Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tangled Web–Chapter 16

Chapter 16

The hurried discussion in the back of the Batman's vehicle had been a tense one and Barbara could barely keep up with it. Although the Batman could drive the vehicle out of the cavern, easily, that would leave the thing that was there to start branching out into the rest of the tunnel complex in search of power. This wasn't power of the normal sort, not exactly like electricity or a stove, but something else that the thing, which the woman Maria and Dr. Gotham called Nyog'Sothep, had affinity for.

Barbara knew a lot about affinity after the encounter a month before and talking with Dr. Gotham after seeing him once or twice at the library and then the working out of what was going on. It was hard to think of affinity as a property of something, but more a relationship between things and different beings needed different sources of power which ran in many different forms. Nyog'Sothep needed power of a certain kind, and taking lives would give it that power, but so would causing extreme fear. Dr. Gotham and Maria agreed that was a trait it shared with the other Formless Ones, like were in the encounter a month ago, and Barbara had no wish to ever get involved with anything like that or those things, again. Dr. Gotham explained that if it got feeders into the tunnels beyond this repair area, that it would find the life remains of many people and other creatures in the tunnels and regain strength, of which it now appeared to be lacking. Once it had enough power it would take over the tunnels and start to be a controlling force in Gotham City. Yet it was so weak that it had to try and extract every bit of power from those that Guthrie had left for it, and with the Batman that had been stopped.

The Batman was an imposing figure, of course, and he felt just as dangerous as Nyog'Sothep, although if in a recognizeable form. Which actually made him just a bit more powerful than the formless Black Air Terror, which she would have to look up if she survived the encounter she swore to herself. For all of that the Batman had a keen mind and obviously used it to come to conclusions far faster than anyone else could follow. When he asked if Nyog'Sothep would be harmed if its temperature were lowered and the interior hot points extinguished, both Maria and Dr. Gotham said they didn't know, but that if it was the source of power granted to it by Guthrie, then it seemed possible. Shlasuar, a name that Barbara had a difficult time pronouncing although not to the point of unspeakability, said that he had caused Nyog'Sothep to flinch away when one of the few throwing knives he had nearly hit one of the embers. But it was Dr. Gotham who pointed out that if Nyog'Sothep could be cut off from moisture it would be limited in its ability to shift and expand, and that the place it was drawing from was vulnerable at the bottom of the pit.

The plan was hasty and a bit complicated as it involved motor oil, Shlasuar using the Bat's shurikens, and someone who would be light enough for the Bat to ascend with who could also manage one of the on-board fire extinguishers. Erin, Maria and Dr. Gotham were all ruled out due to weight or height, and while Shlasuar was light enough he was necessary on the ground as the intent was to drive Nyog'Sothep or at least its central organizing orb, down to his range. That left Barbara, just the right weight and height and able to hold a fire extinguisher. Batman pulled out a nylon climbing harness, handed it to her and pointed out to where the containers of motor oil were stored and handed Shlasuar one of his shuriken dispensers, and just said 'I'll be doing the heavy lifting from the center of the turntable' before he turned and went to the forward part of the vehicle. Erin helped her get the light harness on and Lisa got the fire extinguisher from the side of the vehicle and put it down on the floor just as the vehicle's engine started to rev up. Barbara saw Dr. Gotham opening drawers until he found one that contained face masks and he handed one to her to put on. He explained that it was vital that Nyog'Sothep be separated from the water and then excused himself to go forward down the other side of the vehicle to get to the front of it.

She watched as Maria and Shlasuar pulled out the cases of plastic oil bottles and Erin gave them a quick instruction on how to twist off the cap, break the seal and pour out its contents. Then the vehicle grumbled forward and everyone was reaching for the strap loops hanging from above or getting themselves into the fold down seats on the forward and sides of the compartment. It was impossible to see forward and the only hint of what was going on was the laboring of the engine and a scent of something that escaped from the exhaust system into the rear which had an odor of some deep swamp on fire. Barbara hung on to the strap while Lisa shifted the fire extinguisher to stand it upright between her knees and looked up at Barbara with a look of excitement laced with fear. 'We will be all right, Barbara,' she said and Barbara smiled and found the sound of the engine increasing enough so that it was impossible to hear much of anything for awhile.

'We will be out of the upper level, and going to the lower, hang on,' the Bat's voice said over the intercom as the grumble of the engine cleared and the vehicle went forward at a faster rate of speed. There was shifting of the vehicle as it went over tracks, but far less than Barbara expected, and there were no sharp lurches from side to side, just swaying. Even that stopped and the vehicle went into a descent with slow curve and then slowed as it re-entered the cavern. 'Barbara come out with me once you get a container of oil poured out, everyone else pour more oil, Shlasuar we will drive it down to you' was the voice of the Bat before the engine again drowned out all other sound.

'Down?' she thought to herself and now knew that the Batman was prepared to risk himself and her for the life of the City. She really hadn't thought about that part and she had no natural fear of heights and kept herself trim by regular exercising, some field hockey and volleyball when she was just a bit younger, although that went to other track events after high school. Her wandering thoughts were brought up short by the vehicle now shifting over tracks and skewing to one side, and then her weight shifting to the near wall of the vehicle as it drove around in circles, going over tracks at regular intervals. 'What is going on?' she thought as the circles tightened for a short time and then suddenly straightened out, before recurring but at a much slower speed. The loud sound of the engine decreased.

