Deep in the Pit
He was a criminal because he was a murderer, and he was thrown into the pit for the first transgression he had ever committed. A thing too small to be even called a boy, let alone a man. And his brother, if he was allowed to be named its family.
His hands were large and powerful, even at that young age, and it was more than enough when pressed down on that small, squawling mouth, and kept there until the struggles stilled; much sooner than anyone would expect. But his infant brother had not even had the strength for that, the strength to live, to endure, and it was another poisoned barb in his heart for the wretched thing.
They could not understand, nor would they ever want to. But this thing, this slug had torn his mother open and left her bleeding and dying. Perhaps he would have been able to love it, the only family he had left...except that his mother's death was slower than he thought. So he watched her, ripped open, struggling, fighting, and somehow living as she brought the greedy, hungry mouth to her breast and gave it more than it ever deserved. Her milk, her love, her life.
And every day he broke his back working in the fields to make enough money for food to keep them all alive. He would never be able to make enough to pay for medicine or a real doctor. He sweat, he bled, he cried when he was alone, and put food into her weak, drained mouth so that she could live again. And every day that thing was plastered to her breast so that it could sap out all of his efforts and greedily take a life that wasn't its own.
She was a survivor, that was the family legacy, one that the worm hadn't received. It left the world quickly, far quicker than one would expect it took for a life to end. She survived, grew stronger, and her hatred also grew for the only family she had. He had expected as much.
He went down into the pit with his pride, knowing he had carved himself a cell there, and not fearing his punishment.
“You are my son and you are the bane of my existence. Rot here.”
He thought he had nothing to fear from the pit. The pit would take his pride, it would take his resolve, his future, and his strength...but it would never take the conviction that what he had done was right.
Unfortunately, after the first year the pit had taken that from him too.
The next year he remained silent in his cell, watching as the other men tied the rope around their waists and tried to climb to freedom. He would never try, even though his body was young, his arms and legs strong, and the years in his favour. He didn't deserve that chance.
When he first saw the pit, as they lowered him down on the rope with guards above him to make sure he could not run, he looked down into the rocky abyss and thought it looked like a mouth. A dungeon, someplace in the fairytales of old where they kept monsters. That year he swallowed the bitter realization that he was right, and he was the monster.
He would lie in his cell, letting his youth, his strength, his pride waste away and leech into the stone, looking up at the small bit of sky they were allowed. He thought that his silent acceptance of his sin would be his redemption.
But in the end, the pit took that away too.
After two years inside that cell, looking up into the false sun that was too round, too perfect and darkened at night, he became angry. He was filled with a slow, simmering anger that bubbled in his veins because there was nothing else that gave him the will to wake up again the next morning. He left his cell, tied the rope around his waste, and scaled the wall.
When he came tumbling down his shoulders and head cracked sickeningly against the rock. The others that had gathered to watch him gave their sympathy or their contempt at his failure. He didn't care. He was bleeding, and he hurt, and it was a good hurt. He would try again and again and he would bleed and scream and he would feel alive.
Five years in the pit and the plague crawled into the rock. He raged at the unfairness of it, the injustice. This was already a festering hole of suffering and poison, and now there was disease as well. But the rage was a salve, for he knew the true killer amongst the cold niches in the rock. It was apathy...it was when the light died from a man's eyes and he succumbed utterly to hopelessness and never tried the ascent again. His anger and his hope was a poison, but he swallowed it eagerly because he would rather face a painful death than to be hollow forever.
He went to sleep that night with an itch in his fingers. He would try and climb the wall again the next morning.
However when all of the prisoners awoke it was to find that the pit was sending something new down and it was a woman. She was kept in the cell across from his and he watched as her belly grew larger and more swollen with child. When the baby was delivered by the prison doctor, his hands shaking from morphine sickness, its cries were the sweetest poison he had ever heard in this dank, dark place. It was a new life, a fresh life...but one born into this hell.
He watched as the child grew older and the mother grew more tired and heartsick. The child would stare at him with those large, wide eyes, never once smiling, and he tried not to look back. It was the pit again...the pit was sending him a reminder of the evil he had done and what could have become of a life he had ended.
