Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #20-20.5

A panic has taken Gotham.

City-wide curfews are being enforced. When the sun goes down, so do the shutters. The streets are abandoned, but for the occasional squawk of a squad car’s siren. Dark things inhabit the hidden places, once human but transformed by the powerful grip of a madman’s psychotic drug. The “Addicted.” They move through back alleys in packs, breaking windows and flimsy doors… and anything they find inside.

Cyril Hobbes, the interim commissioner from Metropolis, claims to be doing all he can to clamp down on the problem. But he’s addressing the symptom, not the sickness. He sends goon squads in search of the Addicted, beats them down, throws them in holding. Notices are posted, paperwork is processed by overworked officers, families are notified in the few cases that identification can be verified.

No one has ever claimed an Addicted.

So eventually they’re let go, or in the case that they’re believed to be dangerous instead of comatose after a week of discovery, sent to Arkham. That hellhole is broiling over, set to explode. Worse still, there are rumors of apex predators arising, nameless horrors that take innocent and Addicted alike.

And the source of the problem goes unchecked. Hush, and whoever else is working with him, is still running rampant, creating more monsters. You have to find him, stop him. Luckily, you’ve had help triangulating the patterns of the spreading illness from some of the best. Lucius Fox and Tim Drake have been working around the clock, giving you free hands to pursue the surgeon’s people.

You’re atop Wayne Tower, taking a rare break to ingest carbohydrates and water. You’ve begun adding caffeine pills to the mix. You’ve put an end to four incidents since the sun went down, and those were just on the way in. Time to head back out.

Vaulting rooftops and grappling over wide, rain-soaked streets, you head for downtown. Tim answers after a few seconds of paging on the secured frequencies.

“Batman. You’re on your way?”

“A few minutes from your location, Red Robin. Start the rundown.”

“I’ve been rooting through the downtown for the last few weeks, so when you mentioned the human trafficking, it struck a chord. There’s been a number of abductions, mostly street beggars and subway musicians. It’s happening all over the city, yes, but there’s a marked concentration in this area. I loosened some lips and got word of something big going down tonight. Lots of players, including a mask.”

“Who?”

“Informant didn’t say.”

“Where?”

“You’re not going to like it.”

“I never do.”

“Blackgate.”

You pause.

“You knew about this and didn’t tell me?”

“It was small-time gossip at first. Didn’t see the bigger picture until I got your files.”

You drop down from the shadows above as he finishes his sentence.

“Next time, bring something like this to me. Let’s move.”

It’s another twenty minutes with Tim by your side before you reach Blackgate. Tim seems content to let the silence last.

“You’ve read the information we’ve compiled so far. What’s your take on it?”

Drake takes a baseball slide through some pipe grating, then launches onto a lower elevation before answering.

“Well, it seems obvious that Hush and Scarecrow have it in their heads that by working together, they can do more damage. Which, of course, is true.”

You grunt. No use denying it; the fact that the city’s psychopaths tend to have homicidal personality quirks has worked to your favor more than once. Lock them in a room together, and it’s an easy guarantee that only one will walk out. If there’s a plan big enough that they’ve decided to set aside their differences, it’s bad news.

“The problem I see with it is the Gordon angle. From what you’re telling me, neither Elliot nor Crane ought to have the knowledge necessary to crack that security encryption. But it’s clearly connected.”

“That implies another player.”

“Exactly. And what’s their endgame with all of this, anyway? What comes after the Addicted?”

Not something you’d considered. As far as you’d been able to figure, the Addicted were the endgame, not a means to it.

Commence Issue 20.5 -Ed.

Gotham rain lashes heavily on the brickwork of Blackgate Penitentiary. That grim edifice is a glaring embodiment of all that is wrong with the once great city; a cancerous boil, filled with poison. Tonight, you fear it just might burst.

Tim Drake, your former protégé and the current Red Robin, has brought you here on suspicion that Hush’s thugs might be preparing the madman’s masterstroke. Worse still, the young man’s brilliantly intuitive mind has brought to bear the suggestion of yet another player in the game. Who it is, neither of you can say for sure.

It seems you’re not the first to pay a visit to Blackgate tonight. Outside the building are several patrol cars and a number of unmarked vehicles. All is quiet inside as far as you can tell.

You signal for Drake to follow you, then begin moving toward the penitentiary. The downpour is deafening, a double-edged sword: no one can hear you, but you can’t hear them either. You begin ghosting around the patrol cars, just beyond the edge of the light, straining to find a way in. Nothing on this level. It’s a fortress.

Tim grabs your shoulder, points upward. All of the windows are barred of course, but those on the ground and near it are more heavily fortified. Maybe, if you could get up there, you could figure something out.

You nod to Drake, then hold your arm out to put him behind you. A second later, your grappling wire hurtles through the air, finds purchase on the steel grating, holds fast. Tim takes the hint and does the same on a separate window. On your signal, you both key the retraction buttons on your gear, and scale the slick stone wall. You’re on the fourth floor, looking into a darkened room. Can’t make much out between that and the rain out here. Drake is three windows to your right, waiting expectantly.

There’s protective grating to prevent any would-be escape artists, so a glass cutter isn’t viable right now. Instead, you reach into your utility belt and go for the plastique you had commissioned from Fox recently, constructed from a template designed on the theory used in Batwoman’s own kit. You noticed the gadget when you paired up with the woman to storm GCU and free Scarecrow’s victims there. Swinging to the right on your cable, you fasten the explosive at the base of the grate’s four anchor points, then put some distance between you and open communications with Tim.

“Red Robin, keep your distance. I’m going to make a hole.”

“Won’t that alert whoever’s inside?”

“Not this. It’s self- silencing, more of an intense, sustained heat than a big bang.”

“Can I-”

“No.”

A few seconds later, the plastique detonates, fizzing loudly in the rain as it builds heat. After a moment, the anchors groan and give way. Before the grate can crash to the ground below, you and Drake catch it and secure it on his grapple line. All according to plan.

You nod to Tim.

“I’m going in first. Secure your line, then follow me.”

Another dive into the utility belt yields your glass cutter. You sketch a hasty diamond-pattern in the glass, pushing the plate inward and to the side. It’s a close thing, getting yourself through to the other side, but you manage it. Dripping on the window sill, you slip down and survey your surroundings. The room is tiny, not much bigger than a cell. What differentiates it is the desk: not elaborate, made of cheap wood, but more than any inmate could ever hope for. This is what passed for an employee’s office. There’s a bookcase on the far end of the wall, and a door with a crazed glass window pane overlooking what you assume to be the central walkways. It’s impossible to tell what exactly is going on out there, but there are lights and raised voices. As you ponder the possibilities, Drake slips in behind you.

You glide across the office floor soundlessly, pressing up against the door for a better listen.

“-fering with a police investigation.”

“I understand that sir, but with all due respe–”

“This is not a point of debate, warden. You will comply or I will have you charged.”

“Who exactly do you think you are? Jim Gordon and I have been friends for fifteen yea–”

“Which is more than enough to have you charged as accomplice once he’s brought down.”

“You son of a–”

“Officers. Arrest the warden.”

You recognize the warden’s voice surely, but the other is hard to place… Maybe someone you don’t know. Tim slides up to the other side of the door, and whispers.

“Batman? Anything about this seem odd to you?”

You pause, give him a questioning look.

“No alarms. We should have triggered something with our entry. No bells, no hazard lights. Nothing.”

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #19

Gotham is a city of contradictions. Lauded for its progressive attitude by the press, yet riddled by race wars in the slums. Pioneering new developments in technology and medicine, even as its citizens waste away from drug addiction or disease. Creating bright, blazing beacons of hope like the first Green Lantern, only to break a man so thoroughly that he becomes a creature of the night, a predator with black leather wings and a fierce, merciless gaze. You are that man, the Batman. Tonight, Gotham seems strange, almost foreign to you, its stark dichotomy laid bare for you for the first time in years. Last night, you confronted the deranged doctor Crane about subjecting Nightwing to his newest strain of fear toxin. Though the interrogation revealed little, Alfred claims that Fox is making progress on a solution to Dick’s affliction. As for the man himself, his condition is worsening. Lying restrained in the Cave, he struggles constantly against his bonds, heedless of the damage inflicted on his body. He has already fractured his left forearm, cut into flesh, left dark bruises on his legs. His mind is going. Soon he will become completely insensate, like the ravening beasts you discovered in Scarecrow’s den (see Issue #13). By then, you fear, it may be too late to save him.

You arrived in the city an hour ago and have already stopped two assaults, both perpetrated seemingly at random by the citizens Scarecrow poisoned. It appears that someone is dropping them off at densely populated areas of the city, then letting their broken minds do the rest. Despite once being average people, their addiction to Scarecrow’s toxin has turned them into sadists with strength beyond reason. Putting them down is a challenge, even for you.

The Bat-signal hangs in the sky, only the second time it has since Gordon’s disgrace and subsequent suspension. Whoever keeps lighting it wants your attention. You figure it must be Cyril Hobbes, the replacement commissioner the mayor’s office brought in from Metropolis. What he wants is unclear; he’s made his stance on ‘the Batman issue’ clear to the press, and you, on several occasions. From past experience, if it smells like a trap and looks like a trap, it’s probably a trap. Whether it’s worth springing is another thing entirely.

You make your way to the MCU, intent on surveying this new commissioner and, if you feel it is warranted, making contact. The night-time continues to churn and broil around you as you move through it; word of the Addicted has spread, and now the citizenry begins its slow creep toward mass hysteria. You’ve seen it before, when the threats of these super villains hit too close to home. When it’s not just a few people dead in a mall or an office building, but a sickness, an evil they can’t see, fight back against or avoid… That’s what truly terrifies. That’s what plants the seeds for widespread rioting. This needs to end before it gets that far.

Now standing on a rooftop overlooking the MCU, you find your suspicions confirmed. A lone figure stands there in the whipping wind, staring up at the signal in the clouds. Broad-shouldered, well-dressed. Obvious concealed weapon under the right armpit. The wind keeps betraying it. Short auburn hair and, after activating cowl optics, blue eyes.

Hnnh. Blue. Dossier said green. Have to take up the error with Alfred.

There are no traps as far as you can see, but that’s the trouble with them: if you can see them, they’re not very good.

“Cowl, enhance and thermal image.”

The microprocessors in your suit whir quietly as they scan the rooftop, looking for bio-signs. None are evident, save Cyril Hobbes. Deciding that perhaps your usual modus operandi is unwarranted here, you make a direct approach toward the roof, struggling to maintain a steady glide on the howling winds. You land with a solid thud not far from the commissioner, whose hand goes to the piece under his arm. A reaction to your sudden appearance, no doubt.

“I wouldn’t.” You say, nodding at the man. “You’d never draw, and I’m not here to hurt you, anyway.”

The man stands there silently for a moment, his hand still hovering over the holster.

“Yeah? Not the way I see it. Why didn’t you respond to the signal before? Where were you?”

You begin to slowly approach the man, intent on analyzing him, getting a true measure of just who is sitting at Gordon’s desk.

“Let’s make two things clear: first, lighting the signal does not ensure my appearance. Second, I do not answer to you.”

Hobbes scoffs, but lets the hand drop from his holster. There’s something about his body language that you find at once familiar and foreign. Like an old friend, but one who’s been through some terrible, deforming accident since you last crossed paths.

“That’s the real problem, isn’t it? You don’t answer to anyone. You claim to be an agent of the law, but I have a feeling that if I asked you to turn yourself in for questioning right now, you’d refuse. Wouldn’t you?”

“That’s where you’ve got it wrong. Can’t blame you. Took Jim a few years to figure it out, too. I’m not an agent of the law. The law is flawed. I am an agent of justice. I deliver the scum of this city to your broken system time and again, just to watch them walk free months later due to ‘insufficient evidence.’ Tell me, commissioner: who really has cause to question motive in that situation?”

Hobbes’ mouth opens and closes several times. He’s trying to think of a retort, but he’s struggling. The quick-witted golden boy of Metropolis, at a loss for words.

“While you’re tripping over your tongue,” you growl, “allow me to enlighten you as to what is going on in your city. Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, has introduced a new strain of his signature toxin onto the streets. It’s driving Gotham mad. I’ve stopped two would-be murders already tonight, and I can’t be everywhere at once. Where are your men? Where are you?”

Hobbes remains silent for a moment, then heaves a sigh of exasperation. He still seems to have trouble finding the words.

“I, uh… You see, in Metropolis… Well, we have him.”

And there it is. You can’t keep the grin off your face. Clark has made Metropolis’ police force lazy, complacent. Something you’ve suspected would happen for a long time. Something you’ve warned the Superman about. For in a city watched over by what is essentially god, of what use is a man with a badge and a gun?

“Well you don’t have him here. You’ll have to make due with me. Me, and that.” You say, pointing to the holster obscured beneath his suit jacket. Hobbes shakes his head ruefully.

“Right. Well. I suppose you should turn over whatever information you have–”

“That’s not how this is going to go. I’ll work with you, Hobbes, but I’m not your lackey. And in exchange for my help, you’re going to do me a favor.”

The man scoffs, some of his arrogant bravado returning.

“Oh yes? And in this wildly hypothetical scenario, just what favor am I doing for you?”

“You’re clearing Jim Gordon’s name. And you’re doing it so an innocent man isn’t sent away for life for crimes he didn’t commit. And so I don’t have to look at your face anymore.”

“And if I decide not to help you? What then, eh?”

“Considering that you weren’t even aware of the Scarecrow’s plans until just now? I’d say you watch the city eat itself. And then the world blames you.”

Hobbes blanches somewhat at your statements, then nods.

“Alright, Batman,” you note he still can’t keep the contempt from his voice when he addresses you, “what course of action would you recommend?”

“First, do what you should have done when you got to this city. Make use of available resources. Talk to Detective Bullock. He’s dirty, but so is almost every other cop in this city. The other one worth getting in touch with is Detective Sawyer. She does good work, and has a sharp criminal mind. She can help.”

Hobbes pulls out his notepad, begins jotting down names.

“Right. Anything else?”

“The only other man that could have helped you is currently in holding pending his transfer to Blackgate. See to it he doesn’t get that far. If he does, and those monsters… If he does, there will be nowhere you can hide from me.”