'10 seconds to start' the Bat said as the vehicle slowed down enough so that it was possible to move around. She shifted across the compartment to the box next to Maria and Maria handed her a white bottle of motor oil and handed more out to everyone else. Abruptly the vehicle stopped, the back gate went down and the full exterior lights of the vehicle lit up to show just where the roiling mass of Nyog'Sothep was and gave clear definition of the edge of the central drainage pit. After that it was a rush, but not a dash, to get to the edge of the pit and as she stepped out after Erin she felt how the black air tried to reach out and grasp at her clothing and insinuate itself under her pant leg. That was a chilling experience and enough to urge Barbara forward to the pit edge, open and pop the seal on the container and drain it off, before tossing it aside and running back to the vehicle. Rushing back to the vehicle she saw Dr. Gotham opening another case of motor oil and handing out bottles to the others and then picking up the case and going with it outside. Barbara came out behind him and went to the front of the vehicle where Batman was waiting for her. She saw that he had two small fire extinguishers on carabiners attached to his belt and he smiled under his full mask as she came out to him, his hand out to her.

'Now we see what to do,' he said and took out a small but very bright flashlight to augment the general lighting, and it was apparent the oil was having an effect. No longer was it a general black mist that clung on below, but was now turning into somethingn like columns of mist as the oil spread on the surface tension of the water. She felt him clip a short line onto her harness and she looked at him as he gestured forward, 'Aim for the columns, just short blasts'. Together they walked out with the Bat keeping an eye out for anything that might trip them or for Nyog'Sothep trying something, and she concentrated on each of the columns giving just a short squeeze to the canister and concentrating the exhaust from it with her other hand. One-by-one she worked until they were at the center of the turntable, and there the Bat stopped and gestured to her again, holding a carabiner out to her.

'Clip it to your harness on the other side,' he said and as she did so he stepped next to her and she felt the back of her harness get clipped to the front of his. With an arm around her he raised his other arm and said, 'Hold on tight'. There was a short sound, like the escaping of compressed air, and a small grapnel flew up through the open lattice of the turntable and went into the far reaches above to grab onto something. She did grab onto him quickly after that as she saw that Nyog'Sothep was now just above them and she realized that she was about to go through its center, the place where it directly fed. Fear flooded through her body, a base warning from some ancient part of her mind that she was going to die doing this. She clung to Batman and realized that his face, what little she could see of it, was showing no fear, there was no sweat, no trembling at all and there was a certainty there that convinced her this man was set on a path of disaster. Closing her eyes she felt tears pushed out.

'I will feel no fear,' she said softly to herself.

'You will,' the Batman said, 'just don't let it control you.'

She didn't have a chance for that as the next thing she knew they were ascending through the black cloud and then above it, and then she had the simple job of aim and fire the extinguisher in short bursts. That worked to a degree until the cloud reacted to the first of the shurikens actually getting close to one of its burning embers. Things happened very quickly but she just stayed focused as Batman used a second line to counter the cloud trying to shift out into the space that would allow it to move up and to the upper trackway. Her job was to stop that and as the cloud billowed up with black and then redness she fired again and again.

Until the blackness suddenly went to the gray of mist and the red orb, much shrunken, imploded in on itself as its ember fell to the ground below. There Dr. Gotham used his shoe and extinguished it, then carefully picked it up with a handkerchief and placed it in a small plastic bag he took from his coat.

The jostling of the vehicle woke her up from her mind trying to piece together what had gone on. She was far more tired than she expected to be, and still had the harness on, a reminder of just what she had helped to do.

"Is it dead?" she asked softly.

Dr. Gotham was standing, holding onto an overhead strap and looked at her.

"Just gone, Miss Gordon. Such as it are hard to actually kill."

"Yes," Maria said from the other side of the compartment, sitting next to Shlasuar, "it has many hidden places. It is rare that an Ancient One can ever be forced to flee even when it is with such little to it."

"I do not like such horrors," Lisa said sitting next to her.

"Or me," Erin said from the forward seat, "and I really don't want to ever see anything like it again. Any of them."

"We are approaching Wayne Tower," the Batman said over the intercom, "I will let you off just before the station there."

Barbara snorted and smiled.

"Always in the shadows," she whispered.

With the others she left the compartment and went up the steps to the WIST station platform and saw that at the mid-station area there was a security officer talking with Dr. Gotham who was pointing back towards the rest of the group.

She walked past Lisa who was still watching the Bat's vehicle as it headed down the tracks, and towards where the group who were talking with one of Wayne Corporation's security officers who was pointing them to the stairs. The brightly lit station was a welcome relief from the time she had been in the Underworld and subway system.

"Elevators are still out," he said as he looked at Barbara, "Are you Miss Gordon?"

Barbara saw the name tag on his shirt which read 'LAZARO' and nodded.

"Yes, I am," she said looking at him.

"Good! We can't get a line out because our switchboard is having electrical problems, the whole building is, but we can escort you to the old Enterprises building where everything is still working. Mr. Wayne left word that your father wants to know you are OK, so you can get a line out there. I have Officer Desmond up two floors to lead all of you over there."

Barbara smiled and nodded.

"Sounds good! And thank you, Mr. Lazaro."

"My pleasure, Ma'am," he said.

It was only once she got up the stairs that she realized that Lisa wasn't following her. After waiting a few minutes with the rest of the group she told Officer Desmond that she was missing. As they started down the stairs again, Officer Desmond's walkie-talkie came to life.

