Part of The Problem

November 25, 2017:

Red Robin enlists the help of his long-time compatriot and ex-girlfriend, Spoiler, to help deal with whatever problem has arisen in his personal laboratory following the events of Rescuing Emily Montrose. (Constantine GMing)

The Nest

It's fancy. You can't afford one.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine, Jessica Jones, Zatanna Zatara, Bucky Barnes, Jane Foster

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It wasn't that long ago that Red Robin participated in what was originally intended to be an interrogation, though the word hardly encompasses just how unconventional the evening had been. Even if everything had gone perfectly to plan, it was still an undecaying, bloodless corpse that they were hoping to get information from. It would have been weird enough already.

Things, of course, did not go perfectly to plan, or even roughly to plan. They'd all been drawn into astral space through facilitation by Zatanna Zatara, and there discovered the body's rightful owner and occupant hidden away in a small, empty space within an otherwise limitless void. Tim had to swallow her inside a glass tyet that previously contained the literal blood of Isis, there was some sort of massive shoggoth implied…you know, the usual Team Magic shenanigans.

There had been strange consequences for the preserved droplet of Montrose's blood, perpetually uncoagulated or dried on a little slide beneath a microscope in Tim's lab. It had reacted simultaneous to Zatanna's first interactions with the body, and later — when they all fled, pursued by the thing in the darkness, something had…happened, in the lab. There had been a sudden eruption of…something…from the glass slide, and then the electrical blew. The lab itself was locked down by the ever-security-conscious Drake.

It's still closed up tighter than a drum, and very fortunately hasn't been consumed by Primordial Darkness, but it can't stay that way forever.

-

Having another person in your head is something of a trying experience.

Bad enough the sensation of the presence of the tyet - it's sort of like that feeling you get if you dry swallow a pill, where you can feel it sticking to the back of your gullet halfway down to your stomach, except inside your spirit and not your body - but the knowledge that there was someone else there, someone whose presence was confined to the same metaphysical space he occupied, who could only experience the outside world in a limited way through his own senses…

Well, it was weird. He'd put himself on a kind of lockdown in New York, after taking all the mirrors in his penthouse down while Emily Montrose was 'asleep', avoiding reflective surfaces, avoiding anything that might leave the disembodied woman with dangerous knowledge. Zatanna was sure that Emily Montrose was dead, and that this was just taking a roundabout route to her final destination…

But Red Robin couldn't be so certain, of course. It wasn't in his nature to give up until he had no other choice.

First, though, he had things to do. Underneath Gotham City is a vast labyrinth of tunnels and catacombs: Abandoned subway tunnels, the forgotten Old Gotham, the sewer system, all sorts of things you might expect from a city like that, until it becomes a wonder that the whole place hasn't simply collapsed in on itself. One such set of tunnels, having vanished from any available maps of the city's structures, includes a pathway all the way to the underground entrance of the Nest. That entrance, still sealed, is illuminated by the headlights of the Redbird, the car gleaming black with its metallic red canopy, idling in utter silence.

"Didn't seem like a good idea to head in alone," he explains to Spoiler, having contacted the other vigilante earlier with a - let's say 'rare' - request for help… This one a bit more important than getting her to help him with automotive maintenance. His voice has that electronic blur in it, using the disguiser under his cowl even though the only one around right now is the blonde. "Besides, opening the door might be a two person job, if the electrical is still down…"

-

Rare indeed, but as ever, Spoiler moves to help. Tim is… it's complicated, but friend is definitely on the list. So, friend it is, and so a friend in need. Spoiler has buckled in to the passenger seat of the Red Bird, having met Robin where he requested, and left her bike there. It was safe. The voice modulator was noticed, for the she's-lost-count number of times since he contacted her, and like all those other times, she's refraining from comment.

"No clue as to what dropped your grid?" she asks, glancing sidelong at him as he drives.

-

No clue as to what dropped your grid?