Hobbes is still looking at his pad, finishing up his annotations. By the time he looks up, you’re gone. At least, as far as he knows, you are. A slow smile spreads across his face, then he tucks his pad in his coat and heads back into the MCU.

Strange.

You patch into Batwoman’s encrypted frequencies again. Before you can transmit anything, her voice crackles across the line, impatient and angry. She hates that you have found a doorway into her world that she cannot shut. Too bad.

“What, Batman? I am extremely busy not dying at the hands of this psychopath.”

“Batwoman, the person you’re fighting may be innocent. I know that seems impossible, but I believe they’ve been exposed to Scarecrow’s toxin.”

There’s a pause, assumedly while Batwoman fights off her attacker. When she responds, she’s out of breath.

“This thing is insane! This is what we were trying to stop at GCU?”

“Yes, and we’re still going to stop it, but I need you to put them down gently. They might still be saved.

“Got it.”

You cut communications there.

You’re concerned about Hobbes, but to maintain surveillance right now would mean breaking into the MCU and following him. Not something you have time for when drug-addled citizens of Gotham are assaulting one another. You make for the East end of the city, keeping your eyes out for Addicted or the people that are moving them. You’re hoping you might call the cat out of the barn, so to speak.

A squealing of tires somewhere to the south of your position catches your attention. Leaping rooftops, grappling and arcing over gaps too wide to cross otherwise, you arrive at the location in minutes. A narrow side street, the taillights of an unmarked vehicle disappear around the corner. Screaming and gibbering, a naked figure pursues them, then slows and stops when all hope of catching up is gone. It’s a woman, naked and hysterical, covered in cuts and bruises, filthy from head-to-toe.

“Cowl, enhance.”

The optics in your suit focus on the woman, bring you closer. Her eyes are wild, pupils dilated, jaw working unconsciously. Addicted, no doubt. You drop down some thirty yards away from her. She whirls, hearing you somehow, and screeches.

“Wait.” You command sternly, raising a hand. “I’m not going to hurt you, if you can just not hurt me.” She crosses her arms, you assume at first to preserve her dignity, but then she begins digging her nails into her flesh, making of it bloody ribbons. Her jaw is still working, and it sounds like she’s trying to say something. You begin approaching cautiously.

You raise both hands now, keeping them clearly visible and away from your belt. She’s still scratching her arms.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” you say cautiously, keeping your tone even and calm, “you’ve suffered grievous injury already. If you come with me, we can get you help.”

“Ggg-gguh… Nnn… Hurts.”

“I know. I know it does. Do you think you can stop?”

She shakes her head violently, raking herself with ever more violence. She’s past the skin now, tearing into flesh and muscle. Permanent damage is not far.

“Alright. What’s your name?”

“S… Sarah.”

She seems to be regaining the ability to speak, but it’s not lining up with her body language, which is becoming increasingly agitated and erratic.

“C-can you… Cannn you get me some?”

“You mean drugs? What the men gave you?”

She’s groaning now, building up to a keening wail.

“You can get it, right? You can. You’re Batman.”

You slowly shake your head, hands still up.

“I can’t do that Sarah. I wouldn’t be helping you.”

She drops to her knees then, sobbing, holding her shoulders. Then she lets out a maddened scream and hurls herself at you.

Her charge is desperate, uncontrolled. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, she just wants a way out. You can’t blame her. Having been subjected to Crane’s toxins several times in the past yourself, you know the terrible waking nightmare they bring. As she closes, you blade your body and step to the side, catch her body as she tries to change her trajectory too quickly. You hook an arm under hers, prevent her from getting a good swing on you, then lie down, breaking her fall with your body. She’s thrashing mightily, but losing strength. Losing the will to fight, and with it, the will to live. She doesn’t have much time.

“Sarah,” you say, struggling to keep her in check, “I need you to calm down. I’m going to give you a sedative, and then we’re going to figure everything out. I promise, Sarah. I’m going to fix it. I’m going to.”

You get a hand free and reach for your belt, pulling from there a potent sedative. It should give her a blessed, dreamless slumber. One she sorely needs. You hold her as the drug takes hold, wait for her thrashing to subside. Once you’re certain she’s out, you gently roll her off you and contact Alfred.

“Prepare the operating theater, Alfred, I–”

“I’m sorry sir, but that will have to wait. There’s something more important.”

“Nothing is more important than this. Nothing.”

“I assure you, this is, sir. It’s Grayson.”

Icewater runs down your spine.

“What’s happened?”

“I was gone for only a moment, sir. I left him in the care of Mr. Fox. He… Broke free from his restraints, attacked Lucius…”

“And? Where is he, Alfred?”

“He’s… He’s gone, sir.”

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #18

There is nothing like the rain in Gotham.

Stood atop Wayne Tower’s tallest spire, you turn your face into the deluge, relishing the pellets of refreshing water that batter your face and cowl. It has been years since weather has hampered your patrols or your spirits, and tonight will be no different. Far below you, the din of the city struggles to be heard… Car horns bleating, street cars whistling, pedestrians cursing and cat-calling. Crimes being committed, observed, forgotten. Conspiracies being conceived, birthed, dying on the vine. The city is in a constant state of self-renewal, rotting from the inside out, only to spring up again, rejuvenated by its former flesh made fertilizer. You glance once more at the signal in the sky, then calmly drop from the tower, hurtling ever faster toward the unforgiving pavement below. Before your velocity becomes a problem, you fire your grappling gun onto the roof of an apartment building across the street. You don’t even have to look to know you’ve made your mark, so familiar has Gotham’s architecture become. Scant seconds later the line goes taut, and you with it. Arcing toward the warehouse below the apartments, you depress the grapple’s release button and it whistles back into its case. A simple tuck and roll dissipates most of the impact, and you stand up with the ghost of a smile on your face. You’ll never tire of that.

Being on patrol like this, in your element, feels good. The past few months have taken their toll on you, physically and mentally. It all started when your friend and former ward, Dick Grayson, went missing after pursuing the assassin Deathstroke to France. Then, the madman known as Killer Croc perpetrated a grisly killing spree in the Narrows, fueled by a new mutation of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. After dealing with Croc, you began to investigate Crane’s work in Gotham: he’s been seizing innocent citizens, using half of them as human incubators for his new toxin and the other half as test subjects. The results are varied, but always gruesome. All the while that you spent chasing Scarecrow, someone was framing Jim Gordon for crimes he did not commit… And successfully. Since Jim’s supposed indiscretions were leaked to the press, he has been put on suspension without pay and subjected to humiliating trials that show little more fair-handedness than the witch hunts of old Salem. A puppet commissioner has been brought in from Metropolis to close the gap and has been acting strange, out of character, licking the boots of Gotham’s paparazzi when his Metropolitan reputation painted him as a hard-liner boy scout, interested only in getting the job done.

Somehow, somewhere in all of this, Thomas Elliot’s influence lurks. The insane surgeon now known to the world as Hush has been working in concert with Scarecrow, though what his contribution is to the overall plot has thus far remained murky. You spent several hours in his ‘care,’ before a timely raid on the facility by the DEO gave you a chance to slip away.

The Department of Extranormal Operations has its own skeletons in the closet, with its Director, the man known only as Mr. Bones, cutting deals with Gotham’s underworld to obtain samples of Crane’s toxin, intent on turning it into a weapon his department can use. There has to be more there, for what you know of Bones states clearly that his intentions are never obvious nor simplistic. What that ‘more’ could be you don’t yet know.

After a confrontation at his downtown loft last night, you’ve discovered that Dick has been exposed to Crane’s toxin, and the poison is eating away at him. Unable to find a solution or antidote that is viable at this stage, you’ve placed him under anesthetic and left him in the Cave for Alfred to look after. The old butler’s expression was grim when you brought him in, and has grown no lighter since.

You try to hold onto the clarity that the night offers you, but feel it slipping. It’s time to make a decision before it ebbs away entirely.

You patch into Katherine Kane’s ‘secure’ lines. Her father is a good man and does the best he can, but he’s not a specialist, not a technician. It took Lucius Fox a scant few hours to crack their encryption algorithm. After a moment of silence in which the rain drowns out all else, Batwoman’s hard voice comes over the line.

“At this point, I’ll just assume it’s you, Batman. You should know that you’ve just caused me a significant amount of trouble, cutting into my communications like that. The DEO will want to know what happened.”

“Make something up. You appear to have a talent for lying. So do your employers. You should know that I had an altercation with your Director two nights ago at the Falcone estate. Bones isn’t playing this above board.”

“Thanks, detective. Next you can tell me why the sky’s blue. Of course Bones isn’t playing fair. He never does.”

There’s something more to that statement, something you can’t quite catch. It will bear further examination, but later.

“The attitude’s unnecessary, Katherine. This is obviously something you didn’t know, or I assume you would have brought it to me. Am I wrong in that?”

“Maybe. I don’t work for you, Batman. I’m not part of your initiative. Remember that.”

“So noted.”

You cut the line. Something’s got her tense. She’s angrier than usual. Maybe the DEO is leaning on her, too.

Dick’s condition is worsening, and with no other options available to you, you make a hard choice. It’s time to visit Dr. Jonathan Crane at Arkham Asylum.

It takes you ten minutes to get to the asylum from Wayne Tower, and another fifteen to slip in through secret ways, undetected by Jeremiah Arkham’s goons. Soon you are in that area of the prison that most staffers would love nothing more than to seal up and forget about forever. Brick up the door, plaster it over, perhaps hang a painting. Forget about the madness inside. But that madness is not to be contained… Not in such concentration. Through hairline fissures and invisible cracks it will seep, until the entire city is drowned by it. Walking down the corridor that traverses the room, your head swings back and forth, observing the cells and their occupants. Here, Victor Fries, his room specially conditioned to allow his continued survival. Next to him, Poison Ivy, her holding cell hermetically sealed so that no element of nature may be placed at her disposal. On the other side of the hall, a sight that still draws pangs of regret: Harvey Dent, wrapped in a straitjacket, staring blankly at his reflection in the one-way mirror. Next to him, the only cell that is not starkly illuminated. Gotham’s deepest darkness resides there, waiting for his chance to prey upon the city once more. Nothing can contain him, not even this place. Not for long.

Finally, you come to Crane’s cell. He is seated on a small stool, the only piece of furniture provided for him. He has somehow escaped his straitjacket and fashioned from it a crude facsimile of his trademark mask. You key the button next to the cell door and dissolve the mirror effect that prevents him from seeing outside. His reaction is immediate: he leans forward, his shoulders hunched aggressively. Eager.

“Ah… The Batman. I was wondering when you’d show up. How is our little bird doing?”

“No one knows I’m here, Crane. No one but you. I could open this cell, break your neck and be gone without anyone ever knowing.”

Scarecrow guffaws, shaking his head.

“You could. But you won’t. We both know that, don’t we? Especially if you want to see your little friend made hale and sound.”

“What did you do to him?”

“I administered the cure. For his fears, you see. Now he’s not afraid of anything. I’m curious… What did he say when you found him? What was Nightwing’s greatest fear?”

You say nothing, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of knowing it was you. After a moment, he leans back, slaps his palms against his knees.

“Not willing to share, eh? Ah well. No matter. You will soon share his fate.”

“What’s your plan here, Crane? Because from where I’m standing, you’ve already lost. Incarcerated, without resources… What threat are you to Gotham here?”

The mad doctor cackles wildly.

“I don’t need to do anything more. Gotham will devour itself, and from that great orgy of death will be born my true devotees. I believe you’ve met some of them already.”

“Those people aren’t your disciples. You forced your toxin on them, addicted them. They’re out of their minds. But I guess that suits you. Who else is in on this?”

“Haha! You really think I’d tell you? Well. I know for a fact that you’ve already encountered poor Tommy. No sense in hiding his involvement. Oh, but I won’t tell you what part he has to play.”

You hitch your shoulder, indicating the dark cell behind you.

“What about him?”

Scarecrow casts his gaze beyond you for a moment, gazing into the perpetual night of that room.

“Him? No… He’s too volatile, you understand. There’s nothing that he WANTS. Well, except for you, of course. No, I haven’t heard a peep from him in months. He took out the lights in his cell two weeks ago. All of the guards have pretended not to notice. None of them want to get close, I suppose. Cowards.”

Inwardly, you breathe a sigh of relief. No matter how horrific Scarecrow’s plans are, no matter how far reaching the consequences, the inclusion of that psychopath would worsen things exponentially.

You re-engage the mirror effect on Scarecrow’s cell, and watch as the enthusiasm drains from him. This encounter, this conversation will likely be the highlight of his stay here. You gave him that. You wish you could take it back. You turn to leave and are halfway down the hall when you stop. Something in the back of your mind, something nagging at you. You need to see him. Need to know he’s here.

Maybe he can help.

You walk back down the hallway and stand before the darkened cell. No sound escapes it, but that’s not surprising. These rooms are densely insulated. You flip the switch by the side of the cell, deactivating the mirror. Still, you see only darkness. There is nothing. No ghastly face observing you from the other side, no evidence of his depravity. Only a small, dark room. You inch your face closer to the glass. Then, in a voice so hushed as to be nearly inaudible, you whisper.

“Joker?”

Nothing. Silence. No mad cackling, no morbid pun. You spend five minutes in front of that cell, staring into the dark, willing the demon inside to show himself. Five minutes wasted. As you reach for the button to reset the mirror, however, the faintest whisper is heard.

“Darrrrlinnnnngggggggg…”

With a sneer, you jam your thumb on the switch. Foolish to think anything but evil would come from this place.

Feeling that you’ve wasted your visit to Arkham, you make your way back into the city quickly. It is much as you left it: filthy, rife with crime, containing only the faintest spark of hope. But that spark is so beautiful as to have everything around it pale in comparison. So beautiful as to be worth fighting for, despite everything. You begin seeking out criminal acts, looking for the rush of combat to focus your mind. You don’t have to look far. A mugging is in progress in the Narrows, not far from the asylum. The woman looks like a regular, probably in deep with one of the pimps that infest this area of the city. The man? Maybe a John gone wrong, maybe a rival pimp’s thug trying to make a statement. Doesn’t really matter. You drop down, your cape billowing out around you. She screams. He doesn’t. He comes after you with a switchblade.

You reach for your belt, find a Batarang, hurl it. Mistake. The thug uses his victim as a shield, and she takes the shard of razor-sharp steel in the shoulder. Cries out again. He’s got his knife against her throat now. Eyes are wild, pupils dilated, breathing ragged. He’s on something.