"This is central office, it looks like the electrical problems have cleared, but we still have a lot of alarms going off which need to be reset. We are testing the elevators, which appear to be operable as well. All officers are in the clear for your regular frequencies, check in on them. Central office, out."

Officer Desmond raised an eyebrow on the second to last platform and touched the small transciever attached to his shirt.

"Desmond, checking in."

"Desmond, check. What is the situation there? Over."

"Central we are just at the WIST Station, looking for one missing from the group. Will update in a couple of minutes."

Barbara had only paused and continued down the stairs as she heard a voice from the WIST Station ahead of her.

"Lazaro, checking in, central. I just heard Rob and there isn't anyone down here, over."

The next half-hour was spent looking for Lisa Choi, and it was only when they went beyond the Station to the intersection that Shlasuar knelt down on the small platform with concrete steps, just below the nexus.

"She was here. So was the Wind Keeper."

Neither was to be seen and beyond the soft sound of air moving in from the north, there was no other sound to be heard.


He drove the vehicle on the tracks and turned down the way he had just come with the others. Little time was spent there as he knew that not being seen was one of his most effective tools, because someone that could be easily described would become familiar, while someone with only scattered descriptions would be more vague and difficult to categorize. Using the transponder system he signaled the concealed door to open into the sub-basement areas connected to the Vault. They opened easily and he slowed as he went up the short half-rise to the next door, which also opened before him. He parked the vehicle in the Archive area, opened its doors and hatches and switched it off after he stepped away from it. The low lighting was as it ever was, as well as the slow circulation of filtered air. The Vault had been made to be separate from the major systems of the rest of Wayne Tower and the entire complex between the Tower and the old Wayne Enterprises building, and it was immune to anything short of a megaton blast centered on the building, itself. At the back of the vehicle he went about the business of removing the few drained battery systems and put them on a cart for recharging and pushed that back into the region of steel cabinet and drawer systems dating back to the prior generation of the company as Wayne Enterprises.

At the main table Lucious used to put out equipment he decided to do a check of the internal systems of the suit, as he had used the IR goggles and wanted to check their charge status. Running his hand down over the helmet of the suit he saw the charge indicator in the yellow and decided that they needed to be swapped, as well as the breathing pads from the cowl. Just before he ran his hand up in front of his face he saw a luminescence from an electrical read-out next to the harder storage area used for equipment. He picked up a box holding replacement breathing pads, then a replacement set of batteries and removed his helmet as he walked, slowly replacing the old pads with new ones then popping out the old batteries and swapping them. As he approached the panel and put the spent equipment into the box that held the replacements, he started to see something that shouldn't be there: a blue glow dancing around the panel box.

It was a panel box that had connections to the Tower for simple things like water shut-offs, telephones and other low power systems that needed to move information between the Vault and the Tower. It went through plastic conduit with multiple turns that was set into the concrete of the Vault's roof, so that it would be difficult for anything except a nuclear device to get in via those channels. The cables, however, had to be attached to the systems in the Tower to function and they were now indicating faults. And the culprit was obvious as an induced static charge channeling low level plasma.

"Guthrie is here," he whispered as he stared at the panel in disbelief.

Thoughts raced through his head as he saw his options were narrow. His first impulse was to use the express elevator that had its own motor system to get back to his apartment, but that would be a one-way affair as it had to recharge and would become tied to the Tower systems to do so. That was a last resort, at best.

He could use the stairs to get at least to the main level of the Tower, if the Vault hadn't been locked down which it normally was each night. And as he hadn't gone into the Vault, going out of it would be recorded in its own security systems, making that an uncomfortable and finally untenable avenue of movement.

That left the vehicle and going out either via the way he had came in or through the twisting spiral up to the sub-basement parking areas of Wayne Tower. Those security systems would be in disarray as it was, and he normally sent a controlled fault into the system when he utilized it, so that was a valid way out. On foot he could reach his personal vehicles and actually back the cover-story Alfred had at the ready. The Lamborghini he had put into an isolated area he reserved for his City storage, and it was easy enough to have that at the ready and it served as his cover in any event.

The other way out was in his current guise. As Bruce Wayne he had venues open to him that Batman did not, but so early in the morning almost all of those social avenues were not of much use but as the owner of the company he could get answers on the ground level that Batman would have difficulty doing.

"My company. My father's company," he whispered his eyes now looking beyond the panel, through it, and into a distance that no one else could see. "Guthrie has no reason to be here, unless..."

He had now had encounters in his career unlike any other, and if he had doubts about Dr. Gotham before this, he had to put them aside at this point. The man obviously had other forms of knowledge of things that were not scientific, at least as science was today or would be in a highly technological future, if the Project was any indication. Against crime, Batman had all the tools he needed to get answers and run down operations, and the patience to let those plans come to fruition. It was this dogged determination and willingness to let some crime go in pursuit of others that had netted operations and started to pull down the Families and Syndicates in Gotham City. To do that he had spent his childhood and teen years learning about the economics of companies and crime, as well as doing the physical and mental preparations necessary to carrying out plans on the scale he was looking at. If these entities who operated in such different areas were seen as mere syndicates with strange methods of operation, then the tools of crime fighting needed to be augmented and expanded. This went into an area that wasn't necessarily criminal, however, and he needed backgrounding on it and answers.

Batman delivered justice from answers gathered in the realm of crime.