"Something spooky," Red Robin replies offhandedly, moving to crouch in front of the access panel to the door; the headlights of the Redbird splash his shadow across the wall, the lines of the cape and cowl turning his silhouette into something other; two tines on the head, and it would be nearly indistinguishable from the shadow of the Bat himself… But, well, that's part of why he started dressing like this in the first place, after being replaced as Robin. "I think it was some kind of… You know the whole idea behind voodoo dolls? Sympathetic magic? You affect the target by using a part of them or something connected to them? I think it was that but in reverse."

Probably he could've asked an expert about it. Instead, he does this.

There's a low, audible sound as the main lock on the access door gives way, and the young man rises up to his feet, starting to lift.

"C'mon, let's push this up," he says to Spoiler. Between the two of them, it's relatively easy.

This brings them to the lowest level of the Nest, the sub-basement where the Redbird would normally be parked, the equipment for working on the car - and on the red motorcycle he also keeps down there - having been carefully packed away. He was too precise, too careful to leave a mess laying around.

"The blood sample was in the lab on the topmost level. I had a camera on it for observation, but I'm pretty sure that's a writeoff…"

-

"Spooky."

The off-handed manner of the reply is what makes the word stick, and so Spoiler doesn't write it off. Moving with him, she doubles his silhoutte, her uniform close enough to a batgirl look that perhaps she should have taken up that name months ago. She didn't then. Likely won't unless pressed to. Like Tim, the silhouette offers the blonde that heartbeat of Gotham baddies mistaking her identity.

Plus, the armor was a gift from Batman. No way she's NOT wearing it.

Know about voodoo dolls?

Spoiler half shrugs, hand coming up to wiggling like a titter-tatter. Sort of knows about voodoo dolls. She hasn't had a huge reason to read up on them. But the general idea of use the doll and you can hurt someone from far away, typical Hollywood things, is readily available in her mind.

But in reverse.

"Ooookay?" Her voice sounds uncertain, a bit confused, but she trusts Tim and so she rises when he does, and pushes up on the door when asked.

Moving through, Spoiler sweeps her gaze over the almost familiar space. She's been here a few times, after all. She knows just how almost OCD Tidy the Tim can be, and so she looks for things that could be out of place as she follows him.

"Was it recording? Maybe the feed got saved before the power went down?" is offered optimistically.

-

It is most definitely a write-off. That piece of equipment hasn't responded to any of Tim's remote overtures since the moment it all went dark.

There's a curious smell in the lab, not unlike the ozone scent that accompanies an especially aggressive thunderstorm. The interior is so minimalist in its equipment and arrangement that at first it may be difficult to discern whether or not anything is out of place, not to mention the fact that the lights are still, for whatever reason and regardless of any backups that ought to be activated, working — though darkness is a lot less likely to give this particular pair trouble.

What little there is out in the open to be fooled with has most assuredly been left in a state of disarray, but not the kind of trashed carelessness that one would expect from a looter, for instance, or an operative sent to find something in a hurry. Subtle differences in the arrangement of things, and everywhere this is true, a kind of shadowy glistening substance, like an oily film.

Up on the communications level, equipment is making noise. Morse beeps, white background noise from radio static. Something gets knocked over, thuds to the floor.

-

"I was watching the feed on my HUD when it started to react. After that…" After that, he supposes he wasn't strictly speaking in his body. Or at least, his awareness, the thing he thinks of as himself, wasn't.

Honestly, for all the guff he naturally got for being exactly the kind of nerd who reads lots of fantasy books and plays Dungeons and Dragons, sometimes he thinks that it was those hobbies, rather than anything he learned from the Dark Knight, that gave him any kind of framework for dealing with the sorts of things he has since the day Zatanna Zatara sauntered into his life and made herself at home.

The primary advantage of the lockdown on the Nest, aside from sealing the physical exits - to his townhouse, to the tunnels, to the rooftops of Gotham - is that the Faraday cage also kicked in. No signals in or out. Of course, this also meant there was no way to determine what had happened inside without a direct examination. And that examination reveals…

"Hrn," Red Robin mutters, noticing that there are things out of place. Slowly, cautiously he moves towards what might be oily residue, carefully producing something to poke at it with rather than endangering his fingers: A batarang. "Something—"

From above, beeping. Equipment in use. The sound of something hitting the floor.

