Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #8

Gotham city is ablaze, figuratively and literally. While the skyrocketing temperatures and consequent fires continue to spread throughout the darkened metropolis, its criminal element runs amok. The low-level thugs and enforcers crowd the relief centers with everyone else, sure, but the die-hards are still out there.

Two-Face-Two, son of Harvey Dent, has taken two hostages in one of the city’s safe havens and is demanding to speak to you and you alone, warning that if any GCPD officer gets too close for his liking, he’ll kill them both.

Max Roboto is taking advantage of the chaos by systematically draining the downtown stock markets of digital currency at an alarming rate. So vast is his consumption that you fear permanent damage to Gotham’s economy has already been done.

William Cobblepot, heir to the Penguin’s throne, is following in his father’s footsteps of greed and thievery by charging exorbitant admission fees for his Iceberg Lounge, which was declared by the city to be a relief center and thus was ordered to open its doors to the public, free of charge. The club is a boil of the corrupt, swelling slowly but surely as unfathomable quantities of money change hands for the promise of an exclusive getaway from the lethal temperatures.

Phosphorus Rex, his murderous rampage throughout the city’s relief centers ended, lies unconscious at your feet. It’s not even midnight.

Decision made, you make a dash for your idling Batcycle, leaping into its armored pod and engaging auto-pilot, giving yourself time for a tactical update from O.R.A.C.L.E.

When first you try to connect to the impenetrable AI, however, a message overrides all processes and flashes before the screen.

“YOU BLEW ME OFF. WHY? WE NEED TO MEET.
-M”

It’s there for a scant few seconds, then vanishes and normal routines reestablish themselves.

O.R.A.C.L.E. is awake, chirping multiple alarms in your ear. You silence them all with a snarl, switching to manual control and gunning the engine down the tight backstreets towards the relief center and Two-Face-Two.

For once, when you pull up, the cops don’t immediately open fire.

Instead, a negotiator in a flak vest steps out from the crowd and crosses the wide berth you’ve been given. She’s fearless, five-foot-nothing and full of fire. She glares up at you with more venom than you’ve seen in some of your most dangerous rogues.

“Let’s get this straight, psychopath. The only reason we’re even doing this dance is so that girl might be saved. We do not endorse or condo–”

“A girl? My intel said two victims.”

The negotiator sighs. “The other one’s a ghost. Homeless, drug-addled, pushing sixty. Even if we saved him, no one would come forward to claim. He’d be back on the street in a few days.”

“Who are you to judge human beings?” You growl angrily.

“Please. The real word doesn’t have time for high morals anymore. Doesn’t have time for you either. You want Two-Face-Two, you got him. He’s in the room at the end of the hall, the one with the SWAT team shadowing it. Can’t miss it.”

You turn to go, eager to be away from such sharp reminders of how sour your father’s legacy has become. Perhaps that is your fault. Perhaps, despite every advantage, you are not quite the son of Batman that you ought to be… The police negotiator calls to you.

“And Batman? If you don’t stop him, I’m sending everything after you.”

You click your tongue.

“I have more ‘everything’ than you do, officer.”

To emphasize your point, you trigger a Ro-bat all-call. In minutes, your entire squadron will be circling this building. You walk past the SWAT team and down the long hallway, abandoned and quiet, to the one door that remains closed.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #7

The tenuous moor that anchors Gotham city to its sanity is slowly giving way. Due in part to spiking temperatures, the streets have become ever more perilous, as only the desperate and insane walk them now. The relief centers, funded by Wayne Enterprises and set up across the city, are all over-populated and have become breeding grounds for violence and disease.

On the news are several reports of super villain activity in and around the centers: Phosphorus Rex appears to be attacking them at random, murdering their inhabitants without apparent motive.

Two-Face-Two has been hitting the centers as well, holding the civilians inside for hefty ransoms. As always, he’s moving in a pattern, but not one you’ve been able to nail down yet.

William Cobblepot has been charging extortionate entry fees for his Iceberg Lounge. The high-class night club was declared a public relief center by city council and should, for the time being, be providing free access.

Max Roboto has been spotted in the downtown financial district, knocking over largely empty banks. Though little hard currency is held at any bank in Gotham anymore, the villain’s unique physiology and skill set are allowing him to interface directly with the supposedly secure systems and transfer obscene amounts of funds to an offshore account from which they cannot be retrieved.

In all of this, the global environmental summit, set to take place in Gotham’s own Wayne Tower, has become a footnote. Though a team of crack scientists are promising a revolutionary reveal for the planet’s future at the summit, hope doesn’t sell nearly as well as despair, and so the story is pushed further and further back in the collective consciousness of the city.

You sit before O.R.A.C.L.E.’s main panel on Wayne Tower’s penthouse level, where you moved your base of operations to shortly after father’s passing. You like to tell yourself that you did so because of practical reasons, but in your rare moments of honesty, you admit that you simply couldn’t bear to be so close to something that reminded you of father so sharply. Not if you were to carry on his legacy.

Somewhere in the background, a glass shatters as Alfred knocks it from the counter-top. Unlike the man for whom he was named, Alfred the cat is hell-bent on achieving a state of complete disarray in the Wayne household. So far, his plans are coming along nicely. With a sigh, you return your attention to O.R.A.C.L.E. and ponder where you’ll start the night.

While the crime sprees in progress are all worrying in their own way, there is one in particular that stands out. Phosphorus Rex’s wild rampage through the relief centers seems mindless, compulsive… Classically Rex. He has taken advantage of the concentration of innocents to fuel his insane desire to burn. Keying in the coordinates of his last known location, you summon a Ro-Bat and step out onto the helipad. Moments later, it announces itself with a keen screech. You extend your arms and let it scoop you up as it swoops low over Wayne Tower and on toward the south.

Even before you arrive, you smell the sulfur. Then come the various and acrid scents of other things ablaze: plaster, wood, chemically-based insulation… Flesh. Next come the screams. Carrying on the ashen wind, some sharp and pleading, others wailing for loss. The site at the location is not pretty. Rex has had his fun here already, reducing the entire building to rubble and smoke. Bodies lay here and there, and there are surely more under the remains of the structure.

Dropping to street level, you take in the chaos. Police officers are rushing to and fro around you, most too busy to notice even you amongst them. Those that do offer you hard stares, but none dare raise the call, much less take you on. For now, it seems, your work will proceed unimpeded.

Gordon must have taken a sick day.

It’s impossible to enter the building proper, as it is almost entirely collapsed and is otherwise ablaze. Those that had taken shelter inside now stand or sit on the street, sweating and weeping. The heat in Gotham is unbearable, and the roaring inferno that was once their refuge isn’t helping. If it isn’t gotten under control, it could spread to other buildings. The location’s exterior offers you no valuable insight as to why Rex did this or where he’s gone.

You scan the small crowd lingering on the street, watching their safe haven burn, looking for a likely interrogation target. You find one in an elderly man, bent, tired and angry. He eyes you skeptically as you approach.

“Am I off my meds again?” He questions as you near.

“I’m not a hallucination, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Alright then,” he says, as if surprised. Then, gruffly, “What do you want?”

“Do you know who I am?”

“I know who you pretend to be. But he was a better man than you, if what the feeds say is true.”

Father. Even dead and gone, you cannot step outside of his shadow.

“I don’t pretend to be him. But he left this hell in my hands. That means you, too.” You state, opting for straight-talk. “I need to know what happened here if I’m going to help you.”

The man scoffs.

“You mean you don’t recognize the handiwork of one of the city’s most infamous? Phosphorus Rex! Are you sure he entrusted Gotham to you?”

Blink-clicking through cowl options, you pull up a direct feed of O.R.A.C.L.E.’s alert network. Listed are the various and ongoing calls to 911 for the blaze in progress at your location, but being overwhelmed and forgotten because of the inundation of those calls are a series of others coming from six blocks away. Rex must have run to his next hit. No planning. Just the irresistible compulsion to burn.

It takes you a minute and a half to get there, and by that time a new chorus of screams has begun. Landing on the apartment building’s roof, you see fires have started on the first floor, but haven’t spread yet. There are tenants trying to evacuate, but the flames are keeping them trapped in their homes. Somewhere in there is Rex.

You secure your rappelling line on a sturdy air duct, then drop over the side of the building. It takes only seconds to get to the bottom. You charge through the broken-in doors and activate your cowl’s most powerful visual filter to see through the smoke, then attach the re-breather from your belt to the hooks on your mask. The heat is intense; even accounting for your suit’s thermal conditioning, you’ve only got minutes in here before temperatures become lethal. Have to make the most of them.

You start off in the direction where the destruction is most complete, figuring it an easy bet Rex would be found wherever he feels the most damage can be done. Sure enough, you soon hear his insane, euphoric laughter up ahead. He alternates between schooboy giggles and chilling cackles as he goes about his dark work, setting all about him burning. You steal away up into the rafters, making use of what shadowy vantage points are left. Looking down on him as he incinerates a dinner table, you ponder your approach.

You hurl a paralytic smoke pellet at Rex’s feet, watch as the noxious yellow gas billows outward. Screaming with rage, Rex inadvertently takes down a lungful. In seconds he’s on his knees, coughing and wheezing, his hands cramping as the gas attempts to take hold. Suddenly, a second great lungful of air, another bellow, and you’re hit by a wall of fire. Thrown backward through the doorway, you pick yourself up, parts of your suit still smoking.

“Tt.”

Phosphorus Rex comes hurtling out of the doorway through which he just sent you, murder in his eyes. It appears that by rapidly consuming all of the oxygen in the room, he was able to diffuse the nerve toxin. Not good.

Rex holds nothing back with his lunge, but that’s always been his problem. He’s predictable, kind of like fire. The one thing you can rely on them both to do is destroy and consume. They don’t stop to ponder the moral questions, they don’t formulate elaborate plots. They go forth and burn.

And that’s why you were expecting his attack.

You sidestep nimbly, catching only a graze of heat on your right bicep for all of the villain’s trouble. Then, making use of the few seconds of respite while he recovers, you leap through a window onto the street, rolling as you hit the pavement. Rex follows soon after, eager for a rematch.

Reaching for and hurling a Batarang in one smooth motion, you catch Rex as he’s off guard, regaining his balance after his own flight through the window. The projectile buries itself in the meat of his thigh and he howls, dropping to one knee. He’s grasping at the weapon, grimacing, but the flames around him grow more intense. Rex is building toward something. If you’re going to finish it, it should be now.

As the flames surrounding Rex swell ever higher, you stride calmly toward him. When you stand before him, the mutated man looks up.

“BATMAAA–hkk!” His damning cry is cut short as your lunge forward, tazer in hand. The device is melted by proximity to Rex, but it gets its point across before it goes. Your quarry’s flaming form drops to the ground, twitching as several thousand volts course through it, then lies still. Patching into O.R.A.C.L.E., you send a tip to the GCPD via the encrypted channel that Barbara knows to be yours. Your next message is to a Ro-bat for pickup. Phosphorus Rex was only the first stop tonight.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #6.5

In a dark place beneath the ground, two predators circle one another. This is perhaps a chance encounter, though it might be fate. A Bat and a Snake, facing one another across a narrow patch of ground; across no-man’s-land. Neither are prepared for this fight; one suffers from near death by extreme temperatures, the other bleeds from a seeping wound.

Last night, you traced the tracker you placed on a priceless piece of art in a Falcone vault to this library in southern Gotham. Upon arrival, you were greeted by a strange and deadly sight. There, in the center of the library, stood that statue that your signal emanated from under a single pale beam of light, the only illumination in the room. Beside it, a tub of deadly cold water and ice, and in it, a body. All a trap laid by that should-be corpse in the tub, the Instigator. Springing from his frozen tomb, employed to confuse your thermal sensors, he resisted crippling hypothermia and attacked, sinking a knife between your ribs.

“That had better not be it,” he spits, “You had better not be done. I need you to be more than that.”