Bruce Wayne learned of the necessary paths of crime, how it operated financially, what its motivations were, and what its structure was.

Guthrie Lewis had come unbidden to Wayne Corporation and he couldn't even begin to guess at his motivations, what he was doing or why he was here.

He needed answers.

Bruce Wayne needed to understand this problem.

"Guthrie must be dealt with, but first he must be understood. Bruce Wayne must protect his company as the leader of it and suffer its problems. Batman is for the City, Bruce Wayne for the company."

With determination he went back into the archives and swapped his suit for suitable cold night driving wardrobe, and signaled to the door of the sub-basement parking area to open. He left behind the man who delivered justice for the man who needed to find out just who these enemies were and how they operated.

Bruce Wayne pulled up to the front circle of Wayne Tower and he felt wind swirling from his left, feeling it rise up as it moved, and saw the blue light dancing on it with ice crystals swirling around the tower all the way into the night sky.

As the doors closed behind him the blue glow started to fade and the Maserati Bora in the public parking area pulled up and glided slowly to the streets of Gotham City and the blue glow faded rapidly as the winds outside the Tower died down, the crystals clung to the Tower and the blue glow started to fade in intensity as static charges were canceled out.

Inisde the lobby was a gathering of security officers who suddenly had their walkie-talkie systems come alive and Bruce watched Nathan Lenkowski, the head of the weekend night security operations start issuing orders into the clipped on set on his shirt. Bruce did not interfere with that as the job to organize the security of Wayne Tower was in his hands and that meant he trusted him with that job. Still he needed to find out what, exactly, was going on and the man to do that was Commander Lenkowski, and Bruce walked purposefully out into the main entrance that had vacant security desks on either side of the banks of doors and a central information booth that Nate was at, organizing his detail on the ground in the lobby.

"Commander, central, we are getting through Tower-wide as far as officers can go. There is a situation at the WIST Station with a member of Barbara Gordon's party missing, over."

"Central, roger that. Send another two man detail out. How are the central readouts and camera systems coming, over?"

Bruce's motion across the open floor caused Nate to turn along with one of his Lieutenants and two other officers who looked surprised as they saw Bruce Wayne enter the lobby area.

"Commander, central, we are still clearing boards and the camera system is still screwed up..."

"Mr. Wayne!" Nate said looking at Bruce, "What are you doing here?"

"I needed to clear my head, Nate, nothing like a late night drive for that," Bruce said, "Don't let me keep you from your job, though."

Nate nodded.

"Central, roger that," Nate said into the transceiver piece, "Mr. Wayne is on the ground floor after a midnight drive, central. Send updates to Kiernes, he'll work to get the system re-organized and start the patrols again, over."

"Central, roger that, commander. Please advise when available, over."

"Will do, central, out."

Nathan Lenkowski was in his early 40's and a veteran of the GCPD for 10 years, and had been handling the night weekend security detail in the absence of Night Commander Astoni as he was out for cancer treatments. Nate's hair tended to be short-cut and showing a streaks of gray, but his green eyes were dark and focused easily without the need for glasses. His normal duties were daytime ones on the weekend and overlap on Friday, Monday and Tuesday, and while he was not the oldest on the security detail, he was the one who had no problems shifting to a swing or graveyard shift.

"So what's going on, Nate?"

Nate nodded to the officers around him and they saluted and left him with Mr. Wayne.

"I want to get to central, Mr. Wayne, its been down for almost an hour with another of those light shows."

"Yes I saw that coming in," Bruce said as he started walking with Nate towards the security area on the far side of the lobby, "that wasn't happening when I left and it was confined to just the Tower."

Nate nodded.

"That's right, and it started playing holy hell with every control and sensor system in the tower. We lost comms so fast that no one could get organized with the Mid-Tower Desk. Elevators were out, phones out and the girl at the switchboard got a nasty jolt when she tried to use it. Cable tv was out, teletype out, basically all comms in and out of Wayne Tower from direct line to microwave links were static. Had to send someone up 40 floors to get to the Mid-Desk and things were as bad there. Put out a three-man detail at the WIST Station and just got word back that Barbara Gordon's party had arrived, brought by the Batman, of all things. I don't like him showing up nearby twice in a month, Mr. Wayne."

They got to the entrance at the desk and Nate walked through it with Mr. Wayne.

"He lives in the City too, Nate, and not much you or I can do about him."

"I guess, Mr. Wayne. That Dr. Gotham guy was with the party, and he is just a weird guy..."

A man's voice called out across the lobby as he and Nate were about to go into the security office's central room.

"Bruce, Guthrie was here," the voice called out and Bruce recognized it instantly as that of Frank Rock. Turning he saw Frank, Tom and Selina walking away from the side bank of elevators and towards the front desk.

"What? How?" Bruce asked softly and then turned to Nate, "This could be important, Nate."

"Really?" Nate asked as he saw the familiar form of Frank Rock and knew that if something was important to him and it concerned the security of the Tower, then it was important to Commander Nate Lenkowski.

Bruce walked back out of the entrance to meet up with the three as they got to the front of the desk.

"Don't know how, Bruce. Everything was out on our floor except for lights and water. Couldn't contact anyone. Guthrie got to Selina, immobilized her like Cathy Li and took the Spider with him. He was gone by the time Tom got there and I haven't seen any sign of him."

