The weeds climbed from soil to sky on all sides of Robinson Park, shrouding the abandoned grounds from the rest of Gotham City. Dinah Lance had grown up driving past this stretch, watching the once-flourishing park fade over the course of her childhood. The greenery had been the first to go, shriveling up and turning the color of mud. An army of vines came next, emerging from the ground and crawling up every bench, slide, and swing, until soon the whole space was too overgrown to see through. It used to be just another grim sight Dinah passed on her way to school, a reminder of all the ways the Court of Owls had failed their city. But today was different. Today she knew what was hidden inside.
“Please tell us you’re not serious about this.” Dinah’s best friend, Mandy Harper, shuddered as she stared across the street. “That place looks like a hangout for serial killers.”
“Yeah, it’s clearly been shut down for a reason,” Ty Carver, the third member of their trio, said with a grimace. “And traipsing around a sketchy old park was not what I had in mind for our second-to-last day of summer. Especially when we could be at Natasha Wycliffe’s party right now.”
“You guys can chicken out if you want, but I’m going in,” Dinah said, striding ahead of them. “What we’re about to uncover easily beats some party that--I hate to break it to you, Ty--we’re not even invited to.”
“Wait.” Mandy gripped her arm. “What if someone sees us? Is your plan really worth the risk of--”
“Rotting in Arkham Asylum?” Ty finished her sentence. “Um, of course not. C’mon, let’s go.”
Dinah paused midstep. She couldn’t exactly blame them for their reservations. Trespassing on closed government property was, technically, a crime against the Court--one that could warrant the Owls’ favorite punishment. A prison sentence at Arkham used to be reserved for the most dangerous, deranged criminals in the city, but these days there was an entirely different group behind bars. The Court had “repurposed” Arkham, warping it into a torture chamber for anyone who dared to oppose them. It was a place where roles were reversed, with known criminals running the show and would-be heroes languishing in their cells. The kind of place you tried to avoid at all costs.
Still . . . Gotham City’s rulers had far bigger fish to fry than high school students poking around a run-down park. Dinah hadn’t heard of anyone their age winding up in Arkham--yet. Getting caught was a long shot. And for better or worse, her want was greater than her fear.
“It’s totally deserted. No one’s going to know we were ever there, much less throw us in Arkham over it,” she said. “And if we did somehow get caught, I would be the one to take the blame anyway.”
She looked back at the two of them as a beam of light from a streetlamp crossed their faces, highlighting Mandy’s gold-flecked brown eyes, dark brown skin, and wary expression and Ty’s pale skin and light blue eyes, jittery behind his glasses. Dinah felt a twinge of guilt for talking them into this.
“You don’t have to come with me if you really hate the idea.”
Mandy gave her a wry smile and pulled a tiny can of pepper spray from her skirt pocket.
“I mean, we’re obviously not going to let you go in there alone.”
“We’re not?” Ty cracked. Dinah wouldn’t have been surprised if he was only half kidding. As much as he cared about her, Ty also happened to be the furthest thing from a risk taker.
“This just better be worth it,” Mandy added.
“It will be.” Dinah grinned at her two oldest friends, looping an arm through each of theirs as they crossed to the darker side of the street.
The towering curtain of weeds rose up to meet them. It surrounded the park’s perimeter, blocking every entrance.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Ty asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Just . . . follow me.”
Dinah took a deep breath and slid sideways into the weeds, feeling them part just enough to let her through before swallowing her up in stems and leaves. They scratched at her skin as she elbowed her way forward, toward a half-buried entrance gate. A tangle of bare branches poked through the gate’s iron bars, like spindly arms pushing her away. Still, Dinah moved closer.
The latch was rusted shut after so many years untouched. Dinah cringed--this wasn’t going to be pretty, especially in her mandatory Gotham City girls’ uniform. A starched white button-down and knee-length wool skirt weren’t exactly made for fence jumping.
She tied her blond hair into a ponytail and backed up a few steps before breaking into a run, leaping up onto the gate. Her skirt snagged on the bars, and branches clawed at her bare legs, but she managed to hoist herself over to the other side, landing knee-deep in brittle, browned grass. And for the first time, Dinah was inside Robinson Park.