"Looks like we're not alone," he says, looking towards Spoiler.

-

"After that, nothing. Got it," Spoiler fills in, not knowing that Tim had an out of body experience. Out of body or extraperson in his body? Either way. Spoiler's clueless about that detail, so she goes with what's the most reasonable: power dropped, he lost visual. And that would have killed any recording too. Why she had thought he HADN'T been watching via HUD is beyond her.

Blonde moment.

She notes the oil slick a few moments after Tim does, and his little vocal reaction soundtrakcs her head tilting to one side. She looks up at the beeping, hand slipping behind her for the collapsible staff.

"And me without a welcome gift," she quips back. Her eyes flick toward him, chin motioning to one side in qordless question: I go up one side, you the other, and we'll meet in the middle? Because they had to have been heard by now, right?

-

Following the sound of the thump from several levels up, there's a long silence that seems to suggest Spoiler is right in her supposition: they've been heard. Seconds after that and they won't have to hazard anymore guesses. Something spills over the ledge of the open-concept space. It's pitch black and elastic, pouring out of the darkness overhead and collapsing into a viscous puddle that ought to splash more than it does, somehow retaining most of its cohesion.

It's fortunate that it doesn't. What little of the tarry mucous substance does spatter outward paints a foul streak of glistening awfulness on Spoiler's costume. The flesh beneath begins to tingle, feel cold. There's no pain, or at least not yet, but along with that physical sensation comes a thick wave of choking emotions, none of them pleasant: fear, despair, grief, all of the wide sample of human suffering.

The mass gathers itself, ooze gaining some loose structure to allow for rough, vestigial limbs. Its surface ripples with hollows and waves that ceaselessly change, always suggestive of a human face, all of them badly distorted.

-

There's the beginnings of a shallow nod from Red Robin, agreeing with Spoiler's unspoken plan - but it seems that blonde's concerns are well-founded. Whatever it is that's in there with them did hear them. And now it's coming.

"Spoiler!" he calls out warningly, sweeping the fabric of his cape up in order to protect himself from the splash, but of course that isn't the main problem now. No, the main problem now is that there's some kind of horrible dark blob-monster in the middle of the floor, a horrorshow of almost-faces playing over its dark surface, like souls trapped underneath.

Distressingly, that simile might be completely accurate.

"Oh… I really hate being right all the time," he mutters, backing up to put some space between himself and the thing. Zatanna made Emily Montrose's body a door… And part of that body, however small, had been here. Something, some part of what they'd seen lurking in the astral realm, had wriggled through. He unhooks something from his utility belt while his mind races, something about the size of his collapsed staff, tossing it towards Spoiler: It's a flashlight, in a heavy duty casing. It's much larger than any flashlight needs to be.

"Light! Slide the switch all the way to the top, and don't look directly at it!" he calls out. He knew he was going to have to give these things a field test sooner or later. It's just, you know, he was hoping for more controlled circumstances.

But, well, you know.

-

Mid-preparing to haul self up to the top level, Spoiler stops as the black ooze slips from the top level and plops to the floor like a wet lump of dough. A heart beat too slow to cover up, the black ink splatters onto her suit. Lips pressing in disguist, Steph pauses to rub at it with the flat of her hand - silent eeeewww - before the chill is noted. The blonder blinks twice and looks at the foul ichor on her glove.

The thin gasp is the first sign that anything is wrong. The second is Steph taking a stumbling step back and away from the blob. Under her cowl, tears blur her vision as her heart drums thickly in her throat.

Light!

What? Light? She turns to look toward the sound of Tim's voice.

Oh, Tim's voice. The last real conversation they had replays, and that sickening sinking feeling of having hurt someone so dear, and then losing someone else, and… All compounded by that sicky yicky black ooze, means that she's tear-blinded to the incoming flashlight.