"He..." Bruce was stunned as he had thought that the VIP rooms would be immune to any sort of attack, or at least delayed by the security systems. "Selina, I thought that you would be safe up there..." It was a rare time that Bruce Wayne felt lost and powerless, and this was something that no costume would have helped.

She nodded wearing an outfit of black jeans with the cuffs rolled up and in, a thin silk red turtleneck sweater under a dark brown blouse with a black coat on made by WMM that Loren had given to her. She used one strap on a backpack also from Loren to hold the rest of her clothing and equipment, while Tom carried Old Reliable's case. Frank had one arm around her shoulder and she looked comfortable and thankful for his support, with her free arm around his back at the waist.

"So did I, Mr. Wayne," she looked around and saw four security officers come from the back room, file out behind the desk and go past them, save for the last man who stopped next to the security officer next to Mr. Wayne.

"Commander we are going to expand the search for Lisa Choi. And two others that were with the group are also missing, an older woman and younger man," he said.

"Lisa?" Selina asked, "But isn't she... dead?"

"How is that possible?" Bruce asked turning to Nate.

Nate looked at him and then back to Kiernes.

"Just make sure we have people clearing the upper level systems, OK? And someone to man the front desk."

"Got it, boss," Kiernes said, then turned to hurry after the men he had come out of the central office with. Nate shook his head and turned to look at Wayne.

"I don't know, sir. I got a detail directly with the Gordon party, but have no idea what the hell is going on. We are short-handed, though and my men can do a sweep of the nearby tunnels better than just about anyone."

Bruce nodded.

"Have your men bring her group up here, or what's left of it, at least. Is the Mezzanine conference room cleared?"

"It will be in a few minutes if it isn't already, Mr. Wayne."

"Good! I want to meet with them there," he turned to look at Selina and then Frank, "because I want to get to the bottom of this and find out just who Guthrie Lewis is, what he is capable of and what he is doing here, in Gotham City."

Frank looked at Selina who looked over to him.

"How about it? You up for that or should we head out to your place?"

Selina pressed her lips together and thought for a moment, then looked at Bruce.

"I don't want any more surprises from Guthrie," she said, "and I don't give up on a job this easily."

Bruce raised an eyebrow and chuckled, then turned to Nate.

"Everyone up to the conference room, Nate. If you can spare someone to get a coffeemaker for the room, it would be a help. Once we are done then I'll let you know what else will be needed. That will get us out of your space for awhile, to let you get back to your job."

"Thank you, Mr. Wayne. I would ask about a security detail, but..." he looked at Frank, "... I think you already have that covered."

"Yeah," Frank said, "for this Old Reliable is just the thing."


Maria had asked Shlasuar when they were by the nexus if he could find the affinity direction he had found before and, after a moment, he just looked up at the point, and said that it was only there, now. Everyone had looked at that empty space that held something so important that was completely invisible and could not be found save by those who knew how to look. Something had happened there and it had removed the affinity trace to the Spider in a way that it could no longer be found by its affinity to the nexus. Even in death there should be some remaining affinity for those things that had been tangled up in the nexus, and yet only it remained.

"Can you feel anything else, Shlasuar?" she asked him and he closed his eyes again, slowly turning in a circle, before opening them again.

"Only with Erin and Barbara, Maria. But it is the weak affinity, not a living one."

"The Spider is gone," she whispered, "everything it pulled on is no longer within its reach."

Dr. Gotham stood next to her as the additional security officers arrived and were directed by the man with them. He watched as Barbara and Erin shook their heads and then joined the officers to start looking for Lisa Choi.

"Aeolus is doing the unexpected, Priest Maria. I would have thought he would have gone directly to the items, but has, instead, sought to remove the very thing that has changed the course of events."

Maria looked at him and nodded, once.

"Yes, now he is in control of events and this is not good for any of us."

"He is in some ways, I guess. Still he is not the subtle Spider, is he? And for all of his power he has, this is merely the direct use of power, not the subtle pulls of affinity. He may not be capable of those."

"I will not stake our lives on that, Maker. Now let us help look for Lisa Choi."

Dr. Gotham inhaled, nodded then went to the stairs down the platform to hurry after the others. Softly Maria spoke so that only Shlasuar could hear.

"You can get to the pool, yes?"

He looked at her and nodded affirmatively.

"Good. As we pass the tunnel supports, we will ascend them and remain out of sight until the search ends. Then we shall have something with affinity to this Wind Keeper. And we will find out if you can find the living affinity of Lisa Choi. You can do that?"

"Yes, Maria," he whispered with a grin.

"Then let us pretend to search, and then disappear in ways these surface dwellers cannot fathom. For they are now the keys to getting what we were sent for. A dangerous current but one we can navigate with just some preparation."


Smiling, Lisa waved as the Batman's vehicle went out of sight, then turned and felt a cool breeze in her face from the north, and a sudden coldness on the back of her neck that took her breath away. Her body went limp and she fell back into the arms of Guthrie Lewis who easily carried her out of the end of the WIST station and to the rail crossing area beyond.

"Now, you are the perfect one to have with me, you know? An easy to carry association of affinities that lets me finally clear up all the problems I have encountered since coming to this place. Yes, I think all of my problems can be cleared up with you by my side," he said looking out into the voluminous crossing area of tracks beyond the platform where once Formless Ones had been. Gently he settled her to the concrete and knelt beside her. "I can see that you can still breathe, but be warned, short breaths only, Miss Choi, and you may find speech difficult."