“Shut up.”

He does, a grin slowly spreading behind the leather mask. Then he bounces back and forth, blade passing from hand-to-hand, trying to disorient you in your weakened state.

Good thing for you he doesn’t realize the wound is already stitching itself together.

Fed up with this bondage freak, you snarl, lashing out at the leaping blade. You manage to bat it aside into the dark, but the Instigator surprises you with his speed. He folds you with a quick jab to the stomach, then brings his knee up toward your head.

You lace your palms together to attempt to block the blow and divert its force, but the wiry man is incredibly strong. Unreasonably strong. Despite wrenching away in a last-ditch attempt at dodging, his knee crashes into your head, crushes your nose and dents part of your armored cowl. Blood flows freely, but it’s not in your eyes. Yet.

He breaks off, apparently not desperate to finish the fight. You shake off the stars in your eyes, ignore the buzzing in your head, and make ready to fight again.

In a desperate bid to end the fight quickly, you fire your grappling hook around the upper portion of the statue behind the Instigator and heave. It begins to creak and tip, but Instigator is following the plot and throws a number of quick jabs your way to throw you off-balance, then dives to the side.

You barely have time to get out of the way of the falling giant.

“Hah! What a pitiful attempt,” scorns the Instigator, “It’s not a wonder you kill your rogues. I doubt you’d survive multiple encounters very long.”

The upside of the statue coming down is that it did so between you, giving you some breathing room to regroup with a new plan.

“I don’t kill all of my rogues. But you can bet your ass I’ll kill you.” You growl, spitting blood onto the floor.

The Instigator cocks his head. “Batman, honestly. I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough. Look at what I’ve done! You’re a blood mes–WHUFF!”

He distracts himself with his own musing, and pays for it when you launch yourself over the fallen statue and slide-kick him in the chest. The Instigator is propelled off his feet and backward, landing with a slap a few feet away. He’s scrambling to his feet, but you’re already there. You drive a fist into the top of his skull, dropping him back onto his rear.

“Sit down.” You state flatly.

He’s incredibly persistent, not to mention resilient. Ignoring your command, he starts pushing to his feet. You kick in his knee and drop him with a leaping haymaker, feeling cheekbone splinter under your fist. He screams like a child.

“I said sit down!” You raise your fist to strike him again, but pause. He’s weeping, bleeding profusely, his face swelling rapidly, but he’s trying to say something.

“C–C–Kuh…” He winces as he tries to form words with a shattered mouth. Finally, his eyes focus on something distant and he manages to scream. “CLEANERS!” Then drops back onto the floor, exhausted.

That was odd.

Rolling the Instigator over onto his stomach with your foot, you secure his hands with a pair of zip-ties and leave him to contemplate his ruined face. Then you straighten and look around the room, begin searching for clues. It isn’t long, however, before you begin to feel muted, erratic… Tremors? Supposedly the seismic activity caused by the Wound ceased months ago. And besides, you’re far enough away that you shouldn’t feel any aftershocks.

What is that?

You stop moving, close your eyes, breathe slowly and focus on the sound… On the feeling. There’s a pattern to it, but it’s jumbled, overlapping… A one-two beat, but without a rhythm.

Footsteps. Those are footsteps shaking the floor.

No sooner have you had the revelation than two extremely large individuals burst into the library from the main oaken double-doors. They are massive silhouettes in the dark, and you immediately fade back into the shadows between bookshelves. Massive heads swing back and forth in the dark, then a low rumble.

“Boss?”

“Obhur hyeer–agh!” The Instigator mangles his reply through a swollen mouth.

The giants begin following the sound of their employer’s voice, coming closer. Having already taken a beating at the hands of their boss, you decide to tight and wait for an opportunity to slip away.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #6

On the news in Gotham tonight, continued coverage of the record-breaking temperatures. People found dead and dry in the blazing sun, flash-fires consuming entire apartment blocks. Through your contacts in the police and clandestine informers, you hear tales of the Instigator’s exploits. He is moving again, perhaps emboldened by word of your encounter with Professor Pyg*. Several seemingly senseless gang wars ended up tracing back to him, though his motive hasn’t become clear. As far as you can tell, he was present only long enough to see the consequences of his actions. Once the shooting started, the few that survived have no recollection of seeing him again.

Then again, most of them can’t remember anything that well anymore.

Another point of interest is the ping you received on the Machinist. A black market engineer, the Machinist has employed their considerable talents to several projects in the past, all for no apparent reason beyond the weighty monetary compensations. Using an old guise of your father, Matches Malone, you were able to set up a meet with the Machinist. Whether you attend and what you do there, you haven’t quite pinned down. It might be valuable to communicate with a former associate of the Instigator’s, but letting him run rampant while you establish a profile might be a waste of time.

You stand in the penthouse apartment of Wayne tower, observing the read-outs from O.R.A.C.L.E.’s main panel.

You take a seat the console, begin reviewing your files on the Pyg case, cross-referencing them against existing information pertaining to the Instigator. You employ a methodology taught to you by the League of Assassins. It’s exacting, bullet-proof to time, the perfect system.

There’s nothing.

Other than the uncommon theme of being violent psychopaths, the Instigator and Pyg appear to be completely unrelated. On top of that, Pyg is rotting in Arkham for the time being, having been recovered by the GCPD after you took him down.

The Instigator is up to something though, without a doubt. He’s setting rivals against each other, then watching the city’s criminal element devour itself. Then you remember the tracking signal you placed on the statue in the Falcone vault. It’s moved. To a library in the south end. The basement specifically.

You stand from the console, find some food for Alfred and signal a Ro-Bat. Using your grapnel gun to get across the city on a night like tonight might kill you. Stepping onto the helipad, you breathe rhythmically, arms outstretched. In seconds, your transport will arrive.

The Ro-Bat screeches in, swooping low to carry you off toward the south end. Despite your mask of hatred, Gotham’s dire state strikes a chord of sadness in you that you cannot shake. Through the smoke and fire, your father’s legacy burns. You sharpen the feeling into something you can use in a fight. In ten minutes, you’re across the city to the south end, circling over the library that the statue pinged from. You have it drop you off on the roof… It’s a part of old Gotham, and that shows in the architecture. Multiple entry points, weak structural integrity, so improvising is an option as well.

You decide on a slow, methodical approach. Whoever the Instigator is and whatever his endgame, he’s a planner. That means the pay-off is usually much worse than the build-up, whereas someone like Killer Croc kept his level of horror steady from start to finish. You find a window in the section of the building that is darkest, at least from the outside, and attach your grapnel gun to a heating vent, rappelling down. Cowl optics active, you scan down the length of the squat, wide structure. Only a few floors, basement included. Not much activity… Occasional traces, but that could be rodents. You employ your Glass Cutter to gain entry. Plenty of time on a night like tonight. Everyone’s home or at the relief shelters. Inside, all is dark, quiet and unbearably stuffy. Books are sagging from shelves in the heat, the occasional heavy tome plummeting down from above to crack on the weathered marble floors below.

You move slowly, casting your gaze about the building, encompassing it entirely as you walk. Floor by floor, you clear the structure, each level dark and empty, devoid of anything save moldering old books and a pervasive air of abandonment. Finally, you reach the ground floor and receive your first legitimate ping on infrared. Something on the floor below, just for the tiniest moment.

You keep your wits about you, moving on. The air is close and humid down here, where heavy dehumidifiers thrum away, keeping the books upstairs from rotting completely. Up ahead, the hallway ends in a closed door. No sound, no return on infrared.

Sliding up the side of the wall toward the door, you listen intently, cowl audio sensors set to max. There’s no sound… Nothing. Absolute stillness. You stand there for a while, staring at the door, when optics picks up the tiniest flicker of heat beyond once more. For the briefest moment… It looked like a head. You wait another minute because of the glitch, but when you’re satisfied it won’t return, you try the door. It’s locked. Surprising for a door this deep into a rundown building to even have a lock, much less be properly secured.

You give the lock a shot, but the tumbler keeps slipping out of your grasp. After losing it twice, you straighten and sigh, rolling your neck. After taking a moment to focus, you go at it again, and this time the lock gives way. The door swings back on a bizarre sight; a dark room, lit in the center by a single spotlight, under which stands the alabaster statue from the Falcone vault. It’s hard to tell in the dark, but on the other side there looks to be a… Bathtub?

You reactivate thermal and x-ray, slowly approaching the statue and tub, for tub it is, filled with water and ice. And occupied by a body, lying motionless in the lethally cold water. He appears to be wearing black leather, though it’s hard to tell. The Instigator? Why would he be in a tub full of ice?

You consider lighting up the tub with your tazer, but after some debate decide that that amount of current would probably kill whoever is in that thing. Can’t question the dead, especially when they might be unrecognizably warped by the electrocution. Instead you keep the weapon at the ready, and approach the tub.

“This is Batman. Whoever you are, you’re in serious trouble. I can help you, but only if I know you won’t hurt me when I try.”

The form in the tub remains immobile, unresponsive.

After staring at the motionless form in the tub for a moment longer, you decide the most prudent course of action would be to make certain of your surroundings. You patrol the room once more, scanning every nook and cranny intently. Nothing strange. Then it strikes you to examine the statue itself, at which time you notice that the tracking device isn’t where you left it. In fact, it’s not on the statue at all. So where is it?

Your gaze falls once more on the body in the tub.

You approach the icy tub cautiously, and give it a kick when you reach striking distance. You jostle it noticeably, the icy water sloshing back and forth noisily.

The body doesn’t respond at first, but then looks up at you weakly. Its expression is blank, neither pleading nor threatening. Impassive. Unreadable.

“I can help you, but you need to give me something.” You raise your voice, trying to get through. The man raises his face slightly, his jaw shaking so badly he can hardly speak.

“I–I-Hakk!”

His shaking causes him to take a lungful of ice water down, and he’s choking badly, going from bad to worse.

Seeing that you have no other choice, you click your tongue and lean forward, taking the man by his armpits and dragging him out onto the floor. That done, you seize him by his odd suit, scream in his face.

“Who are you?”

He looks up at you blankly. “I–“

Click.

Immediately identifying the signature sound of a switchblade’s mechanism, you throw yourself backward and out of the scything horizontal arc the man cuts through the air.

“I knew you’d do that.” He grins from behind his mask, holding the knife out unsteadily. “I know everything about you, Batman.”

The Instigator.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #5

In Gotham, alarm bells are screaming.

Temperatures have reached a record high this week, which is ironic given that the environmental change summit is slated to take place at Wayne Tower less than a fortnight from now. You lobbied hard as Wayne Enterprise’s chief representative for the summit, mostly because it’s a lightning rod for super activity, and while you’re usually content to monitor its passing in Metropolis from the penthouse, with Kent gone to god-knows-where and this Instigator clown up to god-knows-what, you can’t afford to have your attention split like that.

Health advisories commandeer the airways every five minutes, advising citizens to stay home, close their windows and doors and turn on air conditioners to burn-out levels. Where the citizenry is too poor to afford climate control, they’re sent to disaster relief centers sponsored, through hedge funds, by Wayne Enterprises. Still, every year a handful of the city’s stubborn and foolhardy are found drained and dry on the streets, crisping under the baking heat of a rapidly warming planet. Reactionary graffiti takes a spike this time of year as well, with the most common mantra scrawled on walls, doors and transportation both public and private.

“Hell is a place on earth, and its name is Gotham.”

Observing from the tower’s penthouse, you scowl. As far as you’re concerned, that line applies succinctly to this city at any time of year. Alfred purrs contentedly in your lap. The old cat, perhaps sensing the dire climate outside, has been napping more than usual lately. You lift him off of you and lean forward to re-read the tip you received tonight.

“Things are heating up. Gutter-snipe Gardens, 2300 hours.

-M.S.”