Reflex only has her hand, the slimed one, coming up to make a grab for the thing while her other hand covers her face in a cowering-from-something-being-thrown-at-face move. The accompanying squeak is as much a sob as it is a startled yelp. Shaking, and with the casing in her hands, Steph tries to figure out the switch by feel alone. Feel… through gloves, with one hand chilled and transferring a thin coating of the ooze to the device.

"Y-yeah. Switch. T-top," she stammers, voice choked as she struggles.

-

That simile is completely accurate.

Whatever they once were, the faces within the abomination are now merely textures in the sludge of metaphysical residue they've become. There are only insubstantial traces of the identities left, and those continue to degrade here on the physical plane, where this single, small piece of the not-yet-fully-formed whatever-the-fuck-it's-going-to-be is vulnerable to harm.

…One hopes.

It's a heart-stopping, gut-wrenching handful of seconds, but training with the Bat family is no small thing, and even in heartbreak Spoiler is able to flick the switch on. It's to be hoped she isn't looking into it at the time, because what emerges from that beam is not just a flashlight beam. It's not even just an extremely bright flashlight beam, it's —

What Tim has created, by necessity and through input from his friend with backwards-talking witch, is a means to recreate in miniature some fraction of what happened when the big guy upstairs said Let There Be Light.

Or, rather:

FIAT LUX

Everywhere the beam touches the slime left behind, it simply evaporates into a putrid mist and disappears without a trace. The assault on her emotions wanes in proportion to how much of the gunk remains on her, until eliminating the last of it will clear her head entirely.

In the meantime, the thing has apparently assessed her, and it chooses to do what so many of her opponents have done, much to their later chagrin: it dismisses her as being less of a threat than the young man on the other side of it.

It lurches after him.

Somewhere inside of Tim, Emily Montrose wakes up and begins to scream.

-

It's kind of poetic, in its way: People who had spent much of their lives in the shadows, lurking in the darkness, now depending on the light for survival.

Even with the flare compensation built into the lenses of his cowl, Red Robin has to shield his face against the glare. The prototype version he devised on the fly in Germany had left two of the Cult of the Cold Flame's wizard-ninjas (which is cheating) at the very least permanently blind, assuming they'd even survived the aftermath of Brandenburg. That had been constructed with the flash on a smartphone.

This was orders of magnitude more powerful.

A neural impulse through his suit's induction system causes a blue glow to appear over his left gauntlet: A holographic display and matching haptic input. Already, even as the Not Quite Thing assesses the potential threat provided by the blonde armed with what is to regular flashlights what Steve Rogers is to a regular soldier, Red Robin is getting something bigger ready. In the underground entry, the engine of the Redbird growls to life, the recently installed new power supply ready to redirect energy through the headlights, redesigned to function like the flashlight Spoiler holds, except more powerful still.

There's no such thing as overkill, the vigilante reasoned, when you're dealing with the potential end of all existence.

But as the mass of darkness turns towards him, lurching in his direction, his hand lifts from the holographic interface to clutch at his head. The horrified scream of Emily Montrose, whose detached spirit had spent months hiding from this thing, rebounds inside of his head like ripples feeding each other.

"Miss Montrose," he mutters. "I really need you to focus…"

-

Spoiler hadn't been looking at the flashlight. All that kept ringing through her head was not to let him down again, and the horrible feeling like every heartbeat she struggled with the devide was a heartbeat that she was letting him down. When it finally fwooshed on, Stephanie cried out again, head turning from the too bright light that her flare comp couldn't handle. Squinting, Stephanie works to track the creature while the goop on her abdonmen evaporates away.

The ooze leaps at Tim and a single thought crystallizes in her mind: Not today, not ever.

A harsh blink to force her eyes to clear of the still lingering tears, Stephanie follows the creature with the flashlight.

"Cover your eyes!" she yells at Tim. Confidence returning as the only goop left on her is on the palm of her right hand, 'protected' from the light by the fact that she is weilding the instrument of its destruction.

You can't have him.