She saw him reach inside his jacket and take out a jewelry case and open it. He put gloves on his hands and carefully lifted the necklace that had a beautiful spider on it. He looked down at her and nodded.

"Yes, here so close to the nexus it is easy to see the affinities. Luckily all I need is touch affinity so close to it, and with that I can remove the thing that inhabits the spider necklace once and for all."

He lowered the necklace down to touch her forehead and spoke so softly that she couldn't make out the words, and then the necklace was lifted once more and put in the case that he snapped shut.

"Just a moment, Miss Choi," he said standing up and walking to the other end of the platform. She couldn't see him and could barely see the place where the nexus was. When he stopped walking she saw the case go into the air about where she remembered the nexus as being, and then it dropped down out of sight again. His footsteps started and he knelt down beside her again.

"Much better! That is a place the Spider cannot easily get out of, if it can get out of it at all. And if, indeed, the Precipice and other things beyond the land of the waking is there, then it will find that the environment is not all that hospitable to it. Now the necklace is free of its habitation, and yet full of its affinity, so at one toss I remove its actions and yet retain such a beautiful piece and can see what it was once actively attached to."

He put the case into his inner jacket pocket and zipped it up.

"With that done we go next to the one place where I can finally see all of this in its proper perspective," he shifted her weight with his arms and then flung her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, and watched as he took her out of the switching area and over to a door in the side of the tunnel. He tried the handle and it opened for him.

"Why, its as if someone had forgotten to properly latch it, this place where Li Sun once was so boldly," he closed the door and she swung around as he did his best to lock it, then shifted again towards the north along dark halls of concrete. After a few turns and cross-corridors she could hear the whirr of machinery and the sliding of doors, and with a sudden light she knew she was in an elevator.

"Ah, one floor of stairs may be necessary, although this is not one of the core elevators, unless I am mistaken," he said as the elevator stopped and the doors opened. "Very good, one more floor and then up and out to the parking lot."

The doors closed and the elevator went up one more floor and he hesitated a moment and then walked out with her down a hallway. In less than a minute he was at glass door that he opened and then through another and they were outside. She could see that the winds were stirring around Wayne Tower, and yet she felt no wind at all. He reached for something in a jacket pocket, she heard a car door open and was soon lowered into the passenger side seat of his Maserati Bora. He checked to make sure her feet were in the car and then took the seatbelt and put it across her, snugging it down.

"There! Can't lose you so easily that way, and no police officer will think anything of a man going home with his tired date," he smiled and shut the door and got in on the other side. After starting the car she saw him shift and then felt the seat lower backwards. "A very tired date, hmm?"

Inside the darkened interior she could only feel as the vehicle moved, gliding near silently over the pavement of the parking lot and then turning onto the streets of Gotham City. "How about some Mahler? Symphony #1, would seem like a good piece to drive by."

With a new tape in the player she heard the low sounds of the orchestra as the piece started.

"You do know that I wouldn't be doing all of this if it was simple for me to get what I want? I was more than prepared to pay good sums for the items, whatever they were, be they bars of gold or some boulders on a piece of property or even ancient scrolls or perhaps an aged codex or three. Perhaps even the Tablets of Destiny, themselves, if whoever had them had no idea what they were. Were life so simple, eh?"

By the brief glimpses she could catch of buildings, Lisa guessed they were headed north, and passing through the hotel district.

"Very tempting to bed down for the night, I know, but I can feel things now beginning to fall into place with the Spider now removed. Ah what a wicked little Spider spending its time hiding things under webs of affinity, and added to the distractions put in place by that Dr. Gotham. I don't know which is worse, between them, and I had thought I had eliminated the one and lost the other, but now it is exactly reversed but this time I know that one is where it can do nothing more. Still the made things are the much more dangerous, but far fewer now than when I got here."

Guthrie was quiet for a bit, and there was some stop and go at signals until she recognized the structure of the north bridge of the South Island.

"Here we go, back to where I first set eyes on this place. I will be glad to be quit of it, truth to tell, although a person or two I did find most, ah, personable," she felt some pressure on her leg but could feel nothing else beyond that, "present company included. I do know you have no taste for me, Miss Choi. Please understand that I am not looking for, ah, excitement just your physical presence. I would have preferred willingly, as that can be a minor help, but as you are is good enough as one cannot close themselves off from where they have been or what they have been associated with. I would have gladly accepted Mrs. Norris, of course, for much the same reasons, although with her I would have been forced to destroy the necklace to be rid of the Spider."

Lisa felt the car slowing and Guthrie downshifting it, and then gunning it as the end of the paved road had been found and the dirt road to the ridge was ahead of them.

"At least they got the grader through to clear off the ice and snow that must have accumulated here! And if the City is very nice to me, that may be all they will have to do in the near future."

She felt the car take a switchback and then another, before it began to level off. During this part of the ride all she could see was the darkness of trees against the much darker sky. Although there was the sound of wind, the car gave no evidence of feeling it. Finally, the car turned at the top of the ridge at the park, and into the parking lot of it. Guthrie shut down the car, reached over and undid her seatbelt.

"We're here!" he said with a smile from the overhead light as he let her seat back up, then exited the car and went to her side to lift her out and carry her over to the picnic tables. There he sat her down on one of the table's benches, her legs dangling over the ice and snow covered grass, and he sat down beside her and put his arm behind her shoulders to steady her gaze on the cityscape below.