“Slow down,” you say, hands extended, palms upward, “this isn’t the way this has to go.”

He says nothing, but drags the knife across the woman’s flesh when you approach. Just enough to draw blood.

You raise your hands in a supplicating gesture. He’s not buying it, not yet. Your reputation precedes you; sometimes that’s a liability.

“Alright. You’ve caught me up. Congratulations.” You say, backing away from the two. The woman’s eyes widen further. You make no motion, no indication that you’re lying. Doing so would be signing her death warrant. She starts sobbing, cursing you, calling you a coward. Why, of all the people you’ve saved, must you abandon her? Her theatrics actually help. The thug starts thinking he’s actually won.

“Yeah… Back up, Batman. I got you fair ‘n’ square, now you gotta let me go. That’s how this works.” He tightens his grip on the woman, making her gasp in fear as the knife drags across her neck again.

“Me an’ this one? We ain’t done. She don’t work for the right people, now she gotta pay fer it, unnerstand?”

You’re fading back into the shadows now, beyond his sight. He’s not picking up on the danger.

“I do.” You reply quietly. Once you’re certain he can no longer make you out in the darkness, you whirl and begin sprinting down the hall in the other direction, navigating the warren of tenements as surely as if you’d been raised there. If you can move quickly enough, and if she gives him enough trouble, you’ll catch them before they pass the next intersection. Once they get there, it’s anybody’s guess where they’ll go. You’ll never find them.

Thirty seconds later, you’re hunched in the piping overlooking the intersection. The thug shows up with the girl; he’s given her some bruises she won’t soon forget. That means she’s a fighter. Good girl. As they near the center of the intersection, she hauls backward and stamps on the man’s toe when he tries to pull her back in line. Her stilettos are obscene; you’d be shocked if they haven’t broken bone. The man howls, reaches for his waistline, stumbling backward from the woman. Unfortunately for him, his retreat puts him right in front of you. He’s pulling the gun out when you snap his wrist and kick in the back of his knee. He folds, dropping to his knees and cranes his head to look back at you.

“Wh–how did you–oh, no.”

You lean down, bring your face within an inch of his.

“Oh yes,” you say, adopting the dialect of the Narrows, “You don’t been workin’ for the right people. Now yous gonna pay. Unnerstand?”

Without giving him time to respond, you bring your elbow down on his forehead and he slumps forward, unconscious.

You stoop down, begin rifling through the thug’s pockets. He groans once or twice, but you hit him hard enough that he shouldn’t be coming around any time soon. You find the basics… The knife, a spare in his pocket, his piece in the waistband, a variety of narcotics. Nothing special.

Until you find the scalpel.

It’s pristine, just out of the packaging. Never been used. A calling card. You turn to the woman.

“Your shoulder. Let me see.”

You approach her. At first, she shies away, flinching any time you get near. Eventually she lets you close enough to check the wound. It’s not deep, thankfully. You pull out compacted field dressings from your belt and fix the wound as best you can, then send out a distress signal to Gotham PD.

“I’m sorry,” you say, “police are on their way. You might want to make yourself scarce.” She nods, then thanks you in a hoarse whisper and flees down one of the many hallways in this warren. You cuff the thug, prop him up against the wall, then make with disappearing.

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #17

It’s cold in Gotham tonight. A thin sheen of precipitation hangs over the city like a gossamer veil, obscuring the worst of her indecencies to would-be suitors. Of those, there are many. Alongside the usual theft, drug trade and black marketeering the metropolis sees so much of, its conspiracy of super villains have been exceptionally active lately. Starting several months ago with the assassination of a Gotham bigwig, the city’s descent into madness has accelerated precipitously. Shortly after, one of its few beleaguered guardians, the young hero named Nightwing, went missing for several weeks. You have since learned that he was held against his will by Deathstroke, a super-human assassin, and likely tortured. Since his rescue (thanks in no small part to the vigilantes Batwoman and Nightrunner), he has been sullen and uncommunicative, retreating to his loft apartment in downtown Gotham to lick his wounds.

You believe Nightwing’s abduction to be linked to other events occurring in Gotham around the same time, namely the killing spree in the Narrows perpetrated by Waylon Jones, the hideously mutated mass murderer you know better as Killer Croc. You have since apprehended Croc and ascertained that this particular rampage was triggered by his exposure to a new mutation of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, administered by the good doctor himself. Scarecrow was presumably performing the final test runs, working out the ‘kinks’ (or making sure they made it in). Since then he’s abducted scores of Gotham’s citizens to use as both test subjects and human incubators. Once a person has been subjected to the drug long enough, they become chemically addicted and will suffer horrific withdrawals if separated from it.

Worse still, you’ve found out that it isn’t just the city’s masked criminal components arrayed against you; traditional organized crime appears to be an issue now, in the form of Sofia Gigante Falcone, daughter of Carmine Falcone and successor to the throne. Last night you paid Sofia a visit, rudely interrupting her clandestine meeting with Director Bones, head honcho of the Department of Extranormal Operations, the group Batwoman has aligned herself with and not much better than Falcone and her lot.

Having analyzed Falcone’s hard drive (obtained last night at her home in the palisades) and the data chip on Bones’ phone, you’ve been able to piece together that the Department wanted Scarecrow’s operation shut down, but not before they could obtain the formula to his new toxin. ‘To ensure the formulation of a publicly available antidote’ was the official line, but you don’t buy it. They want to turn it into a weapon they can use, refine it. As if it weren’t deadly enough already. Though Falcone initially turned Crane down when he proposed a partnership with her, the DEO leaning on her (or on her wallet, more specifically) changed the crime mogul’s mind.

James Gordon, your friend and long-time ally has been framed for crimes he didn’t commit by someone who has so far been very good at staying just beyond the light of your scrutiny. On suspension until a verdict is reached on his trial, Gordon has been weathering the storm with his family in their shabby downtown apartment. A stand-in commissioner has been called in from Metropolis to bridge the gap; Cyril Hobbes has played the media part, all-but condemning Gordon in every press release made available to him. It doesn’t add up with his boy scout reputation in Metropolis, but you haven’t had time to pursue the matter more thoroughly.

Somewhere in all of this, Thomas Elliot, the crazed surgeon now known as Hush, exerts his influence. Announcing his presence in the city with a string of his signature murders, you’ve since run into him again; he held you against your will when you were taken down while attempting to break up another of the Scarecrow’s operations. You escaped, but barely.

Now you sit at the computer console in the Cave, watching news reports fly by on the monitor, planning your next move. The sun has dropped behind the shoulders of the hills. Stars glitter in the pale, shivering night. Time to go to work.

You make use of several encrypted proxies in order to send Amanda Waller a simple message, vague but close enough that she should get the point without any other eyes that might manage to see it doing the same:

“The Bones are rattling in the closet.”

That sent, you patch into the upstairs intercom and summon Alfred. He is prompt as ever, and soon stands at your elbow in the Cave, his presence aristocratic and comforting. After a long moment of silence in which you sit with your hands steepled in front of you, you speak up.

“Alfred, I’m concerned. Frankly, I’m not sure how to handle the situation with Dick.”

The butler’s body language betrays little but for a pang of concern that is unmistakable.

“Indeed, sir. It perturbs me as well… I’ve rarely seen him so… Well… Like you, master Bruce.”

You grunt. “Thanks.”

The elderly gentleman shakes his head. “You’ve mistaken me, sir. I do not mean to say that your character is not an admirable one–certainly it is not last on my choices of desired outcomes for master Grayson–”

“That’s a comfort.”

“–But it is unexpected. There is something inside each of us, master Bruce, something you know better than I. It is something not easily described, nor interpreted, but it is always definitely one way or quite another.”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

“Well sir, what I mean to say is that with you it is definitely the one way, and with master Grayson it has ever been quite the other. The way I know the young man–and dare I say it, I know him as well or better than you, sir–he should not be capable of being entirely like you. It implies something is wrong. To me it does, at any rate.”

You’re silent for a while then, taking time to assimilate what Alfred has said. It confirms your own fears and suspicions, though. Something was done to Dick while he was at the mercy of Deathstroke’s goons. Something that has had previously undetectable consequences. There is a shifting occurring there. Finally, you break the silence again.

“I’d like to visit him. I’d like you to come with me.”

At this, there is a prolonged silence from Alfred.

“Sir, with all due respect, it would seem rather odd to me if tomorrow’s newspaper featured sightings of the Batman alongside Bruce Wayne’s Butler. Would it not? In any case, I feel this may be something better addressed by the two of you. There are levels to both of your psyches to which I simply cannot relate. I fear I may only be a hindrance.”

Alfred nods, then makes a small breach in decorum that speaks volumes of his sympathy to your situation. He leans forward, placing a gloved hand on your shoulder.

“Richard sees you as more than just Gotham’s dark knight, master Bruce. To him, you were his protector before you were theirs,” he says, gesturing to the video feeds, displaying the washed out city streets and the strangers that prowled them, “And if he has become lost… If that darkness in all of us has brought him low, well… I’ll be damned if there’s someone I trust more to save him than you, sir.”

Then he clears his throat, straightens, and the moment passes as suddenly as it was upon you.

“At any rate, I’ll have one of our more… Clandestine cars prepared for you. Perhaps one of those quaint Italian coupes we picked up last year.”

You nod in response, and Alfred disappears moments later. You make your own way up from the Cave soon after, shedding the cape and cowl in favor of a simple slate suit, classically trimmed and fashionable. The utter essence of the Bruce Wayne persona.

Driving in from the palisades, you scarcely hold back more than you would with the Batmobile. Wayne is reckless, daring and utterly convinced of his own immortality. It wouldn’t do to not play the part. Forty-five minutes later you’ve reached the downtown area where Dick’s loft is located. The downtrodden citizenry gape as you drive past, unaccustomed as they are to seeing vehicles such as yours in the possession of anyone but high-end dealers and pimps.

The building that houses Dick’s loft is shabby in a comfortable, homey kind of way. Exactly the kind of place you’d picture him living. Though Fox certainly saw to properly investing the small sum given to him when his parents passed, Dick has never really taken to the money, spending it when and where he believes it to serve a good cause, never frivolously. You’d like to believe you had a small part in the formation of that character. Your thoughts stray into yesteryear as you vault the stairs to his apartment, lingering on the time you spent together as Gotham’s first dynamic duo. Though you never looked at it that way, Dick always thinks of those days as an old adventure. He often reminisces fondly of encounters with madmen you remember being terrified of, and you’ve realized that for him, these are the memories of a father and his son. Where most would hearken back to a summer day in a field with a baseball, Dick remembers the ridiculous snort the Riddler gave when you first told him you’d outsmarted him, and the expression of horror when he realized you weren’t bluffing. Those days will always be his golden days, cast in sepia by the kindness of time. Let him remember them that way.

Finally, you come to Grayson’s apartment, draw in a deep breath to prepare yourself, and knock. When there is no answer, you knock again.

Still nothing.

“Dick, it’s Bruce. Are you in?”

You knock again, your sense of unease growing steadily. The door is secured by Wayne Tech, so your personal identification sequence should be enough to bypass it, but you’re hesitant to invade in Dick’s privacy like that.

There’s still no answer.

“Dick? I’m coming in.”

You flash an override key card in front of the door lock and it clicks open. Stale air wafts out from inside the apartment, accompanied by the stench of food beginning to rot. There are no lights on that you can tell, only the pale glow from the moon filtering in through the windows. The apartment is in disarray, clothing and furniture strewn across the floor, stains on the walls… Something is definitely wrong. Now on high alert, you begin a room-by-room search, beginning with the kitchen. The fridge stands open, its fan whirring loudly, struggling and failing to keep its contents from turning. Half of those lie on the ground, torn open and half-eaten as if by some wild beast.

Hurried footsteps draw your attention to the living room. Blankets thrown hastily on the couch, costume in a ball on the carpet. Sloppy. What if the super had been the one to check in on him and not you? TV’s still playing some terrible daytime police drama. Dick always hated those, said it completely misrepresented the work he did in Bludhaven.

The bathroom light’s on, and the doorway to the bedroom stands open.

You move quietly toward the bedroom, slipping out of your shoes as you do so. Something is obviously wrong, something you’ve missed. You scour your brain for anything that might have previously escaped your notice. There was nothing on the toxicology report filed by Alfred, but that was before you’d been able to enter the chemical profile of the new fear toxin. Without that profile, the presence of the substances used would seem largely irrelevant. It’s the volatile reaction created when they’re combined in such specific quantities that makes it so dangerous.

Bed doesn’t look slept in. Clothes have been torn out of the closet, thrown carelessly about the room. Broken lamp, shards of glass where the bulb burst.

“… Dick?”

Movement, just registering in your peripheral. On the other side of the bed, toward the window. There’s someone hunched there, facing away from you, moonlight evaporating into his dark hair. It has to be Richard. He stirred when he heard your voice. You settle down on your haunches, begin talking in a slow, measured voice.

“It’s alright, Richard. I’m here now. It’s Bruce.”

There’s no reply for a moment, but then the figure stirs and speaks. It’s Dick’s voice, but it sounds hollow and strained.

“What makes you think you have the power to decide anything? What makes you think you have the strength to enforce those decisions?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Dick. Whatever’s going on here, we can work through it together. Just like old times.”

At that, Grayson’s head snaps up and he springs to his feet. He’s completely naked, cuts and bruises covering most of his body. Some inflicted by Deathstroke, others by someone else. You try not to think who. He’s advancing on you, his posture aggressive, belligerent.

“‘Just like old times’? You mean when you used to drag a prepubescent child into hell with you, use him as a shield to cower behind when the maniacs got to be too much like you? Those ‘old times,’ Bruce?”

You stagger back, shocked as much by what’s being said as by the tone of his voice. He doesn’t sound anything like the young man you’ve gotten to know over the years. Now he’s getting close.

You refuse to be intimidated.

“Dick, calm down. Where have you been the past few days? Alfred and I have been worr–“

“Oh, NOW you’re worried? You leave me at the mercy of that madman for weeks, but I take a few days off and now you’re concerned? You fucking hypocrite!”

