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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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–“
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.”
“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.