"Ah, perfect! Here we have all the major affinities in one place where I can see their connections to everything."

He slid his free hand into his jacket and took out the case with the Spider necklace and opened it, reaching over and setting the case on her lap. He then took out the plastic bag with a rock shard and put that on his left knee.

"The wall, of course, helps to clear up any of the problems of diffusion of Dr. Gotham's works by being such a large piece. Now with a very charged piece of it, the entire thing can pinpoint each and every one of his works..."

She looked out over the city and could see no changes to it.

"Beautiful! And with a few very strange things, but that is to be expected with the Gotham-thing residing there..." he stopped and she felt his finger on her chin gently turning her head. He took his gloved hand and she felt it rub gently on her throat.

"There, you can at least whisper now?"

"hhh... yes.." she said softly.

"Wonderful! You can't see a thing I'm talking about, can you?"


He nodded and looked around, whistling softly. From overhead some snow and ice fell from a tree branch and, as it fell, formed the body of a middle-aged man.

"Can you grant her a brief vision?" Guthrie asked.

The figure nodded and stepped over with a soft tingling sound in front of Lisa Choi. Guthrie shifted her head so she could see the City again. Ice and snow crystals swirling in the form of a man stepped to her and spoke with a sigh.

"Look through me," it said.

She stared and in a moment a vast, bright vista of colors, shapes, points and lines that twisted and turned could be seen throughout the entire city, below. Lisa looked wide eyed into the scene, which had what might once have been a spider's web woven amongst all the lines slowly start to fade. In the midst of it all she could see Wayne Tower and how all the lines and shapes centered around a spot just under it, at the nexus. Her eyes darted to the right of it as there was something there, like a man briefly formed amongst the shapes, then to the left there was a circle of connections in red with a green set of dots that formed a square.

"what... is this?"

"All of the myriad ways through the maze of affinities and powers, Lisa," Guthrie said, "and you can see where your affinities go, as well as those of the Spider and Dr. Gotham?"

"so... always moving..."

"Of course it is, at least for the living affinities. Now the Spider had two places it has affinity to, and some object connection affinity as well which is what is left now that it is gone. There, just near the base of the bridge tower," he said pointing to the South Island, "and there on the southwest corner," his hand shifted to point at that, "which are exactly transposed of the two major false confluences that I started out with on the North Island. And if Dr. Gotham used an Elder Sign to guard the one important one on the North Island, just what does he have in store for the unwary on the South? That means the one by the bridge is his shop. I think that deserves a little visit, don't you? Before going on to that place on the southwest."

"but... why?" Lisa asked as the shapes started moving and shifting, and then all disappeared from sight as the body of ice particles left in a shower of snow falling to the ground.

"Why? To see if something a bit unpleasant can't be left for Dr. Gotham. After all, he did seek my end by using a Guardian of a Sign against me, so let us see what I can find at his place that will let me do the same to him, because it really must have some very arcane bits there."

With that Guthrie replaced the shard of stone and Spider necklace in his jacket and lifted Lisa up one more.

"please... just leave me..."

"What? To the elements? I couldn't do that! Besides, if they thwart me again," he said pointing to South Gotham Island, "then the entire region will be buried under 10 to 20 feet of snow. And do you really crave to be amongst the dead that much to die here?"

Her eyes widened as she looked up at him, as he placed her in his car again.

"no... please don't do that..."

As he buckled her seatbelt he looked at her.

"Only if denied, Lisa. If I'm killed then the Winds will take a revenge even worse than that. I would have preferred simple purchase of the items, but that has been denied me at many levels. I am being left with force and better to have it directed towards the same goal rather than to find what is wanted amongst the frozen necropolis that will be Gotham City, isn't it?"

"that's.... horrible..."

He shrugged and took off his glove on his right hand and licked his index fingertip and rubbed it gently on her throat.

"Horror is in the eye of the beholder, Lisa Choi. The Winds were given birth by the murder of their mother which allowed all of this to come into being. They have sought means to return her to her former state and rejoin her as the first breath of life. Sadly, all of this wil end, but that is the way of things. And you, of all, should have some idea of what it means to be dead, yet dreaming. Now imagine that going on forever, and you will have to ask yourself just what is the more horrible?"

She looked at him with round eyes as he closed the door, walked around the front of the car and got back in on the driver's side and started the Bora.

"Now let's see if there are any early risers out in Gotham this frigid morning."


"He is working solely by affinities, then," Dr. Gotham said taking a sip from the coffee cup in front of him, "that is what we have witnessed directly and from what Miss Kyle has said, it is the same. He may not even have a map of Gotham City with him, but depend on the minor Winds for some directions locally."

"I just don't get this affinity business," Selina said, "it sounds like magic or something."

"Guthrie has got to be usiing something like that, right?" Erin asked.

Dr. Gotham slowly put his cup down and took his glasses off and looked through them, then took out a handkerchief, breathed on the lenses and started cleaning them.

"Is the simple act of breathing on my glasses magic?" he asked squinting at Erin.

"Um, no," she said.

"Are you saying that Guthrie is doing something like that?" Bruce asked from the other side of the round table.

"Exactly, Mr. Wayne!" Dr. Gotham said peering through the lenses, and then put his handkerchief on the table. "And the dampness on the handkerchief, did magic put it there or does it have a connection to me?"