Not many would choose that hellhole as a meeting place, rife as it is with the desperate and destitute. The initials you figured out quickly enough. They belong to Maggie Sawyer, an ex-cop and long-time ally of the Bat, starting with her love affair with Katherine Kane years back and continuing until the day she handed over her badge and gun.

Kane’s death had a lot to do with that.

You sigh, pinch the bridge of your nose between forefinger and thumb, try to figure out where to start tonight. Make no mistake, heat warnings will not keep the crazies in. If anything, the rising temperatures will bring them out in droves.

You program O.R.A.C.L.E. to trawl Gotham’s various infonets for any hints as to the whereabouts or activity of the Instigator, then stand, stretch and head out. These searches usually take a while, and any hits will be patched in directly to your cowl.

As you step up to the penthouse’s sliding glass door and unlatch it, you are immediately buffeted by a wave of stiflingly hot air. Alfred complains loudly and retreats further into the cool sanctuary.

“I know the feeling, old boy.” You comment, watching his tail disappear around the corner that leads to your sleeping area. He’ll no doubt be curled up on the bed when you come home, having spread his fur liberally about him.

Once outside, you are drenched with sweat almost immediately, making you curse your choice of uniform. Still, it is a necessary evil. If the city’s criminals are to fear a masked vigilante, that vigilante must be immediately recognizable. One of the tenets of Batman that father so drilled into your head.

Not interested in grappling your way across the sweat-slick city, you instead activate your cowl and patch into the Ro-Bat uplink, summoning the nearest to you for transport. It arrives within moments, and you relish the rush of air as you latch on to its carriage and the machine takes you up and away over Gotham.

Ten minutes later you’re circling Gutter-snipe Gardens, right on time for your 2300 hour appointment. Sure enough, cowl optics seize on a huddled form sitting on one of the graffiti-laden benches below, conspicuous because of the upturned collar on its trench coat, which in and of itself is an insane choice in attire for a night like this. Only someone who desperately wanted to avoid recognition would don something like that. You descend over the treeline and drop from the Ro-Bat, landing soundlessly amongst the boughs. Peering down, you confirm that the person belonging to that trench coat is in fact Maggie Sawyer. She’s looking worse for wear these days. Took to drinking pretty heavily after Kane passed, hasn’t looked back. Stress and loneliness have done the rest, reducing her to a shadow of her former self. You figure she’s got about a decade left in her if she keeps up this way.

You blink-click through several options on the cowl interface, selecting an infrared scanner and targeting Sawyer. She’s carrying alright, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from someone coming to the Gardens alone. Even during father’s time this place was perilous… Now it’s practically a guarantee you’ll find violence and death here.

Speaking of violence, the Ro-Bat you have circling above has returned several life signs approaching Sawyer’s location. Humanoid, but not human. Likely members of one of Gotham’s many underground mutant gangs. Though they never make the headlines, the deformed and grotesque prowl the city in droves, preying on the weak and careless. Time to make yourself known.

“Interesting place for a meet, Sawyer.” You growl. Her flinch is barely perceptible, but it’s there, and that speaks volumes for how far she’s fallen. Detective Sawyer, as you knew her in your youth, was hard-as-nails, second only to Jim (god rest his soul) in her daring and panache. She glances up into the darkened boughs, a practiced expression of indifference painted across her features. You know she can’t see you, but swear she’s looking right at you.

“Had to make sure I wasn’t followed.”

“You failed. Scumsuckers are closing in as we speak. I’ll deal with them, but you’ve got to make it fast.”

“I can hel–”

“No you can’t. Not anymore, and certainly not since you’ve already gotten started with your ‘day.’”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Save it. You reek of gin. Now get to talking.”

Sawyer stiffens at your calling her alcoholism out, but swallows her pride and gets down to business.

“I–I got a tip from inside GCPD.”

“Surprised you still have friends there.”

“A few. Children have been disappearing, Batman.”

There it is, just as you suspected. The love of Sawyer’s life was unquestionably Katherine Kane, but before Kate she loved a man and had a child with him. Young ones have always been her soft spot.

“Nothing new in a city like this. If GCPD is on it, why bring it to me?”

“Because they’re not getting anywhere, and frankly I don’t think those yuppies know what they’re dealing with. I suspect super involvement.”

“Who?”

“Not sure, but I have my suspicions. The abductees’ families are found murdered days after the abduction event, down to a one.”

“Sounds ritual. Theories?”

“Dollmaker.”

You click your tongue, hating to be right.

“I’ll look into it. Got a place I can start?”

“Latest family was butchered downtown, a stock broker and his family of four. Intersection James and Park, highrise apartments. You know the one?”

“I know the one. Now get out of here. Your friends are almost upon us.”

Sawyer rises stiffly and makes her way down the path, hand gripping the piece in her pocket. You command the Ro-Bat above to follow her out of the Gardens and ensure she makes it home safely. Weapons are free in case of an encounter.

Moments later, her pursuers appear. They are, as you suspected, mutants. Carrying hatchets, machetes, switchblades… No firearms. Penalties for carrying have become far too severe in Gotham for the average thug to bother packing heat. They gather beneath the tree in which you perch, confused and frustrated at having lost their mark.

You set a gas pellet to a timer and palm it, activating your cowl’s thermals as you drop down. Your sudden appearance has the desired effect. Mutants are unmanned, weapons are brandished like fetishes to ward you off. It won’t work.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” You smirk, hurling the smoke pellet at the forehead of the nearest, a trick you learned from father. It detonates on impact, leaving the mutant’s nose a bloodied mess, thick, acrid smoke billowing out from the point of detonation.

While he’s still reeling, you crash your armored forehead into the skull of the pellet target. He drops like a stone, unconscious. Hearing his cry, another mutant comes to his defense, swinging his machete in a downward arc, trying to catch a break in the smoke.

You seize the blade in your armored palm and make sure he sees, then wrench it out of his grip and toss it aside, pirouetting and ducking to slash your gauntlet’s spikes across his belly. He falls to his knees, holding the bleeding wound. From there, a rising uppercut puts the hatchet-wielder on his back, minus a few teeth. As the smoke clears, only the mutant with the switchblade remains. His eyes are wide as saucers, darting from his fallen comrades to you and back again. Finally, he decides to give himself a headstart by hurling the knife at you before bolting. You stand perfectly still, let the blade sink into your shoulder, then slowly withdraw it. It’s slick with blood, but the deal you made with the demon all those years ago will see it healed quickly. The psychological effect is worth it.

Before he can get too far, you fire your grappling gun, snaring his legs at the knees and sending him face-first into the dirt. Walking up behind him, you place a knee between his shoulder blades and whisper into his ear.

“Listen up, scum. You go and tell whoever you send your kickbacks to that the Gardens are off limits. You tell him Batman said so. Understand?”

The thug nods vigorously, the movement restricted due to him currently eating a fistful of poisoned soil. After a moment longer, you straighten and let him bolt off into the dark.

You can’t keep the smile off your face.

You patch into the Ro-Bat network, seeing that Sawyer hailed a cab at the edge of the Gardens and is on her way to a relief center. Smart. You send a summons to the same Ro-Bat, then patch into O.R.A.C.L.E., are disappointed to find that its trawling has so far yielded little. Some run-of-the-mill assaults and muggings, but nothing organized and nothing it would be worth following up on at this point. You extend the order to keep the search going through the night. By the time that’s done, the Ro-Bat announces its presence with a subsonic screech, and you extend an arm to catch the carriage, heading downtown.

In less than ten you’re on the roof of the apartments in question. Squad cars are still lined up below, investigating the scene. You load up the building’s schematics, looking for an entry point that’s quiet and close. As usual, it’s an air duct. You hate air ducts. Cramped, stuffy and dirty at the best of times, tonight it’s a sauna. You lower yourself six floors to the site of the murders, peering down from a vent in the ceiling. Uniformed officers patrol the hallways, and a strong, authoritative female voice is barking orders from somewhere down the hall.

Too many uniforms, too close. The current administration distrusts and hates Batman, so you don’t have the luxury of walking among them like father or Grayson. The fact that you have no problem killing those who deserve death seems to have a lot to do with it. The GCPD was always so sensitive, so frightened of vigilantes doing what is necessary. No backbone. You scowl and patch into the Ro-Bat network, then browse O.R.A.C.L.E.’s list of vacant buildings in the area. You find one, an ancient, falling down condominium two blocks away, rotted down to the foundations. Satellite confirms the biggest living thing in there are cat-sized rats. You give the command for several Ro-Bats to circle the building, unloading munitions until the girders give way and the structure drops. You listen for the popping, are rewarded five minutes later. Immediately, the hallways become a buzzing hive of activity, uniforms rushing to and fro. That voice is still rattling off orders, and soon the floor becomes much quieter than it was. When you’re sure you won’t be seen, you remove the vent and drop down to the floor.

The click of a pistol’s hammerlock stops you dead in your tracks.

“You. I knew it was you. As soon as they told me where the shots fired were. No one lives in that building. Certainly no one worthy of killing.”

You raise your hands in a gesture of surrender, one that is completely disingenuous.

“Guilty as charged, Gordon.” You say, turning slowly to face Commissioner Barbara Gordon, sitting in her wheelchair, nine millimeter aimed squarely at your chest. “You know that won’t stop me,” you say, nodding to the piece, “You’ve tried before.”

“No,” she says, nodding, “But it will slow you down. Long enough to get my boys back in here, I bet.”

“Willing to take that gamble? Doesn’t sound much like you, Barbara.”

“Don’t! Don’t you EVER call me Barbara, you freak.” She spits the last word with more conviction than some of the biggest crime moguls you’ve taken down over the years. To think, you used to be like family. You incline your head apologetically.

“Of course, commissioner. My apologies. Now… Are you going to point that gun at me until I take it away from you, or are you going to give me a rundown of the situation here?”

She looks like she’s weighing her options for a moment, then finally sighs explosively and lets the weapon drop. “This way.” She barks, turning her chair and heading for a door down the hall and on the right. Despite your many differences, you and Barbara have one important thing in common: an affinity for justice. She won’t let her personal hatred of you get in the way of that.

Inside, the apartment is a den of horrors out of nightmares. Blood splatters on the wall suggest a gleeful, carefree approach to the massacre of its tenants, definitely with a knife. In the living room, a macabre diorama has been set up. The family, father, mother and son are seated on the couch as if about to watch a movie. The father, placed in the middle, holds a bowl of popcorn in his lap, the kernels stained pink with blood. Their faces are gone. Your scowl deepens as you take in the scene.

Shaking your head at the gruesome display, you throw questions at Barbara over your shoulder.

“Theories on the culprit?”

“We thought maybe the Joker, due to the positioning.”

Your hackles rise at the mention of the clown’s name. “You’d better hope not. For all our sakes. Anyway, I don’t think so. It’s not… Funny enough.” You can practically feel Gordon’s eyebrows raising at your assessment.

“Alright… Professor Pyg?”

“No. Too artistic. There’s a ritual to this that Pyg just isn’t interested in.”

“Then I’m fresh out. Suppose you don’t have any dazzling insights to offer?”

You toss a look at her, your eyes narrowed. “Maybe. Give me five minutes alone.”

The commissioner looks as if she’s about to protest.

“Five minutes, Gordon. I can break this case wide open or you can keep floundering in the dark. Your call.”

It takes another minute, but finally she closes her mouth and exits the room without a word. You do a sweep of the room, focusing on the couch and its inhabitants. There’s very little to find, except for blood. The work is meticulous despite the obvious pleasure the unsub took in it. Finally, you rest on your haunches before the family, looking them over, forcing yourself to witness the horror they were subjected to. Your gaze falls once more to the bowl of popcorn, and your head cocks to the side. You get close, close enough for the stench of iron to fill your nostrils, and gingerly extract a long, wiry strand of red hair from amongst the kernels.

“Tt.”

Seconds later, you burst out from the apartment. Gordon is waiting outside.

“Well?” She demands.

