The old water well beneath the large gnarled cherry tree seemed so innocuous at first glance. It was a simple round well beneath a tall wooden crossbar that held a rusty pulley system without any rope or bucket. The well itself was several yards in diameter, and had been crafted probably a century ago with stones and mortar. There was a wooden lid on top that was supposed to have been locked in place, but the chains holding it in place appeared to have been cut.
“Someone desperate for a drink?” Red Robin mused aloud as he knelt down to examine the destroyed restraints.
“Desperate for luck is more like it,” Mister Unknown, the Batman of Japan, said with a frown. “It is that time of year, after all.”
“What time is that?”
“College entrance exams.”
It was 1 am in the woods just outside of Hachiōji, a city inside the prefecture of Tokyo, Japan. When Tim Drake had arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun just sixteen hours earlier, he hadn’t intended to don his cape and cowl at all during this trip. He and Tamara Fox had been sent to Japan for the start of a week-long Asian tour to promote Wayne Enterprise’s “Neon Knights” youth outreach program in that part of the world.
However, when Jiro Osamu, Batman Incorporated’s representative in Japan, alias Mister Unknown, contacted Oracle for help on a perplexing case, she immediately put him in touch with Red Robin, who was already halfway across the Pacific at the time.
“So, am I safe to assume that this is supposed to be a lucky well?” Tim asked as he began to remove his cape and cowl.
Mr. Unknown looked at the younger vigilante with a startled expression, but relaxed when he saw that the young man had a domino mask beneath the cowl, protecting his identity. He nodded. “Over a century ago there used to be a shrine here. This well is all that’s left of the original structure. Everything else has been reclaimed by the forest. It’s been a tradition, since before I was born, that students who are able to find the well on their own in these woods and drink from it before taking their exams are guaranteed to pass.”
Tim pulled out a full face-mask rebreather and checked it to make sure it was working properly. “But now, instead of passing their exams, the kids who are drinking from the well are committing suicide.”
“Yes and no,” Mr. Unknown said, drawing a confused look from Red Robin. “Yes, the kids are committing suicide, but they are still passing. All the victims have taken and passed their exams before they die. That is what drew my attention to this case in the first place. If the kids had failed and committed suicide, well that would make sense. Tragic sense, but sense nonetheless. But these kids are passing with flying colors. There is no reason for all of them to end their lives.”
Tim nodded before putting on the rebreather. “So you think someone might’ve poisoned the well. For what purpose?”
“My theory… To get rid of the competition.”
“Is there really that much competition to get into university here?”
Mr. Unknown smiled wryly. “I know it must seem strange to an American, with so many choices for higher education available to you in your country, but here in Japan space in the top schools is at a constant premium. Where one goes to university can very well make or break your career, especially if you have high aspirations.”
Briefly, the young man behind Red Robin’s mask wondered he’d ever get the opportunity to go to college. Once upon a time, it was a dream he hoped would come true. Now though…
Once his breathing mask was on, Mr. Unknown offered him one end of a length of long black rope.
“Any idea on how deep the water is down there?”
Tim sighed and took hold of the rope. “Hopefully a swim won’t be on the menu tonight.”
A minute later, Red Robin had finally reached the water’s surface deep in the bottom of the well. This far below the earth’s surface, the air was so cold and damp that the chill reached deep into the young vigilante and clung to his bones.
“Did you reach the water?” Mr. Unknown’s voice crackled through earpiece he wore.
“Yeah. I’m here,” he said. With one hand still holding onto the rope he’d used to rappel down the well with, he used his free hand to pull out his collapsed bo. With a flick he extended the metal fighting staff to its full length and used it to measure the depth of the water. He breathed a small sigh of relief when he felt the bottom with it. “The water’s going to be about chest deep on me,” he observed as he put his staff away. Then he let go of the rope and dropped into the water with a startled gasp.
“Christ, that’s cold!” he thought as he tightened his jaw to prevent his teeth from chattering. “Feels just a few degrees short of freezing. Better get this done quick. Not sure how I’d explain cancelling tomorrow’s business meetings because of hypothermia in the middle of summer.”