"Now that I can understand," Frank said looking at Selina, "what is on the handkerchief doesn't last, but while it does you can tell it had moisture applied to it, and not a lot as a real drop would leave a darker damp spot."

"But we can't see the direct connection," Bruce said, "but the way you talk some people can."

After putting his glasses on, Dr. Gotham took the handkerchief up from the table, folded it and put it back in his pocket.

"Some individuals can sense it by sight, others by smell, some by touch, and others, not blessed with that capacity, must use intermediary forms, and utilize a small amount of power to get an indication of the affinity. With my glasses the power I used was in my fingers, directed by my mind, a simple power, true, but a minor formulation of power just the same. That is affinity and power, they do have relationships, but they can often be indirect, not just direct."

"But, why doesn't everyone know about this?" Erin asked.

Picking up the cup of coffee, Dr. Gotham took a sip from it.

"Simple, Ms. Norris, it takes the vast majority, indeed near totality, of the population's time, patience and application of skill to even find out about such things, and then to use them properly takes even longer. That is why police use direct investigative techniques and research, because it is simple to do and yields results quickly. Why utilize subtle means that are difficult to learn and master, when much simpler techniques yield answers much faster with far less skill?"

Bruce inhaled and sat back in his chair. This was a critical piece of information that closed off many avenues to him and opened only a few others.

"Is there any way to find him?" he asked softly.

Smiling Dr. Gotham took out a plastic bag from his suit coat and put it on the table.

"That is Mr. Lewis' cigarette butt that he used to summon and anchor Nyog'Sothep. And if you have a map...?" he said trailing off.

Bruce nodded, got up from his chair and went to a side cabinet, opened it and shuffled through papers there until he found a poster sized map of Gotham City and local towns with the Wayne Corporation sites in white stars. He took the large poster out and slid it on the table.

"How's that?"

"Just the thing, Mr. Wayne!" Dr. Gotham stood up, took up the plastic bag and slid the poster closer to him. Then he put his right forefinger on the star for Wayne Tower and then, holding the bag in his left hand, he touched that and then dropped it, and it fluttered to the map, landing on the star for Wayne Tower. Dr. Gotham looked at it and then to the North.

"He is currently overlooking Gotham City from the Ridge Park. In his position I would have sought the highest point to get an overview of the City and choices are limited. He could not do that here, at Wayne Tower, and the Interconnector Bridges are, ah, difficult to ascend. That leaves the Ridge Park West or Central overlooks, and he is at the easier to find Western one. A moment please," he said and reached into his pants pocket and took out a small card case, made of acacia wood, lined with gold. He opened it and took out a card, then dropped that above the Wayne Tower spot on the map and watched as it fluttered down to land next to the plastic bag. "And Miss Choi is with him. That is a card from Charlie's Diner with her name on it that she purchased to be in the card rack by the cash register. I had visited there after the funeral proceedings and thought to always have something of hers to remind me of her."

Bruce glanced at the clock and realized just how long it had taken for everyone to get their stories out and make sure he had some grasp of what was going on.

"A hard drive even for a good driver to get there, and it will take him time to get back. So where do you think he will go?"

"The Historical Museum," Selina whispered, looking up at Dr. Gotham, "it is where I met you and where you want the Spider to be."

"Ah, where the Spider wants to be, if it was still with us. In the hands of Mr. Lewis, we can assume that the wishes of the Spider no longer matter, and that leaves the weakest draw that is involuntary, and that is object affinity. But you are correct, Miss Kyle, what he truly wants are the Tiamat Amulet and the Dragon Mother Reborn Ring. And that destination is at the Museum, unless he decides that my shop is the destination."

"Why would he think that?" Frank asked.

"Because I told him they were not there, of course," Dr. Gotham said smiling, "an obvious distraction I had thought might gain us some time when he confronted us."

"He's too smart to do that, isn't he?" Barbara asked.

"And what will he do with Lisa?" Erin asked, "After what Selina told us about her and Cathy Li..." Erin shivered, "what will happen to her?"

"Ms. Norris, I do not know," Dr. Gotham said, "Aeolus was resourceful as the Legends tell us, but he is now much more than what the Legends told us about. And if he has truly been an Agent of the Winds for these thousands of years, then it is impossible to say what resources he has available to him, and what knowledge that exists only with the Winds."

Bruce looked around the table and stood up straight after leaning over the map.

"Erin, Barbara, Frank, Tom... I want to let you know that you are welcome to stay here or at any other of the Wayne facilities. I fear for your safety, but realize that there is no such thing as real safety where Mr. Lewis is involved. My duty is to the company and its employees, and my personal obligation is to my friends. I must stay here, at the Tower, for a time and make sure that there is some sort of a plan put in place to deal with what happened. Once Lucious gets in, I can delegate that to him. All of you are welcome to stay here and have breafast in our Executive Dining Room. I know time is short and I do want to be with you, but my duties place me here."

"Understood, Bruce," Frank said, "a quick egg sandwich and a thermos of coffee ought to hold me for the morning. I'll be with Selina."

"Miss Kyle," Dr. Gotham said looking at her, "I will relieve you of your obligation to me on this matter. You have earned your reward and will have that once this affair is at an end, but you need not risk yourself on my behalf any more."

Selina looked up at him and shook her head slowly.

"No, Dr. Gotham. I always finish a job I've committed to. And it will be a pleasure to get the Spider from Guthrie Lewis," she said in low tones, "A better pleasure than he could ever force on me."

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