He swings, violent and unfocused. You step backward, raise a hand to catch the blow, and realize you’ve been played. While that clumsy, telegraphed attack was closing, the real one had already snuck under your guard. Grayson seizes the forearm intended to block his attack, then drags your arm over his shoulder, tripping you as he does. In less than a second you’re on your back, and he’s kneeling on your chest, forcing the air from your lungs. He cracks a cheekbone with his knuckles.

“You know what I was most afraid of, my whole life? More than Tony Zucco, than the Riddler, Bane, any of them? Do you know what I feared more than the Joker, Bruce?”

He’s screaming now, beating at your face and chest. Stronger than you would have thought possible. You’re blocking most of the attacks, but they’re so powerful, so damaging that you won’t be able to keep it up for long.

“I feared YOU! Letting you down! Letting the Batman lose faith and watching Gotham die for it! I feared the day I could no longer prop you up like the broken idol you’ve always been!”

Forearms are on fire from taking the brunt of the assault. Can’t get your legs up under you, brain is experiencing oxygen deprivation. Things are going badly.

Grayson is good, but only as good as you trained him to be. Sure, he’s picked up a few new tricks here and there, some in Bludhaven, others while he was standing in for you, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Getting your arm free, you slam rigid fingers into the cartilage on the side of his knee, sending the leg into spasms and giving you a chance to breathe. You throw him off you and get up onto your knees, gasping for air. He’s already back on his feet, trying to get control over the nerve cluster you targeted in his leg. His eyes are wild and he’s breathing heavily, raggedly.

“I’m nn-not… Gonna be afraid anymore. Not of you. Never of you.”

He hurls himself at you again, but this time you’re ready. Really ready. Besides that, his mental state is deteriorating. He’s no longer cognizant enough to be a worthy opponent, and a simple judo-style toe trip puts him on his back. You squeeze just long enough to put him under, then you call Alfred. He answers on the third ring. Always the third.

“Alfred? I’m with Dick. I’m bringing him to the manor, discreetly. Have the operating theater ready when I arrive. We’ve missed something.”

“Very well, sir. How is master Grayson? Was he receptive to your calling upon him?”

“Things didn’t go well, no.”

There’s an extended silence, after which Alfred reaffirms your orders, then excuses himself and disconnects. After getting him into some clothes, you bring Dick downstairs and set him into the back of the car, then make your way out to the palisades.

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #16

Everything has slowed down, on that rooftop in the rain and the receding dark. The alarm klaxons, winding up to their piercing wail, sound as if they lie a mile beneath Gotham’s harbor. The men and dogs barking and shouting, a world away. Director Bones standing, startled in slow motion, his skeletal visage without expression. Falcone’s expression, morphing from surprise to terror to outrage, screaming at the guards standing by at the door. These respond too slowly for her liking, and she hurls the laptop in front of her at them. They dodge narrowly, and disappear through the office doorway, to ensure that proper procedure is followed, you assume.

Floodlights ignite with a snap all around the yard, and Falcone thugs scurry like ants. Sofia has gone under her desk and retrieved an old-fashioned street sweeper, which she now has trained on the entrance. She’s nervous under her gruff exterior. The barrel shakes ever so slightly. You wonder what’s got her so spooked. You doubt it’s you. Bones is keeping his calm a little better, and to your dismay looks straight up at the ceiling, at the skylight from which you observe. You start a little, but realize after a moment that he sees only darkness. It is the fear of what lurks in the shadows that draws him, not what is actually there.

You are the Batman, and things are closing in on you quickly. This all started months ago, when Nightwing, your former protégé and long-time ally, failed to stop the assassin Deathstroke from murdering a Gotham bigwig interested in investing large in the Wayne Foundation for Viable Futures. He disappeared shortly after while in pursuit of the contract killer. Following that, commissioner James Gordon was framed by an unknown individual for the theft of riot gear and supplies from MCU’s lock-up. Now he’s out of a job and a temporary commissioner from outside the city has been instated while he awaits trial.

Then the bodies in Gotham started piling up. First, Killer Croc went on a drug-induced spree in the Narrows, preying on the weak and desperate. That, you learned, was the fault of Jonathan Crane, better known to the world at large as the madman Scarecrow. He went on his own spree shortly after, abducting Gotham’s innocents and turning them into human incubators for his latest strain of fear toxin. Once they’re hooked, the drug turns its users into raving psychopaths incapable of feeling pain or emotion if forced into withdrawals. Mad dogs. To make matters worse, you were abducted by Thomas Elliot, the former plastic surgeon now known as Hush, while breaking up one of Scarecrow’s operations. How far his influence goes in all of this is uncertain, but he’s never been a minor player in the past, so there’s no reason to expect it of him now.

Then there’s the DEO. They’re a complete mystery at the moment. First becoming involved through Katherine Kane, the Batwoman, they have continued to make appearances since in more and more incriminating locales. It’s going to come to a head. Maybe tonight. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, is going to be bloody.

The man born as Robert Todd is nervous. He’s nervous because he thinks he knows what’s coming. He thinks he knows what’s coming because he’s spent so much time studying… No, obsessing over it. Obsessing over you. Director Bones wants to know who the Batman is, who’s hiding under that cowl. So far, he hasn’t gotten close. Red herrings and dead ends you’ve set in place over the years have seen to that. He is making progress, though, at an alarming rate. This was always inevitable, from the very first day he set his sights on you.

You fix a small amount of malleable explosive to the skylight, then step back. Director Bones, his eyes already on the sky, notices the tiny splotch of black, blacker than the fading darkness that surrounds it. His eyes widen.

“Falcone. FALCONE!”

A sound like a giant clapping is followed by the tinkling of shattered glass. Bones scrambles for his back-up. You drop calmly in after the cutting glass, land heavily on Falcone’s oaken desk, kick her in the jaw. She reels, but is already recovering when you whirl on Bones, bringing her shotgun to bear.

No time to play fair here. No time to play nice. Not that you ever do, but this is exceptional. Either of these individuals would be a big enough threat on their own… Together, they’re deadly. Even for you. First come the pellets, flitting out to either side of you, ricocheting off the walls and detonating. In less than five seconds the room is swallowed up by the soupy murk. Falcone is coughing, hacking her lungs up as she unwillingly ingests the irritants. Nothing fatal, but certainly not pleasant.

You don’t hear Bones at all.

You engage cowl optics just in time to see him swinging at you with the butt of his gun. No time to react, it cracks off your cowl, taking one of the ears with it. Good god he’s strong. He must also be holding his breath. Bones is strong, beyond human, but not invincible. The irritants should be driving him just as crazy as they are Falcone. Time to remedy that. You weave under his next swing, wild and unfocussed, then into his guard, driving an elbow up into his gut. The whoosh of air you’re rewarded with is satisfying. He’s definitely feeling it now, struggling to bring his pistol to bear. You backhand him and take the gun from him, ready to whirl and hurl it at Falcone.

Falcone, who’s bear-like grip is now crushing your ribs, pinning your arms to your sides. You drop the gun.

You throw your head back, hoping the impact will be enough to stun Falcone into dropping you. It’s not, but you almost black out from the pain. You can feel your right arm about the snap like a twig as the pressure increases.

“You thought you could come into my house?” Falcone growls in your ear. “Into my father’s house and do… What? Stop them? There’s no stopping them now, there’s n–NNNNGUHHHHK.”

The current from your suit has a more tangible effect, and saves your skin. For now, at least. Won’t be enough juice for another charge like that. She goes into convulsions, and while it doesn’t initially make her release you, a minimal amount of struggle sees you set free. Free, but with a fracture right arm, you’re fairly certain.

Bones is on his feet, recovering his gun. You lunge to intercept, but it’s too late. You barely dodge the wild stitching of shots that he sends your way. That sound alone will bring the rest of Falcone’s thugs down on you sooner rather than later. Bones is making for the door, now. Sofia is almost recovered, staggering a bit as she tries to move before she’s ready. She’s furious, unstoppable, like a rhino with red in its eyes.

There’s too much going on and not enough time to respond to it all. Pirouetting, you hurl a Batarang at Bones’ back as he flees. It buries itself in his shoulder, eliciting a howl of pain and rage. His back-up clatters to the floor as the nerves in the arm holding it go dead, and he crashes into the heavy office door. It doesn’t budge, and Bones reels backward.

You’ve long since stopped paying attention to him, though. Sofia is gripped by a powerful rage, and she’s just about ready to unleash it on someone. You aim to ensure that that someone isn’t you. She bellows, spittle flying from her lips, and charges you. You don’t move, ignoring your every instinct, the very twitching of your muscles. Wait… Wait…

Wait…

As her great arms begin to close in about you, you drop to one knee, quicker than thinking, then seize her right arm and drag it over your shoulder. A feat you could have never hoped to achieve from a standing position, but thankfully Sofia provides most of the necessary momentum. Behind you, the heavy oaken door is opening, thick fingers visible at the edges.

Those fingers splinter and bleed as Falcone’s massive weight lands against the door, which cracks and bows. There’s a stifled yelp from the other side, then raised voices. Arguing. They’re worried about hitting the boss with an indiscriminate spray of fire. Good.

Bones is on his feet, crouching into a fighting stance.

“This isn’t how it was supposed to happen, Batman. Sorry it has to end like this for ya’.”

“Hnh. I was about to say the same thing.”

You lash out with your foot, going for Bones’ groin. He’s ready for you though, and faster than any man should be to boot. He sidesteps the attack, chops at your neck, cutting off your air supply. You reach upward instinctively, and that gives him another opening. Soon he’s raining blows on your midsection, forcing you back to the wall, hot agony coursing through you. He grabs you by the throat, lifts you off your feet.

“This doesn’t end for me here, Batman. You see, you’re just a freak in a mask. I’m the government. You never, ever win against the government.”

“Hkkk…” He’s killing you. No breath. Can’t focus. Slipping into darkness.

“This isn’t a war you can win, little bat. Now…” He says, reaching for your mask. “Let’s finally get a look at who’s under there.”

“W–gakk–watch…”

He pauses momentarily, eyeing you. “What did you say?” Then he shakes his head vigorously. “No. I’m not going to be another of your rogues, bat. I’m going to end this NOW.” He seizes the lip of your mask.

And hits the opposite wall seconds later. Not as much charge as when you used it on Sofia, but enough. He’s down. You’re not much better off. Rubbing your throat, you struggle to a standing position.

“I said, ‘watch out for the wall.’”

You’re barely going to get out of here alive as it is. It’s time to leave, and there’s no sense in trying to haul Bones, or worse, Sofia, with you. Still coughing, wheezing and rubbing your throat, you step over Sofia (snatching her splintered laptop on the way) and kneel by Bones’ unconscious body, rifling through his pockets. The thugs outside are slamming against the door now, trying to finish what Sofia’s body mass started. It’s a good thing she was so paranoid about would-be assassins. That door is still holding.

In Bones’ pockets, you find a cellphone, the kind you would see at any given supermarket that can be paid for with cash and is nigh untraceable. You find his badge and ID, which you slip into your belt, more to make trouble for him than anything else. There’s a wallet as well. It gets left behind.

Satisfied that you haven’t missed anything, and with Sofia beginning to stir, you turn away from Bones and leap atop Falcone’s desk, firing your grappling hook up through the skylight from whence you entered. It snags something and begins hauling you up. You bite down on your lip hard enough to bleed to keep from crying out in pain at the strain on your wounded arm. Outside, the sun has begun to come up. Shadows are shortening, visibility is improving. Have to leave. Luckily, all hands have been called inside to respond to the threat on Falcone. The lawn is deserted, and you’re able to limp back toward the woods largely unchallenged. Once there, you find the copse where the Batmobile is hidden and clamber in, sore and aching.

Finally. Safety. Nothing the Falcones have on them could reach you in here. You take a moment to bask in the feeling, in the comfort, before programming the Cave’s coordinates into the GPS system. Unable to give vocal commands, you start the vehicle up manually, and it roars off into the pale morning on auto-pilot.

You’re asleep before you get there.

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #15

Gotham is twisting restlessly in its bed, unable to get comfortable in its own skin. It’s never been good at that, but this past month has been particularly trying. Though it was just the first of many ripples that helped form the wave, you’ve traced it all back to two months ago, when your former sidekick and long-time ally Dick Grayson, in his Nightwing guise, failed to prevent the superhuman assassin Deathstroke from murdering a Gotham socialite in cold blood. Nightwing then set off in pursuit of Deathstroke, eager to bring him down and restore his reputation, even if he was the only one who saw it hurting. Then he disappeared. For weeks. And you, Bruce Wayne, the Batman? You did nothing. At least that’s what you tell yourself. You’re afraid that you haven’t seem the full extent of the consequences there yet.

Nightwing may have been the beginning, but he was hardly the end. Shortly after his disappearance, a string of brutal killings in the Narrows kept you from leaving for Paris immediately. You hoped Dick would understand. Gotham is your city, your child, and one does not abandon its child while wolves scratch at the door. You have since resolved the Narrows killings. It was Waylon Jones, Killer Croc, under the influence of a powerful and freakish mutation of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Croc is cooling his heels in Arkham, for now.

Hot on the heels of the Narrows killings, Jonathan Crane, better known to the world as the madman Scarecrow, began abducting innocent citizens and using them as human incubators for this new and terrifying fear toxin. Those who were lucky, at least. Those who were not got a taste of the toxin firsthand, and the results were devastating. While the drug initially propels its victim into a state of delirious euphoria in which they feel no pain, no sadness, no inhibition whatsoever, like most drugs, it’s the withdrawal that kills. Literally, in this case. A user that is denied access to the drug for an extended period of time becomes erratic, violent, volatile and finally, feral. Raving beasts unable to reason or feel. Attack dogs. And that’s not even the worst of it. After the toxin has been charging through the victims veins for long enough, it erodes them until their walls become paper thin. Once it’s removed from the system, these weakened veins collapse, spilling forth precious lifeblood, drowning the victim from the inside out. You’ve seen it happen. You should have stopped it.

Commissioner James Gordon is still under federal investigation on charges of corruption. False charges, you’re sure, but no less serious for it. Things on that front have been worsening. If something doesn’t break soon, Jim could be facing serious time. Not that he’ll survive long enough on the inside to serve it. He’s put too many of those freaks behind bars over the years.

Finally, an old nemesis has resurfaced: Thomas Elliot, once a world-renowned surgeon and old friend, now the psychotic super villain that calls himself Hush. Exactly how he is involved isn’t clear, but Elliot rarely takes a secondary role in anything, so you can expect his part to be big.