“Call your boys in. It was Dollmaker. I’m going to use O.R.A.C.L.E. to triangulate his position based on this.” You hold up the barely visible hair.

“I’ll have my men follow you to the location.”

“Nice try, commissioner, but I don’t need the boys in blue breathing down my back. I’ll be gone before they get back into the building.”

“We’ll see about that.” She retorts.

“Yes, we will.” You finish the conversation, hoisting yourself back up into the air ducts. You can hear her giving the order to seal off all duct outlets on the roof, but she knows it’s already too late.

Once on the roof, you scan the hair with your cowl’s biometrics. It possesses a unique blend of chemical signatures that should allow you to trace its point of origin. Sure enough, in five minutes the process is complete, and the cowl’s internal GPS points you to an old meat processing plant on the harbor.

Another call to your Ro-Bats gets you to the harbor well before Gotham’s finest. You send an anonymous tip to the hotline through a scrambled connection, giving the address and description of the building. With any luck, you’ll be done and gone before you can hear the sirens.

Your transport drops you off on the building’s roof. There’s a few methods of entry here, which is good. Gives you options, potential distractions. A large skylight on the right side could be broken in. Maintenance access door on the left. And of course, the ever present ventilation duct outlet. Your lip curls at the thought of that. You’re not entirely sure, but you think you can hear… Music? From below. Classical. Maybe Chopin?

You remove the grate from the ventilation shaft and angle yourself in, shimmying carefully down the steep drop, trying not to make a sound. You succeed, for the most part, though an occasional slip sends a pebble clattering down to the bottom. Once at the bottom, you crawl along the base of the shaft on your stomach toward the vent inlet where rays of dirty light paint stark shadows on the vent’s ceiling. You scan the room below, the meat processing machinery, the hooks on which dead animals are brought into the factory. It reminds you of that night, so long ago, when you and father broke up one of Leviathan’s operations in a butcher’s shop and you decided, once and for all, on vegetarianism.

Suddenly, the vent gives way beneath you. It comes completely unexpectedly, and you plummet to the ground in uncontrolled freefall, slamming down on the hard concrete below. You groan, rolling onto your back.

Looking down on you is the Dollmaker.

“Well, hello there. You’re not as I remember you. But then, it’s been so long… Are you the same little Bat that has so plagued my family and I in the past? I don’t think so, no. How curious. I wonder, will you become one of my dolls? Your predecessors were ever so stubborn.”

Acting on pure instinct, you quick draw your grappling hook and fire straight up. The Dollmaker howls as it pierces his cheek. You use his moment of shock to haul downward, the psychopath’s head slamming into the concrete beside you. You roll over and on top of him, slamming your fists into his face over and over again. There’s not much fight in him, not after taking the grappling hook and several blows from your armored hands. You’re just about to stop, just about to tie the man up and leave him for the GCPD when a screeching banshee slams into your side, knocking you over. Seconds later, you realize that hitting you isn’t the only thing the banshee did. There’s a six-inch blade protruding from your ribs. With a grunt, you withdraw it and turn to face your attacker.

It’s a little girl. The little girl. The one that was abducted and, you now realize, the one that slew her former family as a show of allegiance to her new “father,” the Dollmaker. One of his grotesque masks has been permanently affixed to her face, and from the wild look in her eyes, you can tell his particular brand of indoctrination has taken a strong hold. Got to be delicate about this. The girl’s a murderer, but she’s not in her right mind.

The girl is practically feral, throwing herself at you without care for her own safety, gnashing her teeth, fists opening and closing, fingernails digging into her palms, drawing blood. It’s not hard to fend her off, but it’s getting harder. Blood loss is seeing to that. You slap away her blows, looking for a weak point, waiting for her to tire. She’s not going to slow down until she drops, probably on some kind of combat drug. She skitters across the floor, taking up the knife again. Can’t let her get in another stab. As she rushes in, you grab her wrist, yank forward and stick a foot in her path. She trips, hits the floor, and you put her in as gentle a sleeper as you can. Slowly but surely, her wild thrashing slows and stops. You release her, setting her gently down onto the concrete, then secure her and the Dollmaker.

The wail of sirens can be heard. It’s time to leave.

You look back at the young girl once more before firing your grappling hook onto the roof and vanishing into the night. As you leap the rooftops, you mutter to yourself.

“Yeah… That’s enough for one day.”

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #4

You see father everywhere. He is the driving force, the whip that pushes you on through the delusions and the fever. You catch the edge of his cape disappearing round corners, hear the fall of his boots somewhere ahead in the darkness, and you follow.

The leg that took the poisoned darts earlier is numb, and where it isn’t numb it’s on fire. But you ignore it. You push on, because you must. Beads of sweat streak down your face as your supernatural immune system attempts to repel the virulent poison. Every so often you catch sight of what might be the thugs you followed in here, or perhaps another hallucination. After another minute or so worth of stumbling down the corridors, supporting yourself with the wall, you slouch to your knees and assume a meditative position. Got to force this death out. As you pull the anchor of your mind, let it drift, you muse on the events of the last few days.

First, the sudden and strange appearance of Gotham’s latest costumed super villain, the Instigator. He used a highly advanced radio signal emitter to whip up average citizens into a frothing rage, spontaneously creating a riot and perpetuating its violence until your arrival. You took him out of action and left him for the GCPD, who failed to apprehend the man. Now, you see his influence spreading throughout the city. First, there was the hit on one of Black Mask’s few remaining criminal gambling establishments. Thousands upon thousands, gone from a vault. For what purpose is still unclear.

Hoping to stop this before it goes any further, you ‘interviewed’ Oswald Cobblepot’s son, William, and obtained information suggesting that the Instigator’s next target would be an old Falcone strongbox rumored to contain the last of the crime family’s once great wealth. Sure enough, two of the Instigator’s people were already here when you arrived, working their way in. You followed, but triggered one of the vault’s many boobytraps, and took a cloud of poisoned wood splinters to the calf. Since then, things have been worsening steadily.

You allow yourself two minutes of meditation, then struggle to your feet. Not only is the leg numb now, but wooden as well. You punch your thigh several times in frustration, trying to wake it up. When you look up, father, Bruce Wayne, the Batman is standing before you.

“Really, Damian. I taught you better than this. Check your belt, son.”

You do, and find there an all-purpose antidote father was rather fond of in his latter years. The Joker’s poison, Scarecrow’s toxins, Bane’s Venom… All so minimized by this one tiny vial to the point of obsolescence. He never even let you near it. You had to crack into his safe after he…

“I’m sorry, father.” You growl, stabbing the injector into your leg.

“Don’t be sorry. Be better. Now come on, those thugs aren’t going to stop themselves.”

Father offers you his hand. As you reach to take it, he becomes insubstantial, smoky, disappears. He’s gone.

He’s always been gone.

Your mind begins to clear as the drug takes hold, and soothing ice creeps down your leg. The muscles begin relaxing, untying the knots they’ve made, returning to you a fuller range of motion. Not perfect, but better. Time to put these goons in their place.

As you’ve continued down the winding corridors, you’ve noticed a steady widening in the path. You’re coming up to something, that much is sure. The light is dim and dirty, so much so that it’s difficult to see what’s a mere twenty feet away from you. For this reason, you’re upon him almost before you’re aware of it. One of the two thugs that broke into the vault, impaled on a series of three spikes. You know it’s him because he still smells like copper, not dry and rotting meat, and the blood that soaks the trap is still fresh, dripping down and pooling on the floor.

Of the other, there is no sign.

Another couple yards and you come suddenly upon the room you’ve known was coming. It’s a broad, open space, at the other end of which is a heavy vault door standing just slightly ajar. Unsecured, unlocked… Tempting. Purposefully so. You know this much because the other rat that stole in here lies in the center of the room, decapitated. There is nothing around him to suggest how he met this grisly fate. Just a large room, tiled with wide stone planks. Pressure plates, if you had to hazard a guess.

You’re good, but you’re not father. It would take hours to parse out just which pressure plates will respond to your touch with a deathtrap. Not only that, but the poisoned barbs haven’t left your mind in the sharpest state, either. Activating cowl optics, you try to get a read on what’s under the floor.

Lead. A whole lot of lead, according to the read-out. That probably means it’s lead-lined, to prevent someone from doing exactly what you’ve attempted. Sofia was dangerously paranoid in her final years, and she had every right to be: everyone was trying to kill her.

Including you.

You place your hands on your hips, sighing in frustration.

You fire your grapple gun toward the ceiling. It bites, catches, holds fast. You give it a solid tug or two to make sure, then key the retraction button. It hauls you up and off the floor toward the ceiling. Hanging there, you take a few deep breaths to calm and focus your mind before beginning the trek. Then you let one hand drop from the gun, form a fist and swing upward in a vicious arc, grunting with the exertion. To your amazement, the glove holds fast. It worries you that you weren’t actually expecting this to work. To be Batman, you must believe you are Batman. Nothing short of total commitment will suffice.

With that in mind, you release the grapple gun entirely and swing your free hand upward in one smooth motion. Another success. In this way, you make your slow, excruciating way across. At approximately the halfway point, you pause for breath, chest heaving, muscles burning, sweat pouring down your face. At least the exertion will burn the poison off faster. As you hang there, steeling yourself for another swing, you hear a clatter somewhere behind you. Looking over your shoulder, you see your grappling gun lying on a pressure plate. It takes a moment for it to respond to such inconsequential weight, but it does. There’s a loud clunk, a moment of stillness, then a slim opening extending from one end of the room to the other at chest height reveals itself, and a length of razor wire whistles out soon after.

At least you know how the thug met his end, now. Likely stepped on the wrong stone and realized it too late. Tried to drop to the floor, but didn’t get far enough fast enough. Razor wire took his head. You click your tongue and return to the task at hand.

An agonizing five minutes later, you’re almost there. Just one more swing, one more catch, and you’re clear. You arc your first upward, connect with the granite, shift your weight…

And plummet to the stone below.

Everything slows as you feel gravity assert itself. You barely feel the lurch in your stomach that comes with unexpected freefall. In the brief millisecond you have between now and impact, you consider all your options. No grappling gun to save you… It lies on the floor behind. Could try and throw a concussion grenade ahead, prematurely trigger the trap. Not enough time to get into the belt, get the device and deploy it, though. In the end, it’s touch and go. You come down heavily on your feet, feel the clunk, tuck down, make yourself as small a target as possible and roll. You feel the air displace as the razor wire rips through the air, hear its almost subsonic screech less than an inch from your ear, but you did it. God help you, you did it. Your roll carries you on and through the slightly ajar vault door, out of the reach of the previous room’s deadly traps. You stand, dust your coat off, then reach up and feel the ears of your cowl. One is missing a significant portion near the tip.

“Tt.”

That annoyance out of the way, you begin examining your surroundings. It’s everything you expected and more. Row upon row of unmarked bills. Drawers filled with jewels and precious stones. Priceless alabaster statues lining the walls. All of the glory of the Falcone family in its prime in one place. Easily enough to fund whatever the Instigator is up to and several other ops besides.

The question now is: what do you do with it?

You think of burning all of this blood money, of bringing down hundreds of tonnes of rock and steel upon it. It would be so easy… Place a few patches of Semtex in the right places on a load-bearing wall, and this devil’s cache joins its owner in history. But it’s not what father would have done. It’s not subtle enough and it doesn’t advance your cause. So instead you reach into your utility belt for a tracer and place it on the back of one of the statues, then make your way back out to the trapped room.

Unfortunately, getting back out might not be as ‘easy’ as getting in. Without your grappling gun to aid you, there’s no way you’ll reach the ceiling where your handholds wait, just out of reach.

You sigh, turn and begin examining the contents of the vault for anything of use. There isn’t much… Aside from the aforementioned bills, coins, jewels and precious stones, there are only the statues. Sure, you could break a piece off, use it to trigger the…

Ah.