It looked wild, feral, in the twilight. Dead leaves and twigs littered the path ahead, ivy snaked around every surface, and even the trees drooped to the ground, as if hiding their heads in shame. Still, there were hints of the happier place this used to be. A pair of swings creaked as the breeze rattled their chains. A paint-chipped carousel swayed in the same wind, sending its porcelain horses on a slow turn they would never get to finish. Dinah stepped up to the horse nearest her, a gray Thoroughbred with a cracked white mane. Its mouth was open in an expression meant to be a smile, but time had reshaped it so that the horse now appeared to be baring its teeth. Dinah shivered, stepping back.
Just then Mandy came hurtling over the gate, landing with a flying leap. She actually managed to make it look graceful, even in her constricting uniform, and Dinah couldn’t help but clap as her friend’s feet hit the ground.
“Think of the gymnast I could have been,” Mandy joked, dropping into a playful bow. It was a running gag between her and Dinah, albeit not a very funny one: remarking on all the different things they could have done or become if they had just been born a generation or two earlier--back when girls were allowed to be athletes.
Mandy’s smile fell as she took in the scene around them.
“Yikes. It’s even more of a dump than I imagined.”
A loud thump sounded behind them as Ty tumbled to the ground, glasses flying off his nose.
“Why is it that I always seem to wind up bruised whenever we follow one of your plans?” he complained, fumbling through the grass for his glasses.
“Sorry, T.” Dinah reached out to help pull him back up to his feet. “But I promise--if what I overheard is even half true, you’ll be thanking me for dragging you here.”
“If you say so.” Ty shook his head at her but then fell into step as Dinah led the way.
For a while, the only sound was of their shoes crunching leaves--until Mandy stopped abruptly and elbowed Dinah in the ribs. “Look.”
Dinah glanced up and drew in a sharp breath. An old stone monument loomed ahead of them, like a temple plucked straight out of ancient Greece. Its front facade was bordered by twelve statues and, half buried among the leaves, twelve ornamented gravestones.
“The Forum of the Twelve Caesars,” she murmured as they approached it. “That’s what they used to call this--this mausoleum. I remember reading about it.”
“Okay, well, you forgot to remind us there’s a freaking graveyard in here,” Mandy said with a gulp. “I vote we turn back now.”
“I second that,” Ty said quickly, but Dinah was already crouching to brush the leaves off the first headstone.
“Martha Wayne,” she read, a pit forming in her stomach. And she knew, without looking, who lay in the surrounding graves: Bruce and Thomas Wayne, James Gordon, Renee Montoya, and the rest of the heroes from Gotham City’s past. These legends were the reason the Court of Owls had left Robinson Park to rot as soon as they took control of the city.
Suddenly, a sense of movement in her peripheral vision jolted Dinah from her thoughts. She could have sworn she had just seen a shadow flitting between the graves across from them. Dinah blinked, telling herself it was nothing, or that she’d imagined it--until she heard Ty jump.
“What was that? Did you see it?”
“Yeah, let’s get out of here,” Mandy urged her. “Now.”
“You guys, chill,” Dinah said, standing up and trying to ignore her own nerves. “We are in a wild park, after all, which means there’s probably a dozen squirrels or other harmless creatures scurrying around. That’s nothing to be afraid of. C’mon, we’re so close.”
She could hear Mandy and Ty muttering under their breath behind her as they advanced deeper into the park, passing a thicket of oak trees and a reservoir-turned-swamp along the way. Her eyes continued to scan the forest, alert for any signs of life that could threaten their presence. And then, finally, she found what she had come here in search of. It rose from the weeds like a decaying palace: the centuries-old Gotham City Opera House. A white marble outsider in a city of gray.
Fresh yellow police tape surrounded the building, its bold black letters shouting, no trespassing--gov’t property--demolition ahead. It was the only hint in this entire park that another human being had recently set foot in here.