All of these things and more swirl around your consciousness as you stand before the falls in the Cave, watching the puppet commissioner from Metropolis make another public address. The man’s a media whore, more concerned with headlines and what the press thinks of him than doing the right thing. There’s something else, too, something you can’t quite put your finger on. Alfred places a hand on your shoulder, approaching silently as only he can.

“Master Bruce? I have refueled the Batmobile and your cycle. Which is your preferred mode of transportation tonight?”

That’s your call to action. Time to make a decision.

You make your way in from the palisades, past the glaring lights of the city, the insistent horns that sound at all hours of the day and night, the lifeblood of that dark metropolis. Soon you’re perched on the fire escape across from Jim Gordon’s modest apartment on the east side. You send him a simple message via Batman Incorporated encrypted channels:

“Outside.”

In five minutes he’s out, tapping a cigarette case against his palm, waving off the admonitions from his wife inside. Then he closes the door quietly, securely, and lights up.

“She’s right, you know. You can’t help me in this war if those things kill you first.”

Shielding his lighter against the wind, Jim makes a noise halfway between a grunt and a laugh.

“Listen, the day I start taking life advice from you is the day I turn myself in to Arkham. No offense.”

“None taken. And that wouldn’t be a particularly good idea. Those who go into Jeremiah’s care often come out worse than they went in.”

Jim takes a long, quiet drag and exhales, the wind tunnel this little alley creates whisking the smoke away almost immediately.

“I’m guessing you didn’t come here to trade quips. What do you want to know?”

“I had a run-in the other night while busting up one of Scarecrow’s cultivation ops.”

“Like the one in the Narrows?”

“Exactly.”

“Then a run-in doesn’t surprise me.”

“It was with the Department of Extranormal Operations.”

Jim takes the cigarette out of his mouth, arches a brow. When you don’t flinch, he whistles long and low.

“Now that’s a problem. Beyond my pay grade, Batman.”

You both go silent as one of the building’s residents shuffles by, bundled in ragged clothing. They don’t notice you, up above their eye level and cloaked in shadow. Jim pretends to enjoy his smoke. You know it’s been a long time since he actually has.

“Any idea what their interest is?” You ask.

“None, other than getting to know you a little better. You’ve become something of a white whale for them, I understand.”

“You mean for Bones.”

He nods, flicking the butt of his cigarette into a puddle. He lights up again.

You shift a bit on the fire escape, stirring your cape ever so slightly.

“This corruption business… I’m sorry I haven’t made more headway. How is the family coping?”

By which of course you mean, ‘how are you holding up?’ Jim gets the message. Always has. He shakes his head, exhaustion evident in the action.

“I don’t know, Batman… You know, when they suspended me, at first I thought it would be a good thing. Give me some time at home, spend time with the kids, with Barbara… Truth is, I’ve been on a knife’s edge since I turned in my badge. It’s only getting worse the longer this goes on. I don’t know, Batman. I’ve been fighting this war so long, I don’t think I know how to be a human being anymore. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t throw in the towel for good.”

Your eyes widen. You’ve never heard Jim talk like this. At least, not with such sincerity. Without a word, you leap from the fire escape, unfurling your cape to land softly beside him. You place a hand on his shoulder.

“Not yet, old friend. I still need you here. Gotham still needs you.”

He smiles weakly, without conviction.

“Heh… Yeah.”

You squeeze his shoulder, trying to reassure him, then let it drop.

“Someday Jim, this will all be over. Then maybe, if we’re both still around, we can meet without the mask.”

You say, tapping your cowl. Jim shudders in response.

“I don’t know. I’ve become so familiar with it… It’s your face, as far as I’m concerned. It would be unsettling to see you without your face.”

You shrug and turn away, looking up at the buildings’ rooftops, seeking a viable grapple point. You ask him one more question.

“What do you make of this Metropolitan they’ve brought in?”

“Hobbes? I’ve done some homework on him. Had a few colleagues look into it, too. Bullock was more than happy to oblige. He’s a good man, as far as I’ve been able to make out. Tough on crime and criminals in Metropolis, no history of corruption or scandal… A real boy scout. Of course, given his recent performance here, that might have all been an act. There’s just something about his actions in Gotham that don’t sync up with the golden boy of Metropolis. I haven’t been able to figure it out. What about–”

Jim looks up, breaks from his reverie. You’re gone, as far as he knows.

“–You.”

He heaves a sigh, stamps out the cigarette, heads back inside. You’re going to finish this, so that Jim can love his family fully, so that he can rest. You head back into the swampy night.

You head toward Gotham’s southwest end, to the unassuming diner that serves as a front for some of the Falcone family’s most volatile business deals. Or at least, to what’s left of the diner. To either side of it, the street has been cordoned off by yellow caution tape. After observing the scene for just under an hour, you’re reasonably confident that you’ll be able to evade the occasional patrol car that drives by, swinging its spotlight around the rubble. Probably worried that some poor homeless sap will try to make a bed of their crime scene. You drop down from the rooftop, your cape billowing out and cushioning your fall. Once on the ground, you figure you have roughly ten minutes before the next patrol. Activating cowl optics, you step carefully amongst the rubble, careful to not disturb anything. From the analysis on your display you deduce that a series of fairly basic chemical accelerants were used to kickstart the blaze, at which point the arsonist wisely relied on the structure to feed the fire itself. There’s still bits of straw here and there, some burnt, some whole. An obvious calling card of Scarecrow’s. Maybe too obvious.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t much here. Fire is such a popular method of destroying evidence because it’s so effective. Anything that isn’t consumed completely usually becomes so damaged as to be inadmissible. You crouch amongst the building’s remains as the patrol car passes by. Predictable. Any criminal worth their salt could easily salvage whatever they wanted and be gone without Gotham PD ever being the wiser. Jim’s boys and girls are getting lazy in his absence. Hobbes must not be much of a hardliner. Just one more thing that doesn’t add up when set next to his reputation.

It’s time you got serious with Sofia Falcone. She appears to believe that she can just lie to the Batman and get away with it. Nobody gets away with it. You abandon the crime scene, returning to the rooftops, hurling yourself over their gaps until you reach the alley in which you stashed the Batmobile. Seconds later, its turbine roars to life and you hurtle out of the darkness, speeding out to the palisades.

You pull the car into a wooded copse roughly a mile away from the Falcone residence. Get any closer and it will be impossible to avoid tripping one of their many electronic surveillance systems. The Falcones are a paranoid lot, and were that way long before your time. Avoiding the things on foot is challenge enough.

An hour later, with the night approaching its zenith, you’re within sight of the compound. It’s heavily guarded and everyone’s carrying. Some have dogs. You hate dogs.

But you love a challenge.

You ghost toward the first perimeter fence during a small gap in patrols (smaller, you note, than that of the crime scene on the southwest end), rattling it slightly as you scale it. Your gauntlets protect you from the worst of the razor wire, but you lose valuable seconds disentangling yourself. Still, no one happens upon you at a vulnerable moment. So far so good.

Next is a series of motion activated sensors that send a signal to the main compound when tripped. An EMP sends the same signal. Need to mask your presence somehow. You rummage through your utility belt, finding what you’re looking for quickly. A small, compact device designed and built by Fox that, once deployed, broadcasts signals at random intervals that simulate movement. If you can’t slip by quietly, you’ll have to get lost in the crowd. Of course, the alarm will go up immediately, but you’re banking on them chalking it up to technical error, since the device simulates the movement of a large crowd. Three minutes later, you’re scaling the next perimeter fence, this one leaving your fingers and palms shredded and bloody. Desperate to get away from the wire before it does serious damage, you leap without looking and nearly land on top of a patrol passing by the other side. He lets out a terrified yelp and reaches for his weapon.

You curl your hand into a half-fist and go for the nerve cluster at his neck. Have to hand it to him, he was expecting it, and you know that wasn’t due to Falcone training. That essentially consists of recruiting some mother’s son off Gotham’s streets, handing him an automatic and welcoming him to the ‘family,’ then sending his family a measly check and a veiled threat to keep them quiet when Johnny disappears or turns up facedown in the bay. At any rate, he dodges the brunt of your attack and gives up on his rifle, swinging a ham-sized fist at your ribcage. It connects, white hot pain flaring, air leaving your lungs despite your best efforts. You ignore it, grab his arm and heave, throwing him over your shoulder. Now he’s on the ground, looking up at you with terrified eyes.

“Pl-please… Please don’t…”

You don’t see any reason to give this thug any more leniency than the rest of them, but something in the way he asks gives you pause. You toe away the rifle and glare down at him.

He starts panicking as you reach down for him.

“Nononono, please, PLEASE!”

“Shut up.”

You haul him to his feet, throw him against the chainlink.

“I want to know what kind of security Falcone has on the inside, and you’re going to tell me, or you’re going to get a face full of razor wire. Your choice.”

The kid’s big, bigger than you initially surmised in the shadows. He’s used to being in control, used to being the one threatening. Which means he’s out of his element. That’s good. Most people tend to play it safe in those situations. He starts reaching for his waistband, trying to conceal the movement, but he’s scared and not thinking clearly. You break a finger for his trouble, then stifle his cry, grating into his ear.

“One more chance.”

He’s whimpering, crying, mucus running down his face and chin.

“Oh god, my finger… Oh fuck, oh fuck…”

“I’m going to start breaking other things. Talk.” You twist his hand at the wrist for emphasis. He gets the message.

“Okay, okay! You don’t have to do that. I don’t know much anyway, just that Ms. Falcone has a buncha’ her goons in there. Not like the losers out here, either–”

“You mean not like you.”

His eyes narrow for a second before he remembers who he’s talking to and what they’re capable of.

“Y-yeah… Not like me. Haha. They’re trained, y’see? Pulled from private corps, PMCs, shit like that.”

“Hnnh.”

You throw him to the ground, and he raises his mangled hand in supplication.

“Please let me go. Please! I’ll be out of town by sun-up, I swear. Falcone’ll kill me if I’m not.”

“Get out of here. Now. And if I ever see you around the Falcones again, I’ll make sure you don’t eat solid food for the rest of your life.”

The kid nods vigorously, scrambles to his feet, whimpering slightly as he puts too much weight on his mangled hand. He starts moving to recover his weapon.

“No. Leave it.”

“But… I’ll need protection.”

You cross your arms and stare him down, daring him to make a move for it. He doesn’t, turning instead and bolting off into the dark. One more perimeter fence to go, then you’re in. Won’t be long now before the missing patrol is noticed, though. Time is running out.

You move quickly and quietly, your every effort focused on slipping by unseen, unheard and otherwise unnoticed. It pays off, as far as you can tell, and soon you’re beneath a first floor window, creeping up slowly for a view inside. The window looks into a well-lit banquet hall, each place set but no food in sight. The Falcones always were concerned with appearances. It’s an important part of the business. Confident that you won’t be spotted doing so, you fire your grapple hook up onto the roof, then slowly winch your way up, careful to not make any sudden movements that might attract attention. You were relying on the Falcones’ vanity to provide you a method of entry up here, and it paid off. There’s a large skylight overlooking Carmine’s old office. You’ve taken advantage of it several times in the past. Now, warm light spills out into the night, diffusing quickly in the shadows. You creep up to the edge and peer down into the room. Falcone is there, sitting at her desk with her fingers laced in front of her, apparently deep in thought. Two guards stand at attention either side of the door. Professional types, probably ex-military.

And, sitting across the table from Falcone, smoking one of his signature, rancid cigars, is Director Bones of the DEO.

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #14

Gotham city is in crisis. As the last efforts of the day filter through darkening alleys and the drop in temperatures ushers in the night, this much is clear. The GCPD were unable to contain the news of the madhouse you escaped from yesterday, and already the rumor mill has churned out horrors far outstripping the not inconsiderable truth. This of course was relayed to you via Alfred Pennyworth, your butler, mentor and lifelong friend, as you were nursing off the worst of Hush’s ministrations. Though the injuries you suffered were certainly severe, one thing has become salient after examination: the wounds inflicted were never meant to kill. Which means Elliot has something more planned for you.

Still, despite his flowering psychosis and mounting body count, the madman called Hush is not foremost in your thoughts. Dick Grayson has left the manor, after only two days spent recovering from his ordeal at the hands of Deathstroke’s thugs. Alfred explained that after he had ransacked the pantry, Dick slipped out unnoticed even by the butler, whose preternatural awareness of what transpires on the Wayne estate is legendary. He left only a sparse note for you, pinned under the weight of the old grandfather clock that conceals the Cave’s main entrance.

“Gone to clear my head. I’ll be in touch. Don’t worry about me.”

Hardly what you’d expect from the normally effusive young man. Thankfully, the shavings of reactive alloy you include in all Batman Incorporated equipment serve as excellent trackers and currently have him at his penthouse in downtown Gotham. You haven’t yet thought of a convenient excuse to drop by, and he should be safe there for now. After all, the finest Wayne Tech security devices monitor the entire building. You saw to that.

Then there’s James Gordon. Your old friend hasn’t been out of a job for more than a week, but already it’s taken its toll. Page three of the Gazette today had him verbally and physically assaulting a member of the paparazzi who got closer to Jim’s family than he should have. You can’t blame Gordon… Being a cop, trying to keep Gotham from tearing itself apart, it’s been the focus of his attentions for so long now, it must be hard to let go. God knows you wouldn’t be able to. The temporarily instated commissioner from Metropolis, Cyril Hobbes, has been hard at work destroying the groundwork Gordon laid down during his time in the office. Some of this was to be expected, as a temporary fix brought in during a crisis situation, Hobbes has got to be feeling the pressure. Still, though, his crusade is so fervent, so motivated… Almost vindictive. You tuck Hobbes away in the back of your mind. Just one more thing you’ll get to, when there’s time.

Standing in the Cave by the falls, you rub your eyes forcefully, as if you could just push exhaustion’s cobwebs to the side. You’ve already suited up, even knowing that you shouldn’t be doing out with the hits you’ve taken. The Batman cannot tire, cannot afford to rest. No matter what Bruce Wayne’s body demands of him. Everything that’s happened in this month–the Narrows killings, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Jeremiah Arkham, Hush, Nightwing, Batwoman and Bones and the DEO–it’s all bearing down on your temples, threatening to crush your skull in its vice. There has to be some way to alleviate the pressure. You stride across the Cave’s floor, deciding to take the bike out tonight. Might be good to feel the wind rushing on your skin, the rain as it pelts your suit. One thing you still haven’t decided, though… Where will you start first?