You approach one of the statues (not the one on which the tracer is planted) and give it a good look over, deciding where the most likely breaking point is. It’s a beautiful piece… Likely some rich patron’s lover, cast in alabaster by an artisan on commission. There are flaws and imperfections of course, but that’s to be expected. If there weren’t, it never would have laid quietly for so long. The woman holds her arm extended in a beckoning gesture, her face haunted by desire.

“I’m sorry.” You say, giving her one last look before driving a fist into her arm at the elbow. It cracks and separates in a cloud of ruined plaster, the forearm dropping into your outstretched palm. You heft it, measuring its weight. Just about right.

Returning to the trap room, you size up the throw. All traps are mechanical, and as such, all traps require a reset time. You figure that once it goes off you have roughly three seconds. Three seconds to get across the room and seize the fallen piece of your cowl, the only way to properly cover your tracks.

Well. Time to hope the devil isn’t ready to collect.

You hurl the arm, counting down from six.

Six…

It arcs through the air, meeting and clearing the halfway point, impacting just beyond the goon’s corpse.

Five…

Impact. Rebound. The clunk of the mechanism activating.

Four…

Whistling razor wire, so fast you’re barely sure it was there at all.

Three…

You’re in movement, taking huge, loping strides toward the other end. A baseball slide takes you by your earpiece, and you scoop it up on the way.

Two…

Back on your feet and you’ve got one second to clear most of the room. A forward hand-standing flip puts you in place to seize your grappling gun. You never stop moving.

One…

Your heel hits the last pressure plate before the exit. You hear the mechanical clunk again. Whipping razor wire can’t be far behind.

Doesn’t matter. You’re already gone.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #3

There is nothing you hate more than rain in Gotham.

Once upon a time, precipitation in the dark city gave one a brief respite from the smog and cloying heat. It cleaned the streets and washed the filth of yesterday into the sewers, condemning the past to a narrow, rushing gutter. These days, it’s almost like the very clouds above Gotham are dirty, raining toxic sludge down on its citizens. The fact that it’s usually acid rain doesn’t improve your spirits. You’re sitting at your console before O.R.A.C.L.E. now, watching the downpour, the high winds making streamers of the steam put forth by the city’s many smokestacks.

All of this might explain why this year’s international summit on climate change is being held here, at the Iceberg Lounge, specifically. There’s an appropriate irony to the choice in location. Though the summits usually serve as little more than vessels for the egos of pampered billionaire philanthropists, a new ‘super conglomerate’ has promised that this year’s installment will feature ‘the future of climate change and the human race.’ A bold assertion, one you doubt will hold up under the harsh light of scrutiny. Not that there won’t be any self-congratulating or backroom deal-making… It is the Iceberg Lounge, after all, and the place is still run by a Cobblepot.

Since you first encountered him two days ago, you’ve had the Instigator’s strange radio transmitter device in a secure analysis chamber, and today you gleaned what little information you’ll be able to from it. The electronics are sophisticated, far more than your average pawn shop would be able to provide. The build is custom, probably unique, so it cost a pretty penny. and you’re fairly certain that there are only a handful of people in the world with the knowledge to even conceive of such a device, much less enact its creation. You wouldn’t know them personally, but William Cobblepot might.

You’ve reprogrammed your regularly patrolling Ro-Bats to seek out signs of the Instigator’s influence, narrowing their primary search parameters to include only gang warfare and grand theft.

Drumming your fingers on the desktop idly, you attempt to parse out your next move.

After careful consideration, you determine that your first stop of the night will be the Iceberg Lounge. You have questions, and with any luck, William Cobblepot has answers. Whether he’ll surrender them willingly is another story entirely. Before you leave, however, you check the info tracker you placed on the riots where you first encountered the Instigator for updates. There is little of import: authorities still cannot explain the seemingly spontaneous demonstration, nor its sudden halt. A handful of citizens were hospitalized with minor injuries, but none have presented anything that suggests the radio signal has had lasting effects. With a resigned sigh, you lock the terminal and head out.

The rain sizzles as it falls upon the garish neon sign above the Iceberg Lounge. Travel advisories have been going out all night, recommending that citizens stay at home out of the rain. Not that the wealthy have ever had to subscribe to such populist notions as common sense. In their world, every problem is solved with more money, even when money is the problem. So they have come out tonight in droves, heedless of the weather, desperate to be seen at Cobblepot’s exclusive lounge. From the rooftops across the street you glare, listening to the patter and pop of the downpour, the acid rain slowly eating through your overcoat.

It takes a solid half hour to get into the lounge unnoticed. Cobblepot’s exclusive club charges high membership fees, and its members get what they pay for. The place has top-notch security, all ex-PMCs. Patrols are tight, surveillance is constant, tolerance is zero. So naturally, it takes you a little longer than usual to slip by. Once one reaches the inner grounds, however, security loosens up a bit (or at least gives that impression). Though guards do regularly patrol the hallways, these are armed with shortwave radios rather than Berettas and are easily avoided, especially by someone who has committed the building’s blueprints to memory.

You navigate the maze of switchbacks and false ends that lead to Cobblepot’s private party room and put down the complacent guards outside, then kick in the door. A haze of narcotic smoke and a swirl of cheap perfume are the first scents to reach you, sycophantic mood music and forced, coquettish moans the first sounds. William Cobblepot is mostly naked, draped across an opulent leather sofa, two budding-and-barely-dressed debutants hanging off of him. He looks up at you, startled.

“Ah, fuck.” He curses plainly.

You nod at the girls. “Aren’t these ones a bit young, Cobblepot? Blackgate doesn’t take kindly to pedophiles.”

William laughs a nasally, mucous-laden laugh. It is his father’s. “Blackgate? Please. Even if Gordon could get charges to stick, I’d never spend a day in there. I’d get sent to Arkham, no questions asked, on account of dear old dad.” Now his grin vanishes. “What do you want, Batman?”

You stand there silently for a moment, then growl at the women. “You two, put your clothes on and get out.” While they both comply, one is brazen enough to run a hand across your chest as she passes by. Cobblepot watches them go wistfully, then fixes a hard glare on you.

“There. Now that you’ve properly spoiled my fun, what do you want?”

“I need information.”

Cobblepot rolls his eyes. “This doesn’t surprise me. What, search engines not working in the Cave?”

“This isn’t the kind of information one can just find. It requires particular connections.”

Now William nods sanctimoniously, like a cat helping itself to a saucer of milk. “Of course it does. My particular connections. But why should I help you? What’s in it for the Cobblepots?”

You get the feeling he already knows what you’ve come to ask him about tonight. Maddening, how you’re forced to play his games. You growl, take a step forward.

“Roughly twelve fewer bones broken. I need to know about a extremely sophisticated electronic device, capable of broadcasting a radio signal that interferes with the human psyche.”

Cobblepot sits up, a twinkle in his depraved eyes. You’ve got his attention. “Interesting, interesting… Can’t say I’ve come across such a device in my years as an… ‘auctioneer,’ but I don’t find the concept totally implausible.”

“It’s not implausible at all. The device is in my care as we speak.”

That really gets him. If there’s one thing a Penguin can’t resist, it’s the call of a unique trinket not yet hoarded. As of right now, that transmitter is the paramount object of William’s affections, and will be until he either gets his hands on it or is distracted by another pretty bauble.

“Very, veeery interesting, Batman. Had I known you would bring such fascinating tales with you, I would have prepared a meal for us. But I’m afraid I still don’t see what this device has to do with me.”

“I need to know who could make such a thing from scratch.”

“Why?”

“It’s part of a case I’m working. Do you have names or don’t you?”

“Of course I have names, Batman.” He spits. “Unfortunately, most of them belong to dead men. Victor Fries and Edward Nigma, specifically. But they’re long gone.” He strokes his pencil-thin beard thoughtfully. “In the modern age, it’s hard to say… Though I’ve heard rumors of a new black marketeer in business. Not much, but all positive.”

“Name.”

“Don’t know, but his alias is ‘the Machinist.’ That’s what he keeps spreading around, anyway. Honestly, do we need another masked psychopath in Gotham? You’re enough to deal with as it is.”

You ignore the bait, try to think of what other information you should get out of the Penguin’s heir.

“The Machinist…” You muse. Two new costumed villains in three days is bad news no matter how you slice it. “Who are his friends? Who knows him?”

Cobblepot rolls his eyes, sighs. “Honestly Batman, I am growing bored now. And you know how I tend to summon hapless goons when I’m bored. Like I said, I don’t KNOW much about him. Only rumors. One of those is that he was doing work for Dent’s son, trying to fix his… ‘Little problem.’”

Two-Face-Two, the son of Gotham’s demented former DA, Harvey Dent. Born with the remains of a twin brother latched parasitically onto his face, complete with its own deranged personality. Dent and the brother constantly vie for control, and you know for a fact how desperately he wishes to be rid of this duality. Cobblepot is staring at you, grinning wickedly.

“You hit the silent alarm, didn’t you William?”

The man begins to chuckle. “Didn’t think I’d let you out of here without a fight, did you?”

Seconds later, armed thugs burst into the pleasure room. You put yourself between them and Cobblepot, forcing them to forego the use of their firearms.

“Come on, boys! Show uncle Billy what you’ve got!” The Penguin taunts.

The fight is six-to-one, but in a room this size, that seems fair. Just have to avoid putting yourself anywhere someone could get a clean shot off. You’re still calculating possible angles of attack when you block the first blow, catching the butt of a rifle in the palm of your hand and turning it aside. Whirling on your heel, you deliver a bone crushing elbow to your assailant’s temple, followed up by a leaping haymaker. He goes down and doesn’t get up. Next is a group of three, and you marvel at their ability to come at you in formation rather than one-by-one. Elite guards, indeed. You turn the first’s momentum against him, sending him careening into the second with a well-timed toe trip. The third lands two blows on your midsection before you stop him with a vicious uppercut. The previous two have recovered now and are making a second go of it. A backhanded slap puts the first off-balance, then you seize his face in your hand and slam his head into the wall and deliver a jump kick to the other’s sternum. Both fall quietly.

“Four down.” You say, staring down the remaining two guards. “You’d better call for back-up.”

One of the two, it appears, agrees with you and reaches for his radio. A lightning-quick flick of the wrist leaves a Batarang protruding from the back of the man’s hand. The last gives you one terrified look and bolts for the door. You seize the back of his collar with your left hand, hauling him backward and bringing him into contact with your right elbow. There’s a wet crack as his skull gives way. The fighting done, you turn to Cobblepot one last time.

“Hurry your Metropolis plans along, William.” You say, the man’s eyes widening at the revelation that you know of his scheming. “You’re not welcome in Gotham anymore.”

You leave the room and exit the Lounge as a ghost, unseen and unheard. The six unconscious guards in the Penguin’s pleasure suite will only serve to strengthen the place’s hold on Gotham’s criminally wealthy, to solidify the Iceberg Lounge’s already infamous reputation. You hate that you’re helping him, even indirectly. Outside, the rain still pours, leaving a faint mist hovering at ankle height as it fizzles and evaporates.

“Cowl, patch into O.R.A.C.L.E., respond to query: ‘Machinist.’ Apply criminal underworld filters.”

Though the clouds of acid rain hovering above the city play merry hell with the connection, O.R.A.C.L.E. manages to return a barren dossier. It appears the Machinist first raised a red flag in El Salvador two years ago, where he designed a device that could essentially ‘dissolve’ in liquid, then reassemble itself autonomously at a later time and location. The Machinist used said device to assassinate a would-be presidential candidate by dissolving it in his tumbler of rye, only to have it reassemble itself in his intestinal tract and cut its way out an hour later. The murderer released no manifesto, implying that the hit was paid rather than political.