At least he had not been so cruel as to subject his murdered one to this nightmare. Though the thought was not one that made him sleep any easier at night.
As the child passed the danger of catching the plague, it left the cell more and more frequently despite its mother's protests; small enough to slip through the bars. When the guards lowered baskets of hard bread down into the pit the child would dart over, quick as a mouse, and steal the portions meant for him, staring again as if to dare him to strike back. He never did, and watched as the child would scurry back to its cell and feed the mother before feeding itself.
Those two were the only ones that ever shared any looks of true tenderness, and the silent affection they could steal in the darkness made him sick with envy. Yet he watched every day because he could not tear his eyes away and he was used to drinking poison.
When the baskets sent down more than bread, the rare occasions there were mouldy apples or rotting pears, he would press them into the child's hands and push it out of the crowd back to its mother. He allowed himself the smallest of joys that he was redeeming himself.
Except the pit was greedy and would never allow him that for long. He kept the child alive because it would have hurt him more to see them both die and then he would have nothing to look at. His own selfishness sickened him at times, and those were the days he pushed the child away, its hands tugging at his robes and begging for food, because he could not bear his own mind.
Years passed and he never attempted to climb the wall again. There was something now keeping him inside the pit, and it was not the high walls.
The mother lived in misery, and he often wondered what her crime was that she had been lowered down into this hell. Whatever it was she kept it to herself, never once looking up at the sky or daring to hope. He wondered of her past, but from the whispers and the jeers at night he knew the other prisoners were curious about baser things. She could hear them all, asking for her to bare her breasts, to come visit their cells, to give them a peep, and she answered none of them except covered the child's ears with her hands so it could not hear.
The child finally spoke to him one day. “My name is Talia,” she said and asked for his name. He found the sudden, insane urge to weep, and pushed her away, unable to look at her. But she found him again the next day, tugging at his clothes for food, and he gave her his bread and brought her safely back to her cell.
“Why do they try to climb the walls?” She asked him later, licking the juice from a rotten apple from her hands so that none of it went to waste.
“They are trying to escape. They are trying to go outside.”
She looked at him curiously. “What is outside?”
He tried to push her away again, but she clung to his clothing and said all her mother would do was cry and she did not want to go back to the cell. He let her stay with him for a while as she chattered away about nothing, feeling talkative, and when the false sun darkened he brought her back to her mother.
A child born into pain and suffering and who did not know what outside was. He knew it was another one of the pit's cruel laughs echoing in his ears and she would later tell him that he screamed when he slept.
“All the men here have done something bad. Are you a bad man?”
“What about the men that put us here? Are they bad men or good men?”
He looked at her, wiping a stray smear of blood from her lips where the hard bread had cut her gums, and finally said, “Yes.”
She wrinkled her nose at him and said that wasn't a true answer, and it was the closest to a smile that anyone in the pit had managed.
The plague was in its dying days, but he watched as the mother's misery finally succumbed her to the sickness. He felt his rage coiling like a snake inside his stomach again...that this woman was so weak she could not fight, that she did not want to live. He felt an insane joy within himself when he thought that maybe he would take care of Talia if the mother died, that he would be her family, but the thought was so perverse he found himself choking on self-loathing again and beat his hands bloody against the wall to punish himself.
Then the day came when the doctor forgot to lock the door to their cell. Talia slipped through the bars in the hopes of finding more food, but her squirming shook the door and it creaked. That sound reverberated throughout the pit and a thousand eyes turned to stare at the door that was open.
He sat in his cell, watching as the others did when the door opened slightly, and he felt the entire sky fall upon his shoulders and crush him. He leapt to his feet, struggling to get his own door open, and heard the roar of over a hundred voices calling out in hunger.
He could not reach them fast enough as the pit descended upon them like a dark wave of hands. Using his elbows and smashing heads against the rock, he finally fought his way to the centre and grabbed the child, pulling her out of the swirling, writhing mass, holding her face against his chest so she could not see, but she had already cried and screamed as she watched her mother raped by a dozen men.