You make your way in from the palisades and head for Gotham’s southwest end, to the abandoned warehouse you and other citizens of Gotham were held and tortured in. With the rain coming down like it is, the night is quiet. Not even criminals like to get wet. Besides, in a city like Gotham, they don’t have to worry about the market drying up from disuse. There’s always someone somewhere looking for a fix, looking to disappear or to make someone else do the same.

The warehouse has been cordoned off with caution tape, and a patrol has been stationed at the front door with the intent of deterring Gotham’s desperate and homeless from seeking shelter there. You slip by without much trouble, only causing the hairs on the back of the patrol’s neck to stand up with your passing. Once inside, you begin your examination in earnest. The cages are as they were last night, empty and abandoned, their occupants hastily freed in flight. Whoever was working on them was smart, knew they were in a delirious state, knew that even Gotham cops hesitate before firing on innocent, distressed civilians. As often happens, the people in the cages were Gotham’s destitute, lured here by the promise of a hot meal and a warm bed. They got neither.

You approach a row of plain steel tables that line one wall, far enough from the rows of tiny prisons to be completely out of reach of any of the caged. Familiar implements of pain and degradation are on display as well as biohazard containers filled with syringes. Hnh. You scrape the contents of one into a small evidence container, then clip that to your belt.

You’re about to move on to the cages when you hear her voice.

“I’m sorry for what I did.”

Katherine Kane, the Batwoman, occupies the shadows behind you and has evidently been waiting. She’s crouched by one of the cages, running a finger down its rusted structure, rubbing the oxidization between her finger and thumb.

You whirl on her and snarl, fists clenching involuntarily.

“Why, Batwoman? I gave you my trust!”

Kane straightens and dusts the rust off of her gauntlets, then fixes her glare on you.

“Your ‘trust’? No. You gave me orders and a threat to follow them or else. Trust is something different entirely. Something I’m not convinced you know at all.”

“You don’t get to judge me. Not after what you did. What did Bones promise? New equipment, better intel so that you can keep going out at night to drag my name through the mud?”

Batwoman’s expression sours, as if it was rosy to begin with.

“He promised he wouldn’t ruin my life. If you’re as smart as you think you are, you know the DEO doesn’t work with sweet deals. They don’t do threats, either. They make promises. And as long as I’ve known them, they’ve kept those promises.”

“You’re going to learn to find your backbone, Batwoman. Bones might have been the first to try and get under your skin, but he certainly won’t be the last. You need to be purer than that. Incorruptible.”

She brushes past you and the criticism, handling a few of the torture toys on the table you were examining instead. When she speaks, her voice is even but made of steel. She won’t be pushed much further without a reaction.

“What have you found here?”

You eye Kane a moment, doing the math in your head. You don’t like the answer you get, but you go with it anyway. Sometimes it pays to trust your gut. Sometimes.

“You get this last chance, Batwoman. And if I so much as SMELL Bones’ thugs around here, I make sure the whole world knows who you are… Kate.”

The threat is empty, but she doesn’t need to know that. You’re sure that if her face wasn’t already painted ghost white, it would have lost some color. Good… You’ve really got her attention. Finally.

“It seems obvious that the victims in the cages here are intimately connected with those found further back in the tunnel network. Or didn’t your boss fill you in on that?”

She doesn’t take the bait, exercises some control.

“I’ve walked this whole complex, Batman. I just want to see where you got with it.”

Not giving anything away. The military does good work when it comes to training their soldiers to resist interrogation. Couldn’t have their dirty laundry aired to the world, after all.

“From what I’ve been able to tell, the victims with intravenous lines AND extraction points at the base of their skulls are serving as some kind of human incubator. Scarecrow is injecting them with something, a mutant strain of his fear toxin, then extracting it once its met some unknown parameter in the victim’s bodies.”

Kane nods, her long tresses bouncing about her shoulders. You’ve warned her about that in the past… Criminals never play fair and long hair is a liability. The fact that she hasn’t taken your advice is evidence that she’s just as stubborn as you were back when you first started taking back Gotham’s nights.

“I’m guessing, and this is speculative, that whatever is extracted from the first group of victims is then injected into the second. Some kind of psychosis inducing enzyme, maybe. A couple of doses and they become what I saw here last night. Feral, animalistic, homicidal.”

Now Batwoman shakes her head. “No, but you’ve almost got it. The people in here didn’t get sick because Crane started injecting them with his drugs, but because he stopped.”

“Stopped? Then these are symptoms of withdrawal? How do you know this?”

She taps the side of her mask, a motion you assume refers to the radio communicator embedded there.

“You’re not the only one with access to fancy toys, Batman. Bones had his boys go over this place with a fine-toothed comb, sent everything down to forensics for immediate analysis. Forwarded the results to me while you were still hiding wherever it is that you do when the sun comes up.”

She picks up a dirty syringe from the torture table, holds it up to the moonlight leaking in through broken windows.

“Whatever this is induces an intense state of delirious euphoria. The junkie feels no pain, no fear, no inhibition… Just an intense feeling of pleasure and complacency. I’m told it’s not too dissimilar from the effects of marijuana, except that it’s chemically induced and comes with some even nastier side effects.”

The syringe shatters under her boot.

“Basically, as soon as you take two, three doses, the drug induces a severe chemical imbalance in your brain, followed shortly by a crippling, overwhelming sensation of fear. The paranoia builds and builds until your oldest friend, your brother, your mother all seem like they want blood. The interesting part is that the delirium persists… Once the stuff gets in your veins it deadens the associated nerves, killing any and all pain. Then you start thinking that the only way to not be afraid is to remove all possible sources of fear, which…”

Her chest rises, then drops heavily. A sigh.

“… In this case, is everything and everyone.”

Interesting. Not an entirely new ploy for Crane, of course, but one with an interesting twist. Making people so terrified they’ll kill you to stop feeling it. Removing the “flight” from humanity’s “fight or flight” response.

Your thoughts are interrupted by a sudden beam of light stabbing into the room. A flashlight. The patrol outside is doing his rounds. You turn to tell Batwoman to take cover, but she’s already gone, already melted away into the dark. You do the same and ponder these revelations. Crane’s plan is rather ingenious… Use an army to create an army. Pump a crowd full of fear so you can heighten it, elevate it, and pass it on to the next poor souls. And who’s to say he can’t turn that same drug around on the very people that assisted in its creation?

Things needs to proceed faster now. You think you have an inkling where Crane is going with this ploy, and it’s nowhere you want to follow him to. You could stay and trade veiled threats with Kane, but it wouldn’t do much to further the cause, however bruised your ego is right now. Time to make a decision.

You decide to head for Falcone’s diner, her favored front since the passing of Carmine. Before you’re within two blocks, you know something is wrong. There’s a bitter, burning smell in the air that not even the downpour around you can drown out. Then you see people running. Not just running, fleeing. They’re coming from the direction of the diner, in expensive furs, high heels and dinner jackets. It’s a safe bet that their point of origin is the very same place you’re headed.

Leaping atop an office tower that Wayne Industries made a generous monetary contribution toward constructing with the promise that it would provide jobs to the surrounding area, you peer down at Falcone’s front. What’s left of it, anyway. A fire has been set, stoked and abandoned. It’s licking out of the windows now, smoke following it in thick clouds, noxious clouds. There are still a handful of people, the city’s rich and decadent, trickling out the front door. No sign of Sofia, but that’s no surprise. If she got out, it would have been early on, whisked away by one of her father’s security teams.

What’s interesting about the scene, however (aside from the fact that a relatively safe building is now burning to the ground), is what surrounds it. In piles, in drifts on the ground, tumbling out the windows, burning to ash before it touches the wet concrete… Straw. Hay.

Scarecrow.

Batman Quest: CIty of Fear, Issue #13

At first, there is only darkness. No sound, no sensation. Only a great, enveloping calm. Then, slowly, the ambient glow intensifies, sharpens, becomes painful.

And then everything is painful.

This isn’t an entirely bad thing. It means you’re not dead. That’s a good thing… Right?

Searing fire streaks down your bicep.

“I said wake UP, Bruce.”

“Nnnuh… Alfred?”

A low, throaty chuckle. “Not quite, old friend.”

Someone’s fist rocks your head backward, bringing you to your senses, bringing back the memories. The industrial yard in the rain, the unassuming foreman’s trailer, the secret tunnel, the tortured people… The bullets. You can feel where the shots stitched across your chest, three entry wounds, two exit wounds and a mess where the third was extracted. You force your eyes open, ignoring the pain.

“… Elliot.” The psychotic surgeon is pacing around you, a scalpel in hand. The room is dark, pitch black, but for the small halo of light cast upon you by a single, filthy bulb that dangles down from the shadows.

“Oh come now Bruce. You know there are no formalities between us. I’ve barely been able to resist contacting you since I left that dreadful asylum. But Jonathan, poor Johnny, he was so damned insistent we keep you in the dark. You’d think Eddie had his stringy straw balls in a jar.”

Hush chuckles, gloating. He has you dead, and he knows it.

Your name is Bruce Wayne. You are the Batman. And it is not your day. Thomas Elliot lashes out with the razor-sharp instrument, leaving a bleeding fissure across your chest.

“I don’t feel I have your full attention, Bruce.”

You grimace as a stream of blood begins pouring down your chest. Pushing past the pain, you strain against your bonds. Thick, utilitarian rope. Given some time you might be able to work out the knots, but it isn’t going to happen right away. Got to stall. Get information out of Hush.

“Elliot. You need to stop this. You’re not invested. Crane is insane, you know full well he’ll destroy all of Gotham. What are you getting out of it?”

He ceases his pacing and looks down at you, shadows obscuring his features.

“Gotham is of no concern to me now, Bruce. The only thing I wanted out of this was you. Alone in a dark room. Helpless. I’ll be gone before sundown.”

You stare up into the blackness, undaunted. “Then why did you take Nightwing? If this was only about me, why involve him at all?”

“The bird was just a means to an end, Bruce. Don’t you see that yet? It was only ever about me and you. Time to settle our scores.”

Hush grins, a portion of his meticulously applied bandaging slipping down.

“Oh Bruce, you don’t give yourself enough credit. But you’re right, I’ve never been one to share glory, have I? No, once Crane has his fun I’ll put him down. The infamy killing you will provide will be mine and mine alone.”

His scalpel darts out again, scything into the flesh of your cheek. The sudden, deep wound doesn’t bleed at first, then stains your face red. Having already detached yourself from the moment, from the pain, you make use of the distraction to survey your surroundings. Though the darkness is absolute, you perceive a percussive thump somewhere in the background buzz that catches your attention momentarily.

Hush straightens, peering off into the darkness as if listening for something. With a snarl he lodges the scalpel in your thigh and storms off into the dark. A door opens and slams. Silence.

The blood you’ve lost is costing you considerable amounts of strength, but you put all you have into trying to wriggle yourself into some room to work with. After an all-consuming struggle during which you nearly pass out on multiple occasions, you force your elbow up an inch. That’s something to work with.

You haul on your arm again and again, rocking the chair back and forth. One particularly enthusiastic pull sends you and the chair crashing to the ground. Luckily, the wooden back splinters, and after a moment longer spent on your bonds, you’re free. Wounded, bleeding profusely, but free. Time to find a way out.

You stumble through the dark, crashing into a surgical tray on your way to the wall. Elliot had been working on your long before you came to your senses. Then you’re feeling your way along the room’s perimeter, looking for a door. You find it after barking your shins on cupboards a few times. To your amazement, it opens without protest. So confident was Elliot that he didn’t even lock the door. Not that you can blame him. The state you’re in, you might not even make it to an exit before bleeding out. Outside, you find yourself in the warehouse you were shot in, with the screeching, feral people. Only the people are gone now. It is utterly quiet. The cages they were in stand empty in rows, doors hanging unlatched. Not broken open, unlatched. They were set free.

You hear it as you’re moving toward the center of the room. A sound. Distant, percussive.

Gunfire?

You decide to ignore the sound of danger in favor of looking for a way out. The Batman as a symbol is incorruptible, unstoppable. But you, Bruce Wayne, are not. And you’re still losing blood. Not to mention the uncomfortable questions the police and media might have about your presence here, were it to be detected. At the far end of the warehouse is a large loading door. You make for it. Getting closer, you can see the security bar is hanging limply to the side. Someone made a hasty exit here without thought of returning. Lucky for you. Once outside you can make your way to one of the many dead drops you have installed in the city, and from there return to the Cave where Alfred can see to you properly.

Not so lucky for you is the banshee wail that erupts from the darkness to your right, nor the freakish sight that accompanies it. A woman, naked and feral, is hurtling toward you through the cages, heedless to the grievous injuries they inflict upon her legs as she crashes into them.

You breathe slowly, watching the woman’s movement as she closes. It’s spasmodic, erratic and almost seems euphoric. She has no idea what she’s doing. She’s just… Reacting. To something. Fear?

Regardless, you catch her evenly as she comes in with a wild swing, vicious but untrained and unfocused. She struggles a bit under your hold, but after a minute goes limp and quiet. The gunfire is getting closer. Time to go.

You turn and haul on the loading door, the great steel behemoth groaning as it slides back on rusty tracks. You slip through the other side and haul the door nearly to, leaving yourself a tiny window of observation. You sit there, watching through that crack, for what seems like an eternity. In reality, it’s less than twenty seconds before you watch a platoon of black-armored commandos burst through the warehouse’s tunnel access door, clearing the room efficiently and methodically. They kill the unconscious woman. It takes everything you have in you to not hurl yourself back through the door, but you manage it. What happens next is too important to miss.

Once the room has been cleared, checked and re-checked, a group of unarmored non-civilians come into the room. One is an unidentified woman, shoulder length blond hair and blue eyes. You begin memorizing her features for later identification. The next person you know well enough, and seeing him makes your lip curl. The singular Director Bones of the Department of Extranormal Operations struts into the room, dragging off a cigar and surveying the scene.

Beside him walks the Batwoman.

You knew you couldn’t trust her.