His next ping is one year later in Moscow, where he designed a series of biometrically attuned weapons for the Nu-Bloc. Again, no manifesto, no letter of intent. Another contract. You blink-click several times, attempting to find a point of contact. There isn’t much, but no one’s record is spotless in today’s world. You get a number of hits from a private and studiously encrypted discussion forum which you are only able to break into after assuming father’s old alter ego, ‘Matches Malone.’ The man’s been dead for years of course, but his name still occasionally proves useful. You post a notice saying that you want some discreet tech work done, are only interested in the best and are willing to pay the price. Nothing too specific, nothing that might scare him off. Then you close the link to O.R.A.C.L.E. with a sigh.

You patch your cowl into the Ro-Bat’s data core, speed reading the information that flickers past your eyes. Jackanapes was downtown, harassing the citizenry for no apparent reason. Ro-Bat scared him off. Phosphorus Rex got dangerously close to a timber yard before the Gotham PD actually did their job and stopped him. Other than that, the night has been what you’ve come to expect: full of trouble and turmoil, but nothing above street level crime. Nothing to suggest the involvement of a super.

That done, you head for the approximate location of the Falcone vault. It’s in the Narrows, a dangerous part of Gotham even in its golden days. Lately, its borders have become less defined and its denizens more volatile. Something to do with the Wound, no doubt. Seems everything has something to do with that these days. Winding your way through the spiraling tunnels, you go over the facts in your head, try to make sense of it all. The Instigator has some grand accomplishment in mind, of that much you’re sure. For it, he needs both considerable resources and specialized talent, both of which he appears to be lacking on. That’s why he went to the Machinist for his weapon, and why he paid him with mob money taken from cold, dead hands. So lost in your thoughts, you almost don’t hear them before they hear you. Someone is up ahead around the bend in the corridor, right about where you believe the entrance to the vault to be. Two someones, from the sound of it. Arguing.

“Boss said we should do this quick an’ quiet. You know he’s still out there, right?”

“Shaddap, ‘he’ has been dead for years. Just some clown trying to fill his shoes these days. Bat-baby ain’t nothing to cry about.”

There’s a brief period of silence, broken only by the sound of someone struggling with some kind of mechanism and a steady stream of soft, vile cursing. Then comes a loud ‘clunk!’ and a self-satisfied whooping.

“Told you I could do it! No lock can stop this man.”

“Shaddap, you only got it open ‘cause of that toy.”

“This? I don’t need no stinkin’ gizmo to work a lock. Close it back up and I’ll show ya.”

“No! We ain’t wastin’ anymore time. Already did enough, letting you talk me into sparking back at the spot.”

You paint yourself against the wall and begin regulating your breathing so as not to make a sound. After a moment, you reach into your utility belt and retrieve an adhesive tracer, flipping it over between index finger and thumb. Let them argue… Might reveal some unexpected clues, though you doubt goons this low on the food chain would know anything of value. After all, if they’re the first wave being sent into the booby-trapped vault, they’re probably not the ones making the decisions.

“Alright then,” says one, “let’s get on with it. Haul ‘er open.”

“You would say that.” Responds the other moodily. Still, he complies with the request, as the sounds of creaking, rusted hinges affirm for you.

“Christ, it reeks!” The first exclaims, and you’re inclined to agree. Even at this distance, the stench of rotting flesh is gagging. “Do we seriously have to go in there?”

“Do you seriously want to find out what happens if we don’t?” Counters the other.

“Fair point. You go in first. I’ve done all the work so far.”

There’s some muttering and general complaining, but the pair move on briskly. After you’re certain you can neither be seen nor heard, you round the corner. The vault’s large, heavy bulkhead stands ajar, and a boxy device has been cast carelessly aside not far away. Stepping into the vault, you immediately see the source of the stench: bodies line either side of the hall, all felled in some gruesome manner by the traps here, some many years old, some as fresh as yesterday.

You thread your way through and around the corpses littering the hallway, careful to stay far enough away from your prey so as not to alert them, but close enough to not lose the trail. You attempt to stay close to those unfortunates that have already made their final misstep, hoping that proximity to previously activated traps will keep you from suffering a similar fate. A faint glow has begun to gather somewhere far ahead in the gloom, casting a brownish hue on the dilapidated walls. Your prey notices it, too.

“Must be getting close now, eh?”

A grunt. Affirmative.

“Think it’s as packed as the boss says? Man could set up a nice life for himself with that kinda’ scrip.”

“I only think two things right now, Marty. I think I want to get out of here alive, and I think you should shut the fuck up.”

Listening to the goons distracts you, and almost costs you your life. As you take another step forward, you feel a pressure plate depress under your foot. Too late to save yourself from them, you attempt to anticipate the trap. Blow darts fire from indentations on the right wall, and you’re not quick enough to get entirely out of reach. A line of the wooden shards stitches up your calf and thigh, and you bite your tongue ‘till it bleeds to keep from crying out. Instead, you let yourself drop to the ground beside an ex-treasure hunter, hoping the silhouette of his body will conceal yours. The goons stop dead in their tracks, and silence falls.

“The fuck was that?”

“I dunno… Sounded like one of them traps going off.”

“Still got all your bits?”

“Yeah… You?”

“Yeah.”

“Well alright then. One less thing to worry about on the way back, right? C’mon.”

Footsteps resume, but you don’t budge. Only one set. Sure enough, a few seconds later:

“You comin’, or you gonna make me carry this all by myself?”

There’s a prolonged silence. You hold your breath.

“Yeah… Shut the fuck up Marty. I’m comin’.”

Once you’re sure they’re gone, you spring up and begin examining your leg. Thankfully, most of the darts were stopped, either by your overcoat or the Kevlar armor beneath it. Still, one or two made it through, and by the bile starting to build in your throat, you can tell they were poisoned. The deal you made with the devil ought to be enough to ward off the real effects, but it’s still unpleasant. Seems that you’re close to the end of this, but a wounded leg and a bloodstream filled with toxins might put you in a difficult place if you have to defend yourself.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #2

Your eyes are burning.

It’s the one sensation you can’t get out of your head. No matter what you try, no matter what trivialities you attempt to occupy yourself with, that buzzing exhaustion remains just beneath your every action and address. Every time you take a perp down, diffuse a riot, check an over zealous beat cop, it’s there. You’ve gone roughly a week without sleep now, give or take an hour or two lost in foxholes throughout the city.

Gotham is a demanding mistress.

The problem, as far as you can tell, is that she no longer sleeps. Before, when father was doing all of this, the city would let you rest while the sun was up and her shades were drawn. Lick your wounds, set your bones. Get ready for the next round. Not so, anymore. As she’s aged, the city has grown ever crueler, ever more spiteful. Now she hunches on the lip of the bay like a weathered old crone, muttering curses under her breath, though she knows not who for. Maybe herself. She pokes and prods at the misfortunes of her people, tittering at their misery. How you wish, sometimes, it could be you that puts that final flame to tinder.

Last night, you encountered a new costumed psychopath calling himself “The Instigator.” The man, dressed in bondage leathers, had employed a complicated radio signal device, miniaturized to fit inside a briefcase, that drove all victims within a certain radius to mindless aggression and irrational behavior. You put the amateur down without much trouble, but his apparent ease of access to restricted materials has given you pause. Furthermore, though you left the Instigator unconscious and bound for the police to deal with, you’ve caught no hint of his apprehension via information channels either public or private. That implies that either the Instigator was never picked up, or far worse, he has friends on the inside.

You sit in the Wayne Tower penthouse, Alfred nuzzling your gauntleted hand as it rests on the sleek, brushed steel desktop. O.R.A.C.L.E. is showing the usual crop of unrest with no immediate signs of connection to the Instigator. Time to head out for the night.

You indulge in a few extra minutes spent in the penthouse preparing a cup of tea–chamomile, like Alfred (the real Alfred) used to make on dreary days at the manor. Inhaling the vapors, you allow yourself to stray over the past, over what used to be your world. Days spent in study or playing catch with Titus on the grounds, nights spent punishing the criminal element, keeping Gotham safe.

Safer, anyway.

Your eyelids droop once or twice as you slouch in the recliner facing O.R.A.C.L.E., but you will sleep away. There’s no time for it. Not yet.

Finally, you decide to head back to the scene of last night’s activity. It doesn’t take long to get there from the Tower, and twenty minutes later you’re stooped over the area in which you fought the Instigator, combing it with your eyes. In the end, though, it isn’t a visual queue that gives away the villain’s method of escape: inhaling sharply, you taste the metallic tang of active hydrochloric acid on your tongue. Stirring the debris and soil where the Instigator lay, you see the corrosion that confirms your suspicions. A vial of acid strapped to a wrist. That explains how he got out of the cuffs, but still not how he got away from the authorities. A muted chime rings in your ear, and the cowl brings up a three-dimensional map of the city. Apparently there’s a robbery in progress toward the east of you. Normally that wouldn’t be anything to sneeze at, but the location of this particular heist makes it interesting. A flophouse frequented by Black Mask’s men is currently highlighted on your display with a soft red glow. Probably just turf wars, gangsters killing gangsters, may the world shed a tear.

Upon arrival at the scene of the incident, you can tell this is gang warfare. A weathered sedan straddles the street, blocking off traffic. Hundreds of thumb-sized holes in an SUV adjacent to it confirm what you suspected: the unsubs, likely rival gang members, arrived together in the sedan, announced their presence by destroying the SUV (and whoever was in it). You approach the ruined vehicle slowly, scanning the ground around for further clues, stooping to collect a handful of shell casings. You open the driver side door, and the former driver slumps out and onto the ground, his weapon clattering onto the pavement next to him. A cursory examination of the vehicle reveals a small cache of weapons in the custom interior as well as two additional corpses. The acrid stench of gun smoke and the metallic tang of blood hang heavily. This all happened recently.

You step into the shadowed doorway, noting the splintered wood and shorn hinges. Forced entry. Unsurprising. The smell of gun smoke follows you in from outside… The fighting didn’t stop at the street. Whoever was back here had investments they wanted protected. Hard to tell who won out, in the end.

A doorway in the back of the building leads down a narrow, hazy hallway to a sheet stapled in a door frame on the other side. You pull it down and step in. The scene is about what you’d expect: a bushel of dead mob bosses all seated around a table, evidence of substance abuse and a poker game scattered across it. Nobody’s holding steel, as far as you can tell. Must have been so confident in their boys outside that they didn’t even go for it. In the back corner of the small room is a dense lead vault, standing open and empty. That explains it. Not simple gang warfare. This hit had a purpose.

You pace the room, combat boots thudding heavily on the warped floorboards. Here and there, a shallow splash as you disturb pools of congealing blood. Examining the gangsters seated at the table, you determine that there aren’t any key players. Once upon a time, those who played in games hosted by Black Mask would be only the biggest movers and shakers Gotham’s underworld had to offer: drug kingpins and whorehouse millionaires. Now you doubt if any of these even got past pushing heroin in the Narrows and peddling tired girls on the salt-caked boardwalks by the harbor.

Something catches your eye. A twitch in a corpse’s thumb turns into an honest-to-god effort to pull his iron. The man’s palm stutters across the slick tabletop for a moment before you place a fist upon it heavily, eliciting a strained groan. Then you lower your face until you’re speaking directly into his ear.

“I can end this quickly for you. Painlessly.” Your voice is barely a whisper, the undertaker come to claim his own. The main grits his teeth, spit’s a wad of blood and mucus onto the tabletop.

“F–fuck you, Bat… You’re not going to get clear of this.”

You press harder. “I can end this quickly for you, or I can leave you to drown in your own blood. It will be a lonely, terrifying way to die.” The man’s eyes pop open. Finally getting through. “I didn’t do this to you,” you continue, “but I’m not sorry it happened. You want revenge? Give me something. Your murderers will be hot on your heels to hell.”

The gangster tries to draw a rattling breath. It catches wetly halfway through, and the coughing fit almost kills him. “Said he was going to fix it… The city.”

“Who? Who’s going to fix Gotham?”

“Gonna… Fix it. City…” The man’s eyes roll back in their sockets. You’re losing him quickly. You slam your fist down on his hand, but pain has no hold on this wretched soul anymore.