With numbing fingers, Tim pulled a vial from his belt and filled it with water for testing. Then he took out his flashlight and began to look for anything suspicious in the water.
“What’s wrong, Red Robin?”
“I can’t see the bottom,” he sighed. “I’m going to have to go underwater to complete my search.” Tim regarded the water with a wry expression before slowly slipping beneath the surface.
Since he had the rebreathing mask, he didn’t have to worry about holding his breath, or dealing with the freezing water getting into his eyes and messing with his vision. It was still very dark, though, and the flashlight he had did little to cut through it. It was almost as if the darkness was swallowing up the light instead of being chased away by it. Slowly, methodically, Tim searched the bottom of the well, minimally by sight and mostly by touch. With his flashlight clipped to his bandoliers, he used both his hands to reach out ahead of him, feeling the stone floor for anything out of the ordinary.
It was eerie searching the well this way. The darkness was so engulfing that he could barely see his hands when they were completely extended in front of him. The fact that his gloves were black in color did nothing to help the matter whatsoever.
Then Tim froze.
His left hand had brushed against something… soft… and a chill that had absolutely nothing to do with the water’s temperature had immediately raced down his spine as his hand recoiled sharply in instinctive revulsion.
Tim’s heart thudded in his ears as he turned to the source of the sensory anomaly. Whatever it was lay just beyond his sight in the inky black waters. He awkwardly detached his flashlight from the belts that crossed his chest and tried to shine a beam in that general direction. Unfortunately, the blasted device decided at that moment to start going on the fritz. The flashlight beam began to flicker.
Then the beam of light stuttered wildly before winking out altogether. All of a sudden, total darkness swallowed him up.
Tim tapped the flashlight blindly against his hand, trying to beat some life back into it, but it did no good. He shuddered. The water felt as if it had suddenly dropped another five or ten degrees.
“Unknown,” he said aloud, hoping the comm link in his rebreather was still working.
“I’m here,” a voice responded in his ear. “Are you alright. You sound shaky.”
“Just the water,” Tim tried to reassure both his partner and, to a lesser degree, himself. “It’s too cold. Listen… My flashlight just died. Do you have a spare?”
“Light it up and send it down.”
“Alright. It’ll be there in a minute.”
“Thanks.” Despite the total darkness, Tim gritted his teeth and returned to his search for the thing he’d touched moments earlier. He tried to feel around in the same general direction, but found nothing. Slowly, he moved forward, his hands sweeping the well floor in wide arcs. They met no resistance. It confused him greatly.
“Where is it?” he thought to himself. Unconsciously, he began to move about more anxiously in his blind search. “I’m sure it was right here a second ago! I know I felt something!”
“Here’s the flashlight,” Unknown’s voice spoke into his ear again.
Tim looked up just in time to see the new flashlight break through the water’s surface, dragging down bubble clouds of air with it. The top-heavy Maglite tied to a thin cable shined a bright beam of welcome light down into his face. He smiled with relief despite himself, now that he had something to chase away the darkness once more. His earlier anxiety fading, Tim turned his attention back to the floor of the well…
Only to find a pair of dead, sickly-colored milky eyes staring at him, inches away from his face.
It was nearly four am when Tamara Fox was woken by the sound of the balcony door opening in the room adjacent to hers. With a yawn she sat up in bed and pulled on a robe over her nightgown. While one part of her thought she ought to just roll over and go back to sleep, because it was just a certain ninja-boy-slash-night-owl coming in from his other job, the other part convinced her that it was better to be safe than sorry and make sure it was her ninja boy and not someone else’s coming in for a late night visit.
Cautiously, she cracked her bedroom door open and peered into the common room of the two-bedroom suite she was sharing with Tim Drake. She relaxed considerably when she saw a familiar silhouette quietly closing the balcony door. Relief turned to concern, though, when she noticed something odd.
Red Robin’s cowl and cape were missing. All he wore to hide his identity was a black domino mask that he was slowly peeling off. His body language was all wrong too. She was used to seeing Tim return from a night’s patrol completely exhausted and/or physically injured. While it was clear he wasn’t injured, there was something more than mere exhaustion at play in him, but Tam couldn’t put a finger on what it was.