He fled to the other side of the wall where the handholds had been carved out for the climb. The others had scented blood and began to chase them, some perhaps not knowing why they were chasing him, only that he had something he didn't want to share and they were in the mood now for taking and snatching by force.
She did not cry as she clung to him then, he remembers that. He pushed her up onto the ledge, away from the snatching arms, and he remembers seeing her eyes, wide and afraid. He had no parting words for her but only cried out, “Rise, rise!”
She scrambled up the rocks like a squirrel, not even knowing what outside was, or that there was somewhere to escape to, only that she must climb higher to get away from the men who wanted her innocence. She was the only one to climb without the chanting except for his lone voice, soon warped by screams of agony. He watched for as long as he could, but was felled by a hundred different blows, all grabbing and tearing and punching and clawing. He had hoped to see her make it all the way out, disappearing into the true sun.
But the pit...well, the pit takes all.
He does not remember how he got away from the crowd of tearing, bloodthirsty men. He does not remember how he got back to his cell. The next month is a blur of pain so white-hot he only wakes in flashes here and there, sometimes to see the doctor's face, most times to just see red.
He does not know what the doctor uses, if he has found some compound of lichen or mushrooms that grow in the dark, or if he has somehow managed to bribe the guards to smuggling morphine into the pit, but he lives in a numb opium haze. The bandages that cover his face are always wet and sticky and he breathes in the smell of decay every day. His strength comes back slowly, but stunted, he thinks to never come back fully again.
He is weak, too weak to do anything but stumble around the pit when he cannot bear his cell, usually to collapse against the wall and struggle to breathe. Every breath, every gasp is pure agony, and he can find no solace in stillness. His body is not still, it wrenches and tears at itself, a hundred mouths still chewing and ripping and tearing at him. He had torn himself away from the doctor's grasp finally to see the body of the mother himself, a smear at the bottom of the pit. He could find no trace of the child, so he looked to the sky instead.
That was perhaps the cruelest joke from the pit after all...that she had escaped and he could now never follow.
When she returned, at first he did not understand. He railed inwardly at the pit again, that it had brought her back to this hellish place. But the men that rappelled down the walls with her carried guns and he realized the spray of bullets were meant for all of the filth around him. They barked and shattered against the stone, a harsh rapport for the screaming, pleading men who tried to run away.
When she appeared before him, finally finding him, he saw the horror in her eyes to behold his face. He could not bear for her to touch him, the pain was too much, but she buckled a harness around him, and amidst the chaos, he felt the cable tug him upwards.
He screamed the whole way up, the pain so bad it almost made him pass out, but each scream that tore from his throat fled with a joy he thought he would never be able to feel again. The sky grew larger, swallowing him into its brightness and for all the bread and apples he had given this child she had given him something better than hope. Release.
He knew that from that day forward he was hers, irrevocably.
In the temple of shadows he grew strong and he grew powerful. They grew together, and he watched the skinny child of suffering turn into a woman who was a blade, honed and hardened by fire. He was still a monster, and turning more and more into a demon every day, but because the purpose he had been born with had been squandered in an old death and years in darkness, he took her purpose as his own.
Ra’s Al Ghul had at first showered him in gratitude. He fashioned the mask that constantly pumped high-grade painkillers and nerve blockers directly into his cerebral arteries. He later discovered that it was Al Ghul who had been meant for the pit, but he was the one man who had cheated the pit. So the mother's crime was a poor one indeed; she had loved the wrong man.
“Stay and train with me. My father will let you, you must.”
“I will only be a bane to you.”
“That's no answer.” He knew he could not refuse her, and so he stayed in this new darkness, learning how to make the shadows his family.
His anger was always there, but it had hardened and cooled into an insatiable hatred and contempt. The depths of his hatred was unknowable and after a time it began to disturb Ra’s Al Ghul. His new pupil was brutal, efficient, and had no love for the cause of the League of Shadows; he wasn't a believer.
But his loyalty could never be in question, so Ra’s Al Ghul could not find a way to voice his dislike.
“How did she die?”
He answered without hesitation. “Badly. She was raped and torn apart by a hundred hands and I think they ate parts of her when she was dead.”