Dinah ducked under the tape and gazed up at the structure in awe, as if she had just stumbled upon a holy relic. This opera house was built and run by a woman--back in the days when women still had the power to sing. When they had any power at all.
“Rumor has it there’s a vault in there,” Dinah called over her shoulder to Mandy and Ty, both of them lingering a few feet away from the police tape. “A Vault of Voices, where recordings of the old classical singers are hidden. Female singers.” Her heartbeat sped up at the thought. What she would give to hear them . . .
“If that’s true,” Mandy said skeptically, “then wouldn’t the Court have destroyed this place by now?”
“Apparently no one even knew about the vault until the police got an anonymous tip,” Dinah replied, remembering the phone call she’d overheard between her dad and one of his fellow officers--the call that had led her here. She’d thought of little else since then.
Of all the things for her to dream of, to love most in the world, of course it had to be music--something she would never be allowed to pursue. Women were barred from singing or playing instruments, and yet there was nothing else in her entire life that had ever stirred her senses the way a song could. Playing one of her mom’s old records was like slipping into a fantasy; the only thing missing was the female voice. To find those lost recordings, and get to hear what the women singers actually sounded like, would be the greatest historical discovery of her generation.
She just wished it didn’t have to be.
“Well, that would explain the sudden demolition plans,” Ty said darkly.
“And why we have to get in there before they do.” Dinah quickened her pace. “Aren’t you dying to hear it? A girl’s voice, singing . . .”
Of course, it wouldn’t technically be the first time Dinah heard the impossible, though she’d given up trying to convince anyone else that her childhood memory of hearing a girl sing was real. Her dad and her friends had all written it off as an eight-year-old’s dream, which was no surprise. The idea of girls being able to sing, or do anything so powerful and free, was pure fantasy in the world they were living in. A world taken over by the Court of Owls, who ruled Gotham City as a patriarchal dictatorship while spreading their influence like a virus across the globe.
Dinah pressed her hands against the glass of a first-floor window and gasped as another world materialized inside: one with cobwebbed chandeliers, a sweeping staircase, and painted murals covering every inch of wall space. There was more color in this one room than she’d seen before in all of Gotham City.
Mandy and Ty joined her at the window, their interest finally piqued, while Dinah rifled through her crossbody bag for the lock-picking kit she’d “borrowed” from her dad. She hurried to the front entrance and got to work, angling the sharp pick into the keyhole. Just when she felt the pins in the lock start to budge, her eyes caught another flash of movement in the shadows. Goose bumps prickled a warning across her skin. And then--
A body leaped down from above, landing on the ground behind her with a nearly silent whisper of sound. A scream lodged in Dinah’s throat as she recognized one of the unmistakable figures of Gotham City’s nightmares. One that, until now, she had only ever seen in books and pictures--but never in the flesh.
The towering body was nearly seven feet tall, with muscles bulging beneath his black suit of armor. A chilling mask gave the twisted appearance of something half man, half avian, with a jagged beak where a nose should be and enormous, piercing yellow eyes. He lifted his hands to reveal the telltale steel-plated gloves, fingers ending in the sharp claws that gave this feared creature his name: Talon, faithful assassin of the Court of Owls.
And he was lunging straight toward her.
“Run!” Dinah shouted to Mandy and Ty before turning on her heel and breaking into a sprint behind them. Mandy tore off toward the maze of trees, gripping Ty’s arm to keep him at her speed, but before Dinah could catch up to them, a gloved hand shot out and closed around her ankle. The Talon’s claws dug deep into her skin, using the momentum to spin her roughly toward him. The breath left her lungs as Dinah looked up into those enlarged yellow eyes.
“Please, I didn’t mean any harm,” she managed to choke out. “I wasn’t doing anything. Please just let me g--”
Instead of answering, the Talon gripped her neck with one steel glove and used the other to slide one of his claws from her chin down to her chest, drawing blood. Dinah opened her mouth to scream, but the Talon dug his fingers into her windpipe, and she couldn’t make a sound. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me right here, right outside the place I’ve been dreaming of, and no one will hear me die.