Alfred stepped into the security office. "What is the status of the intruders in Area 5, Mr. Marshall?"
Marshall had been the head of security at Wayne Manor for over four years now, and still, he had no idea what was the mystery of Area 5. Intruders in Area 5 were not unheard-of – it happened every few months that he would notice an intruder. But, normally, it was an individual intruder, and this time he counted three. Also, normally, Alfred seemed to know all about the situation; this time, it seemed, he didn't.
"I'm counting three sir. They are moving slowly. I think they're looking for something."
"They are, indeed, Mr. Marshall."
Sasha stood behind Alfred, looking at the multifunction displays. It looked to her like there were at least four intruders. Also, from their position on the display, it looked like they were getting close to one of the entrances to the Batcave.
She and Alfred exchanged glances.
It had been a late summer day, one of the most beautiful in Gotham City that anyone could remember.
She had been to Gotham City before, but never had it seemed so lively, so bustling, yet at the same time, so tranquil and relaxing.
She had been having a vacation with the love of her life, Bruce Wayne. They were touring Europe, and had gone to Russia. They had been having a wonderful time. It was how she imagined a honeymoon would be, except that she and Bruce were not married. Bruce had a reputation, even then, as a dedicated bachelor; and she, herself, had no particular desire to marry. But, she really felt that if ever she were going to get married, it would be to Bruce Wayne, such was the time she had with him. It really hit her on the bank of the Moscow River – she was in love, hopelessly.
But, something was wrong. Suddenly, Bruce Wayne woke up, panic-stricken, and announced that he was leaving, immediately, returning to Gotham City – to a place where he had expressed little desire to go.
She later found out that it had been on the anniversary of his parents' death; in fact, he awoke, in Moscow, at the same time that his parents had been killed in Gotham City so many years before.
So, that had been early in the summer, in late June, and now it was late summer – a Tuesday morning in early September. After much thought, she had decided to pursue Bruce Wayne – she had decided to go to Gotham City, and find out what was wrong, and try to be part of his life.
In late August, she announced her plans to her father, but he was very emphatically against the idea. They had argued loudly, he demanding and insisting that she not go, that she obey him. It had all been so very confusing to her, because he approved of Bruce Wayne – what could the problem possibly have been? When pressed, he only explained that Gotham City was not a safe place to be, and that she should obey her father and stay away.
Then, it hit her. There was a terrible fire at the Gotham Trade Center. Both of the Gotham Towers were burning, dozens of stories above the street. This could be no accident – it was deliberate, a terrible crime, and her father was into it up to his neck. He had to be. He had known something was going to happen, and any crime this big took planning, and there is no way it could have happened without Ra's al Ghul knowing about it.
And now, tonight, he was leading his men into the Batcave, that secret place under Wayne Manor where Bruce Wayne's alter ego waged his personal war on crime.
What would come of it all? Talia sighed, unsure what to do next, torn between the two men in the world that she loved more than anyone or anything else – more than life itself.
It was a beautiful evening, late May, maybe early June. He couldn't be sure. The master had led him into the village again, and now they were on the edge of the village, along the bank of a stream. With the water from the melting snow, the stream had in recent weeks tumbled many of the rocks on its bed – some of them quite sizeable. But now, it was back to normal, a slow, steady flow of water from up on the nearby hill.
"Most skilled warriors seek to be like water, and that is a good thing," explained the master. "Just as water flows through and around obstacles, going past a boulder and flowing into a hole, so does a skilled warrior bypass strength and attack where his enemy is weak. And, just as water changes its shape according to its surroundings, so does the skilled warrior change his tactics to adapt to the situation."
The master paused, looking at him. "Just as water has no constant form, so does the skilled warrior constantly accommodate himself to his enemy, shaping his victories as they come."
Bruce Wayne nodded.
"Water can isolate an enemy; water can be powerful, and if it strikes with focus and concentration, it can tumble a boulder, or wear it down and break it apart." The master stopped, looking closely at Wayne. "There is something, however, far more devastating than water."
"I saw your signal, sir. All is ready," Alfred said into the telephone.
Marshall was monitoring the situation outside, deploying Wayne Manor's security personnel. He shook his head, not understanding his orders to keep them in Areas 1 through 4, where the mansion was, but not to enter Area 5, where the intruders were.
He looked at one monitor. Two vanloads of heavily armed personnel from Wayne Enterprises Corporate Security were still five minutes away. He looked at another monitor. Sasha was now taking up position in the panic room, which served as a secure alternate command post under Wayne Manor.
"Are you still counting three intruders, Mr. Marshall?" Alfred asked him.