Al Ghul's face twisted with disgust and a deep repulsion, his eyes flashing with pain. “You don't feel anything, do you?”
He merely tapped the side of his mask in reply, the mechanical whispers of his breath a constant stream. Al Ghul left him then, unable to say anything.
He later heard Al Ghul and Talia fighting furiously through the thin walls of the temple. Unfortunately, they had been fighting often as of late. Talia was not a normal child, but Ra’s Al Ghul had no idea how to handle the willfulness and disagreements that come with raising children, especially a stubborn daughter.
“What more can we do with him? We have freed him, healed him-”
“He saved me. I wouldn't be here without him.”
Ra’s Al Ghul's voice was tight with frustration. “He's a wounded beast you saved from a gutter. Do not mistake that for loyalty. He is wild, and he will hurt you some day.”
Later when Talia came to him, not in tears – she was too hard for tears now - he told her that Ra’s Al Ghul had the right of it. She frowned at him and told him that if he really wanted to leave he knew where the door was. When he asked her if that was what she wanted she slapped him and darted from the room. The next day in sparring she left him a few nasty bruises, despite the fact that normally he could crush her.
There came a day when he felt like he was unstoppable, and it burned within him like a fire. No one had ever taken as much abuse as him, and it made him bigger, meaner, tougher. The other acolytes fell beneath his powerful hands, and he left many unable to walk again. Ra’s Al Ghul decided he needed to keep their monster in check and began sparring with him exclusively. It was with a queer sort of pleasure that he realized he had now pushed Al Ghul into a position where when they fought the other man held nothing back.
And there finally came a day when the only reason Ra’s Al Ghul stood up and walked away from their matches was the thought of Talia's tears.
Ra’s Al Ghul came for him in the night and sat him down in a heavy chair. He sat obediently because he was loyal and his purpose was not his own. “The time is coming soon when you will have to leave us,” Ra’s Al Ghul said.
He sat silently, saying nothing, and Ra’s Al Ghul reached forward and ripped out one of the tubes of his mask. Unexpected, the sudden white-hot bolts of pain ripped through him fresh and he writhed in the chair, clutching at his face, his large hands suddenly clumsy and unable to fix the mask. Al Ghul calmly tore the other tubes out one by one.
“Those who come to the League of Shadows usually come with fear. They are taught to overcome their fear, but you came to us with your hatred. You will never overcome it and instead you have fuelled yourself with it. You think this makes you strong, but you are mistaken.”
He could barely hear the words, writhing and twitching on the floor, his throat closed up so he could not even scream his agony. Every strike, every blow and tear and cut and rend wracked him anew and the world had turned into a blur.
“There is no proper man who does not live for a greater cause. But this is always something you will be blind to. My daughter does not see this, and for her sake you will leave us soon. Do you understand?”
He could say nothing, still blind and twitching hopelessly on the ground, groping with his mangled, ruined face. Ra’s Al Ghul finally knelt down and re-affixed each of the tubes. It only took a few seconds but it felt like years.
“Lose the illusion that you have ever bested me.” With that Ra’s Al Ghul straightened and stood up again. He had a measuring look in his eyes. “And you won't tell her, of this I am sure. I am sure she would believe you, but you would tear her away from the only family she has and leave you as alone as you are. And I don't think you want that for her...though I don't think it is enough to make you a good man.”
He lay there, his body still shuddering with great spasms for the torture he had just gone through. And he did not tell her. Instead he sent it deep down into the pit and left it there in the darkness.
She did not understand his brooding silence for the next few days, nor the unusual slowness of his movements. He began to see what Ra’s Al Ghul feared, and he wondered if the man would ever overcome it. She was as loyal to him as he had shown her, and because she was young and he had been the only kindness she had known for years, he saw it mature into something else.
He thought he would find it funny, a bitter triumph over Ra’s Al Ghul, but found instead that the pit took this too. It made him afraid as well and it filled him with despair.
“What did you do to earn the pit?” She asked him one day. Though he knew she wasn't truly looking for the answer, she was trying to plant a hook in him to draw him closer to her.
