Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #10

Shadows have fallen over the city of Gotham, and in more than just the traditional sense. The metropolis has seen more than its fair share of dark times, but the past two weeks have been exceptionally noteworthy. The city itself, having just survived a brutal heat wave, is relishing the dark-stained waters that now pour from polluted clouds. Its denizens crowd the streets, about their business now that the crippling heat has broken. In the southwestern part of the city, a young man is in a hurry to get home and out of the rain. He just needed to pick up some pasta for his date tonight, looking to impress her with his culinary skills. He takes a shortcut he knows he shouldn’t, through a dingy back alley populated by the desperate and destitute, the homeless and drug addicted dregs of Gotham’s perpetually decaying society. He’s almost made it through safely when his luck apparently gives out. A ragged figure stumbles out of a doorway to his left, twitching and mumbling to itself. He freezes, staring at it wide-eyed. The figure halts, going perfectly still as it notices him for the first time through its narcotic stupor. A moment of absolute silence and stillness passes between them, rain sluicing off both, making filthy pools in the cracked concrete below. Then the figure bellows and lurches toward the man, its movement hitched and unnatural, like it’s fighting off seizures even as it pursues him. He panics, drops the pasta in a muddy puddle, spins on a heel too quickly in his desperation and clips a dumpster with his hip as a result, the final nail in his coffin. He hits the ground heavily, gasping for air as the hard, cold alley robs him of his breath. The thing is almost upon him.

What happens next, he can’t quite be certain of, and will not recall clearly when he shakily relates the tale to his disbelieving date later on. She’ll never buy it, but he doesn’t care. She long since ceased to be the highlight of the night. A flash of inky black and deep, sanguine red passes before his terrified eyes, followed by a series of wet snaps. The thing hurtling at him through the dark goes down quickly, silently. It’s still twitching in the rainwater when she extends her gauntleted hand. Her face is pale as a ghost, her locks arterial. Her voice like steel.

“Shortcuts make for long delays. Go home.”

The young man needs no further encouragement. He regains his footing and hurtles off toward the mouth of the alley, oblivious to the now soaked package of pasta. He doesn’t stop running until he reaches the entrance to his low-income apartment building, fearing that he may not yet have seen the worst the night has to offer. His fear is unfounded. The specter of the alley follows his progress and ensures his safe arrival. Then it heads back to the unconscious fiend in the water.

Your name is Katherine Kane, the Batwoman. You kneel in the muck beside the tweaker you just took down, examining him. His face, even unconscious as he is, is twisted in fear. His hands are claws, the tendons in his fingers taut as bowstrings. His eyes never stop rolling behind his lids. What the hell is this unfortunate son-of-a-bitch on?

You decide to search the man to start with. Even as out of it as he is, the hobo shivers at your touch. He’s clearly in some kind of delirious state. You begin rifling through his ill-fitting trench coat (likely an item procured in this very alley) for something, anything, careful not to expose yourself to anything on him or in him while you do. A minute or so later you hit paydirt. A filthy syringe, the injector abraded and contaminated. Multiple uses. There’s still a trace of a strange, lambent green substance in the deposit. You break the injector off and toss it aside, putting the body in a pouch on your belt. You can put it through a chemical analysis later, at the apartment. It might shed some light on whatever’s going on in Gotham… God knows Batman couldn’t be relied upon to do that. You’ve often wondered how much his policy of extreme secrecy hinders his operations. Not that it’s something you’re unfamiliar with; one thing the military can never be accused of is an open-door policy, of course.

You gaze around the alley, looking for anything else that might belong to the filthy dreg on the floor. You find a parcel bound in what might have once been a piece of bedding, but there’s nothing interesting in it. Just some half-rotten food pulled from a dumpster, a pair of dirt-caked fingerless gloves and a disposable rainjacket similar to those given out to civvies in emergency situations. You get back on patrol. Batman’s mystery can wait, at least until it can’t. The people of Gotham need your help now, on a personal level. Whatever Batman thinks, it’s them that you’ve made your priority, not the celebrity psychotics he spends his time chasing.