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #12

Gotham is at its most beautiful on a rainy night. Despite the discomfort it causes you while on patrol, you know this. The way it makes the city lights streak and blend with one another, the way it forces the ungrateful criminals back into their holes and leaves the streets abandoned, empty and eerie and breathtaking. It’s on these nights, in your thermally insulated suits, that you spend more time overlooking the streets from your favored vantage points than you should. It feels almost like a night off.

You spent the day by Dick Grayson’s bedside, nursing your old friend back to health. He took a vicious beating at the hands of Deathstroke’s thugs, and it will be a while before he’s ready for action again. Still, Alfred Pennyworth’s experience and steady hands served the young acrobat well. He’s on the mend.

At least, his physical wounds are.

Last night you apprehended the psychotic former psychiatrist, Jonathan Crane. Acting as his alter ego, the Scarecrow, Crane had abducted citizens from across Gotham city and brought them to Gotham University’s sub-basement, where he performed sickening procedures on them, the end goal of which you are still unsure. The method used was similar to that employed in the Room in the Narrows (see issue #X), with the Scarecrow injecting the people with a uniquely formulated strain of fear toxin, then extracting a sample of this same toxin (mixed with human fluids) from the base of the victim’s spine. Gruesome, to be sure, but Crane’s work is seldom anything else. Worse still, Thomas Elliot, better known as Hush, is still at large and assumedly acting according to a plan laid out between the former surgeon and Crane. The thought kept you up all day.

Commissioner Jim Gordon was present for his first preliminary hearing today, in which the charges laid against him were detailed publicly. You watched the proceedings from Dick’s bedside… They sickened you. A more ignorant witch hunt Gotham has rarely seen. Cyril Hobbes, the temporary replacement commissioner brought in from Metropolis, made his first public address today, in which he swore to do what Gordon could not: bring in the Batman. Of course, that was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Grandstanding for the masses. At least you know where you stand with the Metropolitan now.

The newspapers all carried the same headline this morning: across the city, victims seemingly chosen at random have shown up with their faces carved away. Hush’s work, you have no doubt. Two women in the Narrows, likely prostitutes, a businessman downtown and an unidentified male in the harbor. He’ll have to be stopped soon.

You decide to stay here, in the rain and the quiet. It might be a selfish decision, but you don’t care. You deserve some peace and quiet after what you’ve been through for the past few weeks.

Even with the rain keeping most of them in hiding, the night is not without its scum. It takes you only twenty minutes to get your first hit. A young man in a drenched hoodie standing conspicuously on a corner, glancing furtively around every few minutes. Your presence here has bred an even greater sense of superstition than normal in the street thugs of Gotham.

You wait for evidence that he’s not some poor kid waiting for a ride home, and after a few minutes of observation, you get it. Another ragged denizen of the night approaches, and an exchange is made. Advanced cowl optics show you that a large sum of cash is traded for a ragged plastic bag with an indistinct item inside… If you had to guess, a syringe.

You grapple across the rooftops, coming down on the fire escape that leads to the alley the kid is hoping he’ll be able to use as an escape if the cops show up. Dropping soundlessly to the wet cement, you stoop and pick up a loose brick. It’s far too large and misshapen for a professional to be fooled, but then, the kid’s not a professional. Yet. Hopefully tonight will set him on a different path.

Once you’re up behind him, you jab the brick into the small of his back, whispering in a gruff dialect you picked up from the dock workers on the bay.

“Don’t move. Don’t even think about moving, or Betsy puts a hole in your back so messy they’ll have to call in the coast guard to clean you up.”

The kid stiffens, terrified.

“Oh god… Oh fuck, please don’t kill me. Tell him I’m working hard, man! I can’t move this any faster than I am. Look at the weather, man! Look, tell ‘Crow I’ll have it gone by–“

“‘Crow ain’t care about excuses. Cares about results. You ain’t gettin’ ’em. Makes him think you’re not loyal to the cause.”

“Come on, man! He’s got my sister! I’m not gonna try and screw him, I swear!”

“Really? ‘Crow thinks you might be holdin’ out on him. You wouldn’t be doin’ that now, wouldya?”

“N-no. Never.”

You twist the brick. “You turn around slowly. Gonna gimme what you got. You’re out of the game. Slowly, now.”

The kid raises his hands and starts turning. When he sees you, really sees you, he jumps so high he almost lands flat on his back.

“Oh god, oh no, oh god please no.”

You say nothing, but extend your hand palm upward. After a second, he gets the message and pulls the baggie from his pocket.

“Here, man! Please don’t kill me!”

You take the bag, step back into the shadows, whisper.

“Don’t let me find you here again…”

Then you’re gone, the grappel gun propelling you up and away to the rooftops. The kid stands in the rain for a solid five minutes, then starts running. Might be worth following him.

You decide to tail the kid, vaulting rooftops to stay one step ahead of him. He’s heading toward the southwest side. Not surprising. Lots of low income housing there… Kid was probably looking for a way out. Someone should have told him the only thing getting in with Gotham’s super criminals gets you is a cold bed six feet under the city’s poisoned soil.

But the kid’s not going home. He stops in an industrial park, pries open the door to a trailer there. Steps inside.

Stupid, stupid kid.

You make a couple circuits around the trailer and the industrial park, looking for anything unusual. Security in casual clothes, no identification. Probably mob, maybe some of Crane’s thugs. You know all too well how Gotham’s villains exert just as much control from inside Arkham as they do on the streets. It’s a thought that often disheartens you. Can’t afford to let that happen tonight. Other than the hired guns, there doesn’t appear to be any security measures whatsoever, which means that whoever is holed up inside doesn’t expect to be found. That means things will go bad for the kid, since he showed up in the middle of the night, unannounced. Heading outside the park, you strain your eyes to read the sign through the rain. Of course. Falcone Exports, LTD. Seems Sofia wasn’t as innocent in all of this as she led you to believe.

Stupid, stupid kid.

Your boots crunch over sodden gravel as you approach the trailer. The pressboard door is soaked and swollen from the rain, which explains the kid’s difficulty in opening it. Seeing no other visible entry point, you decide for the second time in as many nights to take the front door. You force the door open, step inside. It’s dark… And that’s about the only notable thing. Inside, the trailer looks as barren and downtrodden as outside. There’s also no one here. No kid, no pushers, nothing.

Interesting.

People don’t just disappear like this. There’s something more going on here. You’re going to find out what. You activate cowl optics, and the room’s every nook and cranny lights up in stark contrast, every shadow dispelled. It’s dirty in here, that much is for sure. Looks like this might have been a foreman’s trailer at one point, judging from the layout. There’s a couple overturned plastic chairs strewn about, likely where workers would sit when they would get called in.

There’s a large wooden desk, paint flaking off, legs swollen from moisture. The carpet in here reeks. It’s that pervasive stench that tips you off. Or rather, the sudden absence of it. As you stand in the middle of the room, turning, looking for something, you catch a breath of fresh air. It’s coming from the desk. Of course it is. You haul the desk to the side, and are unsurprised to find a tunnel dug into the sodden soil. It must come out somewhere above ground, maybe somewhere near the bay, judging from the earthy notes in the air. No way of telling how far the proverbial rabbit hole goes, though. Not without going in.

Then, suddenly, you’re roused from contemplation. Someone’s trying to get into the trailer, struggling with the swollen door.

Hnnh. No time to do anything that might make whoever is one the other side of that door think no one’s been here. Might as well be ready for them when they come in. You move over to the desk and heave, dragging it across the floor and bracing it against the swollen door, just as it gives way. From outside, the guard’s voice filters in, muted by the downpour.

“The f–Jimmy! Jim, you copy? We got someone in the trailer, blockin’ the door. Get over here. Bring Marco and Ignacio.”

Then he’s slamming his weight against the door, trying to break it in. You wager you’ve got about three minutes before he does. More than enough prep time.

You swing your legs over the edge of the tunnel and lower yourself down slowly. Seconds after, the door splinters and caves in. You hear the sound of the desk scraping across the floor, then heavy footsteps above. One set, two… Three. That you can tell, anyway. The tunnel is sending strange echoes at you, so it’s hard to be sure. You prime the flashbang and begin your count.

One…

The flash goes up and over the side of the tunnel, landing with a muted thud on the floor above. You put your hands on the edge of the drop and look down, closing your eyes, ready to vault.

Two…

“Grenade!” Someone screams. Not the first voice. Thinner, reedy. The flash detonates and fills the room with painful white light and deafening sound. Wild gunfire ensues, as you suspected it might. Idiots aren’t even thinking they might hit one of their own.

Three…

Two heavy thuds as goons drop to the floor, clamping hands over bleeding ears. You launch yourself upward and deliver a haymaker to the one that’s still up, but staggered. He drops like a bag of sand. No fight left in him after the flash went off. Another thug is standing now, still holding his head, eyes screwed shut. You calmly walk up and kick his knee in. He goes down screaming, and you toe his rifle away. The third thug is bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds.

Karma is cruel.

You search the downed thugs for their radios, find basic wideband sets on all of them. Frequency 436.3. Someone’s talking on the other end. The voice is calm and paced, no trace of worry or accent.

“Sam. Report in. What’s going on? Do I need to send someone up the tunnel?”

You don your best Sicilian and hit the transmit button.

“Ain’t nothin’. Rat in here got wedged up under the door. We good, boss.”

There’s a long pause, and for a moment you’re sure you’ve said the wrong thing.

“… Alright then. Keep your eyes open for pigs. Fuckin’ kid could have brought the whole op down. Stupid enough to come back here empty handed after heading out with ‘Crow’s shit, stupid enough to get iced, I say.”

“Heh. Yeah.”

“We’re dealin’ with it now. Stop by when you get done your rotation. Got somethin’ new for ya to taste.”

“Sounds good.”

You put down the radio, punch a thug that’s coming to, then look back at the tunnel. Kid’s in trouble down there, probably won’t come back out without your help. That being said, he made his bed, and there might be actual innocents out there that need your help. Not to mention the death trap that a long, narrow tunnel could put you in. Time to make the call.

You proceed down the tunnel. Carefully. No reason to expose yourself unnecessarily. It’s shoddily constructed, dangerous even. Rotting wood serves as the braces, and they’re unevenly distributed, some creaking under the strain of staying upright, others barely supporting anything at all. Amateur work done hastily. Mud sluices down the walls and pools on the floor. If the rain keeps up, this thing will be flooded inside a week. The only lighting is a string of bulbs extending off into the gloom. There’s an opening on the right hand side approaching. You creep up carefully, noiselessly. Peering around the corner, you see another of what you’ve come to refer to as Incubation Rooms. Innocents lying on the filthy ground or strung up on walls, fear toxin going in, something else coming out. All mixing into a rusted barrel in the center of the room. No guards, no observation. No need. The victims are so enraptured by their own terror that they couldn’t lift a finger in their own defense, much less stage an escape. You have a feeling that if some of them could do anything, the first thing they’d do is take their own lives. You force yourself to look away, to move past the people. Nothing you can do for them right now.

Further down the tunnel, you start hearing cries. They sound human, but barely. Screaming, hissing… Like feral animals. There’s light flooding into the tunnel, genuine electric light, not the dingy half-light that these weak bulbs produce, and the ground is sloping upward. You stick to the wall, move ever more slowly, ensuring you don’t draw attention with movement or sound.

The sight that greets you at the end of the tunnel is… Sickening. Wrong. The tunnel opens into a large room, a warehouse by the looks of it. There’s better lighting in here, but only just. Cages line the room in neat rows, cages with… People, in them. No tubes leading to or from these. Each of them is crazed, throwing themselves against their restraints again and again. Some are bleeding, bones broken and exposed, but they don’t seem to notice. There are armed guards walking the rows, kicking at the overactive ones. They don’t seem to feel the kicks, either. Standing exposed as you are, you have scant seconds before someone looks your way.

You start moving down the aisles, trying to keep a low profile, trying not to make a sound. Of course, it would help if the captives would cooperate. Instead they start screaming like banshees, railing against their cages, beating themselves bloody. This, naturally, draws the attention of every guard in the facility. You’re completely exposed, nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. And then you feel the impact. Detached, clinical, you examine it. Feels like a nine millimeter, but it’s probably not. Too much kick and you’re hit more than once. Immediately, it seems that some great blaze has consumed all of the oxygen on the planet. You feel like you’re drowning from the inside. You barely register hitting the floor, cracking your head against the cement. Darkness is gathering at the edges of your vision, bright white spots dotting the ceiling of the warehouse.

Then, perfect calm. A warm light. Hands reaching down and taking you in their arms. An even, comforting voice.

“It’s alright, Bruce. Don’t be scared. We’re here now.”

And you can’t help yourself. Even though you know it’s not real, know it can’t be. You call out to them.

“M… Mother? F-father?”


Blackness.

Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #11

The young man lying on the operating table before you could have been many things, before Gotham sunk its teeth into him. When you first met Dick Grayson he was a high-flying child acrobat, in love with the circus, in love with the adventure… In love with his life. That was all torn cruelly away from him by a coward with a knife. Not unlike your life. Since that moment, there were only two things Dick could have become: a hero or a villain. Black or white. No in between.

Not for the first time, you thank god that you were able to play a small part in his decision making process. You shudder to think what the world would have endured had he chosen wrongly. What you might have one day been forced to do.

Instead, Dick Grayson has grown from that small, shattered boy into a man you are incredibly proud of. Moreso than you will ever be able to reveal to him. You tell yourself that you maintain your silence to protect him. Under the harsh scrutiny of truth, however, you know that’s not the case.

You won’t tell him because you’re a coward. Because you’re afraid that if you do, he’ll disappear. Like they did.

You are the Batman, and last night your former ward, the first in a long and prestigious line of Boy Wonders, nearly died at the hands of a malicious cabal of super criminals. Were it not for Katherine Kane, the vigilante known as Batwoman, he may very well have. Since you arrived at the abandoned apartment complex in which he was being held and relieved Batwoman of her caretaking duties, you have not left the young man’s side. Though Alfred Pennyworth fussed and fumed at you for “hovering like a mother hen,” you refused to leave. You forced yourself to watch each gruesome procedure the butler performed in order to save Dick’s life. To remind you that you failed him. Now, Dick’s chest rises and falls evenly, a far cry from the ragged breaths he drew when first you hoisted him from the Batmobile. Afred does good work. Now it’s time for you to do yours.