He nodded, pointing at the screen. "Right in the middle of Area 5."
"Master Bruce says there are five."
"Water can isolate an enemy, even overthrow him, but fire can destroy him completely," the master continued. "There are different ways of attacking with fire, and there are seasons and times more favorable to setting fires; however, a medium must be relied upon always, and one should always have on hand the necessary implements to start a fire," the master explained, then added conspiratorially, "as well as the necessary implements to fight fires."
They were walking into the heart of the village now, where the villagers had a large bonfire going in a square, and a lively party was developing around it.
"Fire, like water, changes according to the situation, and so must one's responses to fire change, according to the situation. When a fire breaks out among your enemy, follow up if you can, but if your enemy remains calm and professional, it is better to bide your time."
Wayne looked around. The villagers were bringing a large animal to roast it – was it a boar from the woods?
"If you can set, away from your enemy, a fire which moves toward him, you need not set a fire among your enemy. However," the master cautioned, "care should be taken, and such a fire should be set at an appropriate time."
Wayne nodded, looking at the boar. He understood an implicit warning, that one should not be cooked in one's own fire.
Sasha was now fully suited up in her body armor, armed with a variety of weapons, including small grenades which were remarkably similar to the Batbombs she had seen down below, in the Batcave.
Her orders were to prevent anyone from moving from the Batcave up into Wayne Manor, and, if it became necessary, to coordinate with Alfred a counterattack to retake the Batcave, should it fall into enemy hands.
"You can cut the power to the Batcave, and leave the place in the dark, and you've got the chemical flood lights, which can blind the intruders with their intensity. You have smoke and Batgas available..." Bruce had explained to her. "If it comes down to it, lead the security detail in, and blast anything that moves," he added.
This remark caught a sharp glance from Alfred.
In answer to his unspoken comment, Bruce Wayne smiled. "Don't worry, Alfred. If it goes that way, I'll try to hold still."
"I was concerned about the raccoons, sir."
"Beware of the wind. It can blow all day, but die down at night, and it can bluster all night, and the morning can be calm," the master explained, cautioning, "and if you start a fire upwind, do not attack from downwind!"
There was dancing and music around, and Bruce Wayne recognized some friends of the master. They smiled and nodded to him. Off in the distance, he could see the fortune-teller, but she was looking the other way.
Sasha looked again at the screen: several heavily-armed figures were entering the Batcave.
She turned up the sound to try to hear anything they might say.
"Now to win a battle and take the position you are attacking, but not follow up, is very wasteful. So, the skilled leader considers the plan, and the skilled warrior executes it. If it is not in the interests of justice, do not attack. If you cannot succeed, then do not use force, and if innocent people are not in danger, do not fight. You must not go into battle because you are angry or resentful, for the enraged man may again be happy, and the resentful man again pleased, but the place that has been destroyed can never be restored as it was, nor can the dead be raised back to life."
Bruce Wayne studied the master carefully, then stated, "You are not speaking about fire." Wayne looked at the fortune-teller, and they exchanged smiles across the square which, were it not for the open fire, would now be quite dark. "This whole lesson is not about fire, or water, is it?"
"You are very perceptive, Mr. Wayne," the master answered.
"What are the villagers celebrating?"
"Your stay with us. It is your going-away party, Mr. Wayne. You have completed your studies, and will be leaving."
Surprised, Wayne looked at the master. "And where will I go?"
"Tomorrow or the next day, I do not know, but you will wind up back in Gotham City."
Wayne opened his mouth to protest, as he did not intend to return to Gotham City, certainly not any time soon, but the master waved his hand. "Don't take my word for it; ask your friend, the fortune-teller. She is hoping to dance with you."
The figures advanced, and suddenly, they saw ahead of them, looming out of the shadows, the prey they had sought. Stepping forward to meet them, it was the Batman, and, for a moment, the place was deathly quiet.
Sasha, watching and listening via the closed circuit surveillance system, gasped as the room erupted in a blur of movement and terrible sound: swords clashed, automatic weapons fire exploded in the air, equipment around the Batcave sparked as circuits shorted out, and smoke quickly could be seen throughout the Batcave – smoke from the gunfire, smoke from the damaged equipment....
As quickly as it had begun, it was over. The five men stood looking, but their prey was no longer standing before them. Slowly, they looked around, as Sasha strained her ears to listen for any sound.
They looked, they turned, they exchanged glances.... Finally, one of the men turned to another, who appeared to be the leader, and asked, "Where did he go?"
It was a low, raspy whisper; it was the kind of voice that got someone's attention. And, it came from immediately behind them.
"I'm right here."