FRANCE, ONE DAY PRIOR.

“Get talking, Deathstroke.” You growl.

“All of this, Batman, was a distraction. And you fell for it, like a helpless puppy. Like he knew you would.”

“Like who knew I would, Wilson? You’re being far too cryptic for my tastes. Start talking sense.”

The assassin spits out a tooth you must have dislodged in your fight, then continues.

“I can’t imagine you’re without suspicions, Bats, but I’ll play your game. It was the man without a face that called me into action. Hush. He said he was working on something big with a couple of your old friends and needed Nightwing out of Gotham to do so. Said he was a liability to the plan, and his absence would help distract you, anyway. Looks like he was right. Wish I knew you as well as he does. ‘Course, if I did, I would have killed you already. I’m a professional, after all. Not some lunatic with a fetish for transformation.”

Not good. Thomas Elliot, the psychotic known as Hush, was once a friend of yours, a lifetime ago. Since then he has turned to a life of violent crime, intent on destroying the Batman above all. He’s particularly dangerous since he knows your secret identity.

“Where is Nightwing?” You bark, angry that you’ve played into Elliot’s hands.

Slade chuckles through broken teeth. “Now that’s the real kicker, Batman. He’s in Gotham. Took him there myself. You gave me more than enough time to get there and back. Not as spry as you used to be, eh?” He starts laughing louder. A fist cracked across his jaw shuts him up. Then you turn to Bilal Asselah, the Batman Inc-endorsed vigilante known as Nightrunner.

“I’m going to administer another sedative to Slade. Can you handle getting him to French authorities?”

The young man nods, his arms crossed, expression hidden beneath his mask. You can’t help but think that if you saw it, it would be grimly curious. These names being thrown around all belong to big players in his eyes. He’s still young enough to be excited by the danger.

You take a few more minutes to relay specific instructions to Nightrunner, then leave the Bat-bunker. Thirty minutes later you’ve reached the outskirts of Paris, where you’ve left your transport. Once airborne, you open the private communications channel you established with Kane’s private network without her knowledge.

“Batman to Batwoman, report in.”

There’s a moment of silence, then Kane’s voice comes across the line, angry and surprised.

“Do you realize you almost made me plummet from the top floor of Wayne Tower? Are you an idiot? And how did you breach my systems? AGAIN? What makes you thin–“

“Stop talking. You can be righteous and indignant later. Now I need your help. You said you’re near Wayne Tower?”

“Almost a greasy stain on the streets below… But yes. What do you need?”

“I need you to make your way to an abandoned apartment building exactly six blocks away to the northeast. Used to be owned by the Falcones, was repossessed by the city and forgotten about three years ago. You know the one?”

“I know it. What should I be expecting to find?”

“Nightwing. He’s being held on the eighth floor. Security measures unknown. Expect resistance. Be on high alert.”

“I’m going to take this moment to remind you that I’m not one of your cronies. I’ll do this, but because someone’s life is at risk, not because you told me to. Understood?”

“Understood. And Batwoman?”

“What?”

“Thank you.”

The line goes quiet, then closes. You’re going to have to trust her to get the job done. The prospect makes your knuckles whiten on the Bat-plane’s flight stick.

You stare at the abandoned apartment complex from the rooftop across the street, arms crossed, rain lashing you from the sodden sky. God, its miserable. There’s a light on on the eighth floor, just like Batman said there would be. Someday you’re going to figure out how he does that. Just like you’re going to figure out how he keeps breaching your security measures.

Yeah. Sure you are.

You fire a tightwire from your pressurized gas gun and it attaches itself magnetically to the ninth floor window of the apartment building. You’re banking on whoever is in there not expecting an assault from above. You attach the other end to a support girder on this end, then begin traversing the gap. A few minutes later you’ve employed your glasscutter to break in silently and are surrounded by the gloom inside. You can hear noise on the floor below. People talking, some kind of crackling and… Screaming. Have to move fast.