-

Trying to lock down the precise mechanics of how it all works is a task better left to the peculiar creatures who haunt magical spaces, with their absolute flaunting of magic. But it's clear, anyway, that Emily has some awareness of the essence of this thing: enough to be roused by its presence, and terrified. He asks her to focus and she lapses into comparative silence but it's a panicked thing, brimming with a tension that feels like an outward pressure in the place the tyet resides. And this fear, this horror, in proximity to the nascent beast from the astral plane — it coalesces, spooling transparently out of Tim in ribbons of shadow that the thing draws in. It's such a small thing, that droplet it takes, but it has a noticeable effect: immediately several more improvised limbs spear out of it. Stronger, somehow.

It lashes out with one of them for Robin with the force of a hammerstrike.

It would have chased him further, but its underestimation of Spoiler costs it dearly. Everywhere that blade of light falls, the substance of its corporeal form bubbles and spits like hot oil. The beam burrows into one place if held still, and left long enough it's capable of parting its limbs from its body, slowing it down significantly and causing to shriek and wheel around to face her in a swirl of ooze.

Its tactics change then: it vents mist in her direction. Just a single puff of mist, and that's all.

-

It's at a moment like this that Red Robin can't help but think that maybe he should've taken Zatanna up on her offer to take back the tyet.

Still, fretting about the past, wondering what you might've done differently while you're in a life-or-death situation is a good way to make it just a death situation: Ruthlessly, as his training taught him, the schooling worn into his bones and blood, he crushes those thoughts. He asks the presence of Emily Montrose to focus, and he could hardly ask something of her that he won't do himself.

It stops the screaming, at least, which lets him think, pieces of realisation clattering on the floor of his mental space, where they'll wait for him to have a moment or two to put them together. First things first.

One of those pure dark limbs, more real than before, lances towards him; he needs room to maneuver, but there isn't much after he already backed up… Instead, he twists to the side, grabbing a large, wheeled metal toolbox and wrenching it into the course of the incoming attack. Steel crumples, the whole thing tilting over, falling, shelves bursting open and sending an assortment of wrenches and other tools scattering everywhere even while Spoiler turns the light on the monster again.

He can't see what's happening there, now. He can't see the new tack the thing is taking with the Aubergine Avenger… Instead, laying on the floor behind the fallen, half-crumpled toolbox, he returns to the holographic console.

The Redbird roars again, suddenly lurching forward, halfway through the entrance from the tunnels. The hum of electronics is audible, mankind's mastery of lightning, trapping an elemental force to do their bidding, brought to bear: The temperature in the motor pool rises, a few degrees in the span of a mere moment, because the headlights on the Redbird aren't LEDs.

"Spoiler! Down! Now!"

A pair of floodlights that would give the US armed forces pause engage with a low *CLACK*, pure white light suddenly filling the room, filling the Nest, bringing with it heat. It's not something soft, something reassuring. It's something terrible, nearly violent: Not the light of civilisation that gently presses back against the dark, but an angry illumination that seeks to obliterate it.

Red Robin had never meant to use this indoors, but necessity is one mean mother.

-

The waft of black hits her right in the face, and Stephanie's lashes flutter as her earlier tears leak from under the lower part of the cowl. We're just going to pretend it was the too bright light that caused that. Time, in the darkness, is a ponderous thing.

It's like moving through a nothing. One hand stretching out toward figures… Toward Tim and Zatanna and Jess and… people she doesn't know. She watches for that eternal heartbeat, as Tim takes something, swallowing that which the magic user handed him. The gleam of glass is clear, and it has Stephanie frowning into the malicious words that strike her mind next.

"No way, no how; go through me first," she whispers-snarls back at the blackness in her mind as it fades. Renewed sense of this thing needs to go away now which heats up the chill that's wanting to spread to her right wrist from the palm of her hand, still wrapped about the flashlightsaber, Stephanie brings it to bear on the 'joint' of the limb attacking Tim. This is exactly like Tsukino Usagi blasting a Shadow Warrior with some Moon Prism Pow-

Moving on now.