“Tim?” she said as she opened the bedroom door and fully stepped into the common room. “Are you alright?”
He looked at her guiltily and then forced a fake, but reassuring smile on his face. “Did I wake you? I’m sorry. Just go back to bed, I’m fine.”
Tam wasn’t buying it. She crossed her arms across her chest. “So, how did it go? The case with Mr. Unknown?”
The fake smile Tim had tried wearing crumbled visibly at the mention of the case. A disturbed, genuinely haunted expression rose up in its place as he turned his gaze away from hers.
Tam wasn’t sure if she’d seen it or not, but she would’ve sworn she’d just seen him visibly shudder. The look on his face worried her and her arms uncrossed themselves as she padded over to him on bare feet. Her dark eyes widened a little as she noticed little things she hadn’t seen from a distance. “You’re soaking wet,” she exclaimed softly as she took in how both his hair and uniform were damp and dripping on the carpet. Despite herself, she reached out and placed a hand on his face. “Jesus, Tim, you’re freezing!” Maternal instincts that always seemed to kick in when he was unwell or injured and around her had Tam turning to go into the bathroom. “You need to get out of that uniform and dried off— Or maybe into a hot shower? Were you swinging around in the night air like that? Summer or not, you’re gonna catch pneumonia if you’re not care—”
Her words aborted themselves as she came out of the bathroom, a large fluffy white towel in hand. Tim had taken a seat on the sofa and looked more shaken and miserable than she’d ever seen him before. He was hunched over slightly and his arms were wrapped around himself, hands moving up and down in some vain attempt to return warmth to his body. His pale blue eyes were aimed at the rug beneath his feet, but his gaze was anywhere but inside the hotel suite.
Tam walked over to the sofa and stood in front of Tim. “What’s wrong, Tim?” she asked gently. “Did something bad happen tonight?”
“May… I borrow your lap?”
“Hmm?” Tam looked at him in confusion for a moment, but when he finally raised pleading eyes to look at her the young woman’s expression softened and she nodded. Before she sat down, though, she took the towel and wrapped it about Tim’s back and shoulders like a blanket. Then she took a seat next to him on the sofa.
Once she was seated, Tim gingerly eased himself into a supine position, pillowing his head on Tam’s soft lap. He closed his eyes with a sigh, and the tension in his body relaxed as Tam laid a hand comfortingly on his chest.
“So… What happened tonight?” Tam asked after a moment of just letting Tim relax. “Do you want to talk about?”
Tim was silent for so long that Tam almost thought he’d fallen asleep right then and there. Then his eyes opened a crack, his brow furrowed.
“Did I tell you about the case Mr. Unknown was working? That he needed my help on?”
Tam nodded. “You told me on the plane after Oracle called you. A bunch of suicides linked to an old well. The theory was that the water was tainted. Poisoned.”
Tim shook his head slightly, eyes closing once more. “There was no poison.”
“There was a body in the water.”
“Oh god,” Tam murmured softly in shock.
She watched as Tim attempted to swallow, watched his adam’s apple bob up and down nervously in his throat. He was trying to hold his composure together, but the more he tried to control it, the more it seemed to crack under the strain. “It… It was a child,” he finally choked out, his voice strained and on the verge of breaking. Despite the fact that his eyes were squeezed tightly shut, Tam could see tears struggling to escape. “She was so tiny… Couldn’t have been more than four or five… She was just a child… Just… Just a—”
Tim’s voice cut off with a strangled sob and he raised his hands suddenly to cover his face. His whole body was trembling as he instinctively turned his body to curl more closely to Tam. Even with tears coursing down her own cheeks and her own heart aching at the knowledge of what had been discovered that night, Tamara comforted Tim as best she could.
It was a good thing none of their meetings were scheduled until the afternoon. Neither Tim nor Tam would get any sleep until sunrise, where the light of day could serve to keep the nightmares at bay.
Author Notes: We hope you enjoyed this first chapter of a new fan fanfiction series I’ve been inspired to write. The original concept was born when one of my favorite writers on Tumblr, Lectorel, filled a “story I never wrote” prompt request I sent her. The result was so inspiring for me that I’ve decided to expand on her creation to make it a full story.