“Who?! Who is going to fix Gotham?!”

Then, slowly, with painful clarity, the goon’s eyes meet yours.

“Not you, Batman.”

His lip curls in amusement as the deathwind rattles his ribcage. Then he’s gone.

Beginning at one baseboard and ending at the other, you make a thorough sweep of the room, adhering to the principles father taught you and implementing a few tricks of your own. Still, the destruction is so total, the bloodbath so complete, that there is little of use to find. A dusting of the vault yields no prints, which you expected; today’s criminals are too wary to be caught up by such trivialities. Sighing, you straighten and dust your overcoat off, casting your gaze over the room once more. The only thing you’ve been able to ascertain so far is that the wholesale murder of these suits was completely secondary to the main objective. All visible bullet wounds are in non-vital areas; there are just so many of them as to make it irrelevant. Usually, when a gang hits another, they leave calling cards, or at least make it clear why they were here. This is done either by leaving some tell-tale token behind or by killing their targets execution-style. Single shots to the back of the head is the most common method. There isn’t an entry wound above the armpit on any of these poor bastards.

“Cowl, activate O.R.A.C.L.E. uplink and request response to query: Roman Sionis, activities and associates.”

Your cowl, responding to your voice’s signature wavelengths, activates its connection to Wayne Tower and, beyond that, O.R.A.C.L.E., an observation satellite you had launched several years ago to assist in establishing your steel net of information around Gotham. Data packets begin to flicker past your eyes, most detailing indiscretions long past, some even occurring during father’s time under the cowl. The scroll slows at it approaches more recent events.

As far as you or your intelligence systems can determine, Roman Sionis, better known as the criminal Black Mask, has been busy with only one thing: dying. Like so many of father’s rogues, Black Mask’s evil caught up with him. Several years ago, the mask that fused to Roman’s face in a horrific accident (and completed his ‘transformation’) began seeping toxic chemicals into the crime boss’s bloodstream, weakening him and bringing about crippling delusions and paranoia. Since then he has become less and less active and his sphere of influence has shrunk more and more, until now both he and his organizations are mere shadows of their former selves. Sionis is on his deathbed in his mansion just beyond the Palisades; a beautiful, sturdy tomb of oak and steel. The most he would be capable of these days is seeking an heir. He’d better do so quickly.

Given that Black Mask’s organization has been running silent and he is not long for this world, you feel comfortable in crossing him out as a suspect. Still, that’s only one name on a long list in Gotham. Hardly narrows the field.

Your eyes narrow as frustration sets in. Whatever is here, it’s eluding you somehow, and you hate that. You begin pacing the room again, then stop. Perhaps it’s not what’s here, but what’s missing. The vault… There must have been upwards of $500,000 dollars in there for a game like this. What does someone need half a million for in a rush?

You can think of a lot of things. None of them good.

Then there’s what the player said to you before giving up the ghost for good. Kept going on about someone ‘fixing’ Gotham, but he wasn’t talking about you. You run down a mental checklist of the city’s surviving rogues.

Two-Face-Two, son of Harvey Dent, currently in Arkham. Last you checked his positive persona was still dominant.

Professor Pyg, a psychopath obsessed with transforming the innocents of Gotham into “Dollotrons,” horrific ghouls that go forth and enact his will.

William Cobblepot, son of Oswald Cobblepot. Doing his best to get out of Gotham, last you checked. Metropolis’ criminal pastures must look far more verdant, especially with him gone.

Poison Ivy has given up her life of crime, content to hide away in the ruins of the Gotham city zoo with her plants… So long as none dare intrude.

Selena Kyle is a permanent resident of Arkham these days, driven permanently and irrevocably mad by prolonged exposure to Scarecrow’s most potent fear toxin.

And of course, he’s out there somewhere… Watching, waiting. Grinning silently.

No matter who you think of and how you try to position them, however, none of it fits. None of them feel quite right for this one. Then you remember. Last night you fought a new costumed villain… What did he call himself? The ‘Infiltrator’? He was raving when you took him down, talking about bringing Gotham back, starting with you. Perhaps a new chapter in Gotham’s criminal history has begun.

You leave a Batarang on the tabletop before exiting the building, just to remind Gordon that you’re still faster than her. You get some small satisfaction from imagining just how livid she will be to know that the cursed Batman has contaminated another scene. Once outside, you grapple up to the rooftops and make your way back to the site of your encounter with the Instigator. It is much as you left it: cordoned off with yellow caution tape, dust devils kicking up where the earth was disturbed. A chalkout line where a protester fell for the last time. That same acid smell. Utter quiet, but for the common city noises you’d expect, the metropolis muttering in its sleep.

You begin a wide area search, creating a loose noose of a perimeter and tightening it with each sweep. You let the distance settle over your mind that allows you to pick out fine details, and begin going over the facts of the case. A new masked killer, proficient with technology but not a formidable hand-to-hand combatant. An attack on a strongbox belonging to one of the oldest hats in Gotham. The villain vanishes into thin air whilst surrounded by citizenry and enforcement officers alike. But why? Why cause the riot at all? Was it a cover? The only thing near here worth checking into is an old Falcone flophouse said to be located somewhere in the Narrows, which is rapidly becoming less of a Narrows and more of a Sprawl. The flophouse is supposedly one of the final treasure troves of the Falcone crime family. When GCPD first tried to get in, it became painfully evident that the Falcones planned on protecting their investment even from beyond the grave. The place was infested with booby traps, and after losing a handful of officers in gruesome ways that would inevitably make tomorrow’s headlines, the city declared the area ‘unsuitable for habitation’ and boarded it up. Probably waiting a few more years before making another expedition, giving would-be treasure hunters time to soak up the traps. Going after the place would be rash, desperate… And effective, if successful. If only a fraction of the wealth you suspect is hidden there actually is, whoever comes into possession of it could easily establish a criminal empire of any stripe. But what about the radio transmitter? Would the Instigator really go to all the trouble of inciting a riot just to cover up an attempted robbery that no one was likely to care about anyway? And if so, why is it so important that this amassing of resources go unnoticed?

A coolly pulsing blue light tells you that the sun will soon be up. Though you’re loathe to return now, you’ve made a point of attempting to uphold father’s every quirk as Batman, and that includes going out only at night. With a sigh and a shake of your head, you begin crunching across the gravel toward Wayne Tower, the events of the night weighing heavily on your mind.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #1

“The old Gotham is dead; long live New Gotham.”

Those words, scrawled on walls and doorways, in alleys and slums, with paint and blood. It started at the Wound, the gaping chemical gash that was once a high security transport moving throughout downtown Gotham. Someone, somewhere knew that transport would be there at that exact time, what it was carrying and just how to place themselves to intercept. Horrifying sickness spread in a crippling wave from the detonation point. No unknown terror was this, simply death., slow and lingering. For hundreds, thousands, indiscriminate of race, age, gender or social status.

Those words are everywhere in Gotham, having recently begun to appear even in the few tenuous footholds of sanity that remain.

Your name is Damian Wayne, and you are the Batman. This nightmare realm is your inheritance, a gift unwillingly given or accepted when all his heroics caught up with him in that alley, all those years ago. Of course it was the only way he could go. It’s taken time, but you think he knew that all along. Being the Batman is not something you retire from to admire your efforts in your golden years. When you give yourself up to it, you do so totally. Body and soul.

Well, body anyway. In your case, the soul belongs to another. All part of the job.

From your penthouse apartment in Wayne Tower, you observe O.R.A.C.L.E’s readouts while Alfred purrs in your lap contentedly, having just finished a luxurious meal of fine salmon. Only the best.

You click your tongue, lip curling in frustration. Three different riots, only one of which was instigated by the crowds (the other two falling on the shoulders of overworked police officers), are already in progress.

One, predictably, is in the Narrows, which in recent years have become not-so-narrow.

Another, downtown Gotham, near the expanding influence of the Wound. Likely desperate citizens trying to escape it, forcing themselves on barricades. Could be casualties.

The third is by the yacht basin, a frequent occurrence in the last few weeks. Those with the means have begun profiting from the desperation of the people, ferrying those willing to take the risk across Gotham’s harbor. The city is under strict quarantine due to the Wound, and few make it to the shores on the other side.

You signal a Ro-Bat and prepare for transport, doing a last check over your gear and uniform. Staying above the streets will allow you to avoid the riff-raff and keep from being tempted to intervene in petty conflicts. The city is so full of them, it would be a fool’s errand to try and diffuse them all. Nor can you enlist others to your aid, as the spectacular self-destruction of father’s Batman Incorporated proved. Father left the survival of this hellhole on your shoulders and yours alone.

You step up to the balcony, unlatching the bullet-proof, self-tinting, floor length window, feeling the stench of chemical smog burn your nostrils. The sun is just setting behind those noxious clouds now, painting them a bloody red on black. Seconds after you emerge, a sharp keening alerts you of the Ro-Bat’s approach. You spread your arms wide and stand tall in the center of the balcony, and it catches you in mechanical claws, hefting you up and away over Gotham.

Moving your center of operations to Wayne Tower was one of your first moves as Batman. Father was so attached to that stuffy mansion and it’s hidden Cave that it blinded him to the weaknesses. You need to be able to respond to any threat in the city, instantly. How can you do that without residing in its very heart, from which all blood and corruption flows?

As the Ro-Bat reaches its programmed objective and begins to circle, you survey the situation below. Gotham riot squads are clashing with citizens in what looks like a protest gone bad. More and more of those these days.

From what you can see, the conflict started between the protesters and police, but rapidly spread into the onlooking crowds as officers had no sure way of distinguishing innocents from offenders. From there, it escalated into a full-scale street war, into people fighting not for their rights or a paycheck… Just fighting.

Twenty feet from the ground you drop, expelling the fall through a smooth tuck-and-roll. There is a brief moment of calm as those around you are startled into stillness. You feel the world slow around you, watch the infinitesimal contractions of muscle in the crowds’ face as their expressions change from shock to outrage. Everything snaps to as someone hurls a baseball bat at you, and suddenly the roaring chaos is all you can hear. The bat whistles by as you duck to the side, and four brave or stupid souls break off from the encircling pack to take you on.

These men are civilians, confused and frightened, lashing out because they don’t know what’s going on. There’s no need to further tarnish the symbol by killing them, and besides, father would never have approved.

The first two pile up on you. Their mistake. A savage inward kick drives the first off his feet and to the side, where you catch him with a double-fisted hammer punch and send him crashing into the next.

The third is a little more cautious, but no less incompetent. He swings a fire extinguisher in a downward arc. You side step it, break his arm and steal his wind, forcing him to the ground. The fourth lands a solid kick on your temple as you’re standing, jostling your mask and temporarily glitches optics. The hiccup lets your opponent land two more guarded blows before you’re back. You click your tongue and catch his next swing, knocking the extinguisher away and folding his wrist backward. He screams and drops to the ground.

Ahead of you are a group of Gotham police officers brutalizing protesters. It’s not right, but you don’t necessarily need to invoke hostilities with the police.

You thread your way through the chaos, putting down what appear to be the sources of unrest where you can. It’s hard to pin down just where this is all radiating from. There seems to be some kind of haze of anger hanging over this place, and it’s affecting you, too. You feel it every time you have to put a civilian or cop out, every time they fight back. An itching at the back of your skull, goading you into going further, hurting more.

You begin drifting toward what you believe to be the center of the madness, the place where the buzzing in your skull grows strongest. As you come closer, you find it harder and harder to resist lashing out at those around you. Idiots and fools, they have no idea what you sacrifice for them, to keep them safe. What father sacrificed, and Grayson after him. It’s so enraging, it makes you want to seize the whole city by its greedy, ungrateful throat and squeeze until it stops kicking.

But you can’t do that. You made a promise.