As you roar out of the Cave in the Batmobile, you know full well that vengeance colors your every action. You know it, and you don’t care. Whoever did this to Grayson is going down. Quickly, and painfully. This is your city. They took him in YOUR city. Your hands tighten on the wheel until you’re sure it will shatter.

They took him in your city.

You fly around the curves, heedless of speed, heedless of approach.

They beat him in your city.

The Batmobile explodes out from the hidden entrance on the west end, parting the waterfall that obscures it like a hurricane.

They tortured him. In YOUR city.

You’re pushing two hundred coming in from the palisades. You force your heartbeat down, force your foot to ease up on the gas. Gradually, both you and the Batmobile gear down from a roaring tornado to the eye of the storm, all the more perilous for its apparent calm. You’re barely in control. And you don’t care.

The first to pay for what was done to Nightwing are a pair of thugs intent on raping a young woman in the south end. She’s screaming as you descend upon them, as you begin your dark work. She’s still screaming now, but not for herself. She’s screaming for them, she’s screaming at you to stop. You’re brutalizing them. By the time the red in your eyes subsides, you’re uncertain whether either of them will walk again. Doesn’t matter. They made their choices.

Now that you’ve vented some of your rage, your head clears somewhat. There are a couple places you know you can begin your search. Time to choose.

You make your way to Arkham Asylum, hoping you can determine where Hush and Scarecrow are now by tracing them from their point of origin. Psychotics like them can never resist leaving clues. Once you arrive at the imposing facility, the secret access points you installed years ago do their work and let you into the house of horrors.

Jeremiah Arkham, the man who runs this freakshow (and who arguably belongs in one of the cells himself) is found in his administrative office, “studying” his subjects. In his case, “studying” means an almost fetishistic obsession with the criminally insane. Tonight, as it has been many times before, the object of his attentions is the Black Mask. He’s holding the mask to his own face, breathing heavily into it.

“Jeremiah.”

The mousy man squeals and leaps from his chair, going for the taser in his coat.

“I wouldn’t. I’m not in the mood.” You caution.

He pauses, hand hovering over the device. Then, slowly, a smile spreads across his gaunt features.

“Well, well. Has the Batman finally come to surrender himself for treatment? I promise, Gordon’s men won’t be able to get you here. I have a special room just for y–“

You slam him up against the wall, hoisting him off the ground by his throat.

“I know EXACTLY what you would do given the opportunity, Arkham. You won’t get it. Not tonight. Instead, you’re going to give me information.”

The man hisses, struggling to speak through a larynx slowly being crushed. “I–I c-c-could have twenty guards… In ten s-seconds…” You press harder, cutting off his air.

“And you’d be cold before they got here. Thomas Elliot. Where?”

Somehow, the freak manages to smirk through asphyxia onset.

“Oh, Tommy. I’ve tried so hard with him. But he just refuses to be a good boy, doesn’t he? What did he do now, Batman? Clip your favorite wings, did he?”

He starts cackling, but that stops when you throw him across his desk.

After a moment, he’s up on his knees, rasping and rubbing his throat. “Oh-ho-ho, Batman. Your condition is worsening. You really ought to consider medication. Now… What makes you think I’ll break my solemn oath of patient and doctor confidentiality? What makes you think I’ll talk?”

Arkham looks at you for a long moment, then visibly makes a decision.

“Alright, Batman. I’ll help you. This time. But only because I fear Thomas and Jonathan may be taking things too far. You see, I often allow my patients to exercise their… Frustrations. I believe it helps them. Much as it helps you. Or would I be wrong in assuming I’m not the first of Gotham’s citizens that you’ve savaged tonight?”

Your eyes narrow, but you say nothing. He laughs, that infuriating, nasal laugh.

“I thought as much. At any rate, as I’m sure you know, Jonathan believed that he is the Master of Fear, that he wields it like a tool, like a weapon. We can agree on this, no? Well, I used the word ‘believed’ with a purpose. I think I may have… Cured him of that belief. I made him to see that fear cripples him, beats his genius down. That he would be better without it. And he believed me. But I… It may have been a mistake to do so, Batman.”

You hear footsteps approaching outside. Arkham hit a silent alarm. Damn.

“Talk faster, Jeremiah. Or get used to not talking at all.”

“You see, I freed Jonathan from his fear. His fear of you. Of the Batman. And he’s not the only one, I think. We believe in patient interaction here, you know. Lately, Jonathan and Thomas had become communicative with one another. The guards said they were ‘friendly.’ I had another word for it. Conspiratorial. Then, a month ago, they left.”

You growl. “What do you mean, ‘they left’?”

“Exactly what I say. They did so by one of the many hidden ways in and out of this institution. At first I thought I had it under control, that I could have them brought in at any time. I was wrong.”

“Where. Are. They?”

“In the last few days, they were talking of setting up shop together, on the outside. I optimistically assumed they meant to do so after their rehabilitation. Jonathan kept talking about his ‘practice,’ his students. I thought it healthy, though we both know no one would ever let a psychopath like the Scarecrow into a medical institution again. Dreams are important.”

“Gotham University. They’ve gone to Gotham University.”

“Very good, Batman. Now, if you’ll please cooperate with these fine gentlemen, we can begin your own rehabilitation.”

At that moment, two of Arkham’s thugs, the men he passes off on payroll as “orderlies,” step into the room. They’re barrel-chested and swollen in the biceps. They’re also not going to let you leave without a fight.

Good.

You bellow at the men approaching you. It’s bestial, primal, throws them off-guard. You whirl on your back foot, putting your bodyweight behind what would be a crushing kick to the solar plexus. But the man manages to turn away, perhaps having heard tales of your savagery from other Arkham goons. You attempt a follow through, a rigid fist hurtling toward the other’s head. He lurches backward, but too slowly. Your hand catches him in the throat. You relax your fist and turn the blow into a grab, hurling the off-balance guard at Arkham, who’s been sneaking up on you with a syringe. Just the one now, recovering. You barrel towards him, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, pushing him out of the office and over the side of the balcony. He screams as you fall to the ground below and is silenced by the impact. You roll off of him and bolt into the darkness as the sounds of reinforcements and attack dogs pursue you. There’s a way out somewhere down here. You intend to make use of it.

Roughly an hour later, you’ve given the Arkham thugs the slip and made your way across the city to Gotham U. You’ve been observing it for a few minutes. In a stroke of luck, it appears that class is not in session. Most students are home for vacation, and the few that are won’t be in the main building, where you suspect Scarecrow to be holed up. You can’t see any lights down there, but that doesn’t mean much. They wouldn’t want to arouse the suspicion of the security teams on campus.

You drop from the building you’ve perched on, snapping your cape out in order to make use of the updrafts here. They carry you clear over the fence and onto the low roof of the main building. A few methods of entry from up here. The fire escape, a skylight through which you observe regular patrols without flashlights, a telling sign that they’re not on the university’s payroll, and the ventilation system which reeks of ammonia. Probably a trap set by Crane. Might be worth it to attack from the angle he feels safest about, though. Hnnh.

Due to your methodology, you know that the psychotics in this city have come to expect the unexpected. So you have to keep things simple this time. You abandon the rooftop in favor of a more conventional approach. You drop down to the main approach, walk up to the front door, and knock.

No response. You knock again.

“Well now, isn’t this a sight.” Says a husky but feminine voice from behind you. You whirl to see Kate Kane, the Batwoman, standing in the lane, obscuring herself in the shadowy holes between the security lampposts. “The Batman, knocking on doors instead of kicking them down. As I live and breathe.”

“How did you–?”

“I told you I’d be looking into the security breaches, didn’t I? Think you’re the only one with access to a couple of tech-heads?”

“You need to leave. This place is dangerous.”

“Yeah, and everyone knows that people like you and me spend our nights avoiding that. I’m coming with you, and you don’t have a say. You owe me.”

You stand there silently for a moment. On the one hand, Kane is relatively new at this. She could be a liability. On the other, she’s right. Without her, you may not have reached Grayson in time. You might be burying him tonight instead of seeking revenge.

“Hnnh. Fine. But you’re not going to make a circus of this, Batwoman. You follow my orders. This is my op, and I don’t care what you or the people who hold your leash have to say about it. Understood?”

She stiffens at the mention of the DEO. There’s something going on there, but you haven’t had time to look into just what it is. But she relents.

“Alright. How are we going to do this?”

“Carefully. You have a rebreather?”

She nods, produces a small device from her own utility belt.

“Good. You’re going to need it. Inside this building is Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow. I have to assume his partner, Thomas Elliot, is here as well.”

“Hush? Hnh.”

Did she seriously just do that? You shake it off and don your own rebreather. She does the same, then motions for you to stand away from the door. The vigilante then places two small plastique packets on both hinge, then sprays them with a black liquid, which quickly solidifies and inflates. The C4 detonates with a muffled crump. A liquid capable of silencing an explosive? Fascinating. The DEO has stepped its game up. You catch the door as it falls forward and set it gently aside. Then you both step into the darkness.

Inside, the air is thick with smoke. Classic Scarecrow. If you hadn’t made use of the rebreather, you’d probably be crippled by it by now. Fifty feet down the hallway, two armed guards have frozen in their tracks. The sight of two silent specters gliding towards them explains their trepidation. Then they’re raising their guns. Batwoman reaches out, puts an arm in front of you, pushes you behind her. You blade your body and crouch, making a smaller target. You don’t know what she’s doing, but you agreed to partner with her, and that means implicit trust. The shots rattle off. She doesn’t move. Spent shells tinkle to the ground. She’s still walking.

Alright. You’re impressed.

A few seconds later, both guards are down, but lights have snapped on. The shots must have alerted Scarecrow, wherever he is. Right on queue, the PA system crackles to life.

“Baatmmmaaaannnnnn.” Jonathan Crane’s voice croons over the intercom. “SSSsssso glad you’ve come to joinnnn us. And you’ve evennn brought a date. I’ve been meaning to get to know you, Batwomannnn. Such a rude introduction. Tut, tut, tut…”

You crash into classroom after classroom, looking for Crane. You find only thugs dressed up as professors, lecturing straw-filled dummies with assault rifles. You abandon each room, leaving Batwoman to take out the thugs. By the third, you know it’s an exercise in futility. Scarecrow is a coward, so he’ll go the one place he feels he’s safe. The one place you can come at him from only one angle. The basement.

You open comms with Batwoman.

“Crane’s stalling for time. Forget the classrooms, they’re no threat anyway. He’s downstairs. Meet me there.”

You cut the line without waiting for a response, then break into a run toward basement access. The door’s locked and barred, but it hardly slows you down. You hurl your body into it over and over until the wood splinters and gives way. The stench of fear gas coming up from below is overpowering, and you begin to feel the effects even through your rebreather. You grit your teeth and bear it. No other choice now. You make your way down the staircase, down toward the red pulsing glow below. Rounding a corner, you see its source, and some small part of you, beaten back into the darkest corners of your mind, screams “run.”

The Room in the Narrows is nothing compared to this. The basement has largely been cleared of equipment, replaced with school desks, at which horrified hostages sit with mouths gagged and limbs bound. Intravenous drips protrude from their forearms, and extraction tubes dangle from the back of their skulls. Sitting at the back of the room in front of a beaten, weathered blackboard, sits Jonathan Crane.

Scarecrow.

“Hello, Batman.”

“Where is Elliot, Crane? What have you done to these people? What are you getting out of them?”

Scarecrow laughs, his voice dryer than straw in summer.

“Oh, I’m not telling you where Tommy went. But he’s not here, Batman. Unless he is. Waiting to stick you with those scalpels of his.” Scarecrow’s gesturing theatrically. Enjoying it. Your comm sparks.

“I’m here, Batman. In the room. Just say the word.”

“Hold position.”

You begin moving up the aisle created by the desks toward Scarecrow, being careful not to trip over the various tubes crisscrossing it. You have no idea what might happen to the people around you if you disturb those nightmare tendrils.

“Crane. This is over. There’s nowhere to run. Give yourself up and let these people go.”

“Over? Batman, this has just barely begun! You think my capture is the end? You think you’ve stopped us? You think you SAVED Nightwing? HAHAHAHAHA. You do, don’t you?!”

He cackles insanely.

“You’ve done NOTHING. And when Gotham rips itself apart from the inside out, you’ll be the one to blame.”

Scarecrow stands up from behind his desk, his body tensing. Time for the big show.

Scarecrow pounces on top of the desk, gathers himself for a leap. You reach to your belt, grab the gas-powered grapple gun there and fire it above and behind Crane. It lodges, starts retracting, goes taut. Starts lifting you up and forward. All in less than a second. You gather your feet under you, then extend. Scarecrow hurls himself through the air at you, producing a hand scythe as he does. You meet halfway, your legs coming up and under him, catching him in the groin. He howls in pain, goes off trajectory, crashes into the floor.

“Gurrrrghhh. You–you’re not playing fair, Bat.”

“I’m playing to win, Scarecrow. Now stop. This.”

“Y–you still think you can win. You’ve already lost! Do you hear me? YOU’VE ALREADY LO–“

KRAK.

Scarecrow’s head snaps back against the floor, a blood red Batarang protruding from his cheek. You open comms.

“That wasn’t necessary, Batwoman. You could have killed him.”

“And wouldn’t that have been a shame? Whatever, he’s down. Nice work, by the way. Makes me proud I took your namesake.”

“Thanks.”

“I still would’ve done it better.”

You almost laugh. She reminds you of yourself, years ago. Instead, you look back at Scarecrow, then at the people here. It’s been a long night, and it’s only just begun.

“I don’t know what to do about this. These people need medical attention, but I can’t call in Jim’s men while he’s out of commission. They’ll hunt us down.”

“I have a suggestion, but you won’t like it. Mostly because you didn’t make it.”

“Dial back the hostility, Batwoman. You’re here on my graces. What is it?”

“I can call the DEO in. They’ll cut through the red tape like a knife through the proverbial butter. Have these people out and safe before sunrise. Which is in roughly an hour, by the way.”

“You’re right. I don’t like it. But it will have to do. Give me two minutes to get clear before you call in Bones’ thugs.”

“You’ve got them. Get moving.”

In less than one minute, you’ve crossed the street and are watching black, unmarked vans pull up to the university. Subtle as a jackhammer, the DEO. Scarecrow will end up back at Arkham. There’s nothing you can do about that. Except be there when it happens.