The window you came in through opened onto a hallway. To your right is the elevator shaft, yawning wide and cordoned with caution tape. Further down the same hall is a lit exit sign above a stairwell. Time to make the call.

You creep down the hallway, taking great pains to ensure that the aging, uncared for floorboards don’t creak under your weight. Activating optics, you perceive six blurry heat signatures on the floor below you. Five are standing, judging by the positioning of their thermal shadows. The third is sitting, restrained. Must be Nightwing.

At the entrance way to the stairwell, you catch a glint of light off of the tripwire the goons had set up. Definitely not professional grade, the wire leads back to a soup can filled with gunpowder and nails. Ugly, crude, but undeniably effective. You gingerly step over the wire and make your way down the steps. In the hallway on the floor below, you see light leaking out from beneath an apartment doorway. It lines up with what you saw outside. You go into your belt for a breaching charge and smoke pellets, then attach the small plastique packet to the door’s lock.

You step back and activate your radio, broadcasting on the frequency that the plastique’s detonator is set to. It detonates, ripping the door from its hinges and hurtling it into the room. You hear a muffled cry as it slams into one of the thugs inside. Two smoke pellets dart from your fingers, ricocheting off the floor and exploding, choking smoke billowing out from the tiny devices. You see already that one of the goons has thermal goggles around his neck. He’s fumbling for them in the smoke.

Then two shots take you square in the chest.

The nanotube armor absorbs most of the impact, but you still stagger back a few steps. You’re lucky. The shots were part of a wild, panicked spray, not a determined, precision attack. The muscle without the goggles is painting the room with bullets, oblivious to his partners’ angry demands that he get himself under control. You can feel the wall behind you. You take two steps up it, then vault backward, bringing your heel down on the panicked gunman’s skull with devastating effect. He crumples and hits the deck, his automatic finally falling silent.

Only a few seconds worth of usable smoke left. The guy with the goggles almost has them on. Still three other thugs to deal with, though. You crouch under the wild swings of one, and deliver a rising punch to his sternum, the force of which lifts him off his feet and propels him several feet backward. A leg sweep followed by an elbow drop puts him out of action. One more. Batarang to the forehead. It sticks, strands of scarlet shooting outward. Spin kick, connect with solar plexis. Down. Last one. He’s got his goggles on. Too late. Palm strike forces the device into his face, breaking his nose. Smoke’s cleared.

Nightwing is sitting on a chair in the sent of the room, naked. He is bleeding from several superficial wounds and appears unconscious. His breathing comes ragged and irregular, possibly a symptom of broken ribs or a pierced lung.

You lift his chin. The young man would normally be handsome, but he’s taken a beating. You lift an eyelid, begin looking for symptoms of concussion or brain damage. The pupil doesn’t track you at first, but comes into focus suddenly. Nightwing’s speech is slurred, drunken.

“N–No… Can’t… S-see meee…” He trails off, fighting to stay conscious.

“Stop talking. Your injuries are grievous and extensive, and your left lung could be filling with blood right now for all I know. Your identity is safe with me. I’m here on Batman’s request.”

Truth be told, you can’t make much out of his face anyway, he’s been beaten so thoroughly. His right eye is mostly swollen shut, his lips cracked and bleeding. He’s been denied nourishment of any kind. It’s brutal. Worse than some of the things you saw while deployed. Not all of them, but some. You reopen radio communications.

“Batman. I’m assuming you can hear this. I’ve found Nightwing.”

The reply comes immediately. He’s been waiting. “How is he? Is he–“

“Fine. Or he will be. His injuries are severe but not life threatening.”

“Stay with him and keep him awake. I’m twenty minutes out.”

As he severs the connection, you start to wonder if you’re in too deep with these crazies. You’ve always been wary of Batman and his friends, and this isn’t doing anything to assuage your suspicions.

You wonder what the DEO will make of the recordings you’ve taken tonight.

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