Spoiler! Down!

The reaction is immediate. Stephanie drops to her stomach. Her eyes remain on the creature though, and as best she can the flash light trained on it. Of course, the blast of light and heat rocks against her and she exhales a grunt, forced to turn her face from the light and the heat.

-

Steph's aim is excellent: it lances through the offshoot limb, sparing Tim the unfortunate consequences of having the battered tool chest flipped over on top of him. Not more than a split second later the Redbird employs one of its more niche weapons, and this time there's no slow sizzle or burning effect — this time the results are explosive. There's a din of shrieking and howling that can't be attributed entirely to the thing they've just 'killed,' if a thing like that can be killed — it must be from the countless souls of which its fabric has been woven. Black, noxious goo bursts outward from the superheated core of its center, spraying over everything and then immediately, without pause, beginning to evaporate just as the slime on Steph did not moments ago.

It's almost a shame that they aren't going to be able to see what happens next through the blaze of white the room has become.

Out of the substantial clots, streamers of golden light spiral, swirling upward: souls released. People they've pulled out of who knows what kind of fate, exactly. A glimpse of something else, too: massive wings, a dark-skinned face-

Then silence.

-

The whole world is just light, and heat.

Too much heat: Were it not for the temperature regulation systems built into their suits, the nomex layer and cooling water tubes (one advantage of being disciples of the Batman is benefiting from lessons he learned the hard way earlier in his career) both Red Robin and Spoiler would progress from 'uncomfortable' to 'definitely suffering heat stroke' in short order. Even with them, it feels too warm, and Red Robin adds 'sweating through his compression underlayer' to the list of discomforts he's enduring… But still, a sight better than death or nonexistence.

The shrieking and howling stops, the thing bursts, exploding, the remnants of its ichorous substance evaporating under the powerful light. Red Robin hesitates to shut off the floodlights. Hesitates long enough that they're unable see what else passes, what else vanishes when the not-quite-creature is annihilated. Hesitates long enough that the silence that follows is interrupted by a loud *CRACK*, and then sudden darkness, the acrid smell of burned electronics wafting off of the Redbird as the lights buckle under the demands made of it.

Another long, silent moment.

"So," the vigilante says, rolling onto his back, staring at the ceiling. Even with all his protections, even with hiding his face, he can see spots of red and black dance across his vision. "On the bright side, it works."

-

In the heat and the shrieking, Spoiler ends up dropping the flashlight in favor of covering her face with her arms. The flood of light whisks the last traces of the creature from the palm of her hand. She waits too, tense and uncertain, and then CRACK. Her head comes up a bit, and her lenses fight to bring back the it's too dark to see.

The flashlight's battery died sometime when the creature did.

Left dizzy, vision swimming, Stephanie lays panting softly into the darkness, trying to blink back the looked-into-bright-lights-too-long haze. She's silent a long moment, ears almost ringing from the sudden darkness.

"yay." she says, Fluttershy soft. A moment of pause then. "Tell me I got lied to and you didn't swallow some weird glass thing Zatanna gave you."

-

A bit gingerly, Red Robin sits up, forcing himself to go the rest of the way to his feet. He scans around, but for the moment things seem… Clear. No sign of further danger at the moment, which almost lets him relax. Almost.

Moving over towards Spoiler, he offers the blonde a hand up, but of course doing that is not actually answering her question. It's a very strange question, too: How would she have known anything about that? Who was 'lying' to her… That entity, somehow…?

"I did," he admits, rather than giving the young woman a comforting lie. "There was a shortage of alternatives. It's fine." Probably. So far. What could possibly go wrong, aside from the fact that he swallowed an ancient magical artifact with a human soul in it, and apparently there are people who want that artifact?

"Just… Stick to codenames," the Red Knight adds, already wanting to see what trouble the thing from astral space had been up to while it was trapped inside the Nest. "I'm never alone, right now."

So, reassuring, right?

But rather than stick around to discuss this further, he gets to work.

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