has style. You have a brain.
A Hellish guile runs in your vein.
A pity that you dote on Good.
On Life, and Love. In truth you would,
A godly Lord of Chaos be,
My brother, this round goes to thee.
Gone, gone, O Wait! One thing,
Before I go, one bell to ring.
Recall where Jason set me free
Endangering your bride to be.
Be sure to thank him in your style
And give my best to the Catty Kyle.
Gone, gone, O Etrigan!
And Rise once more the form of man!
The air was suddenly thin, as if for a moment the entire park was transported to the summit of a high mountain, and then, where the demon had been, stood Jason Blood. Batman snapped his thumb on the cylinder, sending the cut-off signal to the satellites. Then he walked wordlessly up to Jason, made a fist, and punched him in the face.
Concluded in the Epilogue...