She took his hand and pressed it against her face. He saw how it engulfed her cheek, she could rest her whole head easily into his hand. Some dark mystery clouding his eyes, she watched as strangely he moved his hand and settled it over her face. From heel to fingertip his large hand covered her entire face from chin to brow, and his fingers gently brushed against her skin. She could feel the power that lay within his grip, though his touch was gentle, and for a short moment he pressed against her nose and mouth and she held her breath.
He took his hand back immediately afterwards as if he had been burned and would not answer her.
Later she took his arms and wrapped them around her, wanting him to hold her as he once had when he spirited her away from her mother's massacre. She looked up at him, her small hand touching the mask on his face and there was a sorrow in the gesture he did not feel he deserved. She lifted her face up to his and pressed her lips to where his should have been but tasted only metal and the sour air of medicine.
She pushed him back into the chair as her father once did, and knelt by his feet. When she began to tug at his belt, he held out one of his great, powerful hands and grasped her face, holding her away.
She looked at him, unafraid. “You wouldn't hurt me.”
She kissed the hand stopping her, watching in satisfaction as he jerked it away as if she knew her kisses were poison to him. She resumed her work on his belt and because she could never touch his lips, she kissed him elsewhere instead and he kept his eyes shut because he couldn't bear the thought.
She looked victorious when she left him, shuddering in the chair, and he did not have the heart to tell her that every stroke had enacted a shivering, stabbing pain throughout his body and he was spent with agony.
The next day he left without saying goodbye and left her the deepest wound as Ra’s Al Ghul said he would.
And of course...the pit takes everything. And redemption had already forgone him long ago.
The years saw them in different places, but never apart. She found him time and time again, and finally he found it was a wall he could never climb, a hole he could never escape. He protected her, even though she was strong and smart, but she had a habit of laughing at peril.
She was the one who had escaped, after all.
When they found out that the temple of shadows had burnt, she laughed and drank champagne. When she found out that Ra’s Al Ghul had been killed he saw her cry for the first time since she was a child and she was angry with herself for long afterwards.
“We're going to destroy Gotham and finish what my father started.”
“There's nothing for you there, Talia.”
Her voice was cold and hard. “There is overcoming a hatred I have held for nearly my entire life.”
So she had learned that lesson whereas he could not. When she saw the hesitation still in his eyes, she lifted an eyebrow in challenge. “I'm going to throw myself into a dangerous situation and cause a lot of mayhem. Are you sure you can just stand by and watch?”
He held a hand to her face and pushed her away in annoyance, as he used to do when she begged for apples he did not have. She grinned, darting away, because she knew she had won.
They descended into Gotham slowly, and with each passing day he saw her lose herself more and more. It was not difficult to see written on her face that she intended to die there, and that this was the final road in her journey.
He remembered one of the men asking him how he found so many followers that gladly died for him. It was simple. One had to know what it was like first, and the rest was easy.
When chaos and fire descended onto the city he saw her scared face darting here and there as she masqueraded as Miranda Tate. He knew that though he was the villain's face for this whole enterprise, that her role was no less dangerous. Only he knew her past, and it could be his own hired men that made the mistake of thinking her death could be their fortune.
But he trusted her because she was the one who had made the leap where he never could. When he had his men take her away from the safety of Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne he was glad with a heavy heart to be reunited with her once more, but to also know their work was coming to an end.
In the privacy of a dark office, torn and ruined by bullet shells and the greed and anger of Gotham, he touched her face and asked her if she was afraid. If she wanted him to keep her safe and leave him to be the only one who wore a mask.
“My protector...my oldest friend...are you afraid?”
“Yes, but not to die.”
She merely chuckled and said that was no answer, and left again to do what he could not with a marred face.
He stared outside the window of the ruined building at the torn streets of Gotham, scarred and bleeding like he had once been. He could hear the stillness of the city...like a breath being held just before a storm.
The pit was calling...rise, rise...and though he was strong, and though he knew how much punishment he could take, and though he knew all that he had overcome and had nothing left to fear...he knew also that he had never left the pit. It had always been there, and it had been a long time since it had claimed him for its own.
He had been the one that fell again and again, fingers grasping for a false sky.