The distraction of the maddening buzz puts you off-balance, so when the blow comes you’re completely unprepared.You howl as the lead pipe breaks your arm cleanly, slide down to your knees and spin, throwing out a boot in blind retaliation. It finds something to hurt, catching on your assailant’s chest and knocking them from their feet. You growl and clutch your arm, the bone itching as it begins to re-knit itself.

As for the attacker, he’s getting to his feet, dressed head-to-toe in black leather. He’s holding a briefcase in one hand, handcuffed to his wrist. The other still clutches the pipe. He leans on his knees for a moment, trying to catch his breath. All the better for you… Might give your arm a chance to heal.

“Didn’t know gimp suits were so popular at protests these days.” You growl, grinding the bone together to try and speed up the regeneration process. The man nods appreciatively, hefting his pipe over his shoulder.

“Good. That’s good. You still have your spirit. I wasn’t sure if I would unmake you, breaking your arm like that.”

You laugh, tasting blood in your mouth. “Please. Think I’ve never had my arm broken before? Goddamn amateurs. I’ll take down three like you before the end of the night.”

“Oh, I assure you, they won’t be like me.”

He begins pacing around you, circling like a predator sizing its prey.

“No, of course not,” you mock, “You’re the next Joker, right? Going to knock Two-Face-Two of his daddy’s throne, I bet.”

The man stops for a minute, then resumes his pacing.

“You really think I’m like one of those madmen? That I aspire to plummet into darkness, as they have? This isn’t even about ME, Batman. If anything, it’s about you! I’m just… The Instigator.”

You let him talk while you get a better look at the briefcase. Appears to be brushed steel, cuffed to his wrist, reinforced. Almost certainly the source of the soundwaves behind this riot.

“Instigator of what?” You ask, more to stall for time than out of any genuine interest. Every masked villain you’ve ever ended has had their own excuses for going off the deep end. Weak simpletons.

“Change, Batman. I am going to instigate change in this awful city. We’ve slipped too far,” he says, pausing to take a couple of swings at you with the pipe. You block them all cleanly with your gauntlets. He’s just probing for weaknesses. “I’m going to bring us back. And I’m going to start with you.”

Time to end this. There are too many situations requiring your attention tonight to waste anymore time on this goon. When he rushes in to attack you again, you surprise him by blocking with your “broken” arm, which has had time to heal substantially since the break. Then you bring your fist up in a scything uppercut, catching him in his gut. A whoop of air tells you it struck true.

“I’m going to put you down,” you growl into his ears, “And Gotham is going to forget you before ever learning your name.”

You flip him over onto his back, grabbing his throat and hitting him over and over. He’s screaming at you… No, laughing. He’s pushing his head into the attack, causing more damage than you ever could alone.

“Yes, that’s it! Let them see, Batman! Let them see what you’ve become, how far you’ve fallen! The symbol is broken and Bethlehem burns!”

You slow your assault, then stop altogether.

You grip the man by the leather of his jacket, chest heaving. He’s still struggling weakly, though blood seeps out from the slits in his mask, dribbling down the sides. Sucking in air through your nose, you crack your armored forehead against his, and he slumps back, unconscious. Next, you dive into your utility belt for a pair of miniature wire cutters and relieve him of the briefcase. Securing him with plastic ties, you heft the case and look around. The riot’s still going strong. Apparently the effects of the case were not linked to the fool in the suit. Time to get it out of here.

“Ro-Bat, fix on my position and close in for package retrieval.”

You feel slightly foolish, standing there in the eye of the storm, arm outstretched, briefcase in hand. Moments later the Ro-Bat streaks overhead and snatches the package from you, arcing back up into the sky as it does. You watch as the effects spread over the crowd. It’s almost immediate: the maddening buzz must have a greater effect on those without mental conditioning. A kind of exhausted, thousand-yard-stare settles over the crowd, and their struggle ebbs, ceases. One by one, they begin dropping to the ground, utterly spent.

You click your tongue and look to the skies. More work to do yet.

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #21

How it’s come to this, you’re not entirely sure. You know the events forward and backward, of course, but the logic evades you. All of this. Why?

Nightwing’s abduction and infection.

Jim Gordon’s fall from grace and replacement.

Scarecrow’s new nightmare, taking the city by storm.

Hush, orchestrating it all while Crane rots in Arkham.

The DEO and whoever else hovering in the background, motives unknown.

Whatever’s going on behind all of this, that shadowy thing moving just beyond the range of your sight, it’s about to make itself known. Here, tonight, you can feel that. Tim Drake, the young man masquerading as the vigilante Red Robin, has accompanied you to Blackgate Prison, where he has received word via his informant network that there is to be a major move made tonight. You are currently holed up in an employee’s office, listening to someone arguing with the prison warden in the central passage outside after scaling the walls and breaking in through a fourth floor window.

The options available to you swirl around your mind, whipping into a storm so as to overwhelm you. Finally, you shake your head and step back from the doorway, rolling your shoulders. Tim looks at you quizzically.

“Batman, what are yo–?”

“Robin, sometimes the best thing a detective can do is just get to the bottom of things. Step aside.”

Drake looks as if he’s about to make to argue, but finally sighs and stands away from the door. Seconds later, your armored heel crashes into the lock mechanism and the door gives way with a squeal of splintering wood. All argument ceases as you step into the main walkways. Looking over the rail, you see the warden being place in cuffs by Cyril Hobbes’ men. The interim commissioner himself is looking at you with naked shock.

“Look out,” you say, smirking over the rail at them and reaching for the pocket EMP in your belt, “Batman’s here.”

You drop the sturdy gadget over the edge and watch the procession of darkness, beginning at your floor and spreading downward to the bottom floor. Secondary locking mechanisms engage on the prisoners’ cells, ensuring you don’t have more problems to deal with any time soon.

After the initial startled shouting, the men below calm down and you consider your approach. Three smoke pellets ought to make things soupy enough down there, so you toss those ahead of you before vaulting the rail and whipping out your cape. The specially treated fibers in it snap rigid as you go, slowing your descent. You land with a swirl of smoke on the first floor a few seconds later.

“Heh,” you laugh, activating your cowl’s thermal optics to cut through the smoke, “Never would have been able to pull that on Gordon. You’re sloppy, Hobbes.”

No reply. You keep moving so as not to give away a location with your probes.

“What are you doing here, anyway? Could have sworn there was some press event you could have weaseled your way into by now.”

You can see Hobbes and his goons now. Their silhouettes, anyway, in stark, hot contrast to the cool blues around them. They’re backing away toward the door, tightening up around the warden.

“Officers,” says the Metropolitan man, “fire at will.”

The officers with Hobbes are panicked already. Beat cops, this isn’t what they signed up for. Find a perp, bring him in, take him down if you have to, sure. Not freaks in masks that can turn the lights out and drop four stories without a scratch. You know there’s not much time between now and when they start firing indiscriminately into the dark. There are only prisoners here, after all. Most of them are on death row anyway. What’s a stray bullet in a con to keep the Batman from getting them?

“You need to work with me, Hobbes.” You growl from the dark. “Whatever’s going on here, you’re in out of your depth. I won’t let you drown and take Gotham under in the process.”

“Somewhere to our right, gentlemen. Weapons trained, keep sharp. He’s trying to trick us.”

“Let me help you, Cyril. Things are moving too quickly for thi–”

“There! Fire!”

Shots streak past you into the dark, one boring a strip of flesh out of your ribs as it does. They’re almost to the door now.

Negotiation time is over. Time to stop Hobbes and his men from being a threat. There are lives at stake here, no matter what they did to deserve imprisonment. You cross the room silently, crouch and paint yourself across the wall.

“Red Robin,” you whisper into your mic, “I need you here now.”

“I can’t get there now, Bruce, I have to get down four stories. Maybe if you would let Fox make me a cape like you–”

You cut comms. He’ll complain about it, but Tim will be here as soon as physically possible. Hobbes is in the hall with the warden now, holding him at gunpoint. Something is definitely up. The two officers that accompanied the commissioner are holding at either side of the door, trying to bottleneck you. You glide up to the one on the right, hoping to take him down without the other noticing. You inhale sharply, stand and kick in the back of his knee, reaching as you do to catch him in a chokehold. You manage it, but not before the man gives out a single, desperate yelp. It’s more than enough to alert his comrade, who’s raising his weapon to fire with shaky hands, eyes wild.

Red Robin is there before the trigger is pulled. His Bo staff cracks against the man’s forearms and rebounds on his forehead. Drake jabs the man in the ribs to rob him of air, then throws him to the ground. You stand facing each other across the darkened room, the red throb of emergency lights in the hallway bisecting you like a crimson river. You’d expect Hobbes to be terrified by now, or at the very least unnerved. Instead, you hear laughter from that hallway.

“You still don’t know, do you?” The man croons between fits of laughter, “After all of this, you don’t know. The dark knight detective, at a loss. I must say, I’m disappointed.”

Tim’s voice comes across the comms. “Batman… What is this? What’s he talking about?”

“I…” You trail off.

You crane your neck around the corner, trying to get a better look at Hobbes. He is as you remember him that night on the roof of the MCU. Well, add wild terror and homicidal intent to that and you’re pretty close, anyway. You settle back into position so as not to alert him of your surveillance, then whisper to Drake.

“Any ideas on how to settle this, partner?”

“It’s a tough play regardless, Batman. Maybe we should let him go, see what happens?”

“No. Gotham is in dire straits as it is. We can’t afford an incident like this making the evening news.”

You heft a Batarang in your palm, weighing it, sizing it up. As if you haven’t thrown a thousand like it before. As if it’s not made to your specifications at Wayne-tech under Fox’s exacting supervision. Red Robin looks at you, his expression stark.

“You cannot be serious.”

“I’m never not.”

Running your thumb up the Batarang’s edge, you debate the call.

“Batman! Come out or the warden here will be honored in tomorrow’s obituary!”

Decision made.

Retreating further into the shadows, you begin breathing slowly, rhythmically. Then, quicker than thought, your hand snaps out, propelling the weapon along a blistering, whistling arc. It careens into Hobbes’ hand, piercing it cleanly. The man whips back as the razor sharp steel then embeds itself into the wall. The warden collapses, sobbing in relief on the ground.

Cyril Hobbes is still laughing.

“Red, I need you to get the warden out of here now. Call Gordon and tell him he’s back in charge, to scramble his trusted officers and that I’ll explain later.”

Tim nods, then gestures at the manic Hobbes. “What about him?”

You stride toward Hobbes, eyeing him intently. “I’ll deal with this.”

Without another word, Red Robin slings the warden’s arm over his shoulder and makes for the door at the end of the hallway. Watching him go, you hope that the worst of the night’s events have passed. Then you turn on Hobbes.

“You’re not Cyril Hobbes.” You state flatly.

“O-ho… Very good, Batman. Glad we’ve finally got you awake.” The man chuckles. His voice has changed now, and it’s all too familiar.

“You caught me off-guard, I’ll admit,” you continue, “but you knew your time was running out as soon as I saw your face in my city. So you rushed it.”

“Haha, as soon as you saw my face? Do you even know what my face is anymore, Bruce?” He spits your name. “Because I’ve begun to forget.”

“I’m not surprised,” you growl, “you change it so often. Don’t you, Tommy?”

The madman called Hush reaches for his ear with his free hand, and yanks savagely before you can stop him. As you suspected, the late Cyril Hobbes’ face comes free and flutters to the ground. The seemingly senseless murders, weeks ago. Three men and two women found faceless throughout Gotham. You thought it was Hush’s bravado that drove them, but it was a cover-up. One of those men was Cyril Hobbes, the real Cyril Hobbes. Metropolis’ golden boy, murdered by Thomas Elliot before he could help Gotham. Replaced with a figurehead to ease the passing of Jim Gordon’s career, and to cast a mask of ineptitude over the Gotham police department by feeding them poison.

“I don’t know!” He screams, his face a bloody ruin of exposed tissue and mutilated cartilage, “You tell me!”